The Last Word: Billy Joel on Self-Doubt, Trump and Finally Becoming Cool
When Billy Joel wrote “Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)” in the mid-Seventies, he had no idea he’d still be playing stadiums the year that song was set. But despite releasing no new music since 1993, he has been seeing bigger crowds every year since he returned to the road in 2013 after a long break to recover from hip surgery. “There’s a whole new thing going on,” says Joel, who this summer has sold out stadiums in Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia for the fourth year in a row. “There’s offers coming in from everywhere. It’s like, ‘Is everybody else quitting?'” Here, Joel shares what he’s learned throughout his 50-year career – including why he encourages musical mistakes and why he’s not as depressed as everyone thinks.
How does playing a big stadium compare to your regular gig at Madison Square Garden?
I never thought of myself of a stadium act. I’m not all that physical onstage. I don’t really jump around the stage like Jagger. I’m not a stunt man. I just sit there at the piano and bang out the tunes and sometimes the absurdity of it makes me want to do something absolutely outrageously silly and bring the audience in on the joke.
You know, it took my road crew and my band years to talk me into standing up. I’ve been doing it now for over 40 years actually I’ve been playing in a band over 50 years. I’ve been a musician for most of my life. I’m going to be 68 next month and I never thought of myself as a frontman.
You took a long break from touring from about 2009 till 2013. What did you miss about it?
In 2010, I stopped performing with Elton. Actually I stopped touring at all. I had terrible hip pain. Both my hips had to be replaced and it was excruciating just to walk. I had to use a scooter chair for a couple of months – you know, driving around in my house, smashing furniture with my scooter chair. The pain got so bad I couldn’t do much of anything. So I had my hips replaced in 2011. I had double hip replacement. It still doesn’t mean I’m hip anyway.
But it was really bad. There was no cartilage between the bones and a lot of it is probably from years of jumping off the piano. It’s a pretty long recovery. … [Then] I think we played the Sandy concert in New York. We were kind of shocked about [the reception]. We didn’t think we were all that good. Everybody was raving about the show and we said, “What?” I guess we’ve been away for a while, but I think that’s kind of what decided it, “Maybe I should do some more playing.”
Why do you think you became a bigger draw since you returned to performing?
I don’t like to think about why – because then you find out. I have a theory about any success I’ve had. I don’t think I’m all that bad. I just think I’m competent. I know how to write. I know how to play. I know how to sing in key. I don’t like my own voice.
Do you consider yourself a great songwriter?
I think I’m OK. Some of my songs are pretty damn good. Some stink out loud. I once tried to write a song in French, and I don’t even speak French. So that was a disaster. I played it in France and asked a promoter why they didn’t like it. He said they thought I was singing in Polish. If I had to dilute it, I’d say about half of my songs are passable, but there’s a bunch I would throw away.
Those songs are the soundtracks to people’s lives!
I like the obscure stuff more than the hits. I never thought “Piano Man” would be a hit. “We Didn’t Start the Fire” is essentially a novelty song.
What are you thinking as you’re singing “Piano Man” onstage?
“Oh, good, it’s almost over!” I’m kidding. It’s gratifying to hear an audience sing your words. But it’s more about feeling than thinking onstage. I like communicating with the musicians. Sometimes we tune into the same thing without signaling each other. There’s sort of a wizardry or sorcery to it.
What’s your favorite Billy Joel song?
“New York State of Mind,” because, I guess, it became a standard. Sort of like Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust,” or “Georgia on My Mind.” It became one of those songs.
“And So It Goes” has a lot of resonance for me. I was very proud of that one, and a lot of obscure songs that people don’t even know. There’s a song called “She’s Right on Time” from The Nylon Curtain. “The Great Wall of China” from River of Dreams. “Summer, Highland Falls” from Turnstiles. I think on every album there’s one song I’m particularly fond of.
“Don’t be afraid of mistakes, because the only original thing we ever do is make mistakes.”
What advice do you give to younger musicians?
Depends on who it is. Deciding to become a musician for life is a big decision, and it’s scary because there’s no safety net. A lot your friends will say you’re crazy; you’re never gonna make it. Your parents worry about how you’re gonna make a living. Most musicians that play in clubs or restaurants have to have another job.
Some subway musicians are great.
It’s tough. Forget about being a star or a recording artist: If you can pay your rent and make enough money to buy food and necessities of life as a musician, that’s already a success. I tell acts who are opening up for us, “Just be yourself.” We are all a culmination of all our influences. Nobody grows up in a test tube. A lot of times you get accused of being a derivative. Well, of course you sound like people you admire! Eventually you practice it in your own way and it becomes original.
I have another theory. Don’t be afraid of mistakes, because the only original thing we ever do is make mistakes. You can be taught how to do something perfectly right, but only you can screw it up in your own inimitable way. We’ve left mistakes in recordings, thinking, “Wow, nobody would have thought of that!”
How do you relax?
Well, I’ve got a little girl now. She’s 20 months old. My favorite thing is just to hang out with her and see the wheels in her head spin – how she’s viewing the world and what she’s learning and how much fun she’s having. That’s my favorite way to relax.
What have you learned about fatherhood?
My favorite thing about my whole life is probably being a father. I didn’t have a father, so it was very important to me to be a father and kind of compensate for what I didn’t have.
What have you learned about being in a relationship?
There’s more to life than your job. Life is more than being a success. Life is more than acquiring things. A lot of it is about family, relationships and friends, the things that are really substantive in life. All of that crap.
[At the same time] there is a great satisfaction and a great fulfillment in doing the work you love. If you pick a bad job, man, you’re fucked. I happened to pick a good job or it picked me – I haven’t figured that one out yet. I don’t think I had a choice. I was going to be a musician no matter what.
Did you ever get caught up in fame and money?
I’d get caught up in work. I can’t believe how hard I worked when I was younger. Sometimes it affected me as a human being. I set a high bar for myself, and if I didn’t reach it, I would beat myself up, which probably is the reason I stopped writing songs. If I don’t write something as good as I want it to be, I really whomp on myself. I really beat myself up. I just don’t need to do that so much.
Do songs still come to you when you’re sitting at the piano at home?
Every morning. I wake up every morning, I get out of bed and I’ve got a song idea in my head. Not necessarily a song idea, but either a melodic idea or a symphonic idea. I dream symphonies sometimes. So I’m still writing music. I never stopped writing music. I just stopped writing songs.
“I set a high bar for myself, and if I didn’t reach it, I would beat myself up, which probably is the reason I stopped writing songs.”
Could you ever put out an album of fragments – string them together in an interesting way?
I suppose I could if I wanted to record again. I’m just not compelled to. The main thing is I’m still continuing to compose music, which is my first love anyway. I hear a melody and a rhythm first. One of the last things that I actually get are the words. I remember being in a band trying to learn songs to play, and you had to keep lifting the needle off the record, thinking, “What did he say?” And most of the time you make up your own dirty lyrics.
I read that you make up dirty lyrics to your own songs at sound checks.
Yeah. The greatest one I heard was someone was about “She’s Got a Way About Her.” Someone thought it was “She’s Got a Gay Chihuahua.” I really like that one. Or “You May Be Right”: “You make the rice/I’ll make the gravy.” There’s some pretty clever stuff out there.
Where did your drive for success come from?
I grew up listening to classical music, and the people I idolized when I was very young were jazz musicians and classical musicians. I read a quote from Neil Diamond: “I’ve forgiven myself for not being Beethoven.” And I realized my issue was I haven’t forgiven myself for not being Beethoven.
I’ve got some horrendous critiques in my lifetime. I didn’t always understand the hyperbole of it. But I know what good music is and I recognize after a certain amount of time, you can’t tell me what I’m doing isn’t good. I know what good is. There’s a certain arrogance in some critical journalism which is, “Well, I don’t like it therefore it’s no good.” Everything is not for everyone. I still have issues with Stravinsky, but I recognize it’s really good. It just doesn’t resonate with me.
Do you ever listen to modern pop music?
Now and then I’ll hear something that I think is really, really good. I don’t really listen to pop music anymore. I’m just listening to classical music these days. It’s been like that for the last 20 years. But I mean, I can recognize when something is really good or well written or well done. Even stuff I don’t like I’m willing to give credit for. Just because I don’t like something doesn’t mean it’s bad; it just means it’s not for me.
So you’re not someone who says, “Music was so much better when I was a teenager.”
Nah, I don’t buy that at all. I think there’s as many good musicians now as there were when I was starting out. It’s just they don’t get the exposure. They might not get signed to a record label. Although the Internet has made it attainable by just about everyone.
How do you hear new music?
My daughter will say, “Let’s listen to such and such radio station,” or my wife tends to like music from the Nineties when she was younger and that’s my exposure to it these days. But there’s a couple of people we have who are going to be opening up for me and for some reason I can’t remember a single name.
The ocean is a big theme in your songs. Where did that come from?
I love boats and boating. I grew up on Long Island and we have many, many miles of coastline here. I used to do some commercial fishing. I worked on an oyster boat when I was a young guy. I realized how hard that job is. It’s dangerous too. So boats were always kind of romantic to me, even the literature I read as a young man. I loved the whole romance of the sea. My house is on the water. I have two houses and they’re both on the water, so every time there’s a big major hurricane I’m in danger of losing my houses, but I live dangerously.
Bill O’Reilly once said he knew you in high school and called you a “hoodlum.”
I think maybe to him I was. I didn’t really know him, but we’re from the same town and my gang used to hang out at the stores. And of course we thought we were tough guys. We weren’t really. We were more lovers than we were fighters.
Many rock stars are vain people. A lot of them dye their hair and try to look younger. But you’ve always seemed to be yourself.
Well, you can get lost in the delusion that being a musician onstage and having people applaud is something you’re worthy of. I’ve always been able to separate the fact that it’s a job. It’s the best job in the world and I’m really happy I have it. But when I go home, there’s no rock star. I’ve got to take out the garbage. I like to cook. I clean the house. There’s no glamour. I’m probably the most unglamorous rock star there is. I don’t really feel like a rockstar until someone confronts me when I’m walking down the street and they say, “Oh, you’re Billy Joel,” and I go, “Oh, right, I’m that guy.”
I think there’s a transition that happens when you come off the stage. You’ve just been playing a concert for 20,000 or 60,000 people and you get into a car and you drive away from the gig you’re just another schmuck stuck in traffic. A lot of people have difficulty with that transition. To me, it’s kind of funny: We’re stuck behind a car and there’s an impulse is to jump out and go, “Hey don’t you know who I am?” and when you’re driving a car in traffic you don’t give a shit who it is. You know you’re stuck just like they are. I never had an issue with that transition. I always found it kind of funny. One minute I’m next to Rossellini and then I’m just Joe Schmo.
That’s what I like about boating: When you cut yourself from land and you’re out on the boat it’s just you and the sea. There’s no artificial barriers there. Same with behind a motorcycle. You put a helmet on and you’re just another idiot on a motorcycle and nobody’s going to stop you and go, “Hey, aren’t you him?” No, you’re just a guy on a motorcycle.
Do you worry about injuring your hands on a motorcycle?
I did once. I had a very bad accident – I think it was back in ’82. My left wrist got pulled out of the socket and dislocated. My left thumb got crushed and I was in the hospital looking at my hand – but it really wasn’t all that worried about it because I was never that great a piano player to begin with. I wasn’t Vladimir Horowitz. I wasn’t a classical musician so my technique really didn’t suffer that much.
Do you consider yourself happy?
I’m a very contented man. I keep reading, “Oh, he suffers from depression.” I don’t. Sometimes I get down in the dumps just like everybody else, but it doesn’t make me clinically depressed. There’s a couple of times I’ve gone on drinking binges when I was sad or upset. But it was always a short burst of sadness. I never stayed there.
How do you deal with that sadness?
I don’t know it just seems to happen naturally. I mean, going through divorce is sad. When somebody close to you dies, that’s sad. Everybody has sad things happen to them. It’s really more about the recovery than it’s about the sadness.
Is it important to stay close to your ex-wives?
I don’t carry hard feelings. I don’t carry grudges. I get along with all my ex-wives. I’m kind of like Henry VIII. This is my fourth marriage – may the fourth be with me!
What did you learn from sharing the stage with Elton John?
He’s a much better piano player than I originally gave him credit for. I always thought he was a terrific songwriter. A lot of the nights we were together, I went, “Holy shit, he’s a good pianist.” When I watch Elton, he goes into a trance onstage. When he’s offstage, he’s a rockstar – he’s like a British aristocrat in a way, but I watch him onstage and he goes into a whole other sort of dimension.
How long do you see your Madison Square Garden residency going on?
Oh, it’s the greatest gig in the world. I’m doing a residency at the world’s greatest arena – I mean what’s better than that? I don’t know how long it can last. I assumed it would start to taper off at this point: “Wait a minute, we gotta run out of people eventually.” But it hasn’t happened. This is our fourth year and it’s still selling out. I thought it would kind of dissipate. But so far there hasn’t been any indication of that. When there is then we’ll probably stop.
Some people are following your lead on doing that, kind of settling at one venue – Phish is playing 13 Garden shows this summer.
Yeah, they’re going to do a series of 13 shows. I think that’s fantastic. I’m not all that familiar with their music but more power to them. That’s great.
Critics used to give you a hard time. But it seems like in the past few years you’ve become cool.
Look, man, Trump is president, so all kinds of weird shit can happen.
What do you make of that?
I’m still flabbergasted. I try to stay out of politics. I am a private citizen and I have a right to believe in my own political point of view, but I try not to get up on a soapbox and tell people how to think. I’ve been to shows where people start haranguing the audience about what’s going on politically and I’m thinking, “You know, this isn’t why I came here.” As a matter of fact, one of the biggest cheers of the night comes when we do “Piano Man” and I sing, “They know that it’s me that they’re coming to see to forget about life for a while,” and the audience lets out this huge “ahhhh” and I say, “OK, yeah, don’t forget that.” We’re more like court jesters than court philosophers.