Howard Stern doesn’t leave his SiriusXM studio all that often, so if you happen to spot the self-confessed “agoraphobe” out in the open, it’s a big deal. But to catch him in – gasp! – midtown Manhattan, well, that’s a sighting of truly epic proportions.
Billy Joel’s The Stranger on the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time
For three hours, Stern presided over a lively interview with the media-shy Joel, punctuated with performances by his admirers – Pink, Melissa Etheridge and Tony Bennett, to name just a few – questions from celebrity fans Matt Lauer and Rachael Ray, and, of course, a fair amount of profanity. It was a Howard show, after all.
During their chat, Joel also revealed the stories behind some of his best-known songs (and a few lesser-known gems, too), joked about the multitude of different paths his career could have taken, and let it be know that he has absolutely no plans of making another album. He was cantankerous, slightly cocky and self-effacing throughout, refusing to acknowledge he played a role in most of his hits – while, at the same time, not exactly denying that they were his doing, either.
In short, it was everything fans have come to love about the latter era of the Piano Man. And it was educational, too: Here are nine things we learned:
He’s not writing new songs: “I won’t say ‘I never,’ or ‘I won’t [write new songs]’ I just don’t,” Joel sighed. “Everybody has a hard time understanding that: ‘Why don’t you write new songs?’ Well, you have to want to write new songs. Elton [John] would say that to me: ‘Why don’t you make another album?’ And I used to say to him ‘Why don’t you make less albums?'”
He did heroin: Debate the meaning of “Captain Jack” all you want, but Joel revealed that the song “Scandinavian Skies,” is definitely about drugs — specifically, heroin: “This was back in the late Seventies, I think. We were in Amsterdam, and there was all this stuff going on, so I said ‘Let me see what this is like,'” he told Stern. “It got me so high I didn’t know how to deal with it. You just get way out, just go to another place, and you’re into the blues. All you want to hear is the blues. You start drooling, and you get sick.”
He does impressions: Lots of them, including a pretty decent Elton John (Joel sang a few lines of “Your Song,”) a solid Frank Sinatra, and a passable Johnny Cash. His best, however, was a raspy take on Rod Stewart, which he busted out while singing “Los Angelenos,” a song he said he wrote for Rod the Mod … even if Stewart “probably wasn’t aware” he had done so.
He has come to “embrace” his baldness: “It sucks. I started losing my hair when I was in my 50s. My dad was completely bald, and his father was bald, and I said ‘Oh no, please, I’m in rock & roll, I need my hair,'” he joked. “I always had crappy hair anyway, and I used to torture it with a hairdryer and all this stuff, and it left me… I won’t [wear a toupee]. I saw too many bad rugs in my life; if you’re gonna go bald, embrace it.”
He wrote songs that inspired… and then some: Pink got emotional while talking about listening to Joel’s songs with her father – she also walked down the aisle to “Always a Woman.” Melissa Etheridge proudly proclaimed that she’d always wanted to cover “Only The Good Die Young” because “When I was a youngster, it was the end of the ’70s, and a girl could not sing this song.” But Idina Menzel topped them all, revealing that she might not have lost her virginity to “I’ve Loved These Days,” but she definitely “got felt up” while listening to the song.
He is in awe of Tony Bennett: The eternally cool crooner was a surprise guest, turning up to perform “New York State of Mind.” And if you thought the fans in attendance were amazed, well, you should’ve seen Joel, who sat there starry eyed. It was the rare moment when he was actually rendered speechless.
He went to Woodstock: But it turned out about as well as you’d expect. “I was 20. I stayed for about a day and a half,” Joel said. “I wanted to see Hendrix, but then I needed to use the bathroom facilities, and the [toilets] were pretty primitive. I think you had to do acid to stay there for three days. [And] I didn’t get laid.”
He’s got plenty of jokes: “This is a throat spray, it’s called ‘The Entertainer’s Secret,’ and it keeps your vocal chords moist,” he explained to Stern. “I used to make a joke about seeing Madonna use it, but I changed it to ‘I saw Ted Nugent use it once, but it didn’t really make him sound any better, because he probably wasn’t spraying it up his ass.'”
He is very particular: “There’s an error in the original sheet music of [‘Just The Way You Are’],” Joel said. “So people always play two chords in this one spot. It’s wrong, it’s a suspension. So I gotta go over and correct the guy, every time I go into a place. I go over, and I go ‘wrong.'”