Billy Joel Is Angry
His nose was lying on its side, bleeding on his swollen cheek. Billy Joel studied himself in the mirror; his thoughts darted back to the solid punch that had numbed his face for the rest of the bout, held as usual at a boys club gym in the Hicksville, Long Island, shopping center.
Before the amateur welterweight had another minute to dwell on his disfigurement, a buddy ambled by, sized up his mushed mug and calmly said, “It’s just cartilage; it’ll be okay.” Then this guy pushed Joel’s nose back into what seemed like its former position. Later, a little surgical tape and gauze held the damage in place.
“My nose was never the same after that,” says Joel, who won twenty-three of his twenty-six bouts during a three year period in his midteens. “I’ve got one nostril smaller than the other. See, my nose is kind of bent. I thought about having an operation, but I wondered if it would change my voice. Now I kinda like it,” he says of his altered appearance. “I don’t know if I’d want to look like I did when I was a kid. As my mother would say, ‘It gives you character.'”
In other words: hey, no big deal, okay?
Billy Joel, 31, has been defensive most of his life — often with good reason. His father, a Jew born in Nuremberg and raised in Nazi Germany, divorced his wife during Billy’s adolescence and left for Vienna, reducing the family’s economic standing from lower-middle class to scrambling-for-rent status.
“My father never abandoned us,” Joel insists. “He sent a check every month.” But when pressed, the cautious, ever-sparring pop star adds, “Well, my mother took any gig she could get: bookkeeper, secretary. We went hungry a lot. Sometimes it was scary not eating. We were in the suburbs, in Levittown, but we were the antithesis of the suburban situation. Do you know what it’s like to be the poor people on the poor people’s block?!”
To shield himself against a Long Island suburban ethos that ridiculed his threadbare circumstances, Joel fell into a neighborhood gang, wore a leather jacket, sniffed glue, dabbled in petty theft and drank a lot of Tango wine (easily the toughest belly-wash for a macho young pug to keep down).
He was always angry, yeah, but the anger fed his hunger and his hunger found its focus in music. His mother dragged him to piano lessons at the age of four, hoping he would emulate his father, a classical pianist whose love of music and life helped him survive a stretch in Dachau during World War II. Howard Joel escaped to New York via Cuba and became an engineer for General Electric. Billy Joel quit Hicksville High and escaped into rock & roll.
Or so he thought. What initially seemed like a release soon proved to be a snake pit, and Joel was bitten badly as he stumbled from group to group, label to label, viper to viper. Even after he landed a deal with a reputable label (Columbia), the financial returns were paltry. Desperate, he turned to wife Elizabeth (who had previously been married to the drummer in one of Joel’s early bands, the Hassles) and begged her to use the know-how she’d acquired at UCLA’s Graduate School of Management to pull him out of his predicament. She maintains that as late as the summer of 1978, Joel’s debut platinum album for CBS, Piano Man, had netted him only $7763.
Reputed to be a tough businesswoman, Elizabeth, 32, initiated a flurry of lawsuits, took charge of Joel’s books and fought to get her hapless husband his fair share of the profits by setting up their own corporation, Home Run Systems. “This is a business,” she has stated. “People never expected me to be as smart as I was, and they would be totally frank because they didn’t realize I was building my empire. Money is the bottom line of everything.”
Secure in the knowledge that he is finally in good hands monetarily, Joel now pays attention only to his music. After a decade of bar bands, indecent record deals and disdainful press, he presented Columbia Records with the biggest album in its history — 1978’s The Stranger, which has sold more than 5 million copies to date.
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