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Billy Joel: Not as Bad as You Think

The artist talks “The Nylon Curtain,’ his recent divorce and early suicide attempts

Billy Joel,

Musician Billy Joel performs onstage at the Rosemont Horizon in Rosemont, Illinois on November 4, 1982.

Paul Natkin/Getty

“I was really, really mad. This woman ran a red light, and there was nothing I could do. There are a couple of things you can do with a bike: you can hit the brakes, you can ditch the bike, or you can take evasive action. Really, the only thing you can do is hit the brakes – and where she came out, you could hit the brakes and you’d still hit. I was really mad. What are you, crazy? What are you doing? No! And when I hit, it wasn’t, ‘Oh, my God, forgive me.’ I just went, ‘I’m going to hit,’ and then I hit. And it was such a big noise, I really thought – this is stupid – I thought, ‘Man, that was a big noise, that was some impact.’ Then I started to flip over the car – it was all like slow motion – and I said, “I’m flip-ping o-ver,” just like in those stupid drug kaleidoscope movies. And I landed on my back, boom! I had a helmet on, leathers and stuff. And I said, ‘Okay, that’s that.’ Then I got up.”

Don’t ask why, but I’m waiting For Billy Joel in the cafeteria of the Central Park Zoo. And here he comes. As Joel struts past the raccoon and badger cages, he looks every bit the combative badass he’s been typed as. His muscular chest, clad in a sweat-soaked black T-shirt, seems to turn the corner a few seconds before the rest of him. It protrudes from his small, powerfully built body like the prow of a cabin cruiser. His ass, shoehorned into a pair of well-faded jeans, is sprung so far in back that an open beer could ride on his rump and not spill a drop. The face, newly shaven and a tad pudgier than usual, peers intently at my own. It’s my second meeting with Joel, and I’m still a mite daunted by his bustling, burly presence. Especially when he gives me a greeting loud enough to be heard by the sea lions. “This city,” he booms, “is fucked.” Just don’t hurt me. Please.

***

If that sounds like The Billy Joel you’ve come to know and either love or loathe, you’re right. You know who I’m talking about: Don’t take any shit from anybody. I don’t care what you say anymore, this is my life. Fuck you, Ken Tucker.

If Elvis is the King, and Bruce is the Boss, then Billy Joel is the Bouncer, right?

Well, not anymore. Not really. He can still rattle off a pretty spiffy “you hit me, I’ll hit back” rap, and some of that street-corner feistiness and impatience is still there. His fingernails are gnawed to nubs, and he smokes incessantly. But a new tone is beginning to replace the goony bravado. Now Joel talks about accepting defeat and knowing when to surrender. Crashing, flipping over and getting up, you might say. His drummer and friend, Liberty DeVitto, puts it more simply: “He’s found himself. He knows who Billy Joel is, more than what other people have tried to make him into.”

Such self-knowledge or personal peace has come at a high price. In the past year or so, the thirty-three-year-old Joel has broken up with his wife and manager of ten years, been ridiculed for a supposedly flippant courtroom appearance made during the Sam Goody record-counterfeiting trial and hurt his hand in a motorcycle accident – an injury that threatened to end his career and still gravely affects his ability to play the piano.

He’s also dug down and recorded an album, The Nylon Curtain, that features some of the most mature, substantial music he’s ever made. You can’t dance to it, but the sound is a rich, Sgt. Pepper-like tapestry, and the lyrics – from “Allen-town,” an ode to unemployed steelworkers, to the plaintive Vietnam chronicle “Goodnight Saigon” – suggest a new, more adult sensibility from the one-time Long Island greaser.

“I suppose,” he says, “I’ve grown up.”

Aha.

***

It was twenty-nine years ago in the middle class community of Hicksville, Long Island, that Rosalind Joel took her four-year-old son, William Martin Joel, to his first piano lesson. “She dragged me kicking down the block,” Joel recalls. “‘I’m going to take you to see Miss Francis,’ she said. Miss Francis also taught ballet, which was not hip at all. I really didn’t want to go, but I guess I had a feel for it.”

It may have been genetic: Joel’s mother had sung Gilbert and Sullivan operettas in her youth. And his father, Howard Joel, an itinerant General Electric employee who had emigrated to the States at the end of World War II after being imprisoned in Dachau, was also a musician. “I didn’t see that much of him, because he was always away on business trips, overseas or in South America,” Billy says of his father. “He was a very good pianist. We had this crappy old upright, painted 50,000 times and rusty and everything. But he would make it sound pretty good. I loved to hear him play. He’d play nocturnes and Bartok.

“I also remember him working in the garden. You know, everybody had his quarter acre. Man, he worked so hard at getting that lawn just right. It was like his little piece of the rock. I remember him standing there with that roller thing that fertilized, and he had a little potbelly that hung over.”

Howard Joel left the family for good when Billy was eight. “I guess it was a real bitter split, because he went back to Europe,” Joel remembers. “He went back to Switzerland, and I guess he had a hard time. It’s got to be hard splitting up.”

Billy catches himself here.

“I mean, I know that it’s hard. With kids and everything, it’s got to be even harder.”

Still, Joel recalls that some in-house tension dissipated when his father departed. “I know they felt guilty about splitting up because of us kids, but me and my sister were actually relieved, knowing there wasn’t going to be all that turmoil and arguing in the house. Like, whew! Okay.”

Mrs. Joel tried secretarial and bookkeeping work to keep the family financially afloat. “We weren’t dirt-poor,” notes Billy. “We were just never able to get ahead of the game.” There was always enough coming in for Billy to keep up his piano lessons, and enough so that the whole family could go out for high-culture afternoons at the Westbury Music Fair or in the big city.

“I really loved it. We didn’t have a TV, and I’m glad, in a way, because I didn’t get hung up on the TV syndrome. We’d see the opera, ballet, Philharmonic, everything. A lot of people thought classical music was boring and staid, but I saw the exciting parts, like Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Chopin. I mean, that’s really passionate music. You know, when you’re a kid, Peter and the Wolf – wow! That’s Star Wars!

“I got a lot of culture because Mom enjoyed it and wanted to pass it along. Plus, she saw I had a talent for it, so she was going to kick my ass.”

***

The Beatles hit Long Island with full force in 1964. That year also marked the end of Billy Joel’s classical ambitions.

“I liked some rock & roll before that,” he says, “but it was my sister’s rock & roll: Elvis Presley, Smokey Robinson. I liked that stuff, but” – he makes a face here – “she always had the 45s in the little carry pack with the girl with a ponytail on it. You know, it had ‘I love boys’ written on it, and those little musical notes…. And then I heard the Beatles, and they were mine. They didn’t look like Fabian, they looked like me and my friends. Man, I could do that. I could try to do that, anyway.”

The arrival of the Beatles meant a decisive rupture in the sedate, kultur-crammed lifestyle of the Joel household. Billy stopped practicing piano and started hanging out with the neighborhood’s more colorful characters. He calls them “the guys with the pompadours.”

“It just seemed really romantic at the time,” he remembers. “You know, the Knights of the Round Table. They wore poncho shirts. I was just starting to get interested in girls, and they seemed to like a little flash at that age.

It’s a point of pride with Joel that he spared his mother the anguish of his misbehavior. “I never really brought it home,” he notes. “My mom always said, ‘If you get in trouble, do it in someone else’s house.'”

That same year, at the age of fourteen, Joel played his first paying gig. It took place at a local church. “I was playing all these golden oldies – ‘Wooly Bully,’ ‘Wipe Out’ – and I got paid! It was only five dollars or something, but I said, ‘Man, you get paid for this, too?’ And that was it. I really didn’t have any choice after that.”

***

The primary urge among those coming of age in Hicksville was to leave town as fast as possible. “Our parents moved out of Manhattan because they hated it, but we wanted to go into the city because that was Disneyland,” he says. “A lot of people subscribed to the American Dream: they wanted a big house, more money. There weren’t a lot of alternatives. Maybe if you won the lottery or made a killing in Vegas. Or if you worked in the factory X amount of time, you’d get to be foreman. They weren’t grandiose dreams at all. The first thing to do was get out, get away.”

Joel accomplished that with considerable speed. After being barred from his high-school graduation due to excessive absenteeism, Joel proudly proclaimed to his heartsick mother, “I’m not going to Columbia University, I’m going to Columbia Records.”

Bravado that might have been, but life did look rosy for eighteen-year-old Billy. “I was in a band – I think it was the Hassles – and we were making pretty good money, gigging steadily. Somehow I was making ends meet, and that was a big moment. I was a professional musician. So I moved out and got this little apartment. My own place.”

That hopeful beginning kicked off two years during which Joel tried to be a hippie and failed miserably. And when the rest of Joel’s life started turning sour, he responded with one of the more bizarre suicide attempts in recent annals.

“I was twenty-one,” he remembers. “I had just broken up with this heavy girlfriend, and the music thing wasn’t going anywhere. I think that when you’re that age, you’re really hung up on yourself. You take yourself too damn seriously. And if things aren’t working out….I don’t know, I went through a depression where I just felt suicidal. I even tried to do myself in.”

How?

“I drank furniture polish.” He laughs.

Huh?

“I went into the closet and said, ‘I’m gonna kill myself.’ There were two things inside. There was chlorine bleach, and I said, ‘Nah, that’s gonna taste bad.’ So I took the Pledge. And all I ended up doing was farting furniture polish. I’d sit on my mother’s chair and polish the furniture. “That’s when I said, ‘This is really sick,’ and I checked myself into the observation ward at Meadowbrook Hospital. It was really the best thing I’ve ever done, Because I saw people who really had problems. Guys kicking junk, homicidal maniacs, schizophrenics. These people had no way out. I said, ‘Wait a minute; you can always help yourself.’

“It was like shock therapy in life and in what the priorities are: ‘You’re okay. These people are not okay.’ When I got out, I had a different outlook. I said, ‘I can make music, and I can fall in love again.’ See, I never really said that my ambition was to be a rock star. I had been in groups for years and had gotten that out of my system. I wanted to be a songwriter. And everything else just followed after that.”

***

You probably know the rest of this story. A bad record deal. A stint at a California piano bar under the name Bill Martin. Signed to Columbia. “Piano Man.” (“I said, ‘This is a hit song? You gotta be kidding me. It’s the same chorus over and over.'”)”Captain Jack” on FM. The followup, Streetlife Serenade. A bomb. (“I was gonna be Debussy. And all of a sudden, de boom lowered.”) Joel himself produces Turnstiles. Plenty of FM favorites. Gets to use his live band in the studio for the first time. Great live shows. Joel meets up with veteran producer George Martin. He hates the band. Joel meets up with veteran producer Phil Ramone. He loves the band. Click. The Stranger. “Just the Way You Are.” Even your parents love it. The biggest-selling album in Columbia’s history. 52nd Street. Millions again. Glass Houses. But with all that success comes the image. The brat. Cocktail-lounge man. Yuck.

That image made him angry, and that anger only brought out the worst in him and his music. It seemed to force him to “prove” that he was a true rock & roller by releasing Glass Houses. It’s his favorite LP – and my least favorite: slow-tem-poed, strident, cramped. His anger severely constricted not only his considerable lyrical and melodic gifts, but the more agreeable side of his personality as well.

Joel, for example, can be a very funny man: he tells jokes, he does piano schtick, he enjoys himself. But on record and in our conversations, that playfulness didn’t always come through. “Humor is really hard for me to convey,” he admits. “People think it’s wiseass or a put-down. Like the song ‘Big Shot: I was telling that about myself.”

It surprises and hurts him that he hasn’t played on other artists’ records. “Nobody asks me,” Joel says. “I think people have this idea that I’m an inaccessible, glacial type of guy. But I’m around all the time. Maurice White wanted to do something, but we never got back together. Michael Jackson wanted to do something, but he didn’t get back to me. I got a call from Eric Clapton, but he didn’t get back to me, either. Maybe I give bad phone.”

Joel himself has one particular performance fantasy, how-ever: “I just wanna be a blues pianist in a band like. J. Geils. Just sit there and play the blues.” His eyes gleam with excitement. “Just wearing a hat, dark shades, a beard, a little Scotch on the piano, a pack of cigarettes….’Okay, Bill.’ Or B.J., or some anonymous name. Al.”

Al?

“Yeah, Al. I’m always Al on the road. Alcohol, Alka-Seltzer. In England, I was Aluminium. This tour, I think I’m gonna be Alimony.”

Billy Joel first met Elizabeth Small when he was in the Hassles; she was married to fellow band member Jon Small. The pair didn’t hook up in a serious way until after she’d divorced Small. Joel was making his ill-fated first album, Cold Spring Harbor, at the time. They fell in love, lived together and got married. And Elizabeth wound up managing her husband.

“I had been through a lot of different managers,” Joel recalls. “She was pretty smart. She’d been around a lot. And I sort of said, half-jokingly, ‘Why don’t you manage me?’ Boom, that was all she had to hear.” His voice fairly brims with delight at the memory. “Bing, bing, bing. The next thing I know, there’s office space in the apartment, and telephones and secretaries.

“It was like my house wasn’t my house anymore. I’d walk downstairs in my underwear, and I couldn’t go to the bathroom. I’d go, ‘What is this?’ But it was a fun time: this tiny little company, and when it took off, everyone was enthusiastic.”

After nine years of marriage, the couple split up this summer. Joel moved out of their mansion in Long Island and into a smaller place of his own, and he began looking for a Manhattan residence. He doesn’t like to talk about the separation.

“It didn’t work,” he says of their relationship. “The hardest thing for two people who love each other to do is to break up. But sometimes it has to be done.” He declines to get more specific, but speculates that “it might have been just a lot of time away.”

Drummer DeVitto sees a larger process at work. “I think it was part of his finding himself, breaking away from Elizabeth. The sad part is that they still love each other very much.

“He didn’t change much, but she found a whole new group of people to hang around with. They’re not his type. He likes normal people; he’s a Long Island guy.”

As for social activity, Joel says that he’s been dating some of late, “but nothing crazy. There are some special people.” When I ask about one woman who called from Baton Rouge, somehow tracking him down at my house during an interview, Billy’s smile is the widest I get to see. “She’s a very special person,” he says, grinning.

He admits to being besieged by curious friends. “A lot of people are calling up, going, ‘Are you okay?’ ‘Isn’t it lonely?’ And I’m, like, ‘No, man. I feel good.’

“It’s not a real bitter thing, at least not on my part. I’m not sure how she [Elizabeth] is. But I’m not looking at despair and the end of the world. It’s hard to admit defeat, but I can do it. I’m not going to drink furniture polish.”

***

The little blond girl who sidles up to our table at the zoo cafeteria can’t be more than three years old. She is giggly, energetic and as cute as a button. Billy is stupendous with her. He clucks and coos and makes funny faces and talks to her until she suddenly laughs and runs to her parents. “It’s the eyes,” Joel says, pointing to his bloodshot pair.

“Yeah,” he says in answer to my all-too-obvious question, “I’ve wanted to have kids. I’m thirty-three. I see little kids, I get a little mushy. I’d love to have a little girl who thinks her daddy is everything. A little boy I could take fishing or teach how to work on bikes and stuff. For the last twelve years, I’ve been on the road so much it wouldn’t have been fair if I’d had a family. Some of the problems with that came up in the marriage. So, in the future, I’m gonna make sure I have some time to give to a family. I grew up without a father, and I don’t want my kids growing up the same way.

“I think the real test of being an adult is having a kid. I don’t think you know what it’s really all about until you have children, and therefore, I really don’t know what it’s all about yet.”

His words sound wistful, but there’s an intensity behind them that mitigates their sadness. When we talk about “Allentown” once more, Joel even makes surrender sound like an ennobling act. “Everyone has to deal with it,” he says. “Not total surrender, but temporary defeat. I think it’s a very American thing to be hopeful.”

In This Article: Billy Joel, Coverwall

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