Billy Joel: Not as Bad as You Think
“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.”
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.
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