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