Billy Joel on “Christmas in Fallujah” - Rolling Stone
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Billy Joel on “Christmas in Fallujah”

What inspired you to write Christmas in Fallujah?
I guess just the cumulative effect of this war. We’ve been there longer than World War II. I’ve been getting mail from service people over there, and with the holidays coming on made this thing just popped out.

Was there a certain letter that sparked it and made you sit down and start writing?
It was a couple of letters. There seemed to be a similar theme running through the letters, which was a sense of alienation from the home front. I think that a lot of people are starting to feel like they’re forgotten.

How long ago did you write the song, and where were you when you wrote it?
I wrote this back in September. I was at home in Long Island and I knew as soon as I wrote it that I wasn’t the person to sing it. Not that I’m trying to distance myself from what I wrote, but I didn’t think my voice was the right voice. I thought it should be somebody around the age of the people who were serving over there.

How did you find Cass Dillon, who sings on the track?
Cass has been doing an album project with my guitar player, Tommy Byrnes. Tommy’s been producing his recordings, he brought him to my attention about a year ago. When I finished this song, I spoke with Tommy. I said, “What happened to that guy whose stuff you played me a year ago?” And he said, “Well, he’s coming out with his own album.” I said, “Do you think he might like doing this song?” And ran it by Cass, he loved the song, he said he wanted to do it. We went into the studio on Veteran’s Day, of all days. So it was an interesting zeitgeist there.

Do you think it’s fair to call it a protest song or an anti-war song?

I think it’s a song about a soldier, about a marine. People can take it anyway they want. I don’t get up on a soapbox and do political messages. I believe in talking about the human being, and the conditions humans find themselves in.

Were topical songs something you avoided during your career?

I never liked when a rockstar got up on stage and told people how to vote. I find it insulting. But I believe if an artist feels strongly about something, it should be reflected in their art. Ultimately, everything’s political. Even love is political.

This is the second song you have written in the past year. What caused you to start writing again?

Well, the other song you are referring to was really just written as a gift from me to my wife. I had no intention of releasing that as a recording. I always thought that would be done by a singer like Tony Bennett. I actually
thought of Tony when I was writing it. It was more of a mental exercise. “I wonder if I can write a song that Tony Bennett would sing?” Tony actually likes the song, or that’s what he told me, but he hasn’t recorded it yet.
That is how I thought something like that would come out. I really had no plans to release that, but Columbia knew that I did the recording as a gift to my wife and they wanted to put it out. I was like, “Well, you’re the record company, you can do what you want.”<.p>

I wanted to get “Christmas In Fallujah” recorded while it was still new. I don’t like a song to sit around for a long time. It starts to get moth eaten, which is why it all came together so quickly. Other than that, I have really been writing songs. I have said this many times, but I have no intention of stopping myself from writing songs. I just haven’t felt the motivation to write that kind of music. I am much more interested in instrumental music these days. I have no plans of having those recorded either. I am pretty much just doing it for my own edification and mental exercise really.

Your last pop album was a pretty big success, so why did you stop?
When you are in the pop music business and you are a rock star, there is always pressure to deliver more product, as they say. “When am I going to get that Billy Joel feeling?” I kind of wanted to get off the damn treadmill, because you are only as good as your next hit. You can have a big hit and then a couple of months go by and “Oh, he’s washed up.” I always rejected that concept. I finished the album with a song called “Famous Last Words.” These are the last word I have to say. I kind of knew I was at the end of a particular point in my life, a particular chapter in that book, and I wanted to put an epilogue on it.

You’re still touring. Do you find that fulfilling?
I love to play. That is how I started out, before I was writing and before I was a rock star I was in bands. That is the real kick. It seems like history has gone back to that anyway. People played. Then someone invented the phonograph, then they started making recordings of the performances and that kind of took over. Recording artists became state-of-the-art, instead of just performances. Now with the industry and the deep doo doo it is in now, it has all kind of gone back to the live performance, because you can’t replace that. That’s where I started, and that is kind of what I enjoy — the synergy between musicians on stages. We haven’t toured on our own in awhile. We were on tour with Elton for close to ten years. We were playing a lot of greatest hits stuff. That was fun for a while, but then it became kind of wrote rote and we wanted to see what it was like to tour on our own again and play our own set list of songs and album tracks, obscurities. Can we still do this on our own? And so far, the response has been really good. People still want to see us.

I was looking at the set list from your first ’06 show, where you opened with Piano Man, and played Laura, and Zanzibar and Famous Last Words and all these rarities. By the next show you dropped some of those songs. What happened?
Well, we wanted to try something different. We wanted to see how it would work if we did the set backward, if we did a lot of obscurities, and the show was a real stinker. A lot of people went to the bathroom. A lot of people were disappointed. We didn’t get the response that we normally get if we balance the show another way. People pay a ton of money for tickets now. We kept our tickets under a hundred bucks, trying not to squeeze out younger people. We want younger people to come to the shows, and they can’t afford that much. You have to keep that in mind when you are on stage. They are here to hear stuff they are familiar with, as well as the stuff we want to be self-indulgent with. There is a balance you have to strike, and that is just experience from the road.

Do you think you will just keep touring? Do you see a point where you will just want to stop?
No, I will stop. I am not going to say that it is going to be tomorrow. I don’t want to make one of those grand retirement speeches. People thought I said I was going to stop doing it all together, but I never said I was going to stop being a musician. I just said I wasn’t going to tour as much. I probably won’t be writing a lot of songs in the near future. I probably won’t be recording as much. I am 58-years-old and I see pictures of myself and am like “Oh God, you never looked like a rock star, but now you look like a rock star’s grandfather.” There is a physicality to it. Once you get to a certain age, you just aren’t going to be able to do it, grandpa. Although, the Stones seem to be pushing the envelope.

I just saw Chuck Berry a few weeks ago, and he’s still going.
Guys like that from the old school don’t even think about retiring. They are probably going to play until they kick. I just feel like I am going to wear out whatever welcome I am getting. I just feel like I’m going to potentially wear out whatever welcome I’m getting. You know, once I hit 60 I’m going to have to sit down and do some hard thinking . . . is this what I’m going to be doing for the rest of my life?

Are you playing Shea stadium?

We’re talking with the the Mets organization. Nothing has been locked in yet. I don’t know how the word got out, but nothing has been really confirmed as far as I know. I would love to play there though.

I’ve noticed that Liberty Devito is no longer playing drums in your band?

Well actually, I haven’t worked with him since the last tour we did, which started in ’05.

Let’s put it this way . . . he knows why and I know why, and I’m going to leave it at that.

Fair enough; I’m not going to push that point.
That’s okay, I get asked that a lot, but it was a personal situation and I’m not really going to talk about that.

Do you think its possible that at some point in the future you’ll write a new album?
Yeah, it’s a possibility. I never discount the possibility of it, but I don’t want to appear to be a tease and go, oh yeah, maybe I will. I honestly don’t know. I really don’t know. I am kind of a compulsive writer. I write in streaks and then there are periods of time where I don’t write at all. Although I am writing music all the time, not necessarily songs, so, I honestly don’t know. People who are looking for a definitive answer from me, I’m sorry, I have no idea. If I get motivated and write a whole album of songs, I’m not going to stop myself.

In This Article: Billy Joel


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