Billy Joel: The Miracle of 52nd Street
Nobody ever mistook Billy Joel for a matinee idol. In a world that worships angular, tall, rangy types like Robert De Niro and John Travolta, Joel is out of place. Short and thick-bodied, with eyes as enormous (and frequently as bloodshot) as Robert Mitchum’s, with a busted nose and lopsided grin, Joel is a perfect Hell’s Kitchen wise guy, a real-life dead-end kid. He walks in a rolling lope, too fluid to be a limp—a gait common only to sailors and young men who grew up wearing pants that, while stylish, were cut a bit snug in the crotch. His diction would appall the Shangri-Las.
Still, Billy Joel is somebody’s hero. The Stranger, his 1977 album, has sold more than 4 million copies, making it the second-biggest seller in the history of Columbia Records (Bridge over Troubled Waters is the biggest). The album spawned four substantial hit singles: “Movin’ Out,” “She’s Always a Woman,” “Only the Good Die Young” and “Just the Way You Are.” And it was not a fluke. The new LP, 52nd Street, sold 2 million copies in its first month on the shelves; after only three weeks it went to Number One on Record World‘s chart, knocking off Grease. The first single from 52nd Street, “My Life,” was hitbound before it was pressed. And as a concert attraction, Joel is also booming: he now plays 15,000-seat arenas in cities where a year ago he was working clubs.
So far, that description is of a basic Seventies success story, not so far removed from Bob Seger or Boz Scaggs or Fleetwood Mac. Knowing that Joel has been recording with little commercial luck since 1971 only enhances the impression that it’s a formula triumph.
Billy Joel doesn’t buy that.
“Everybody assumes—especially nowadays I get this a lot: ‘Boy isn’t it great you’re successful. Doesn’t it feel good? Isn’t it wonderful? It’s really paying off for you now?’ ” Joel is a talented mimic, and his delivery here is scathing; contempt drips from every syllable. “I’ve been trying to say for years, I’ve been successful for a long time, because I have been able to support myself as a musician since about the time I was twenty [he is now twenty-nine]. Which is a miracle in itself. There’re very few musicians who can support themselves just being musicians. So that’s success. If you can support yourself being a musician, it’s a miracle.”
The latest manifestation of the miraculous had taken place on a Thursday evening in mid-October at the 14,000-seat Crisler Arena, the University of Michigan basketball auditorium. Just past midnight, in the cocktail lounge of the Briarwood Hilton in Ann Arbor, matters are more mundane. Besides the usual assortment of overnight salesmen and aspiring academics, the room is crowded with couples unwinding after the show. Doing the same at several tables in the rear are Joel, his band and his producer, Phil Ramone, who’s flown here from New York to discuss possibilities for a single. The beer flows, the clowning is continuous (drummer Liberty De Vitto, Joel and sound engineer Brian Ruggles do a mock boogie to the bar band’s soulless Top Forty), practical jokes and scatological wisecracks create a cross fire.
There is also tension. Something to do with the presence of a reporter. Revenge is always a possibility in situations like this. Billy Joel does not just have the physical bearing of a hard guy, after all. Some people say he is one. And there is no question about whose turf this is. Barrooms are Billy’s natural environment. In 1972, when the complexities of getting his career off the ground grew too unmanageable, Joel changed his name to Bill Martin and took a gig at the Executive Room, a bar in Los Angeles. It is a storied experience, partly because the lifestyle gave him the subject matter of his first approximation of a hit, “Piano Man.” But it was also an aesthetically appropriate choice.
That’s true not so much because Billy’s music is perfect lounge fare—it is, but you could say the same of Elton John, Paul McCartney or even George Gershwin—but because of his taste. He drinks Scotch, with both fists, and dabbles in brandy and beer. He likes bars—not bistros or boîtes or pickup joints—but the kind of place where drinking is its only rationale. This is not a good description of the Hilton—nondescript is its definition—but it’s all that’s available.
Couples keep coming by for autographs, fumbling for conversation, grinning self-consciously in the presence of a star. One inebriated fellow overstays his welcome and Billy deals with it typically. Leaning over to me, he says, “You know, the frammatz wobbled tonight. Are we ever gonna get the damn thing fixed?”
Somehow, I pick up the cue: I am to play the role of equipment technician. “Sure, we’ll get it somehow, don’t worry. You got any ideas?”
“Try an RCA plug,” Joel says, then drops the character as quickly as he’s created him. Our visitor is dragged away by his girlfriend, thinking, perhaps, that they were interrupting some important technical discussion. Actually he’d been telling me about his sojourn in what he fondly refers to as “the nuthouse.”
This was a comparatively brief experience—three weeks—self-imposed and motivated by what Joel now calls “self-pity,” an assessment that seems honest and accurate. Still, it left its mark. “Other people have religion or Scientology or shrinks or whatever,” he says. “Me, I had the nuthouse.”
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