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Billy Joel: The Miracle of 52nd Street

Despite the massive success of ‘The Stranger’ and ’52nd Street,’ the hitmaking pop star struggles for respect and credibility

Billy Joel

Billy Joel in 1978.

Michael Putland/Getty Images

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.”

“I’ll never sink below a certain level after that,” Billy told me later. “I don’t know what people think of me, as far as what my songs represent to ’em, but I’m one of the most self-contented, happiest people, and it has nothing to do with money or success or anything like that. I know I’m okay. I been at the bottom, I know what it’s like. I’m still gonna go for the top, but if I don’t hit the top, it doesn’t mean I’m at the bottom, it just means I’m not at the top.”

I believe only a part of this. Mostly, I think Billy Joel needed a break, and this was the sort of self-dramatizing gesture he favors. Role playing is at the core of his nature. Put him in an elevator with a group of well-dressed, uptight strangers and he’ll start jabbering in Andy Kaufman–style gibberish, replete with gestures and grimaces that make ignoring him impossible. The band’s life on the road is an endless series of one-liners, routines and put-ons—a common trait in touring life, but here raised nearly to an art. In airports, when he spots a Hare Krishna panhandler coming his way, Joel can’t resist beating him to the punch. “Hey, you got ten dollars you can lend me?” If he is spotted first, and asked if this motley crew is perhaps a band, the reply is instantaneous. “Yeah, we’re called the Krishna Killers.”

His persona is New York wise guy, but without the devil-may-care flavor of De Niro’s Mean Streets archetype. Joel is more like Harvey Keitel, whom he somewhat resembles physically: a brassy front covers up his shyness and sensitivity—protective coloration developed because his adolescent environment was not everything that could have been desired for intellectual nurturing.

He grew up, in fact, in the Levittown area near Hicksville, smack in the center of Long Island, a place with an inferiority complex at least as well deserved as New Jersey’s. Levittown was the site of the first tract housing, a phenomenon that inspired Malvina Reynolds’ wry “Little Boxes.” In ambiance, the area is as far from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s mythic East Egg as Illinois. It is a haven for people who left the city to find something better, only to find that their neighbors were merely the cream of what they’d just left. And not only the cream—Levittown was tough, as such places go. Billy was in a gang—not a Sharks and Jets band of thugs, but a crew of petty vandals, nonetheless. Like an urban punk, he boxed awhile, which accounts for the dishabille of his nose.

“There’s an identity crisis,” Joel says of his suburban upbringing. “You’re a nothing, you’re a zero in the suburbs. You’re mundane, you’re common. You have 2.4 children, you have a quarter acre plot of land, you have a Ford Wagoneer. Who gives a damn about you?”

But for the Joels of Hicksville, the suburbs were even less than halfway to paradise. Howard Joel was an electrical engineer at General Electric, and until Billy was seven, the family’s income was solidly middle class. Then his father returned to Europe, where he had been born, and his mother, Rosalind, struggled to raise Billy and his older sister Judy on a secretary’s wages. The effect of the divorce must have been traumatizing, but not so much as the poverty that came after it.

“I was gonna be a history teacher,” Billy remembers. He is still a considerable student of history, but the motivation is eccentric. “See, I didn’t have a TV when I grew up. We had a TV, the set went on the fritz, we didn’t have the money to get it fixed. So what did I do? What do you do? started to read. I read. I read everything. I used to read history books like they were novels—anything I could get my hands on. A lot of my romanticism comes from novelists: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Mark Twain, Sartre, Kafka, Hesse.”

Given his inside position and outside perspective, it is no wonder that Joel’s songs have often been taken as the statements of a “suburban troubadour balladeer.” It is a characterization he rejects. The stereotype of the suburbanite is antirock; the terms of existence in such places are stultifying, locked in, unambitious. And because many of Joel’s best and best-known songs (“Movin’ Out,” “The Ballad of Billy the Kid,” “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,” “Captain Jack,” “Only the Good Die Young”) are depictions of characters in that environment, many pop intellectuals have transferred the hostility they feel for the suburbs to Joel’s work.

As a result, the press has not treated Billy Joel kindly, and the portion of the press that one Joel adviser insists on labeling the Critical Establishment has been rudest of all. “I think he’s dangerous,” one of my colleagues told me recently. “He represents the worst of what’s happened to rock; it’s being absorbed into dating bars and places like that.” Of course, no one ever went to the Fillmore looking to pick up a girl.

Critics are correct to mistrust Joel’s approach to rock. His songs place a premium on melody and form, often at the expense of emotion and rhythmic force. This devalues rock, robs it of its power as an alternative to Tin Pan Alley pop. And these are values that have a great deal to do with Joel’s middle-class, suburban background. What’s unfair is that you could count the rock stars who don’t share this sin on the knuckles of one fist.

“There’s a certain kind of elitism,” Joel says. “Like if you’re from the city and you just do urban music, it’s cool. If you’re from the country, the mountains of Tennessee, you’re authentic. But if you’re from the mainstream, you’re vanilla, you’re nuthin’. Which is bullshit because … a lotta people are.”

In fact, a Joel concert looks like date night. Although a great deal of his appeal is to young women, who find his rugged visage and tough-guy act attractive, they show up as couples; the boyfriends must also admire his demeanor, macho as it is. It is simple to calculate such responses—that is the great Tin Pan Alley tradition—but Joel argues with some conviction that this is not what he is up to.

“I’ll tell you the truth, when I’m writing, I’m not aiming toward an image. I’m not aiming toward a certain message in what I say. I don’t know what the hell I’m doing when I’m writin’. I’m just goin’. I work myself up into this state. For weeks, I’m empty. I got nothin’, I’m dry, I walk around, I’m the worst person in the world, I got stubble, I smoke, I drink, I get bombed, I curse at everything, I throw things, I think it’s all over. And then I click. I don’t analyze it, I don’t intellectualize it, I just do it.

“Sometimes somebody will come up to me after a show: ‘You know, when you said that, it meant this to me.’ And it’ll educate me. But I don’t sit down and write suburban troubadour balladeer stuff. I go with the moment.”

In fact, Joel has spent less time thinking about the effect of his work than any singer/songwriter I’ve met. For good reason, apparently: “I think if I thought about it,” he says, “and tried to figure it out, that I’d get analytical and clinical and cold and start to formulize. That’s the danger. Like, why did I hit with The Stranger? Say I sat down and figured that out. Gee, was it the way the album was set up, was it this song? What would I do about that? I’d just be tempted to …”

He did not finish the sentence, but then he didn’t need to. A second reason that the Critical Establishment mistrusts Joel is that it hears a great deal of calculation in his music. A kind of calculation is involved, and if it’s not a function of how the songs are written, it is certainly important in the way Billy Joel conceives music.

Joel started taking piano lessons when he was four. “I grew up playing classical piano, so I have tension and release philosophy from that training. I hate boogie for the sake of boogie; it’s got to be tension and release. I hate to beat an idea to death.” Which is probably why rock remains an easily hidden aspect of his songs: rock & roll feeds on excesses, not discipline—it is the idea beaten to death. Or within an inch of its life.

But, to Billy, “It never looked to be a very much fun life to be a concert pianist. I never wanted to be Vladimir Horowitz. I never really enjoyed playing the classics, although I’m glad I did it. As a matter of fact, when I was taking lessons, the teacher would give me a piece to read, and I’d go out and buy the record. So I developed an ear very early on.”

His improvisational proclivities weren’t always looked on with pleasure. “The only time I ever got beat up,” he recalls, “I had a Beethoven piece, one of the sonatas, and I started boogie-woogieing to it. And my old man came downstairs and smacked the hell outta me. It was the only time I ever remember getting beat up as a kid.”

Like most people his age, Joel missed the impact of Elvis Presley. But he was the perfect age—fourteen—when the Beatles arrived. “Everybody had a band. I was a better musician than anybody that had a band, but I was a keyboard player, which wasn’t necessarily a good position to be in. But I could play, I had the chops.”

The Beatles remain his idols. “I want to make a Beatles album,” he says, explaining: “Every cut was great—there was not a piece of fat. They weren’t necessarily a great band—everybody can say that nowadays as far as technical musicianship goes. Who gives a shit? The songs were great, from cut one to cut end. That’s what I base what I do on, it’s all material, writing.”

But in the beginning, Joel mostly played and observed. He liked black AM radio (white radio was full of what he calls “yer bubblegum throwaway stuff”) enough to slip into the city when he was fifteen to see James Brown at the Apollo Theatre. And he was already known enough to get work on a couple of recording sessions.

“I played on Shadow Morton dates in a studio, in Levittown—it was in somebody’s basement. The Shangri-Las used to record there. But I didn’t know who it was; all I knew was, I was playing the piano. I didn’t even get paid; I wasn’t in the union. I think I played on a couple Shangri-Las records, I’m not sure. Because in those days, you didn’t play with the singer, you played the basic track and later on you found out you were on such and such a record. I was just grateful that I played.”

Playing with various bands all night didn’t contribute to his education, at least not as far as the local authorities were concerned. Billy was refused permission to graduate in 1967, not for poor grades, but for excessive absenteeism. He was not overly concerned.

“I don’t feel like an outlaw, like Waylon Jennings or that kinda thing. The only times I’ve ever felt like that were when I filled out employment applications. ‘What experience have you had? Carpenter: Electrician: Duh: Duh: Duh: Duh: Duh: Other (Explain).’ I always had to fill out Other (Explain).

“But I knew from the time I was fourteen, when I started being a professional musician, making money as a musician, that I was not going to live an ordinary kinda life. I didn’t graduate from high school. It didn’t bother me. I knew I was good as a musician, whether or not I was gonna make it big commercially. I knew I could make a living as a musician. Money, I never had a desire for.

“I’ve always had this thing about independence. It’s a theme I always go back to. Breaking away, stating your own independence, moving away from home, standing on your own two feet: ‘Movin’ Out,’ ‘My Life,’ ‘Captain Jack.'”

But for Joel, freedom from educational institutions meant more opportunity to devote himself to music. This led, initially, to a popular Long Island group called the Hassles, which eventually made two albums (The Hassles and Hour of the Wolf) for United Artists. The sound merged Young Rascals’ white soul with a tinge of Traffic’s jazzy pop rock. Although the first album is something of an obscure classic, the second is widely regarded as “psychedelic bullshit,” to use Billy’s pungent phrase.

Yet a similar synthesis prevails in Joel’s music today. Although he has often been compared to straight pop writers like Harry Chapin (whom he resembles vocally but not politically) and Elton John, Joel is actually much more directly influenced by R&B, from Ray Charles’ orchestrations to Motown, and the sort of English rock popularized by Traffic. When he was temporarily a rock critic in the early Seventies (for the arts magazine Changes) Joel once wrote a feature review of rock organists that spoke highly of both Traffic’s Steve Winwood and Keith Emerson of the Nice. “Maybe it’s English through an original American classical sense,” Joel speculates about his songwriting approach. “There has to be a sense of form, structure, efficiency. If you do something for a while, get the hell out of it and do something different. I mean, I’m a Jimi Hendrix freak. To me, he was a genius. And I don’t throw genius around. To me there’s only a few of ’em. Jimi Hendrix was a genius like Mozart was a genius, George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, Bach.”

The Hendrix influence found its expression, after the Hassles disintegrated, in a power duo formed by Joel and Hassle drummer Jon Small. They recorded one godawful Epic LP as Attila. After that catastrophe, Joel decided that he preferred writing to performing. It was 1971 and the singer/songwriter was in vogue. His first attempt was an album called Cold Spring Harbor.

“When I did Cold Spring Harbor, I didn’t want to be a rock & roll star so much anymore. I kinda got that out of my system with the Hassles,” Joel explains. “I wanted to be a songwriter. All the advice I got from people in the music business was: ‘You want people to hear your songs. why don’t you make a record. This way, people will hear your songs.’ So I got a manager, he went around with a tape of my songs, he got me a record deal.

“So we made a record, and I’m not gonna go into what a trauma that was. So now that you made a record, the only way people are gonna hear the record is if you go on the road and promote it. I didn’t mind doing it, it just seemed an awful weird way to be a songwriter.

“What the hell did I know? I was twenty-one, which is old enough to be legal and sign things away, but still young enough to be stupid. So I did that, and went on the road for six months with this album that was never gonna go anywhere anyway.”

The reason was because Joel was signed to Family Productions, a company controlled by Artie Ripp, a producer with a reputation for commercial products. Through Michael Lang, an organizer of Woodstock, Family Productions was distributed by Paramount, which had been bought by the Gulf & Western conglomerate—a short-lived corporate experiment that had results comparable only to the equally disastrous CBS ownership of the New York Yankees. The results were too completely befuddled for melodrama: the tapes from which the album was mastered were recorded on a machine that ran at the wrong speed; Paramount’s promotion was ineffective; Joel was put on tour with a hastily assembled and inferior band. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong.

With his penchant for the dramatic, Joel quickly figured out a method to cut his losses. He packed up without telling anyone, changed his name to Bill Martin (Martin is his middle name) and moved to Los Angeles, where he got a job in a piano bar.

“I wasn’t able to deal with the record business,” Joel says. “I have no argument with the record business. It actually, really, has nothing to do with music at all; it’s like the cornflakes business. Here’s the cornflakes, go market the cornflakes. I don’t really understand any of that stuff. I’m a musician.” It is his proudest boast.

Nor did Billy Joel head west from insecurity. “I never had a lack of confidence. I have a good, healthy ego, and I don’t think it’s bad. I don’t think ego is a bad word.” But he admits that he played the piano bar in an alcoholic daze, as a sort of mammoth, long-running put-on, a characterization that ran from nine p.m. to two a.m. every night. It took its toll—his romanticism curdled into cynicism, and an X-ray of his liver during this period might have been shocking.

Eventually, he worked out a compromise with Family Productions—its logo remains on the albums, and presumably it gets some percentage of the profits, though Joel isn’t sure—and he was able to sign with Columbia.

The debut album was Piano Man. The title song earned him comparisons to Chapin; its storytelling structure and the ragged edge of Joel’s voice were responsible. The song made Number Twenty and lingered on the air for a year, but it never built sufficient momentum to go further. The sequel LP, Streetlife Serenade, had a similar orientation and not quite as much commercial success; its best-known number, “The Entertainer,” became an FM staple without much threat of being a pop hit. Because “The Entertainer” was also about a show-business character—not himself—Joel came close to being typed.

“I think ‘Piano Man’ was a hit record, and a lot of people latched on to balladeer, Harry Chapin, ‘Piano Man,’ storyteller. But the other songs … I wrote hard-rock songs that never got identified. I wrote controversial songs. I got tagged, and a lot of people, I think, wrote me off.”

The problem wasn’t helped by his management, which was still bungling, or by the approach of producer Michael Stewart. “I got along good with Michael Stewart,” Billy says. “I got a lot of empathy for Michael Stewart. He was under a lot of pressure. The only time we ran into a problem was when it came down to, I had a band together that had been on the road for two years and he didn’t want me to use them on the recordings. That’s when I parted ways with Michael Stewart.”

Well, that’s not quite all there is to it. As Joel admits, recording sessions were “a drag. Because the producer had in his mind what he wanted to hear, he wanted technical perfection. I didn’t know shit.

“I was writing songs on the piano, but I wrote sometimes, ‘This is a guitar song.’ But the producer had in his head, ‘Okay, Billy Joel plays piano, so we bring out the piano. Never mind the rock & roll part of it. We’ve gotta feature Billy Joel.’ It was like pulling teeth in the studio until Phil [Ramone].”

The problem with management was similar. “It was the formula way of doing business. Which is, you have a hit record—great. If you don’t have a hit record, you gotta come up with a hit record. Everything is based around a hit record, hit song, hit single, hit image, hit schtick, gimmick, bullshit, whatever it is. Just like the movie business was—the star thing.

“Nobody paid attention to the road trip. See, to me, the essence of what we do is the road.” A long way from his original intention to be just a songwriter, Joel now says that “records are secondary. No matter how many you sell, no matter how big you become. Because the reason I’m doing what I’m doin’ is not to become a recording star—it’s to go out on the road and play music. So performing beforehand with management was always, if the record didn’t happen, well, then, to hell with the road tour, we’ll just go in and make another record. That’s the formula.”

After Streetlife Serenade failed to capitalize on the beginnings of success Piano Man had fostered, Joel decided it was time for another change. He moved back to New York. “I lived in California for three years; I still like California, the West Coast in general. The weather is nice, the native California people are nice, the rent was cheap.” He pauses. “When I needed it, it was there. I didn’t go out there with the intention of staying. I just went there to try to get my business affairs straightened out.

“When the New York financial crisis started happening, there was a lot of anti–New York sentiment in L.A. from former New Yorkers and I got pissed off. I woke up one day and just said, ‘I’m going back.’ “

But he didn’t move to the city; instead, he lived upstate, in Highland Falls between West Point and Bear Mountain. There, he wrote much of Turnstiles, which further enhanced his reputation as a songwriter (“New York State of Mind” and “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” are the pre-Stranger songs most often covered) but didn’t do much for him as a performer.

But the making of Turnstiles was as traumatic as all of Joel’s other sessions. He had changed management, joining James William Guercio and Larry Fitzgerald’s Caribou organization, which also handled Chicago and ran Caribou Recording Studios in Colorado, where parts of the album were made.

“I couldn’t identify with the Hollywood factory,” Joel explains. “I had a lawyer, and Columbia was urging me to make a change. And Caribou at the time was the heavy management. What’d I know from management? So I went with them. I got along very well with Larry Fitzgerald; he’s a great guy. Jimmy, I never got to know too well.” Although Guercio was supposed to produce Joel, in the end Turnstiles was self-produced. The problem was the same as it had been with Stewart.

The situation could not have been bleaker than it was in September 1976. One music executive who investigated the possibility of signing Joel says, “He was literally owned 150 percent. We would have loved to have made a deal, but there just wasn’t anything left.”

So Joel jokingly said to his wife, Elizabeth, that she should manage him. The next morning, their apartment contained a field force of secretaries. “I knew it was the right thing to do,” Billy says, “even though it looked bad on paper. Elizabeth put me together with Phil Ramone [Paul Simon’s producer], she set the whole thing up.”

Actually, Elizabeth Joel (who had been around musicians for a long time—her first husband was drummer Jon Small, with whom Joel recorded as Attila) first went to work on his tangled business affairs; the situation was so desperate that from Piano Man, a gold album, Joel had seen less than $8,000 in royalties. Then she arranged for Ramone (whom Joel had wanted to produce Turnstiles) to work on the next album. Billy obviously owes her a lot: “Just the Way You Are,” the biggest hit from The Stranger, was written as her birthday present in 1977.

Joel wanted to work with Ramone because he liked “the efficiency” of Simon’s albums. “He’s got spontaneity; he’s as nuts as any other musician; he’s as crazy as I am. He doesn’t come in like, ‘I’m a superstar producer.’ And he doesn’t go for technical perfection; he goes for feel.”

Ramone was also willing to work with Joel’s road band. “Phil walked into the studio, saw the band, loved ’em. ‘Wow! These guys are great, they’ve got road chops.’ It wasn’t a matter of just allowing them to do it; he was turned on by them. And they were, in turn. Because they’d been through different producers turning them down. They thought they were under the gun. When they found out the guy liked them, they grew, flowered; they blossomed.” And they made hits.

A lot of people seem to think that Billy Joel is an obnoxious person. I couldn’t deny that he is belligerent, rowdy and uncouth, although it seems to me these qualities are attractive in a performer. At his concert at Chicago Stadium, Joel established a rapport with the crowd circuitously: he gave the score of the third World Series game every half-inning, between songs. His obvious glee that the Yankees were winning was not particularly well received; Chicago has as many Yankee haters as anywhere else (except New York). None of this deterred him. When he announced the final score, the hecklers started to raise their voices again, but Joel silenced them, appropriately enough, with a thrust of his arm—the classic “obscene gesture.” I loved it, but then, I’m a Yankee fan.

Joel prides himself on his honesty with his audience. At the end of every performance, he gets up from his piano, leans over the mike and says, “Don’t take any shit from anybody.”

He explains. “I’ve found audiences over the years have been used to accepting shit from performers; one token encore, then the announcement: ‘They have left the building.’ The jive performers give an audience—people pay $9.50 a ticket, the group goes onstage on automatic pilot.

“I’ve been on the road for eight years. I’ve met a lot of rock stars. A lot of ’em have a lot of contempt for their audience. They really think they’re a bunch of jerks. When I’m onstage, the main thing I’m thinking about is, I want them to feel like that $9.50 was worth eighteen dollars, nineteen dollars. Like they walk away up. Like I didn’t jive them. I didn’t give them no shit. I happen to think that if they’re into me, they have a certain amount of intelligence. I don’t know, maybe I’m idealistic. I like to think that people are smart.”

Those are the words of a person whose intelligence has often been underestimated. Billy Joel comes on like a rock—which is a New York term for what midwesterners used to call a greaser—which can make him seem thick-witted. But that’s just another role. He has nurtured this aspect of his identity not because he lacks the grace to be more cosmopolitan, but because he rejects that role.

“To a certain extent, some of this new success that I’ve run into, some of it’s a real pain in the ass, because money creates the leech/parasite syndrome: ‘Oh, you have to come up with the commercial success again.’ I never bought that crap.” He says this with certainty, with arrogance. He does, however, walk it like he talks it.

Saturday was an off day in Chicago, and Joel, publicist Glenn Brunman and I decided to go to dinner together. We had spent the afternoon doing a photo session with David Gahr out on Michigan Avenue; young girls who spotted Joel did double takes and squealed. So we figured we couldn’t really go out to dinner; we would have been mobbed. (When Brunman and I had stopped by Gino’s, a fabulous pizza joint, after the gig the night before, there was a long line outside, waiting for tables. They occupied themselves, standing in a cold rain, by singing Billy Joel songs. That is fanaticism.) So we headed for the fancy restaurant in the hotel.

It was one of those joints where the busboys wear tuxedos, gentlemen are required to wear jackets, and the menu needs to be translated. We were the only people there who knew age thirty as anything other than a memory. The wine steward was solicitous; he knew who Billy was. The others did not, or if they did, failed to care. The busboy brought cigars after dinner, dipped them in Remy Martin, clipped and lit them for us. We were puffing on the stogies, letting the soufflé sink in, when I popped the question.

“How do you tip in a joint like this?” We looked at each other blankly. So many people had served us, it might have confused Henry VIII.

“Well,” Billy said, “I’ll go ask the wine steward. He recognized me. He’ll be straight.” And he did, came back with a grin and spelled out the rules. You can call Billy Joel arrogant, but you could never say he didn’t have a sense of humor.

On the other hand, there is no denying he has a temper. Late that night, around three or four a.m., I was heading from Billy’s room back to my own. We went out into the hallway to say goodbye; we’d already gotten a couple of calls from the desk asking us to keep quiet—we hadn’t been that loud, but Hyatt walls are thin. We did some last-minute clowning, when, behind us, a door flew open: “You gonna stay out there yelling all night?” snapped a crone with her hair in curlers.

Billy whirled around. “Shut the fuck up,” he snarled. She slammed her door. “Go ahead, call downstairs …” he started to say, when he heard a noise from the other end of the hallway. “You wanna get into it too?” he snapped at a doorway ahead of us. But I made haste to leave. Maybe that tough-guy stuff was all a routine, but there’s no point in making sure. Billy Joel, after all, doesn’t take any shit from anybody.

In This Article: Billy Joel, Coverwall

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