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Billy Joel on Turning 70, Donald Trump and Why He Writes Music Just For Himself Now

The Piano Man is excited about his big birthday, less excited about playing ‘Captain Jack’ ever again — and unwilling to rule out releasing new music or playing with Elton John again

billy joel

Jesse Dittmar

Billy Joel hasn’t released an album of new pop songs since 1993, but that hasn’t stopped him from selling out Madison Square Garden every month for the past five years and packing baseball stadiums across the country each summer. “I’ve gone onstage and said, ‘I don’t have anything new for you, so we’re just going to play the old shit,’ ” Joel says on the phone from his house in Palm Beach, Florida. “And the audience goes, ‘Yeah!’ I’ll be sitting in the stadium looking out at 30,000, 40,000, 50,000 people, thinking, ‘What the hell are they all doing here? Why now?’ I guess, in a way, I’m an anachronism. There aren’t that many of me left. There’s a rarity to it, which gives it value.”

Are you looking forward to playing the Garden on your 70th birthday on May 9th?
I got mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, I’m happy to be alive. On the other hand, I don’t know how much of a party I deserve just for making it to 70. I mean, it’s a work night — you can’t have birthday cake, you can’t do any of that stuff.

Still, 70 is a milestone.
This is a Peter Pan kinda job. You start out, and you’re young, and you’re rockin’ and rollin’, and that’s what you do all your life. You become a little myopic about how old you actually are. I see pictures of myself at the Garden recently, and I go, “That don’t look right.” I got old, I lost my hair. I was never a matinee idol to begin with, and there I am onstage still doing the same job I was doing when I was 16.

So many of your peers dye their hair and do anything they can to look young. Have you ever been tempted to do the same?
For me to try and look like a movie star would be ridiculous. I’ve always been a schlubby-looking guy, and I ain’t about to change. Plastic surgery, wigs, I don’t know. It has nothing to do with music. It’s all about an image and look. I am 70 years old. I’ve never hidden my age, so why should I start now?

Your two youngest daughters are three and one. Is fatherhood different for you now than it was in the old days?
The difference now is that people think I’m my kid’s grandfather. I take her to school and one of the other parents will go, “Oh, your granddaughter’s so cute.” I just say, “OK, thank you.” It’s not that different. I still love being a dad. I didn’t know that I would be a father again at this age, but I’m glad I am. They keep you young.

Do you think you’ve learned a lot about women by having three daughters?
Yeah. All my life’s been women. I was raised by women — my dad wasn’t around. I’ve been married numerous times, and I’ve got three daughters. So, a lot of estrogen in my life.

How has that molded you?
I think I had a very fortunate upbringing. My mom encouraged me to be a musician. I know a lot of guys who were my age whose fathers intimidated them into not being musicians. So I had a very gentle upbringing. It was very loving, very warm, and I appreciate that about women. I see that in my daughters too. I’m gonna bring up these kids who one day will be mothers themselves, and I hope they’re like my mom.

How do you pick your setlist at Madison Square Garden each month? What’s the formula?
Up until the last show we did at The Garden, we’ve been concentrating on picking the right balance between hits and album tracks. But the last show we did I said, “You know what? We’ve never done a show where it’s only hits.” There was an article in The New Yorker called “The 33 Hit Wonder” about me. And I had never counted up that I had that many hits. I said, “Wait a minute. 33 hits? That’s more songs than we do in a show. Why don’t we do a show which is just hits, without album tracks?” And that’s what we did the last time, and it’s the first time I ever did it. It was kinda different for us. But I kinda like just going bang, bang, bang, bang, hit, hit, hit, hit. By the end of the show, “Hey, that was a pretty good set list.”

You’ve played dozens of shows in the past five years, but you almost never play “Captain Jack.” How come?
He didn’t age well. Captain Jack’s been demoted to Private Jack. In the verses, there’s only two chords, and it goes on and on, and it’s kind of a dreary song if you think of the lyrics. The kid is sitting home jerkin’ off. His father’s dead in the swimming pool. He lives this dull suburban existence until he gets high. One of the last times I was singing the song, I said, “This is really depressing.” The only relief you get is when the chorus kicks in. When I’m doing the song, I feel kinda dreary and I don’t like doing the song anymore, although we’ll probably do it again.

You also dropped “Angry Young Man.” That was a concert staple for years and years.
We did it so often for so long as an opening song. You gotta wanna do it. You gotta have some enthusiasm for it, and sometimes I get burned out on doing the same thing and I don’t wanna do it anymore.

You’ve never done what so many of your peers are doing, which is play one of your classic albums straight through. Why not do a Stranger night or a Nylon Curtain night?
That was suggested. And I said, “Okay, but there’s, like, 12 albums. So if we feature one album, that’s gonna eat up a lot of the show, and there won’t be much room to balance out other albums.” So we never really did the feature-the -album thing, although we probably do more songs from The Stranger album than any other album. There’s so many songs that we like to do, that I just don’t want to limit it to one album.

Can you see yourself ever doing a farewell tour?
No. I think the way it’ll happen is there’ll be a night where I feel like I can’t do it well anymore — I can’t hit the notes, I don’t have the physical stamina, I’m not into it. And that night, I’ll know it’s time to stop. I might even decide right then and there this is my last show. Although my agent will come up to me afterward: “Oh, no! We can make a lot of money if you do more shows now.”

Rock-star biopics are big right now. Can you imagine a Billy Joel movie?
I don’t have enough objectivity to do that. I was gonna write an autobiography at one time — and I did. There wasn’t enough sex, drugs and rock & roll in it for the publisher, so I gave the advance money back. I said, “Fuck it, that’s me.” I don’t know if I’m interesting enough to make a movie out of. I lived my life. I don’t want to be redundant.

You and Donald Trump are about the same age, both born in outer-borough New York. Does that give you any insight into him?
No. I see him as being from an entirely different planet. I know he was born in Queens, but he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. His father was rich and gave him a lot of money. I don’t know how much empathy he actually has for people who don’t live that kind of life. I’m not a big fan of his, so to be fair I don’t have a lot of insight into him.

What do you think about his presidency so far?
I think maybe this was the shock that we needed to shake people out of lethargy. Maybe this was something that should have happened to wake people up and make people realize, “Hey, something like this can actually happen.” Because before he got elected we didn’t think this could happen.

Are you going to get involved at all in the 2020 election?
I don’t think I’m going to be politically involved. I find a lot of people resent celebrities touting their candidate. That can actually turn more people off than it can bring more people in. I admire people like Springsteen, who gets up there and touts a candidate. He’s a citizen and he has a right to do that. My experience has always been that people resent it when they go to see you do a show and you get up on a soapbox and spout politics.

In 2017, you did wear a yellow star onstage after Trump talked about the “very fine people” who marched in Charlottesville. What made you do that?
I was pissed off. It’s bullshit. There’s no fine Nazis. My father’s generation fought a war to put an end to Nazism. When they see these guys with the swastika armband, I’m amazed they don’t run out on the street and smash them over the head with a baseball bat. So this president missed the boat. He had a great chance to say something meaningful and he blew it.

Do you hope to sing with Elton John again before the end of his farewell tour?
I would if he asked me to, sure. We worked together for 16 years, and those were good shows. I thought they were good value. I would work with him again, absolutely.

What TV shows do you watch?
My taste in TV shows is pretty boring to most people. I watch the History Channel or the Military Channel or documentaries or the news. If I see a black-and-white movie while I’m changing channels, I’ll stop on the black-and-white movie and that always intrigues me. I just watched Casablanca with Humphrey Bogart again, great movie. If I come across The Godfather while I’m changing channels, I’ll stop on The Godfather. If I come across Goodfellas, I’ll stop on Goodfellas. Whatever grabs me at the moment, I’ll watch that.

Are you tired of being asked whether you’re going to make new music again?
No, it’s a fair question, and I still write music. I just don’t record it, and they’re not in song form. It’s another kind of music altogether. It’s purely for my own edification. I don’t feel compelled to record it. I don’t feel compelled to make myself be relevant. Like I said, I lived the rock & roll life, and I’m not writing that anymore.

But you sit down at the piano and write melodies just for yourself?
Yeah. I have a lot of music that no one’s ever heard and no one may ever hear if I don’t decide to do something with it. It’s really about the creative process that’s important to me, not about having records on the charts or selling a lot of recordings. I’m learning all the time, and you never stop learning. That’s what’s good about the writing process. You always learn something new whenever you create.

Are you willing to make a Shermanesque statement that you’ll never release an album of new material?
I’m never going to say never. I may come up with an idea that could become a song. I may write a movie soundtrack. I may write a symphony. I don’t know. Anything’s possible.

 

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