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Q&A: Billy Joel

The innocent man on classical music, disenchantment and light bulb jokes

Billy Joel

Billy JOEL

Michel Linssen/Redferns/Getty

BILLY JOEL IS BACK with a new album and an announcement. The album — titled Greatest Hits Volume III because his first best-of collection was a double-disc set — features favorites like “An Innocent Man” and “Shameless,” along with versions of Leonard Cohen’s “Light as the Breeze,” Carole King and Jerry Goffin’s “Hey Girl” and a new Bob Dylan song, the single “To Make You Feel My Love.” The announcement part is a bit stranger: Joel has, at least temporarily, stopped writing pop music in favor of instrumental classical pieces. Over a terrific bottle of red wine in an Italian restaurant — natch — in midtown Manhattan, he explains why.

Classical music?
I started out learning classical music from the age of 4. Then when I got to be 13, this hot seductress in shredded fishnet stockings swept me away: I had a passionate affair with rock & roll. I’m 48 now, so it’s getting old. But the music I’m writing now isn’t that different from what I’ve written all along. The piano interlude before “The Stranger” is classical. “She’s Always a Woman” is a baroque piano piece. “The Longest Time” was written originally as a classical piece, like Haydn. I’ve been doing this all along.

Hmm. Many artists your age seem to be exploring different avenues.
We’re disenchanted with having to be salesmen. The formats that have opened up in the last couple of years are celebrity oriented: E!, Access Hollywood, Extra, Entertainment Tonight. Every radio station is trying to copy Howard Stern. This has nothing to do with music. I’ve had it. I don’t want to be Willy Loman. I don’t want to be a rock star. I want to be an artist. It’s funny, these alternative bands that say, “We are the anti-stars.” They don’t think we felt the same way? We didn’t like a lot of the cheese-bag shit that came before us, either. But now you got Elton [John] doing Disney musicals. Paul Simon is working on a musical. Bruce [Springsteen] is being John Steinbeck with a guitar. We’re all trying to do something different.

On a more visceral level: Stadiums full of people don’t go to hear classical music.
Although they go see the Three Tenors, don’t they?

But they’re singers, personalities. People don’t go to hear instrumental music unless it’s for free in the park.
In a way, I’m a snob, because I play an instrument. Guys in bands never really respect the singer, ’cause if you can scream in key, you can sing. But very few people can play an ax. That’s a skill. You know this joke? How many lead singers does it take to screw in a light bulb?

How many?
One. They hold the light bulb, and the entire world revolves around them.

Excellent.
It seems like the music business has taken a huge dump. The boomers are out of the pop field right now. They don’t like what they’re hearing, and they’re not buying it. They’re going to country, they’re going to classic rock or … I hate to call it easy listening. I know I’m perceived as a mainstay of soft rock — which to me is like soft cock. I hate that. Fifty percent of the music on my albums is hard rock. If I was a listener, and all I knew was “Tell Her About It,” “It’s Still Rock & Roll to Me” and “Uptown Girl,” I wouldn’t like Billy Joel, neither. I don’t have a soft cock – I got a hard cock. [pauses] I think I’m as pissed off now as I was 10 years ago. Here I am, I’m 48 – I got to write another kind of music. I just got to do something else. I don’t know.

Musicians complain all the time that they feel like they’re on a treadmill.
I’ve been doing this for 30 years — longer, actually. Why can’t I do another kind of music? Look, the only reason to get up onstage and make an idiot out of yourself is to meet chicks. Anybody that says they didn’t do it for that reason is full of shit. My god, Beethoven did it. Mozart did it. They were doing it to get laid.

They were?
Absolutely.

Wild. What made you do the Dylan song?
Hearing a Bob song, it’s like you struck gold. I feel bad for these children who don’t know how good this motherfucker is. They listen to Jakob Dylan — and the kid is very photogenic. He could be as talented as his old man, but he has yet to prove it to me.

So you’re going to be touring again next year?
I’m going out with Elton again. I respect him a lot. He’s a very caring man. Around the time I was getting divorced, I thought one of our shows at the Meadowlands was canceled — there was a big storm. I was home in East Hampton [N.Y.], and I had a couple of bottles of wine. Then at the last minute, the gig was on. I flew in, went onstage, and I was bombed. I’m tying Elton’s shoelaces together. I’m lying on top of the piano like Michelle Pfeiffer in The Fabulous Baker Boys. I’m falling down. And I think I am so hysterically funny.

Elton took me out to lunch the next day. He goes, “Are you Ok?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “No, you’re not! You were blitzed last night.” He’s clean and sober. I was embarrassed. I guess I had been going through a tough time.

He took me into his arms and said, “Is there anything I can do? I care about you.” I will never forget what a kind person he was. You hear all these wacky stories about Elton: that he’s crazy, has hissy fits, whatever. But Elton John, he’s got a big, big heart.

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