I don’t want anybody to see me in my underwear,” says Billy Joel. He’s not speaking literally — he’s talking about the release of My Lives, his four-disc, warts-and-all box set that features demos, live recordings and previously unreleased tracks that date back to the Sixties, when he played in bands like the Lost Souls, the Hassles and Attila. Though Joel sees much of this material as either half-baked or unlistenable (“There is a huge cringe factor,” he says), he concedes that as one of the top-selling artists of the twentieth century, with more than 100 million albums sold, “people might actually be interested in these things.” Also on the horizon is his first solo tour in eight years, kicking off in January. With his pug Sabrina conked out on the floor, we talk in the plush office of his Oyster Bay, Long Island, mansion.
You grew up with classical music. How’d you get into soul?
New York radio. We didn’t really know about formatting back then, so you could hear the Four Seasons, then James Brown, then the Beatles. The first rock & roll show I went to was James Brown and the Flames at the Apollo. I was about fourteen, and I was just blown away. Jagger’s got his thing, Jim Morrison had his thing, but James Brown is a workingman.
Did you name the band Attila?
Yeah. Around ’69. I was so enamored with Led Zeppelin. I loved that name. It was so heavy. I thought, “We want a heavy name! Like Attila the Hun! We’ll destroy the world with amplification!” The lyrics were reflective of Zeppelin lyrics: mystical bullshit. Robert Plant could pull it off, though. That’s how good a singer he was.
How have you gone from writing songs prolifically to not writing a pop song in twelve years?
I compare songwriting to childbirth. How many kids can you have before your uterus explodes? But I didn’t stop writing music, I stopped writing songs. I wanted to develop what my music was saying on its own. I started writing a piece of music, which was on Fantasies and Delusions , called “Soliloquy.” I started writing lyrics, then said, “Why am I writing lyrics? The music is telling me what I need to know.”
Whose ideas were all the groundbreaking shows: Germany, the day after reunification; Cuba, 1979; Russia, in ’87 … ?
Mostly my ideas. That was exciting. I’m glad you reminded me of that Cuban show. Everyone playing before us — Kris Kristofferson, Stephen Stills — were doing these speeches in Spanish, like “!Viva Fidel!” You could see the kids in the audience going, “Fuck this, we hear this crap all the time.” I went on and said, “Yo no hablo español” and launched into “Big Shot.” The kids went nuts!
You also sang on “We Are the World.” Any good gossip?
Michael [Jackson] was constantly applying makeup. And I remember most of us who were there didn’t like the song, but nobody would say so. I think Cyndi Lauper leaned over to me and said, “It sounds like a Pepsi commercial.” And I didn’t disagree.
Is it true that you played piano on “Leader of the Pack”?
I played on a session with “Shadow” Morton for two songs: “Remember (Walkin’ in the Sand)” and “Leader of the Pack.” We did the recordings before the Shangri-Las sang on them. I’m pretty sure it was me. I saw an interview with Ellie Greenwich [the song’s co-writer], and she said it wasn’t me. I never got paid, though, so it doesn’t make any difference.
What’s the last show you went to?
Cream at the Garden in October. When I heard they were getting back together, I said, “Ginger Baker’s still alive?” Because he looked like he was dying when he was young. They did a good lineup of songs, but I wanted them to just explode onstage. I don’t want to criticize the show, because it was great to see. And I’ve never seen 20,000 guys play the same air-guitar notes. The place reeked of marijuana! I think my daughter got a contact high — she fell asleep on my shoulder.
Does she turn you on to music?
She loves classical, but sometimes when we’re in the car she’s like, “Get that shit off.” She wants to hear rock &? roll. She’ll point out stuff to me, like Coldplay and Britney Spears. I love that record Toxic. It’s so bad, it’s good.
Have you ever been hammered during a show?
No. Somebody wrote that I was intoxicated at a show at the Garden , but I was sick, and I was overmedicated. I had asteroid shot, and by the time I got onstage I was wiped out. It wasn’t from drinking or drugs. I’ve never done that. [Pauses] Oh, one time I did.
It was one of the first times I’d tried cocaine, in the Seventies. I went onstage and chatted my head off on these long, loquacious raps. The band was like, “What the hell happened to him?”
What one song do you wish you had never released?
On Glass Houses, there’s a song in French. I don’t speak French, so I never should have attempted that. We went to France on tour, and here I go, I pull out this song [“C’etait Toi (You Were the One)”], thinking, “Wait till they hear this, they’re gonna love it!” I sing it and there’s no response, just a few random claps. After the show I asked Columbia’s French representative what happened. He said, “They thought you were singing in Polish.”