(The Gainesville Sun, 1996)
Like everyone else in New York, Billy Joel is sick of the cold, sick of the snow. Fortunately, leaving it all behind for a week in Florida is an option he can afford. Millionaire rock stars get to do things like that.
Joel checks into Gainesville’s Center for the Performing Arts Thursday on his four-date whistlestop tour of the Sunshine State (the first show is tonight in Melbourne). Billed as An Evening of Questions and Answers … and a Little Music, it’s not exactly a concert. He’s coming, he explains, to talk to music students, aspiring songwriters and would-be Billy Joels. He’ll use an onstage grand piano to help illustrate his points.
“This isn’t a lecture, per se,” Joel says by phone from his home on Long Island’s East End. “It’s more of a dialogue. I hate to use the word ‘interactive,’ ‘cause that’s been beaten to death. But it’s an opportunity for people to ask questions, regarding different aspects of the job that I do. I know that there’s curiosity about it.”
A born talker, the Log Island native has been explaining himself on college campuses since the mid ‘70s, when “Just the Way You Are,” The Stranger and “My Life” were making him a household name.
“The first time I did it, I was amazed at how much I enjoyed it,” Joel says. “At one time, I had harbored notions of being a teacher. A good teacher made a big difference in my life: There was a music teacher, when I was in high school, who advised me to actually go in the music business. Which was sort of unheard-of at that time.
“Maybe that was the one thing I needed to seriously go ahead and do it, because I always wanted to. It’s just that everybody told me I was crazy.”
At 46, Joel can look back on an astounding 32 years in the music business (he joined his first semi-pro band, the Echoes, while in high school). He had taken classical piano lessons since age 4, but the band experience kindled a passion for rock ‘n’ roll, and rhythm ‘n’ blues, that all but extinguished his classical dreams.
“When I was starting out, there was nobody to ask about this particular job,” Joel reflects. “I admired the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones, and Ray Charles, but you could never talk to those guys. You sent ‘em a letter and you asked ‘em all these questions, and they sent you back fan mail stuff.
“I’ll never forget, one time I wrote the Beatles this impassioned letter about how important they were to me, and why did they write this, and I got back a pamphlet about lipstick and dolls … I got kind of disheartened. And I thought to myself ‘Look, if I ever get in the position where I can advise people, or be some kind of counselor to people, I’d like to do it.”
He was offered the opportunity by Paul Simon’s brother Eddie, who invited Joel to speak at one of the classes he taught at New York’s New School.
Since then, he’s taken his show on the road to Princeton, Harvard, Columbia and just about all points in between (he even did one at Oxford). Of course the way he made a few albums (including his most recent to date, 1993’s River of Dreams.
An Evening of Questions and Answers, Joel explains, “re-focuses what I really do. It’s all based on being a musician, and the art of music, and the craft of music.
“It makes for an entertaining evening. I find that he people who go to these things enjoy them as much as, or maybe more than, concerts. The concerts after a while become rote. You can only really deviate to a certain extent – people want to hear their favorites, and after a while it gets little tiring.”
He has, for example, retired “Just the Way You Are” from his in-concert set list; he hasn’t played it for a decade and doesn’t miss it a bit.
“This is different every night,” he says, referring to his Q&A event. “It depends on the questions that are asked – the audience sets the tone.”
Joel’s reputation as a scrapper is legendary – he’s sued and been sued by several former managers, one of them his ex-wife, and only recently settled a $3 million suit against his former lawyer and business advisor. Add to that his messy (and very public) divorce from his second wife, model Christie Brinkley, and you have an artist who’s no stranger to conflict.
“I have a lot of information that I don’t get asked about by journalists,” Joel says. “Usually, a lot of that stuff is more celebrity-oriented. The questions you get at these situations are more technical. I get asked why I write songs in certain keys, why do I make certain chord changes. How do you work with record companies? How do you avoid getting ripped off? Those kinds of things.
So he’s still thinking about being a teacher. “Look, I’ve made every mistake in the book. So learn from me! I’m the perfect example of how much can go wrong with a musical career – but also, how much can go right.”
Since he charted with “Piano Man” in 1974, Billy Joel has been a constant presence on the pop music scene. He is a delicate songsmith, a craftsman, capable of turning out profound ballads (“She’s Always a Woman,” “She’s Got a Way”), catchy and anthemic rock (“You May Be Right,” “We Didn’t Start the Fire”) and deeply-felt socio-political songs (“Allentown,” “The Downeaster Alexa”) with equal precision. He has been in virtually a class by himself for 20 years.
He’s also one heck of a piano player, as he demonstrated on his recent 18-month coheadlining tour with Elton John.
“I was pre-disposed,” Joel relates, “to thinking ‘Well, he’s Elton John, he’s English, and he’s going to be a sissy.’ Well, he’s not a sissy. He is a professional, he’s a much better piano player than I thought he was. He didn’t throw any little sissy fits. He was always on time.
“He was kickin’ my butt playing the piano. A couple of times, we’d be jamming, and I’d have to keep up: ‘Man, this guy’s good!’”
Joel says he and his British counterpart developed a deep friendship. “He was a good human being – a really decent, kind, considerate man. I was going through a rough time, going through a divorce and all that, and he went out of his way to do kind things for me. And I always appreciated that.”
Joel says he hooked up with Elton John to have an adventure, to see what would happen, and to take some of the pressure off of his solo career. “Bands break up because they start hating each other’s guts. What does a solo artist do – I can’t break up! So all I can do is join something.”
After so many years, he explains, a recording artist – even a successful one – can find himself on a treadmill. “You have to re-invent yourself constantly. This Billy Joel guy, I’m not impressed with him. I start an album at Ground Zero – I don’t start at the end of the last album. I start from scratch, and I do it purely for my own entertainment and my own intellectual stimulation. I don’t really do it for an audience, or for critics or radio stations. I do it just for me.”
He lives alone on Long Island, playing the piano and watching the boats go by. He has no idea what his next musical project will be. “I’m always trying to change and do something different,” he says. “I have an attention span of about 10 seconds, and I just can’t stand doing the same thing over and over again.
“Some people will write ‘Gee, I loved your last album but I hate your new one.’ Well, sorry about that, but I’m not gonna keep doing the same album just because you liked it. What about me?”
He hasn’t written a pop song since “Famous Last Words,” the final cut on his last album. “I’m not writing the same way I was 20 years ago,” Joel explains. “I’m not writing the same way I was five years ago! Right now, lately, I’ve been writing classical music, piano sonatas. I’m writing a piano concerto. I haven’t written lyrics. I find words are sometimes not adequate to express what I want to express. And classical music does.”
Since day one, he’s written music first, lyrics second. “Sometimes I ask myself what I’m writing lyrics for – the music is evocative enough already. Sometimes I resent the tyranny of the lyrics.
“And then, on top of that, I gotta make a video to explain even more.”
Once a song is done, recorded and in the stores, it can lose its meaning for the artist. “Just the Way You Are,” Joel explains, was written by a different person in a different situation.
He still plays “Piano Man,” though. “You have to balance them,” he says. “People go through all kinds of crap to hear a concert. They gotta drive through a traffic jam, they gotta hassle to get the tickets, sometimes they gotta pay scalpers stupid money, and then they sit next to some guy who’s throwing up on them … and they don’t like their seats. It’s a drag.
“And then you read: ‘He didn’t challenge the audience.’ Like they’re not challenged enough just getting there!”
He illustrates with a favorite anecdote. “I went to see Led Zeppelin once, and I was dying to see all my favorite Zeppelin songs. And they didn’t do any song I knew – they just did these blues jams. And I’m yelling out ‘Whole Lotta Love! Dazed and Confused!’ And they didn’t do none of it.”
OK, so what does Billy Joel say to those fans who went through hell on the highway to see and hear him play “Just the Way You Are”?
“Well, the artist chuckles, a little sheepishly. “You can’t please everybody.”