published: 19 /
In this archive interview from 1990, Nick Dent-Robinson talks to songwriting legend Billy Joel about his long career
I didn’t hear what the black youth with the Afro hairstyle shouted, but I saw the tall, white kid with him - about 18, leather-jacketed and jaunty. He was the one who lobbed the stone that bounced off the side of the car. Billy Joel didn’t hesitate. He skidded the car to a halt and was out, giving chase. Within seconds he’d caught the white lad, pushed him against an adjacent concrete wall, was shaking him like a rag doll and letting loose a stream of Anglo-Saxon invective. Suddenly Joel let go of the lad, who slumped down the wall until he sat on the ground looking dazed – the way you’ve seen it in the movies. Joel slid back behind the wheel of his Jaguar again and we continued on the last few hundred yards of our journey to his London penthouse. “Sorry about that,” he said casually. “But if there's one thing my New York upbringing taught me it's that you can’t let them think you’ll ignore them. They must never get away with it. Next time I reckon they’ll give this car a miss, anyways.”
Joel has the right physique and the right accent for tough talk. He is short, compact and walks with the rolling gait of a sailor or a hoodlum. He wears dark glasses, even when he’s out of direct sunlight, has a nose that was re-modelled in the boxing ring and the voice of a cab driver from the New York Bronx.
At his own suggestion, Billy Joel had collected me from Paddington station to drive me to his lavishly furnished London home for our interview. I had noticed during the 20 minute car ride how cordiality would give way to toughness, which would give way to sensitivity, which would give way to toughness again. He talks about his four-year-old daughter, Alexa, and at length about the love of his life – Christie Brinkley, his wife for five years. He said they plan to add to the family. “It is healthy having children,” he explains. “I had 36 years when all I was involved with was me. Even when you get married it is all about you. Then when you have a kid all the attention goes away from you and I think that is good. Thirty-six years of self-indulgence is plenty for anybody!”
Now into his forties – his publicity people say 41, but some have suggested that he is around 44 – Joel has reached a period of relative calm. After a childhood marred by the frequent absences of his classical pianist father, and an adolescence with two suicide attempts and an uncertain ride to the top during which he veered from traditional rock ‘n’ roll through heavy metal to cocktail bar music before finding his own song-writing style, Joel enjoys the best of many worlds.
These days his permanent home is on Long Island, some miles north and east of Manhattan, in a beach-side house which he has patiently restored to its original 1920s glory. He is married to one of America’s most beautiful and successful models and, 16 years after his first big recording success, he is one of the hottest concert tickets in the USA.
“I like being in my forties,” he says, knocking back a diet Coke with ice.
“I’m proud of being over 40. I’m beat up!”
Joel’s hair has certainly receded a good deal since the bushy-headed days of 'Only The Good Die Young'; it is very thin in places and threads of silver are also showing through. When he pulls off his dark glasses – which is rarely – he reveals a growing collection of creases around his eyes.
Although he doesn’t say so, it is obvious that having Christie and Alexa by his side has helped boost his confidence dramatically. And these days he is undaunted by his wife’s beauty and success. When journalists used to ask him if he had been surprised when she accepted his proposal, he used to get angry, saying, “You mean, what’s a beautiful woman like Christie doing with an ugly guy like me, right?”
However, he explains to me, “We have been Beauty and Beast from day one as far as the media goes – especially the American media. At first it bugged me, but I have learned to deal with it.” He smiled fleetingly and added, “Christie thinks I am cute, but that I don’t take a good picture.”
Billy and Christie’s backgrounds are as different as their looks. Billy is of mixed German-Jewish and English/Russian-Jewish descent – and not Italian, as many Americans believe him to be. He was raised in the industrial town of Hicksville, Long Island. As a teenager he roamed with gangs, sniffed glue and engaged in some petty theft. On leaving school he worked in a factory. Although his father was a classical pianist – and his brother is also a fine classical musician – life wasn’t always easy. “I grew up poor,” Joel says, with feeling.
Christie, on the other hand, was raised in the beach-side opulence of Malibu, California. Her father, Don Brinkley, was a successful Hollywood producer and writer whose many smash hit television shows included MASH and Doctor Kildare.
“It is interesting, though,” says Joel of the contrast. “Because in other ways there are so many similarities. We both grew up on the coast – she in the west, me in the east – and we both love water. She is a sailor and I am a fisherman. There are a lot of differences, of course, but that makes things interesting. They do say opposites attract.”
Since writing 'Uptown Girl' in 1983, Joel has unashamedly displayed his admiration for Christie in his songs. On 'Storm Front', his most recent album, at least half the tracks are about her and the lyrics are “shameless” and reveal his feeling for her...
“I think that when a guy admits to himself that he is really in love, then he cannot hold anything back,” says Joel of this public display of his most intimate emotions. “You are willing to make a total fool of yourself. You say to your loved one, ‘Hey, whatever it is you want, just take it!’ and you need to be brave and just ride with the consequences of doing that.”
Does Joel find writing about the joy of fulfilled married love harder than writing about the vagaries of infatuation and lust, or the discontent of unrequited love? Has – as some people in the song-writing game believe – the injection of real emotion in some way hampered the professional draughtsmanship of the experienced songwriter that he is?
“You can use pithier language when you are writing about discontent than when you are expressing contentment, but married love is not necessarily all contentment. There is always a down side and that is what makes the up side so much more realistic. If I write a love song these days it is certainly not all wonderful and beautiful; there is an edge of anxiety. You cannot write as though you are 16 all the time. I do try to do that occasionally, but you have to try and write for at least a good deal of your time about real life. We grow up thinking ‘Love is wonderful’, ‘I love you’, ‘You and me forever’ and stuff like that. It is fine when you are a teenager, but when you are 40 plus, somebody should say, ‘You know what, it really ain’t like that at all.’ You’ve gotta work at it!”
From his poor Hicksville days, Joel does appear to have retained a real determination to stay rooted; not to be too deluded by the trappings of success, not to confuse image with reality or publicity with personality.
People keep telling him he’s got it made, but he knows that at the heart of any relationship are people with normal weaknesses and anxieties. “Christie and I have a life like everybody else, but other people don’t see it that way,” he says. He proudly describes his home life of fishing, sailing on his 40-foot boat, reading and playing with his daughter as ‘boring and mundane’, maintaining that the jet-set life holds no appeal for him at all these days and that the worst thing about having money is that it tends to bring you into contact with the rich.
“I don’t like rich people, to tell you the truth,” Joel announces. “They bore me. The nouveau riche tend to regard money as more important than anything else because they’ve got to fight to hold on to it.
“And the people who are born into money don’t have a great grasp of reality because they don’t have to. I like people who work. What the English call the ‘working class’ – that’s who I like.”
But, how will Joel give Alexa that grasp on reality? Can he hope to give her anything of his working class experience? “I can’t pretend to,” he says. “It would be hypocritical to try. On the other hand, Alexa is not treated as though she was born with a silver spoon in her mouth. She is not a spoilt brat, even though she’ll get away with murder occasionally just because she’s my little girl. But we don’t want her to grow up to feel privileged.”
Joel visits Britain more frequently than many people imagine. He has in the past holidayed here in a country cottage deep in Oxfordshire’s Chiltern Hills. He has also visited Scotland and the Yorkshire Dales. He is a great Anglophile, although he says he tries very hard not to let that show too much when he's in the UK because, “You Brits, rightly in my view, have nothing but contempt for stupid Americans who go around shouting about how they love your country and how it is all just as cute as a giant movie set.”
However, when Joel visits Britain again later this month, it will be as part of a world tour that started in America and will eventually continue to Japan and Australia. He has claimed in a major law suit that his ex-manager – brother of his first wife, Elizabeth – cost him £20 million in earnings and he says that his decision to tour again was in part to stop him from going broke.
So, how serious is Billy Joel about the possibility of penury? Joel shrugs his shoulders. “I’m not gonna be poor, but I’m not as rich as most people think I am. But that’s OK though – money really isn’t everything.”
The week I met him, Joel and his brother, Alex, a classical musician who has been studying in London, had just returned from a visit to Rock Circus, the Tausaud’s exhibition of rock ‘n’ roll history at the London Pavilion. There is no wax model of Billy Joel in Rock Circus, a point communicated to me by way of a joke. This sort of omission has at times appeared to rile Joel a little. Joel maintains that his background is quite similar to that of Bruce Springsteen; he is not many years older and he shares the same commitment to American blue collar culture, but for some reason Joel is never spoken of in the same breath – except perhaps by some in the music industry itself.
This is probably due to Joel’s smoother, keyboard-based style, which recently had one reviewer referring to him as, “A more daring complement to Barry Manilow in the Housewives’ Choice League” – a smart way of saying that Joel is a cut above muzak, but a thousand miles removed from real rock ‘n’ roll, whatever that may be.
Does Joel secretly yearn to be a lanky, lean and hungry-looking rock ‘n’ roll singer with a hard-edged catalogue of songs? “I don’t have to be perceived as hard-edged,” Joel counters. “I write ballads, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The Beatles wrote ballads such as 'Yesterday' and 'Michelle' and they weren’t seen primarily as balladeers, were they? They also wrote 'Helter Skelter' and 'Revolution'. I never admired anyone more than the Beatles and, come to think of that, if you were being honest, neither did Bruce Springsteen. And the Beatles’ versatility is one of the things I always admired about them the most.”
The ghost of the Beatles hovers over a great deal of what Joel says and does. He reminded me – and he had told me this when we met before – that the Beatles’ appearance on US TV’s top-rated Ed Sullivan show in 1964 was the spark that fired his whole career. There was something about the tough, cynical John Lennon’s attempts to break away from his clean-cut, mop-top image that connected immediately with the piano-playing teenage boy who was at that time thought by many to have a promising future in classical music.
Twenty-six-years later, I noticed that a compact disc (CD) of Abbey Road was lying on the Joel penthouse coffee table alongside more contemporary albums by Fleetwood Mac, Huey Lewis and Chris Rea. Billy Joel still maintains fairly regular contact with George Harrison, whom he rates as one of his best friends in the UK, and though he sees them less frequently he is also in touch with both Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney.
Continuing with his theme, Billy Joel assured me that it simply doesn’t worry him that he is not regarded as a hard rocker – though he is adamant that he is not just a balladeer.
“All my singles have been really strange records, if you think about it. 'Uptown Girl' was strange. 'We Didn’t Start the Fire' was strange. I believe – and I think you will agree – that these were true originals. And everything I have done has been untypical of its time.” Joel pauses briefly and then continues forcefully – if somewhat immodestly – “That surely is the hallmark of someone who is a cut above the average in the profession.”
Joel falls silent for a moment and then adds, “You know, there is a Texas saying that there is nothing in the middle of the road but white lines and dead armadillos. I don’t mind people saying I'm over the hill, but I’d hate to be classified as middle of the road.”
At that point we were re-joined by two of Joel’s professional assistants. One, a smooth-talking, laid-back Californian publicity adviser, and the other a rough, tough New York minder. It was clearly time to go. But, before I left, the smooth-talking Californian did persuade me to mention that Billy Joel will be playing Wembley Arena on 21, 22, 25, 26, 29 and 30 May. You’d better be sure to be there.