Liberty: Life, Billy and the Pursuit of Happiness
published: 7 /
In her 'Raging Pages' book column Lisa Torem interviews rock drummer Liberty DeVitto and reviews his compelling musical memoir, 'Liberty: Life, Billy and the Pursuit of Happiness'.
Liberty DeVitto’s compelling memoir of life before, during and after his time in Billy Joel’s band is neither a preachy ‘I told you so’ nor a finger-pointing testimonial. It is a standout read, yet what, specifically, is it about this award-winning drummer’s memoir that makes it so?
The native New Yorker was inspired by all the right stuff: the book first came to life as a carefully-compiled, ancestral history, a treasured timeline to his daughters. “I started a long time ago. My father lived until he was 91. My mother, 89, so I actually interviewed them and a couple of my aunts on cassette tape. I asked, ‘What was your life like when you were growing up?’ So, I had all of these great stories and that was going to be my memoir for the kids."
“I wanted to chronicle how my family came from Italy and two generations later this Italian kid becomes the drummer in this band that is world-renowned. And then, I also wanted to look at things, standing in Billy’s shoes. Why did he do the things he did? The guy has had a career for fifty years or more now and sometimes you have to move forward. You can’t stay still in this business. The average rock and roll act lasts five years.”
'Liberty: Life, Billy and the Pursuit of Happiness', DeVitto's memoir, eventually blossomed into an explosive and truthful retrospective on showbusiness, friendship, loss, self-destruction and recovery. While he may be best-known for his thirty years as Joel’s drummer, his earlier days navigating the Long Island club scene with The Rogues, Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, The New Rock Workshop, the Crystal Circus and Supa’s Jamboree place the reader squarely into the frenetic world of ambitious blue-collar musicians. Heck, he even took a detour with a sharp-as-nails wedding band, where he learned the true meaning of “merengue”.
The book is rife with colourful anecdotes and stories. Some speak of deep loss, such as the bittersweet tribute to his younger brother Vinnie, but there are also laugh-out-loud stories about obsessed fans and feverish discussions with his mother about studio commitment conflicts. The endless logistics, excitement of global touring and all-around pressures that DeVitto and his bandmates navigate bring to life a magical, alternative world that many of us will never experience. Perhaps the most valuable lesson we learn here is that the road to success will include battle scars, contrary to what he says the younger generation is led to believe: “I get very frustrated when I see a show like American Idol. The guests are talented and they’re getting picked by a group of their peers – which is sometimes a joke because they’re really not that good – and then they’re skyrocketing into some kind of success because they didn’t do the mileage to get there. So I wanted this book to be about my life, what I had to go through to be the drummer with one of the biggest single artists in the world.”
Billy Joel, among other things, agreed to write DeVitto’s foreword. Although the two men parted ways for about fifteen years, they renewed their friendship while sharing a cup of coffee.
“When me and Billy parted ways, I thought, ‘I’m going to write about Billy, everything we did on the road, what it was like’, but I didn’t want the cheap stuff. Everybody writes the cheap stuff and people get ticked off about it. It’s just a cheap shot you can take at people. I could have thrown a lot of people under the bus, but I didn’t. I just don’t want to be that kind of person. That’s when I chose, ‘Let’s look at life through Billy’s shoes. Why did this stuff happen? And I’m going to make it my story.’
“This is how I see it. You may talk to Richie Cannata and he’ll say it was a different way about what one day in the studio was like. He’ll have a different interpretation but this is what I remember so I kept it that way, and those memories of the songs are how I remembered them.”
The memoir is also available as an audiobook, for the benefit of readers who want to dig more deeply into DeVitto’s studio escapades, such as his impromptu session with Paul McCartney: “In the book, I just do the leadup to doing the recording session,” DeVitto teases, “but in the audiobook, I talk about what the actual session was like: meeting Paul, walking out of the room because I was in awe and I had to compose myself.”
It turns out both men were inspired, in part, by similar legends – although DeVitto was a devoted Beatles and a Rascals fan, as well. “This was insane. We did two songs and in between the two, he was playing piano and singing. We were doing Jerry Lee Lewis tunes, Little Richard tunes, and all that kind of stuff.”
DeVitto’s memoir also sheds a spotlight on his professional growth as a drummer, and as a non-drummer I was especially grateful that these post-chapter insights are relayed in a way that a layperson can fully comprehend.
“The whole thing about my drumming, how the drums come after each chapter? That was the longest chapter that I had written about my drums, and the publishers rejected it. They said, ‘Why don’t you cut it up and we’ll put a little piece after each chapter?’
“So, as you’re following my life, going through The Rogues, The Rock Workshop, The Crystal Circus, Mitch Ryder and Supa, I’m growing as a drummer and my drums are following me – you read about it after each chapter.”
And who better to sum up the memoir’s takeaway than Liberty DeVitto himself?
“You get inside the head of a drummer, you get inside the head of an Italian kid from Long Island, you get into the relationship between two guys that made beautiful music together.”
'Raging Pages' gives a double thumbs-up to this enlightening and timely memoir. “Life, Billy and the Pursuit of Happiness” is about music, friendship, loss, and ultimately, emotional and professional growth. I felt inspired by Liberty DeVitto’s positive reflections and his philosophy of forgiveness.
“With age, you get wiser and you think about what you did in your life. You miss the people you did it with. Nothing’s bad enough that you can’t say, ‘What happened?’ Or at least, you have to reach out. If they reject you, okay, but at least you reached out.”
With his band The Lords of 52nd Street, DeVitto tours nationally and shares his favourite Billy Joel songs and more. He also conducts educational drum clinics and devotes time to child-centred charities.
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