“I didn’t die, obviously. I just farted furniture polish” Billy Joel, 2006
“Birmingham…. Birmingham. It’s an R&B town, right? Didn’t Cream come from Birmingham? Can we do a Cream song tonight?” Three hours before the first show of this greatest hits tour, Billy Joel sounds out anyone who will listen about the possibility of a last-minute cover version. “I don’t think Cream came from Birmingham,” suggests his guitarist. “But you got The Moody Blues, you got Led Zeppelin — pretty much — and also Black Sabbath.”
Looking more like a member of the road crew, in his baseball cap and khaki shorts, the 55 year-old singer pads off to the dressing room doing surprisingly a reasonable impression of Ozzy Osbourne on War Pigs. Joel is in ebullient form. His only palpable vice since last year, when he checked out of The Betty Ford Centre for alcohol addiction is an occasional cigarette. He won’t be joining his band for the soundcheck — which means that while a stand-in gives his piano a thorough workout, he can ponder the thorny subject of tonight’s set list, which is a mixture of favourite songs — both his and those of the people who pay to see him. “It’s like being asked about your favourite children. Some briefly slip out of favour, and then they re-emerge again. Take Just The Way You Are, for instance. Years ago, I felt like it was time to kick her out and tell her to get her own place. But right now, it’s nice to have her back.”
At that point, his band, some 100 yards away, strike up the intro of his biggest British hit Uptown Girl. “Now that one right there — we haven’t done that one in 20 years,” he says, sounding comically weary at the prospect. “Do I want to sing it again? No, I can’t say I do. It was sort of a novelty song. I mean, that whole album [An Innocent Man] was a homage to The Four Seasons. Frankie Valli sings as though someone’s squeezing him in the corleones, you know. It’s supposed to sound like you’re in pain. But that’s easier to do in the recording studio than night after night on tour.”
Still, I suggest that, as a memento of his early courtship with to supermodel [and mother of his only daughter Alexa Ray] Christie Brinkley, it must hold a special place in his heart. Judging by the reaction on Joel’s face, it’s not the heart that springs to mind. “You want to know what that song’s about?” he smiles, “I had recently gotten divorced [to his first wife Elizabeth Weber]. And now, here I was — a rock star who was suddenly single. I made the most of it. I dated Elle McPherson half a year before Christie. So the original song was called Uptown Girls. I was like a pig in shit.”
There’s no delicate way to approach this enquiry, but it’s worth a try. How does a diminutive ex-amateur boxer from Long Island pluck up the courage to hit on Elle McPherson? Joel’s answer? With a piano to hand, anything is possible. Holidaying in the Caribbean, he found himself at a hotel where McPherson, Brinkley and a yet-to-be-famous Whitney Houston were staying. “Whitney was a model then, and there was a shoot. I went to the piano in the bar and started to play As Time Goes By. I looked up and here were these three gorgeous women looking at me from the other side of the piano. I looked back down at the piano and said, ‘Thank you! What an incredible thing this is!’”
If Billy Joel evinces the zen candour of a millionaire in retirement, then it’s not altogether surprising. It’s been 13 years since he abdicated the singer-songwriter mantle with River Of Dreams. Mostly for his own pleasure, he composes classical pieces. But with the exception of It’s A Good Life — an anniversary present for his current wife, food writer Katie Lee, which Tony Bennett looks set to cover on his next album — he has only written one pop tune since 1993. Once in a while, he takes to the road and bashes out a set of his most well-loved songs. But, save for a live CD, entitled Twelve Gardens and another compilation (this time entitled Piano Man) there’s no new album to promote.
Joel is visibly amused by the quandary in which this leaves his record company. When he first served notice of his withdrawal from the recording process, Columbia’s response was disbelief: “They were like, ‘What, don’t you wanna have hits?’ Then they thought that I was just negotiating — and this was the start-off point.” Since then, Joel’s profile has been kept high, by a procession of compilations. “It’s ridiculous,” he says, “If it’s not The Ultimate Billy Joel, it’s the Essential Billy Joel, The Best Of Billy Joel, Really And Truly The Very Best Of Billy Joel.”
The lion’s share of his disdain though, is reserved for My Lives — the 2005 box set which gathered together four CDs of outtakes spanning the entirety of his career. In fairness, it had its moments — in particular, the mid-60s tracks recorded by a Beatle-haired Joel in his first bands The Lost Souls and The Hassles.“If you liked some of it, then great. But the idea, as it was presented to me was, ‘OK, we’re going to take everything you’ve got left on the cutting room floor that you had the good sense not to put out before, we’re going to put it in a big box and charge people 50 bucks.’ It’s not like I had a choice — they own it all. I read in the liner notes that I ‘personally curated’ all this stuff, which is a crock of shit. I didn’t curate a single thing.”
If there’s no love lost between Joel and the music business, perhaps it’s not so surprising. By the time, he scored his first major hit with Piano Man — the song famously inspired by his six month stint playing a Los Angeles piano bar — he had already accrued first-hand experience of the industry’s shady underside. As a teenager he got a job playing Hammond organ on The Shangri-Las Leader Of The Pack, only to be not told whether it was his part that was used on the record. Aged 20, he signed away his publishing rights to the (now defunct) Family Records in order to record his 1971 debut album Cold Spring Harbor. By the time the record appeared, a mastering error meant that Joel appeared to be on helium for the entire ten songs.
All things considered, it’s little wonder that 1971 was also the year that he attempted to end his life. Unable to pay the rent, he was forced to take a job in a factory — and his girlfriend had just left him. It was, as he tells it, a Woody Allen kind of suicide. Death by furniture polish. “What does furniture polish taste like? It tastes like s-s-h-hit. But my choices were limited. I looked in my closet and said, ‘OK, I’m going to do myself in — what have we got here? There was chlorine bleach and there was furniture polish. They both had a skull and crossbones on, so that was promising. At the time I was thinking, ‘Hmm… which one will taste better? Well, the furniture polish said that it was lemon-scented, so I figured it had to be that one. I didn’t die, obviously. I just farted furniture polish.” He says that checking himself into an observation centre directly afterwards “was probably one of the best things that could have happened to me, because I met people who had real profound problems — and realised that I wasn’t one of them. I had just been contemplating my own navel so much that my head actually went up my ass. I don’t know if you can write that in The Times, can you?”
Joel got better, but his cynicism never quite dissipated. Also featured on My Lives is Oyster Bay, a first-person vignette about a rock star who moves to the exclusive Long Island district only to bemoan a schedule which means he never gets to journey out on his private boat. Tellingly, the song was written when he had yet to score a hit single. Even when that maiden hit — Piano Man — finally arrived, he chose to follow it with The Entertainer, which suggested his ultimate fate was “to get put in the back at the discount rack/Like another can of beans.”
His outsider’s perspective has served him well though. At the show later on, the songs that receive the most rapturous ovation are Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song), Allentown and The Downeaster Alexa –journalistic paeans to the workaday travails of ordinary people. Unlike, say, Bruce Springsteen, Joel sees no innate virtue in their struggles. “What Bruce does,” he ponders, “is consciously write about a working-class guy. I don’t set out to write about any particular life. It’s just how it comes out.”
Except, of course, that it no longer comes out — something that seems to cause Joel no discernible regret. Free of the album/tour cycle on which so many of his peers seem reliant, he says his life is better than it has ever been. Following the Broadway and West End success of Twyla Tharp’s Movin’ Out — a musical show based around his music — he has fielded further offers for musicals. If he is to get involved though, he says it has to come from within. An idea for a book suggests that Joel has some distance to go before mellowing his thoughts on the music industry. Entitled A Good Career Move, Joel says the plot is predicated on the record industry’s belief that once they have recorded a certain amount of albums, rock stars are much more useful to them dead than alive. If he gets around to writing it, then he’ll come up with some songs to go with it.
Right now though, music is just one of a range of outlets available to Joel. In 1996, seeking to buy himself a fast boat “that didn’t look like a penis extension”, he reawakened his childhood interest in technical drawing and took his design to a boat maker in Long Island — who set about making it. The ensuing interest in Shelter Island Runabout — a modern version of the yachts used by wealthy New Yorkers for commuting to Manhattan in the 1930s — prompted Joel to go into business. Since then he has sold 42 of them at $500,000 a throw. Then there’s his motorcycle design company which takes new Harley Davidsons and “soup[s] them up to look like 1946 knuckleheads. But, you know, these things don’t take up a whole lot of my time. I probably spend more time with my wife or walking my two pugs around Oyster Bay.”
So he really did end up in Oyster Bay? Just like the guy in the song? Joel shows momentary surprise, as though the thought hadn’t occurred to him. “I did. I ended up in Oyster Bay. But let me tell you. That’s where the similarity ends. I’m always on my fucking boat.”
(This is an unabridged version of a piece that first appeared in The Times in 2006)