Billy Joel is a star. That’s undeniable. He’s The Piano Man. He’s sold 150 million records.
But he could have had another life. A different life.
He’s often said that his inspiration for “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” the popular song from 1989, was that he was a “history nut,” and he’s quoted as saying “at one point I wanted to be a history teacher.”
What if he was? What if, because of Mr. Joel’s own known personal demons, life took a different turn, and he had not become the famous pop artist that we all know and love? What if he became…a teacher? Would music still play a part in his life? Would he regret not being a professional musician? The question this movie poses- is success pre-determined? And what makes a “star” a star? Would Mr. Joel be as successful in the classroom, as he was a musician? Let’s find out.
The story of The “early” Piano Man goes like this:
William Martin “Billy” Joel played piano bar in the mid 60s, when he was in high school, to help his Mom pay the bills. Eventually, Billy quit high school altogether to start a band, The Echoes, which led him to get hired by Snuff Garret as a pianist for Bobby Vee. After a couple years of covering British Invasion bands, in 1967 he joined The Hassles, a Long Island group that had a contract with United Artists. They put out two albums in a couple years, and both were commercial failures.
Joel and Jon Small broke away from that band to form Attila. They created one album together, titled Attila, often cited as one of the “worst album[s] released in the history of rock & roll,” according to Stephen Erlewin.
Jon and Joel’s professional relationship hit a snag in 1970, when Joel ran off with Small’s wife Elizabeth (whom Joel eventually married.) When Attila hit as a commercial failure, Joel sank into a deep, well-documented depression. Joel had suicidal thoughts, and was noted to have tried drinking furniture polish:
I drank furniture polish. It looked tastier than bleach.
Now, here is where our story, The Alternate Life of Billy Joel, (we’ll call this “Life B”) takes over. In reality (Life A), Joel goes solo, picks up the pieces, and gets a break when Artie Ripp offers him an album deal that would lead him to record his first solo album Cold Spring Harbor.
However- in Life B- that deal never went through. Billy’s depression and drinking caused him to miss a date at one of his piano bar sessions. Basically- he stayed home sick. The chance meeting with Artie Ripp never happened, and because of that, Artie Ripp signed someone else. Billy, falling further into depression and making an error of judgement, gets into a terrible car accident.
This accident, causes Joel devastating injury to his hands. Now, this doesn’t prevent Joel from playing the piano again, however, it does slow him down. Enough so that playing professionally is near-impossible for the time being. During that period, Joel goes back home to New York, and re-evaluates his life.
Billy Joel never received a high-school diploma, and one of the reasons he got into music in the first place, was to make money to support his mom. So at this point in time, around 1972- he takes a humbling job tending bar, and Joel goes back to school. This is where he makes his decision to become a teacher- his Life B calling.
In Life B, Joel’s music is still very much a part of his life, and as he takes his first high school teaching job in 1976. Here he makes an astounding connection (especially for education in the late seventies): music can very much influence and help his inner-city New York Public School students to learn history. And learn it well.
His songs, The Ballad of Billy the Kid, Captain Jack, and New York State of Mind- all take new meaning, with alternate lyrics, as he uses his music to inspire a group of street-tough kids that- learning can be meaningful, authentic, and goddamn fun.
After a few years of teaching, finding a companion, Joel begins to find new meaning, and his injuries have healed. The Piano begins to call him back, but now, with a new love interest he must weigh the successes that he’s currently achieved as a high school history teacher. Should he give it all up, and go back to the grind? Or, does he stay, and become one of the most celebrated teachers in New York State?
Of course, as the story progresses, alternate versions of You May Be Right, and Big Shot take new meaning when laid as backdrops for learning about WWII, the Civil War and commenting on his own current situation. Of course, Joel’s titular song, We Didn’t Start the Fire, hits the high note of his life, as it culminates in most of the important world history events of the 20th Century, laid against a backdrop of his students graduating high school.
The Alternate Life of Billy Joel ultimately asks questions that we all wish we knew the answer to: what if? Is our success pre-determined? How would we all act, if we were handed an extreme situation that required us to re-arrange the entire course of our lives?
As for becoming a teacher- this alternate story of Billy Joel’s life wonders: aren’t there really a million “superstars” working every day in our nation’s classrooms, that don’t get national recognition, fame and fortune, but continue to make a positive impact? Isn’t the amazing new life of Billy Joel, really a story of a million others, whom we‘ve never he heard about?
It begs the question: what is a star? And might we not all be one?
In the epilogue of our story, we meet up with the aged Billy Joel, retiring from teaching, and sharing his life’s lessons while looking on to hundreds of former students whom he inspired: to become engineers, teachers, musicians, artists.
Isn’t that life- just as valuable?
Update: Just caught up with this NYTimes interview with Billy. Billy was finalizing his memoirs with HarperCollins and he pulled out of a $3 million deal. Here’s what he says:
It wasn’t finished. Some of it hadn’t been filled out in detail, but there was a beginning, a middle and an end. Then I saw this marketing campaign — “Divorce, Depression and Drinking.” We talked about some of those things, but that’s not the essence of the book. I realized that was going to be the nature of the campaign.
It occurs to me- that Billy’s story is ripe for a re-write. Sure- everybody’s story has dark corners, but the alternate Billy story could have a bright side that Billy always wished for. Lately, he’s been touring colleges, giving master classes. Teaching. When he went on Oprah, here’s what he said:
I was in shock. I didn’t realize behind me there were these screens of, like, auto accidents and things about drinking and divorce. I thought I was going to come talk about music.
Billy has a lot to teach us about music. I hope he gets his chance.