Billy Joel's romance with the sea
[One of many Billy Joel stories in the Newsday archives, this article originally appeared in the Dec. 26, 1995 edition.]
THE ENGINE is warmed up and the web of docklines is cast off.
Skipper William Martin Joel nudges the throttle and the 600-horsepower
diesel pushes the Alexa out of its winter slip and into the lonely
blue-green waters of Three Mile Harbor.
There are no microphones or stacks of speakers in the cockpit, no
grand piano in the cabin of the 36-foot fiberglass cruiser. But the
scragglybearded skipper in a beat-up jacket and faded jeans looks as
comfortable at the helm of the green craft with salmon and white trim as
he does on a stage. Billy Joel isn't singing but he's in his element.
The salt sea surges through the life and music of the rock superstar
who "borrowed" other people's boats for joyrides when he was a kid and
whose first vessel was an inner tube. Now he voyages on a custom-made boat that, like his song "The Downeaster Alexa," was created by Billy Joel and named after his 9-year-old daughter.
"The Downeaster Alexa" - his paean to the fishermen of the East
End - is the most seaworthy of Joel's songs, but the Piano Man has
written and sung about the water on every one of his 16 albums, which
have sold 51 million copies. The company he formed to administer his
business affairs is called Maritime Music Inc. He still lives in the
sprawling home on 15 acres by the Atlantic in Amagansett that he bought
with his then-wife, model Christie Brinkley. And when the East End gets
overwhelmed by summer day-trippers, he retreats - by boat - to a
waterfront getaway on Martha's Vineyard.
The salt sea is so important to the 46-year-old performer and
songwriter that he says he can't compose out of sight of it. "Everywhere
I've ever lived that I've written music, I've had a view of salt water
- it has to be salt water. That's the real water. There are times when
I'm writing and I'm at a loss, I can always sit and stare at this vast
expanse and endless horizon and pull thoughts out of my subconscious
because of being able to look at the water. It has some kind of primeval
impact on me.
"I think I use the sea and aspects of the sea - harbors, bays,
waves, beaches - as metaphors in a lot of the lyrics that I write,"
Joel says. "`Storm Front' is kind of a metaphorical song about water.
`River of Dreams' is about water. There's a song called `Lullaby' in
which there's a verse devoted to the similarity with rocking a baby and
the rocking of a boat out on the ocean. "
Billy Joel has been rocking on the ocean for as long as he can
* * *
The singer is in the two-story circular library of his Amagansett
home, chronicling his romance with the sea as ocean breakers keep up a drumbeat on the dunes outside. The house could almost pass as a maritime museum. Two old wooden, commercial fishing boats -- Gael and Melissa J. -- are moored in the front lawn near a barn covered with wooden lobster floats. A large ship's helm is mounted on the oceanside patio.
Almost every room -- Joel says he's lost count of how many there are --
has some nautical accent: paintings of ships, models of ships and
lighthouses, anchors flanking the fireplace. Joel - who plans to
market a 36-foot runabout of his own design that will be built on the
East End -- has a room set aside for his nautical charts and boat
design work. A baby grand piano and recording console sit in a corner
alcove of the living room. That's where he writes his music. Across the
room is another alcove with a desk overlooking the ocean. That's where
he writes his lyrics.
Although he grew up in landlocked Hicksville, Joel always felt
close to the sea. When he was a child, his mother would drive Billy and
his friends to Cold Spring Harbor or Bayville.
"There were some people living in Hicksville who didn't realize
they were living on an island at all. But I was always very much
intrigued by the idea of living on an island. I wanted to get as much
island living in my life as I could. So I would hitchhike to the North
Shore where you have all these marvelous old harbors like Oyster Bay and Cold Spring Harbor. I really thought the Gold Coast was the most
beautiful place on earth. I never thought I'd be living there. I fell in
love with the water because of that area. "
Throughout school, he sketched boats instead of doing classwork. His mother was a single parent and a boat wasn't in their budget. But as a teenager, Joel found a way to get out on the water. When he wasn't playing the piano, he biked to Oyster Bay and borrowed boats. Without telling the owners.
"My first experiences on a boat was if there was a rowboat on a mooring, I would swim out, unclip it, take it for a little row and then bring it back," Joel recalls. "Powerboats I got into later on. Some of my more sophisticated friends knew how to start these things up and we would take those for a ride. We were very careful not to damage them. I never did get caught. "
He looks out at the ocean and remembers his first vessel. "My
first boat was an inner tube. I used to earn a living clamming. That was
my first involvement with commercial fishing. I used to go to Oyster
Bay, Huntington, Glen Cove with an inner tube and a basket and get
clams. People don't know what good clams are supposed to taste like
anymore. I even worked oystering back in the '60s in Oyster Bay on a
dredge for a while in the winter and froze my butt off. "
Music was the key to realizing Joel's dream of a boat of his own. In
1972, he was living in Hampton Bays. His first album, "Cold Spring
Harbor," had just been released. The local star bought an 18-foot wooden whaling dory, but found it hard to row, so he added a used Evinrude engine that enabled him to fish, clam and explore the bays and harbors of the South Fork.
Joel sold the dory after that summer and wound up in California
playing in a piano bar under the name Bill Martin to escape an onerous
recording contract - an experience that inspired his breakout album,
"Piano Man," in 1973. Returning to Long Island, he rented a place
onOyster Bay and stepped up to a 17-foot Boston Whaler.
By the early 1980s, Joel's career was surging and he was right where
he wanted to be - living on the waterfront in Lloyd Harbor with
Christie Brinkley. He'd learned enough about powerboats to take his
20-foot Shamrock skiff from Lloyd Harbor to Martha's Vineyard with
Brinkley and two friends. But the sea had a lot more to teach him.
"Going there was fun; it was smooth as glass. We hit a storm on the
way back and it took us the entire day just to get to Block Island. I
learned a lot on that trip - how much more I should have prepared, how
much more I should have known. I was really scared. I was responsible
for these people. I didn't know where I was. It was hairy. It made a
great adventure. I still love that about being on a boat. "
If it hadn't been for star-struck boaters, Billy Joel would still
be living in Lloyd Neck. "I had a house I loved that was literally right
on the water. Boats used to pass by and wave and it didn't bother me
until Christie moved in and then we got saturated with boats that would
sit just offshore and videotape us as we walked outside. We couldn't use
the swimming pool. One morning I woke up and I looked out of my bedroom on the second floor and there was a cabin cruiser and a guy on the flying bridge with binoculars looking almost directly into my bed. I
said to Christie, `We have to move. '" They moved to Amagansett in 1986
after their daughter was born.
Over the years that followed, boat sizes grew along with record
sales. The vessels along the way included a 33-foot cruiser named Sea
Miner he used to fish offshore and a custom-built, 38-foot sport fishing
boat named Sea Major. "Then I wanted a bigger boat. It's the disease. "
The result was a 46-footer - "a real ego boat" with a tower and a
flying bridge - he named Alexa Ray after his daughter. But his life
got busier and he switched to smaller and simpler vessels like the Alexa
that he could run by himself. Joel and Peter Needham, an owner of
Coecles Harbor Marina on Shelter Island, patterned the Alexa on a
Their latest collaboration will be called the Shelter Island 38
Runabout. "I wanted a boat that would go from point A to point B quick
and I didn't want to have a Cigarette boat and make a lot of noise,"
says Joel, who selected Massachusetts marine architect Doug Zurn to do the final design. "It will cruise at 40 knots. " The hulls will be
fabricated in Maine and the rest of the boat will be fitted out by
Coecles Harbor Marina. The final price is expected to be between
$200,000 and $300,000 when the first of the dozen or so boats they
expect to build is ready next summer.
Joel goes boating several days a week throughout the year when he's
not touring or recording. He likes to shop and explore along the New
England coast. "On Alexa I can cruise at 25 knots. I can reach Martha's
Vineyard in a little more than two and one half hours. "
He could be Long Island's boating ambassador. "If I don't get out, I
consider it a bad week. I like to take people out just to cruise the
area. Gardiners Bay, the Peconics and the North Fork are some of the
most beautiful areas in America. You can see so much more from a boat
than you can from land. "
With Brinkley now living in New York, Joel gets to see his daughter
at least every other weekend. "She loves the water," he says. Alexa
spends a lot of time on her namesake. So does artist Carolyn Beegan,
whom Joel has been dating for more than a year. "She's a fair-weather
sailor," says Joel, who likes it when the weather gets rough. There's
one thing he doesn't do so much anymore. "I don't go fishing as much as
I used to since I got involved with the baymen," he says. "I don't want
to compete with them for recreation. "
Joel's involvement with the East End baymen has been widely
publicized - especially after he was arrested with them three years
ago at a protest over striped bass fishing regulations. He has donated
almost $200,000 to their medical needs and legal battles.
And he wrote "The Downeaster Alexa" about them.
I was a bayman like my father was before
Can't make a living as a bayman anymore
There ain't much future for a man who works the sea
But there ain't no island left for islanders like me
"The farmers are pretty much gone already," Billy Joel says. "By the
end of the century, the commercial fishermen will be pretty much gone.
When they're gone, the economy will be pretty much completely
tourist-based and then it's just another T-shirt area and the wintertime
community will dry up.
"I'm always looking for the Long Island of my childhood. There's
only a little bit of it left out here on the East End. If that
disappears, I really don't know that it is my Long Island anymore. Maybe
it's a Long Island that I can't adapt to."
* * *
Standing by the small steering wheel, Joel idles the Alexa past a
marina where a half dozen commercial fishing boats are tied up. "That's
all that's left of the commercial fleet in East Hampton," he says. "It's
a shame. "
He leaves the Three Mile Harbor entrance jetty behind and
accelerates across Gardiners Bay toward Shelter Island to get an update
on his boat-building project. "I'm a believer in hometown boosterism,"
Joel, who wears boat shoes but is sockless despite the cold, peers
happily through the windshield. There's not another craft in sight.
"That's what I like about this time of year. " The boat rolls slightly in
the one-foot chop. "She can do 32 knots, which for a lobster boat is
pretty damn fast. It's also very seaworthy. "
The Alexa, which has the classic lines of a commercial lobsterboat, is
sturdily outfitted and hardly overflows with gadgets. The only
indications of its owner's fame are plaques presented in appreciation by
the U.S. Navy for Joel's performances at bases in the Philippines and
another from the East Hampton Town Baymen's Association.
The Alexa looks nothing like the toy of a millionaire celebrity. It
disappoints fans who expect him to be cruising on something as big as
the QE2. "It always happens: I'll pull into Edgartown or some other
harbor and people will say, `Where's your mega-yacht? ' "
While the cabin cruiser may be unassuming, it's name is well-known
- "The Downeaster Alexa" was released as a single in 1990. And Joel
learned last summer that there is a downside to being a celebrity
boater. "I keep the boat in Montauk. I made the mistake of putting the
name of the boat on a number of items that I left in the cockpit -
some life rings and other lifesaving equipment. I took the boat out one
day with my daughter and I realized the equipment had been taken. That
really made me angry. Anybody who knows anything about boats should know that you don't mess with somebody's lifesaving equipment. Now I move the boat around, I have to have people keep an eye on it more and lock things away. "
He steers through the entrance inlet into Coecles Harbor on Shelter
Island and swerves around the sandbars without the need of the
navigation buoys that have been removed for the winter.
"You've got to watch out for the sandbar. It sticks way out," Joel
says. As he pulls into Coecles Harbor Marina, workers are removing
moorings for the winter. "That reminds me of a song called `Famous Last Words' on the last album. There's a line `They're pulling all the
moorings up and gathering at the American Legion. ' I use fall as a
metaphor for middle age. "There's a tradition that the day after Labor
Day when the summer people leave the locals will gather on the lawn of
the American Legion Hall and wave goodbye somewhat facetiously. "
Joel -- who says he was burned out after a two-year concert tour --
joined the crowd at the Legion Hall in Amagansett for the first time
this fall. Then he went right back to the sea. And to writing music --
something he can't do when he's on the road.
"I always find it replenishing to get out on the water," says
William Martin Joel.