Billy Joel: He's still keeping the faith
[One of many Billy Joel stories in the Newsday archives, this article originally appeared in the Aug. 10, 1993 edition.]
JOHN SEBASTIAN of the Lovin' Spoonful was all of 22 when he sang, "I think I've come to see myself at last. "
Billy Joel has taken twice as long to become sure of his own place
in the creative world. In his third decade as a five-zillion-served pop
composer and performer, the 44-year-old finally understands where he
stands. Now confident rather than cocky, he seems remarkably comfortable and relaxed in the knowledge.
"I always found people who elevated themselves because they thought
they were artists to be somewhat ridiculous and pretentious," he says
during an interview Saturday. One is easily put in mind of Sting's
haughty condescension, Paul Simon's world-beating appropriations or
Bruce Springsteen's gold-plated populism.
America's real middle-class icon is a forthright suburbanite who has
never striven to be placed above his audience or disclaim his beloved
musical influences, a real-world nebbish whose stubby fingers put the
Midas touch to instantly memorable songs. Without a trace of hubris,
this superstar - who can attempt a Flaubert quote in one breath and
compare musical sidemen to erstwhile Yankee utility infielder Fred
Stanley in the next - says, "I've tried to stay away from the
artsy-fartsy artiste aspect of it. Now I can see, at this age, I am an
artist and very proud of it. I've come to understand that I don't need
anybody else to tell me I'm good enough.
"You watch these award shows where all the artists are in one room
hoping to win the tchotchke," he says, momentarily affecting an
announcer's voice: "Here we are, ladies and gentlemen, The 25th Annual
"And here you've got Eric Clapton, Sting, Nirvana, Natalie Cole,
Whitney Houston, Billy Joel, blah, blah, blah. This is a pretty
power-packed room, therefore you get some major advertising dollars
spent on the time. The producers of the show make the money. The artist
who wins the tchotchke gets a tchotchke, which is worth about $5.98. The
plaque falls off, but there we all are, wanting that tchotchke. We think
it is going to legitimize what we do. It never does. "
Switching to the comic delivery of George Carlin, Joel continues. "
`How many tchotchkes did you win?' `He's got three tchotchkes.' `Well,
he's a five-time tchotchke winner.' `He's one of the living tchotchke
legends. ' "
On "River of Dreams" (Columbia), his first album since 1989's
triple-platinum "Storm Front," Long Island's living tchotchke legend
takes philosophical stock of middle age and what's truly important in
life. "The essence of the album is a loss of faith, a search for and
understanding of how to deal with that, and a renewal of faith in
substantial things: faith in love, faith in one's self, faith in the
things that have always been there. " (For those keeping score, the word
also appears in six of the 10 songs. )
Although the album contains a compassionate, sweet lullaby to his
7-year-old daughter that, he says, answered her questions about what
happens when you die, Joel rejects the suggestion that yesterday's angry
young man has achieved serenity.
"I always assumed that when you got to this age, life would calm
down, things would become boring and mundane. That I would start to vote... Republican. That when you got into your forties you were no longer
in any way that crazy guy that you were when you were a teenager.
"I found that not to be the case. I am as crazy as I was when I was
a teenager, and as wildly romantic, and as emotional. I just know more
stuff. I have acquired some wisdom - not enough, I want more - and I
don't get as angry about nickel and dime stuff. I get angry about bigger
things now. "
One of the bigger things Joel is angry about now provides a central
theme of the album. Having spent much of the prior week giving
depositions in his four-year-old lawsuit against ex-manager and
ex-brother-in-law Frank Weber, Joel - who at one point in the
conversation changes chairs, explaining that the one he's in feels like
a witness stand - acknowledges that "River of Dreams" partly concerns
"the foolishness of the search for justice. There is no justice. There
is no justice," he says emphatically. His voice is steely and bitter.
The depth of Joel's disillusionment surfaces in a musical hate
letter, "The Great Wall of China," clearly aimed at his former
associate, whom he accuses of mismanaging and misappropriating his
money. "Your role was protective, your soul was too defective," he
sings. Asked about the song's use of the Great Wall as an
anything-is-possible metaphor, Joel notes that he played Cuba in 1979
and the USSR in 1987. "China is still one of the last exotic unknown
places to people who live where I live. "
The stately and handsome "All About Soul" -- which began as "The
Motorcycle Song," a fast number about "middle-aged dentists and
insurance salesmen getting themselves in biker gear and buying Harleys" -- bears some of the same frustration at venality, but mends the
psychic wounds with love: "She comes to me at night and she tells me her desires / And she gives me all the love I need to keep my faith alive. "
Through all the adversity, the love of a good woman - namely Joel's
wife, Christie Brinkley, who painted the album's primitivist cover -
comes to the rescue.
The crucial line of the song (if not the entire album) provocatively
announces, "Under the love is the stronger emotion. " What does Joel
consider the underpinning of love? "The things that sustain love when
you question love, when love alone isn't enough," he replies. "The basic
inner something which I refer to as soul, the inner core: what you call
on when the - - - really comes down. Soul is what each person has
within before there is love, or even after there is love. "
On this introspective, personal record, besides venting his spleen
and opening his heart, Joel allows himself a long-denied indulgence: to
sing the blues, on "A Minor Variation," a song he compares stylistically
to the Memphis soul sound of Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett.
"Who the hell am I to complain? I'm supposed to have this phenomenal
life. But I had the blues, and it felt good to actually say, `Some days
I have to give right in to the blues. '
"I was suicidal when I was 21. I checked myself into an observation
ward; it was a great experience for me, because I saw people who had
really incredible problems. When I got out of there I never looked back.
I said I will never feel sorry for myself for another two seconds. This
time, I happened to go, OK, I do have the blues, and I went on with
The year it took to write and record "River of Dreams" began last
summer, in a Southampton church where Joel had installed a temporary
studio to cut two Elvis Presley tunes for the "Honeymoon in Vegas"
soundtrack. When he needed to relocate, "I looked around in my neck of
the woods - out in the East End [of Long Island] - and I went over
to Shelter Island. In a boatyard, I found a lobster shed, where they
used to store lobster traps, which was big enough and secluded enough.
That became the Shelter Island studio.
"I was producing; we recorded half a dozen or more songs. My idea of
production is non-production. I don't do any more than three takes when
we're recording, 'cause I still wanna like the thing. "
Joel ultimately decided there was a "lot more that could be done"
with the songs he had recorded. Enter producer-guitarist Danny
Kortchmar, a New York-born veteran known for his Southern California
work with James Taylor, Don Henley, Stevie Nicks and many others. Joel
played Kortchmar the tapes from Shelter Island. "He listened to it and
had some very, very strong ideas. " The two decided to re-record the
One of Kortchmar's ideas was to get Leslie West, the Mountain
guitarist whose first band, Long Island's own Vagrants, had a big local
influence on Billy Joel's late-'60s outfit, the Hassles. Ironically,
"Shades of Grey," the track which actually invokes West's signature
American Cream sound, features guitarist Tommy Byrnes firing up the
fuzzbox. "Cream would write songs about so many fantastic colors, use
these bizarre colorful images," notes Joel. "I was talking about exactly
the opposite: shades of gray. I thought this was a terrific chance to
use the Cream arrangement as irony. "
"River of Dreams" was more or less created in the sequence it
appears. "Each song got written in reaction to the song which came
before it, and recorded likewise. Once I've gotten to a certain point,
[an album] becomes its own entity, and I work towards the resolution,
which is why I don't write that many more songs than are on the album.
"Some artists write twenty, thirty songs and pick the best ones.
What you hear is what I've written. [Although] there was a song, "You
Picked a Real Bad Time," which didn't end up on the album but may end up on a B-side. " And, he admits, there was one total reject.
Joel describes the discarded number as "a dog. It was an art song
called `The Winter Crossing' which I took out back and shot. It was
really pretentious and stupid. " He played the doomed tune once for Danny Kortchmar and engineer Niko Bolas. "I'm watching Danny and Niko behind the console. I see their entire faces, and as the song goes along I see less of their faces. Now I only see up to their noses. Then, as I'm further into the song, I just see eyes -- very wide, open eyes. And I
realize, as I'm singing it, that this really is a piece of - - - . And I stopped and I said, OK. I'm sorry. And that was it. "
With the album likely to follow its title track, already No. 28 in
Billboard, up the charts, Joel is rehearsing for a tour to begin Sept.
10 in Portland, Maine. The New York dates, he says, will be in October
at Madison Square Garden. (Word has it he will do six nights between
Oct. 2 and 12. ) But he firmly denies rumors of a Central Park show.
In addition, Billy Joel's work may finally reach another part of
Manhattan. "I talked with Pete Townshend in Cleveland; we went for the
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame hodgepodge thing. I have a great deal of
respect for Townshend. He said, `Billy, you've got to write a Broadway
musical. ' He was insisting that I do this. He said, `You're probably the
guy best suited to do this in this day and age, to bring pop and the
rock and roll sensibility into the musical theater. "
"I had been approached by other people about doing a Broadway
musical, but when Pete Townshend told me that, it was the first time I
really seriously have considered that I am going to do that. I intend to
do it. "
For Billy the Man, at 44, the curtain also rises.