Billy Joel talks about his top Long Island songs
Billy Joel tops our list of the 100 Songs Every Long Islander Should Know -- both with the No. 1 song, "Scenes From an Italian Restaurant," and with six appearances on the countdown, the most of any artist.
How could he not? Joel, a native of Hicksville, has lived on Long Island nearly his entire life, aside from those notorious Los Angeles years and, of course, all the time he has spent touring the world. He is also one of the most successful artists in the history of pop music, having sold more than 100 million albums, won six Grammys and been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Long Island Music Hall of Fame. His album "Greatest Hits, Vols. 1 & 2" has been certified 23 times platinum (or certified diamond twice) and ranks third on the all-time bestsellers list, behind only Michael Jackson's "Thriller" and The Eagles' "Greatest Hits 1971-1975."
Joel said he has no musical projects or tours on the horizon and he likes it that way, though he does continue writing music for himself. "I'm happy to be off the treadmill," he said. "It's good to be out of the rat race." He even recently declined talks with "American Idol" producers to join the show. ("I'm not going to do that," he said. "I don't like to judge people. What is that saying? 'Judge not, lest ye be judged.' I've been plenty judged in my own life. I'm not about to turn around and start judging other people.")
He did agree, though, to talk about his own work -- songs that have influenced how generations of Long Islanders have felt about themselves and the place they call home. Here's what Joel had to say about the songs that landed on our list:
"Scenes From an Italian Restaurant" (No. 1): "I always considered myself an album artist. I don't think we built our success just on singles -- although we were lucky to have a lot of Top 40 singles -- we did have album cuts that people liked, like 'Scenes From an Italian Restaurant.' That ended up becoming a very important recording in my career. Towards the end of the night, that's one of the big finale songs. I don't think I could do a show without performing that song -- which is why I'm sick of it . . . [Laughs.] It's basically the story of Brenda and Eddie told through a meeting at an Italian restaurant during a dinner. It's something that a lot of Long Islanders do, kind of reminisce over Italian food. And everybody's got their Italian restaurant."
"New York State of Mind" (No. 4): "There's a lot of songs about New York. [Singing, 'Start spreading the news . . . ' "] 'New York, New York,' 'On Broadway,' this was about coming back to this place, which I think it really needed, especially back in the mid-'70s, when it was really kind of crappy. A lot of bad things were happening in New York then. There was a lot of crime. Drugs were out of control. The city looked bad, it was really dirty. It almost defaulted financially. It really needed a boost, and I wanted to write an anthem for it. . . . It actually took on a whole other meaning after [the 9/11 terrorist attacks], which I felt. . . . When we did it at that telethon immediately after 9/11, everybody was just about in tears trying to get through the song. We did it as a blues, rather than doing it as a standard. We played it kind of downbeat and soft and slow, almost like an elegy. It was difficult to get through. I just kept staring at the fireman's helmet on the piano and I just kept thinking, 'Just look at the helmet, just look at the helmet. Don't think about what you're feeling right now. Think about the guy who wore that helmet and do the song.' "
"Piano Man" (No. 11): "It was written about L.A., about a piano bar. But L.A. is not really a bar town and it's really not a piano bar town. This was kind of an odd place. It was a place where people came to drink their troubles away after they lost at the track, so it was kind of an anomaly for Los Angeles. It could have been anywhere, really. It could've been about anywhere where they have a guy sitting at the piano singing to the leather banquettes."
"It's Still Rock 'n' Roll to Me" (No. 31): "I was living in Cove Neck at the time and I was on my way into the studio in the city, and I didn't have a song finished to do that day, so I started a song the night before and I was finishing it in the car. I was just throwing lyrics out to the guys in the band in the car. 'What about this? What about that?' to see if it would pass that test. . . . The Miracle Mile was mentioned because I think we were going past the Miracle Mile when I wrote that. I think that's how it came out. I don't think it was in my head before that. I was just kind of pulling things out of the trip."
"The Ballad of Billy the Kid" (No. 47): "[The final verse] is about a bartender from Oyster Bay, a guy named Billy who used to tend bar at a place called Uwe's . . . right on South Street. We all ended up at the pub at the end of the day and were entertained by the bartender. He was a very personable guy. It was just an exercise in Western-sounding things -- completely historically inaccurate."
"The Downeaster 'Alexa' " (No. 83): "That's a song I'm very proud of because I actually wrote a folk song, which is very hard to do in this day and age. Bruce [Springsteen] has done it . . . but not a lot of people do it anymore. It's difficult to do and have it be real and feel authentic. But when you're talking about real people in a real situation and it's a universal thought, then it can be a folk song. I was writing from the heart about a community that I really feel very strongly about being part of my home that's slowly but surely disappearing. It saddens me a lot."