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'Billy Joel' review: The biography hums right along

Billy Joel

Billy Joel Photo Credit: AP / Natasha Padilla

BILLY JOEL: The Definitive Biography, by Fred Schruers. Crown Archetype, 387 pp., $29.

The artist most associated with Long Island's suburban era is undoubtedly Billy Joel, the Hicksville-raised, Centre Island-dwelling chronicler of the 20th century American dream. His songs -- "Piano Man," "Allentown," "A Matter of Trust" -- are intractable parts of the pop canon, thanks to their composer's classically trained mindset and eye for detail that has just enough gimlet edge.

Joel, now 65, has had enviable highs (being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by longtime idol Ray Charles, playing Shea Stadium's last show) and low lows (lawsuits, heartbreak, tabloid obsessions with his personal life). In "Billy Joel: The Definitive Biography," journalist Fred Schruers stitches together the details of Joel's life, beginning with his paternal grandparents' escape from Nazi Germany and ending with his subject waxing philosophical: "I'm assuming some of my music will survive, either as I recorded it or in some other form," Joel tells Schruers. "I don't look to that as a consolation, though. For me, I see it as a justification for my having existed in the first place."

Much of the book's raw material comes from interviews Schruers conducted with Joel for an autobiography that the singer canceled two months before it was to be published in 2011. But Joel on Joel makes for compelling reading -- unsurprisingly, given his way with words and simultaneously pugilistic and romantic outlook. Joel is certainly aware of his talent, but he's by no means an egomaniacal rock star (his focus since 1993 on live music, and not forcing out albums, is evidence of his self-editing). Joel's lack of guile animates the book, and effectively blunts Schruers' sometimes overwhelming reverence toward his subject.

Women are a big part of Joel's story, both as he lived it and how his songs mirrored it. His first wife, Elizabeth Weber, was also his manager; Christie Brinkley helped him become an MTV staple in the '80s; third wife Katie Lee inspired a one-song return to pop music in 2007. "I'm supposed to be known for these love songs," he tells Schruers, "these ballads, or these crooner type of tunes. . . . 'An Innocent Man,' 'She's Got a Way,' 'Just the Way You Are,' 'You're My Home,' some of them frigging wimpoid. Well, where they come from is, I've been madly in love with women all my life."

Those curious about how Joel's personal life informs his songs will be rewarded by Schruers' strategic placement of lyrics among the book's many anecdotes. But Joel also offers enough ruminations on his songwriting to make "The Definitive Biography" something of a master class; if nothing else, it's a testament to art's ability to reach the masses while detailing specific, and sometimes intensely personal, events.

"If you try to write for an audience or to a concept, I don't think you're really writing for anybody," he tells Schruers about the process behind his 1982 album, "The Nylon Curtain." "But if you're writing for a specific person and a specific situation, a lot of people might be able to identify with that."

"Billy is the American dream -- rags to riches. But under his own terms," Joel's high-school bandmate Jim Bosse (subject of the 1976 track "James") tells Schruers. Sometimes those terms didn't provide immediate reward, but they ultimately helped him become Long Island's most lasting contribution to 20th century musical culture. They also drive "Billy Joel: The Definitive Biography," the rollicking story of a Hicksville boy made good.

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