Billy Joel doesn’t usually take milestone birthdays very seriously.
“I remember turning 50 and not feeling all that different,” says Joel, who will celebrate his 70th birthday May 9 with a concert at Madison Square Garden, part of his record-setting residency. “I remember when I turned 60, thinking, ‘No, this isn't that bad.’ But 70 is a little daunting. I remember being in school when I heard, ‘OK, threescore and 10 is all you get’ and I thought, ‘There's gotta be some way out of this.’”
Of course, the Hicksville native doesn’t usually get too worked up about Bible verses either. But Joel is changing the way he thinks about a lot of things these days.
He is definitely scaling back on the time he spends on his beloved motorcycles. “It’s tempting fate, especially at my age,” he says. “My reflexes aren't as good as they were 40 years ago and people are driving worse than ever. Everybody's texting and they're not looking at what's going on, so you're taking your life in your hands when you ride.”
He is becoming more vocal about supporting environmental issues, even helping out at the annual Oyster Bay Harbor and Beach Cleanup last month. “I know that this administration is talking about offshore drilling and I think that would be horrendous for Long Island and its ecology, considering incidents that have happened on the West Coast with offshore drilling,” Joel says. “That scares the hell out of me.”
And maybe most importantly to Joel’s fans, the Rock & Roll Hall of Famer no longer thinks much about retiring.
''If I stopped, I wonder if my not doing something would contribute to an earlier death.”
Joel says he has been inspired by friend Tony Bennett, who at 92 is still performing and joined Joel onstage in March during his Madison Square Garden residency show.
But maybe even more inspirational to Joel are his wife Alexis Roderick and their daughters, 3-year-old Della Rose and 1-year-old Remy Anne.
“I'm kind of old to be a parent again, but they made me feel a lot younger,” he says. “It's amazing … Life is good, so I’m in no big hurry to leave.”
Della has already shown a love of the spotlight, enjoying walking on the red carpet with her parents and occasionally joining her father on stage at The Garden.
“She definitely got those genes,” Joel says. “She's already got a very comedic tone. She likes to make people laugh and she's perfectly at home being in front of a lot of people on the stage. I was kind of amazed when she did that. And now the younger one, it seems like she's going the same direction. She’s not even talking yet, but she sings her head off and she's carrying a tune and she loves belting out melodies — and she's got it. … ”
The Joel sisters will continue to see the music business up close, as their dad’s record-setting residency at The Garden rolls on in its fifth year, along with his regular stadium shows, which he has grown to love.
“Playing stadiums, I don't even know how to explain it,” says Joel, who will play the legendary Wembley Stadium in London, Fenway Park in Boston, and stadiums in Philadelphia, Denver, Baltimore and Arlington, Texas, this year. “It's still above and beyond what I ever expected — the scale of the thing, the amount of people that are there, the atmosphere of it all. It's spectacular.”
Joel says playing Fenway and being named the first inductee in the stadium’s Music Hall of Fame means a lot to him. “I'm a New Yorker and there's a hatred for New York in Boston, but they've taken me as one of their own,” he says. “It's fantastic. This is going to be our sixth year in a row playing there … I remember when Ted Williams played for Boston — that's how old I am. And he was one of the greatest hitters that ever lived. It's a very humbling experience that I'm selling out the place where Ted Williams played.”
As far as the celebration planned for his 70th birthday at Madison Square Garden, Joel has no idea what to expect. (His 65th birthday party was also a surprise, with fans at The Garden wearing Joel masks and friends like Howard Stern and Jimmy Fallon stopping by to wish him well.)
Joel says he doesn't have anything planned, but the people he's working with are up to something. “I keep hearing hints like, ‘Well, don't be surprised, you know, if something happens during the show.’ Like what are you going to do? Are you going to release birds on the stage or something? Monkeys? I don't know," he says, laughing. "But I think they're planning some weird stuff. I don't know if there's guest artists coming. I'm assuming nothing may happen at all too. I don't want to build up the suspense. I don't know.”
He’s fine with surprises. After all, it’s these experiences — and sharing them with his family and friends — that keep Joel going, even as he works out what turning 70 will mean to him.
“I suppose I'll know more when I actually hit the moment,'' he says. ''Right now, it's still just a tad abstract.”