[One of many Billy Joel stories in the Newsday archives, this article originally appeared in the Oct. 29, 1989 edition.]
It's no accident that Billy Joel calls his new company "Maritime Music. " These days, his interests have to do as much with rod and reel as rock and roll.
He's not taking early retirement, or turning in his piano bench for
a park bench. But he is going through a period of transition. He
recently turned 40. His new album, "Storm Front," is his first in a
dozen years without producer Phil Ramone, and he's about to embark on a tour (which will bring him to Nassau Coliseum for a series of shows in
late December) with a different lineup of musicians: some holdovers from his old band, and some new faces.
Joel is also undergoing a business upheaval. He is suing his former
manager Frank Weber, his brother-in-law from his first marriage and a
number of other former associates, charging mismanaging of his money, and seeking $30 million in compensatory damages and $60 million in punitive damages.
Well, at least he's got his health -- back. Joel is just regaining
his usual confident stride after surgery to remove a kidney stone.
With all the tumult in his life, it's not surprising that the man who
wrote "New York State of Mind" has sought some Long Island peace of
mind. Joel and his family have left the city. (Sting bought his former
apartment. ) He's returned to his native Long Island and a home near the
sea in East Hampton.
"I don't miss Manhattan," Joel said over lunch last week at a
midtown Italian restaurant, sounding like a suburbanite who had spent
one too many mornings commuting to work. "You come into the city, you
forget what it's like. I came yesterday. It was raining; it took me a
half hour to get to Fifth Avenue from the East Side. When you live here,
you get inured to the aggravation. There's a certain amount of humanity
you switch off just to get through the day. "
In East Hampton, though, Joel has become an active supporter of his
community's snake-bitten baymen. And on his new album there is a song called "The Downeaster `Alexa,' " a compassionate ode to the recent struggles of the East End's commercial fishermen.
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
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"My feeling is they're being put out of business by politicians,
developers, industrial pollution, agricultural insecticide run-off and
the sport-fishing lobby," Joel said. (At lunch, Joel asked the waiter if
the sole he ordered was local; the waiter was noncommittal. )
Joel was first moved over the plight of the baymen, who use
old-fashioned methods of fishing Long Island's inland and coastal
waters, about three years ago after reading Peter Matthiesen's book
"Men's Lives. " It's a poignant insider's look at the hard times of these
East End commercial fishermen, some of whom come from families that have been plying their trade in the area since the 17th Century.
"I feel that if these guys disappear, we've lost a lot of the
identity of what Long Island is," Joel said. "Especially if you go back
in the history and culture of Long Island; Herman Melville wrote stories
about them. Winslow Homer painted them. Walt Whitman wrote poems about them... A lot of the cultural identity of Long Island has a lot to do
with these people. If they go, we're just a suburb. We're no longer an
island. People forget that - we're an island. "
When Joel, wife Christie Brinkley, and daughter Alexa Ray moved to
East Hampton, his interest in the fishermen was further piqued by
neighbor Adelaide de Menil, who was friendly with both Matthiesen and
the local fishing community.
"Adelaide is a dear friend of ours, and she told Billy about the
baymen," said Arnold Leo, secretary of the East Hampton Baymen's
Association. "He called me up and you could have knocked me over with a feather. Out of the blue, he asked me to lunch, said he wanted to talk
about what he could do. "
Leo was skeptical before the meeting. "In East Hampton, it's not
uncommon for me to get called up to meet a celebrity or some very
wealthy per-son," he said. "I've learned that some are very genuine
people, and some are shallow publicity hounds. So I went with an open
mind to meet Billy. He is a very simple, real person. I really do like
and respect him. I've asked him to appear here or there for us,
sometimes do an interview. He even put in a phone call into the
governor's office on one occasion. "
For the baymen, things are even more bleak than when "Men's Lives"
was published in 1986. According to Leo, the baymen's two primary means of livelihood, scalloping and striped bass fishery, evaporated that
year. The bay scallops disappeared as a result of the brown algae bloom
throughout the Peconic Bay system. Striped bass were banned from the
market because of high levels of PCP's. (Leo is guardedly optimistic
that there may be some limited scalloping next year, and the baymen are
hoping for legislation that will also allow some striped bass sales. )
"We lost both of them the same year, and that's what Billy's song is
about, because it was a devastating blow," Leo said. "The fishing
community just started to cave in.
"This is a very old, stable, humble part of your Long Island community.
It gave a lot of character to East End life," Leo said. "We estimate
that at least fifty percent of the full-time fishing force has gone into
some other work and left fishing entirely, and another 25 percent does
only part-time fishing. Five years ago, we're talking about a community
where most of the sons went into their fathers' work. Now they go every
which way. "
In "The Downeaster `Alexa,' " (a "downeaster" is a type of boat) the
bayman had to sell his home, and to support his family, guides
day-trippers on charter sportsfishing expeditions. It is the ultimate
swallowing of pride, since baymen and sports fishermen are political
archenemies. Baymen blame the sportsmen for overdevelopment, pollution and forcing legislation that limits the striped bass catch to
unmarketable size. The sportsmen accuse the baymen of plundering fish
"This song, the baymen love it," Leo said, "because it really does
catch the feeling of the plight. Of being confronted by these changes
that you don't really have any power over. This little corner of Long
Island was an undisturbed part of the world until relatively recently.
It's very hard to see very old, beautiful things just altered
Also altered irrevocably is Joel's relationship with former manager
and ex-brother-in-law Frank Weber. Calls to Weber's office were referred
to a law firm in Richmond, Va. Weber's attorney there, Dan Gecker, could
not be reached by press time.
In legal papers filed in New York Sept. 25 by flamboyant
entertainment attorney Leonard Marks (whose other clients include the
Beatles), Joel alleges misappropriation of funds, misuse of power of
attorney, investment of Joel's money in "high-risk, low-liquidity
investments," using Joel's funds for "unrepaid, so-called `loans' " and
not paying them back and allowing Joel's copyrights to be used as
collateral for other loans, among numerous other charges.
"The lawsuit itself I can't discuss," Joel said. "I can say I'm
shocked, disappointed, I'm really hurt by the whole thing. As far as I'm
concerned, it's my third burn. There was Artie Ripp [an early manager],
my ex-wife [Elizabeth Joel, who also managed his career in the
mid-1970s], now this. How many lives do I have? " The relationships with
Ripp and Elizabeth Joel both ended in court.
Is Joel a bad judge of character, or, like many musicians, just lax
about the business side of rock and roll?
"I go around, I'm married to Christie Brinkley, the comment I get
is, `Man, you've got it made,' " he said. "I even have a wry comment in
one of the songs: `Most men hunger for the life I lead. ' But you know
what? Nobody really knows the inside of somebody's life. I never trusted
rock-and-roll money, but I should have looked after it a little
Ah, Christie: Everyone wants to know about Billy's life with
Christie, his celebrity / model wife. Joel wishes people would more or
less leave them alone.
"To tell you the truth, the effort to make the music, the work that
goes into it, the touring, the writing, the arranging, producing,
recording - is all I owe," Joel said. "I don't feel that I have to be
very accessible other than that, because that [the music] is the essence
of what people liked in the first place. I don't feel I need to keep
myself exposed, because the private life being sacrosanct is fodder for
the artistic cannon. "
Joel, wearing a smartly-tailored European suit that's a decided
contrast to the jeans and motorcycle jacket of his pre-Brinkley days,
wrings his hands over a discussion he and Brinkley had over whether to
appear together on "People Magazine on TV," "I didn't want to do it,
didn't want to do it, didn't want to do it. There were all these rumors
around at the time that we were getting a divorce. Christie says you
have to show up, be on camera for a minute, just to deny the rumor. I
said, I'm not gonna deny every cockamamie rumor that comes down the
pike. It lends credence to it. I refuse, I refuse, I refuse.
"So she hits me with this: `Mick [Jagger] would do it for Jerry. ' I
said, aw, low blow. So I said okay. As I'm going to sleep that night,
the last thought I had before my head hit the pillow was `Wait a minute!
I married you!' [Jagger and Jerry Hall have children but have not wed.]
But the next day they were in there with cameras in the house, it was
very uncomfortable. There are some things that should just remain
Besides the overhaul in management, Joel's new album is the first in
a dozen years to be produced by someone other than Phil Ramone. "Storm Front" was produced by Joel and Mick Jones, a member of Foreigner, a successful hard pop group during the 1970s.
"It was a good working relationship with Phil Ramone. I had no
problem with it," Joel said. "I just thought it was time to work with
someone with a different spin on things. Mick Jones is a songwriter, so
there we had a good relationship. He's a good musician, a good guitar
player, and I thought that would give him a little more insight into
what I'm trying to do.
" I still can't be objective about my own production. I don't have
as much faith in my abilities as a recording artist or singer or pop
star as I should have. I've got to have another set of brains to tell me
what they hear. "
Joel kept only two players - drummer Liberty DeVitto and a
relative newcomer, guitarist David Brown - from his longtime band for
"Storm Front. " The new players, who include bassist Schuyler Deale and
synthesizer player Jeff Jacobs, will also appear with Joel on tour
beginning next month.
If Joel is a hero to the baymen, he is less so to some of the
musicians with whom he has worked since the early 1970s. Respect,
admiration, and friendship toward Joel is tinged slightly with
"After thirteen years, it would've been nice to have gotten a phone
call," said Russell Javors, Joel's longtime rhythm guitarist. "I wrote
him a letter and said, when I met you, I had no hair on my chest; now I
do and it's gray. But I want to look back on the good stuff we did. "
Doug Stegmeyer, the band's former bass player, said he was depressed
and hurt at first when he heard he wasn't going to be playing with Joel.
"I can understand completely wanting to change players. That I can
respect one hundred percent," he said. "I'm still friendly with him -- I don't want this to be a sour-grapes-type vibe. But I feel after 14
years, I couldn't quite get it out of him [that he was no longer in the
band]. But Liberty [De Vitto] told him I was this close to hearing it on
the street. "
Stegmeyer has been working on projects in his recording studio in
Huntington and Javors has been working on developing TV pilots and
record company A&R work.
Few who saw the Billy Joel band perform over the years thought that the
musicians were the most technically refined on their instruments, but
the band had a chemistry based on friendship and deep Long Island roots.
According to Joel, the chemistry began to sour during the recording of
the 1986 album "The Bridge."
`It got to a point, it became such a big business, what we were
doing," Joel said. "We did arena tour after arena tour, and rather than
be friends like we used to be, we became business associates. People
would kvetch about money, and their deal, and we weren't close.
Everybody was looking in everybody else's pocket. On the `Bridge' album,
it came to a head. We weren't having fun; it just wasn't fun.
"And before I came to do this album ["Storm Front"], I realized you
not only had to reinvent yourself, but you have to refresh your memory
about why you're doing what you're doing. "
For Joel, that meant digging deep into the feelings he had when he
was 14 years old, playing at a dance at the Holy Family Church in
"I had a gas," he said, "girls were looking at me for the first
time who'd never at me twice. At the end of the gig, we got $5 from the
priest each - that was it, I was in, I was hooked. It was one of the
highlights of my life: You get paid for this? "
Joel said it wasn't his intention to completely rid himself of his
former colleagues. "It wasn't a matter that I called people up and fired
them," he said. "I discussed it with the guys who aren't with me, and
they were gonna do other projects anyway. I haven't closed the door on
working with anyone again; I just wanted to try something different. As
a writer, you have an obligation to explore other means of expression. "
Russell Javors, for one, is a former colleague who thinks perhaps
it's time for Joel to do just that, to challenge himself and the
boundaries of rock and pop. "Billy could turn Broadway upside down,"
Javors said. "He could be the kingpin. He's got influences from
Gershwin to Lerner and Loewe... He wrote a theme for something like
that, and the theme is gorgeous. And it's a great way to get old. He
wouldn't have to look over his shoulder at Bruce [Springsteen] or
anybody else. He writes songs that stand the test of time, and nobody
else can touch him. He can wipe the floor with guys like Andrew Lloyd
If Broadway isn't on Joel's mind, turning 40 is. The first single
from the album, "We Didn't Start the Fire," is a series of rapid-fire
images of key events from 1949, the year Joel was born, to the present.
Another song, "Leningrad," about a chance meeting with a stranger who
became a friend during his 1987 tour of the Soviet Union, also makes
note that "I was born in '49 / A Cold War kid in McCarthy time. "
But, although the 1950s that Joel grew up in were a time of
unlimited possibility, some of the people he knew from Hicksville, the
people he sang about in songs such as "Scenes From An Italian
Restaurant" and "Only the Good Die Young" find themselves facing a world as altered as that of the troubled East End baymen.
"I met a guy the other day out in Montauk. He's the same age as me
and was a good friend when we were in high school," Joel said. "He was
one of the high school heroes, all the girls wanted to go out with him,
he went into the Marines, big strapping guy. I saw him in Montauk. He
lives in a camper. He said `Billy, the American Dream is dead. There's
no way I can afford to buy a house. I can't live on Long Island the way
my parents did. ' He's got his kid in the camper with him. He was saying,
`I'm waiting for my kid to be old enough to take care of himself, then
I'm outta here. ' It really chilled me. There's a lot of people like
that, who fell through the cracks. "
The music industry has its own cracks for veteran stars to fall
through. Paul McCartney and Elton John may still bring out hordes to
concert performances, but their records are no longer big sellers. At
40, Joel is far from a has-been as a recording artist. But he may soon
have to accept the possibility that he'll never sell 7 or 8 million
copies of an album, the way "The Stranger" did back in the late 1970s.
"They were just numbers," he said nonchalantly. "If you sell seven
or eight million albums, try to grasp seven or eight million people. You
can't. It's beyond my comprehension. Number one I can understand.
Platinum album I can understand. Biggest selling record, at that time,
in Columbia Records history I can understand. But seven million?... You never really know with a record. Somebody at Columbia said, `You
know, Billy? You're always a threat. You could put out an album that
sells one-and-a-half, two million copies, and then the next one could
sell eight million. ' I've been at it as a solo artist since 1970-71, so
that's almost twenty years being able to have success, whether it's been
high on the charts or lower on the charts. I've been a survivor. "
But of course, if you look at the whole spectrum of creative
possibilities, as Joel seems to be just starting to show signs of doing,
it hasn't really been a long career.
"I think in terms of [Irving] Berlin, or Shostakovich, these guys
who live to be 90 or 100 years old. I feel like I'm in the early part of
my composing, my productivity as a musician," Joel said.
"You don't necessarily have to be on the cutting edge, or a
celebrity, or a rock star to be a musician. This is just one phase of
it. Maybe I'll look back and say, this was the blue period. But I intend
to be an artist all my life. I don't intend to stop making music just
because I'm not a commercial recording artist."
A Bayman's Lament
The lyrics to Billy Joel's "The Downeaster `Alexa' "
Well I'm on the Downeaster Alexa
And I'm cruising through Block Island Sound
I have chartered a course to the Vineyard
But tonight I am Nantucket bound
We took on diesel back in Montauk yesterday
And left this morning from the bell in Gardiner's Bay
Like all the locals here I've had to sell my home
Too proud to leave I worked my fingers to the bone
So I could own my Downeaster Alexa
And I go where the ocean is deep
There are giants out there in the canyons
And a good captain can't fall asleep
I've got bills to pay and children who need clothes
I know there's fish out there but where God only knows
They say these waters aren't what they used to be
But I've got people back on land who count on me
So if you see my Downeaster Alexa
And if you work with the rod and the reel
Tell my wife I am trolling Atlantis
And I still have my hands on the wheel
Now I drive my Downeaster Alexa
More and more miles from shore every year
Since they told me I can't sell no stripers
And there's no luck in swordfishing here
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
-- 1989 Joel Songs (BMI)