Billy Joel performs at Madison Square Garden in January 2023.

Billy Joel performs at Madison Square Garden in January 2023. Credit: Myrna Suarez

After more than 50 years as a professional rock musician, there aren’t many milestones Billy Joel has yet to cross. From breaking through the Iron Curtain to play the Soviet Union in 1987 to breaking multiple records at Madison Square Garden as part of an astonishing 10-year residency there, Joel has notched more than his share of firsts. One thing he hasn’t done: a network television special.

He'll check that box after his March 28 100th residency concert at Madison Square Garden, which will air in an edited version April 14, on CBS. And how is Joel feeling about breaking new ground at this late date in his career?

“I'm not usually a big fan of televised shows,” Joel told Newsday earlier this month. “You know, I signed up as a musician, not as a TV actor.” Plus, he added: “I’m just not photogenic.”

That’s our Billy — self-critical and perpetually dissatisfied, despite playing to stadium-sized crowds both at home and around the world. Those sold-out shows, he said, don’t help his insecurities much — “they bring up more of those feelings” — yet Joel can’t seem to stop entertaining. Closing in on his 75th birthday (May 9), he is more active than ever. In February he released his first new song in nearly 20 years, “Turn the Lights Back On,” followed by an innovative, AI-enhanced music video. In July he’ll end his Garden residency, which will also mark his 150th show there overall. And instead of permanently retiring to his home in Sag Harbor, Joel will continue his series of U.S. dates with such legacy superstars as Sting, Stevie Nicks and Rod Stewart.

How the CBS special came about: 'We wanted to reach as many people as possible'

Speaking by phone from his Manhattan apartment, Joel said 75 “seems like kind of a good number to maybe start wrapping things up.” But in the same breath, he insisted, he plans to keep working as long as he’s alive — “unless I’m too decrepit to pull it off.”

The CBS special, Joel swears, was not his idea. He points to his longtime agent, Dennis Arfa — who also set up his Garden residency — as the instigator.

After a decade of playing to hometown crowds, Arfa explained, “It was time for people around the country and around the world to see what Billy’s accomplished.” And while subscription streaming services may be popular, he said, network television is still free to anyone with an antenna. “We wanted to reach as many people as possible in every economic and age demographic as we possibly can.”

One challenge in recording the concert will be working around its self-conscious star, according to Steve Cohen, Joel’s lighting designer and creative director since 1974. Joel has never been terribly concerned with selling an image — about the flashiest he gets is donning a pair of Ray-Bans — but Cohen said  he does have some sensitivity about his age.

“The hardest thing for Billy is to face the fact that this is what we look like now,” said Cohen, 70. (He described the two of them as “old bald Jewish guys who do show business for a living.”) Knowing Joel as he does, Cohen said: “I can’t tell Billy to look at himself and like what he sees. But it will be the best-lit version and the best-sounding Billy on camera.” (The special will be directed by Paul Dugdale, who has helmed similar projects for Elton John, Adele and Ed Sheeran.)

Who will join Joel at the 100th show?: 'I like spontaneity'

Will Bruce Springsteen show up for Joel's 100th residency show?

Will Bruce Springsteen show up for Joel's 100th residency show? Credit: Myrna Suarez

One burning question about the event: Given that Joel’s Garden concerts have become famous for surprise guests — from John Mayer to Miley Cyrus to Bruce Springsteen — what kind of star power can audiences expect at the 100th show? Perhaps Elton, Mick or Macca?

Joel claims he doesn’t know: “I’ve kind of stayed out of it,” he said. “I like spontaneity. I don’t want everything all scripted. I like saying, ‘How are you going to deal with this?’ ”

Cohen said he doesn’t know, either. “I look at our Garden run as similar to the Rat Pack at Las Vegas,” he said. “When Frank was in town, whoever was around would jump up on stage with him.” For this show, Cohen said, “I would imagine it would be something where people are going to show up and want to be a part of that.”

Comparing Billy Joel to Frank Sinatra isn’t the kind of thing you would have heard in the past. Even at the peak of his recording career, Joel was never a critics’ darling. His 1970s ballads like “Always a Woman” were often dismissed as mushy. His 1980 response to punk, “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me,” struck the hipsters as hopelessly square. Joel’s songs about middle-class trials and tribulations — think “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” or “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)” — never got the same plaudits as, say, Bruce Springsteen’s working-class anthems.

Becoming a national treasure: 'I still can’t figure that out for the life of me'

Billy Joel at one of his 2023 MSG shows.

Billy Joel at one of his 2023 MSG shows. Credit: Myrna Suarez

Somewhere along the line, though, Joel went from yesterday’s hitmaker to national treasure. “I still can’t figure that out for the life of me,” Joel said. “When was the transition? When did that happen?” As far as Joel can tell, audiences simply decided one day: “Oh, it’s OK, his stuff is pretty good.”

He added: “I always thought what I was writing was worthwhile. I thought it had some value.”

Here’s one theory about Joel’s recent success: His Garden residency, launched in January 2014, has coincided with some of the most difficult years in modern American history. While the country splintered along political lines and spiraled into widespread hostility, Joel’s monthly shows provided a steady, dependable drumbeat of nostalgia: two solid hours of singalong hits from the relatively peaceable '70s, '80s and '90s. For 10 years (with a break for the pandemic), Joel has been reembraced as the quintessential regular-guy rock star.

Cohen said there might be some truth to that. “There’s a line in ‘Piano Man’ where people come to ‘forget about life for a while,’ ” Cohen said. “At the end of the day, what we are is entertainers. We provide a service. We provide people a moment in their day to forget about their troubles and forget about life.”

Riding the LIRR: 'It's still a great way to go'

It’s worth noting that Joel’s down-to-earth persona — despite an estimated salary of $3 million per concert, according to Billboard — is not just a facade. Yes, Joel has a house in Florida and has said he wants to spend more time there. But he still spends a significant amount of time on Long Island. And like many a local, he takes the Long Island Rail Road to work, even if his office happens to be Madison Square Garden.

“I used to take a helicopter,” Joel said, but he started getting nervous about safety. His idea to take the train met initial resistance from his team — “ ’You’ll get recognized, blah, blah, blah,’ I’m turning it into a big megillah” — but the commute has so far been uneventful.

“People will sometimes look at me on the railroad and think, ‘Look at this guy, trying to look like Billy Joel. He’s not kidding anybody,’ ” he said. “It’s still a great way to go.”

As for the future: 'This is what I do'

Mark Rivera, Joel’s saxophone player, said Joel remains the same hardworking, highly focused musician he’s known for more than 40 years — with perhaps one slight change. “The other day, just before we went on stage in Dallas, we were playing for like 53,000 people,” Rivera said. “I looked in his eyes and I said, ‘Billy, I love you.’ And he said, ‘I love you too, man.’ ”

Rivera added with a laugh, “That was the first time he’d ever said that! I think he’s getting soft in his old age.”

Asked why he keeps working into his retirement years, Joel said he has asked other late-career artists the same question. “I asked Springsteen, you know, ‘What are you going to do?’ ” Joel said. “I talked to Don Henley about the same thing: ‘What are your plans?’ ”

The response, Joel said, was always the same: “ ’This is what I do.’ And they’re right. This is what we do.”


Billy Joel has made at least a couple of time-traveling music videos during his career. In “Tell Her About It” he seemed to be performing on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1963, and in “The Longest Time” he played an older and younger version of himself. But Joel may have outdone himself with the video for “Turn the Lights Back On,” his first new song in nearly 20 years.

The video opens with him sitting at a Steinway in an empty concert hall. But as the 74-year-old Joel sings of a lovers’ quarrel (“Pacing these halls / Trying to talk over the silence”) he suddenly transforms into the young singer-songwriter who scored his first hit with “Piano Man.” It isn’t just Joel’s trademark tweed blazer that’s back — so are his unruly curls and baby-fat cheeks.

“It was an out-of-body experience,” Joel said recently of watching the startlingly realistic video. “It was a real mystery how they did it, but I was kind of impressed.”

The “mystery” is artificial intelligence — specifically, a company called Deep Voodoo, launched by the improbable team of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, of “South Park.” Using a combination of live action and AI-generated visuals, the video de-ages Joel back to his 20s, 30s and 40s, each with outfits and hairstyles reminiscent of their respective eras.

“The video came to me in a dream,” said Freddy Wexler, who co-wrote the song and codirected the video with Warren Fu. “The question was, how in the world do you do that?”

The process involved training an AI model — essentially, getting a computer to recognize Joel. Working with an archivist, Wexler and his team compiled old footage from a variety of sources. The more information the AI was given, Wexler said, the better it would be able to recreate Billy Joel.

Filming involved sitting Joel down at the piano for the performance that bookends the video. The younger Joels were played by three costumed actors, including Wexler himself.

“I played '70s Billy,” he said. Getting the right facial expressions and movements was crucial: “He has very specific mannerisms,” Wexler explained. “And since the AI is learning Billy Joel over time, it’s only as good as the actor triggering it.”

Despite all the sophisticated technology, Wexler said his human star — still a little camera-shy despite his many music-videos — came with his own challenges.

“I’m directing him, and I’m very passionate, throwing my hands everywhere,” Wexler recalled. “I said, ‘Can you just admit we’re having fun?’ And he smiled and said, ‘I don’t like making videos.’ ” — RAFER GUZMÁN

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