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Billy Joel's reaction to Kennedy Center honor: 'Why me?'

Billy Joel during his July 16, 2008 concert

Billy Joel during his July 16, 2008 concert at Shea Stadium before its demolition. Credit: Myrna Suarez

Billy Joel views his upcoming honor from the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts the way he views most incredibly positive things in his remarkable life -- with skepticism.

"I always find myself wondering, 'Why me?'" Joel says. "I think it's even in my music. Whenever I talk about something good happening, there's always a little knife in the song that says, 'Watch out. Something bad's gonna happen.'"

He says his wariness only increases when he's given some sort of award for his career achievements. "I've already gotten my award and my reward for making a living doing what I love," he says. "It's like an abundance of good fortune. There's a part of me that goes, 'Wait a minute.'"

It may take more than a minute to digest the enormity of the Kennedy Center Honor -- the nation's highest award given to performers, the American equivalent to knighthood in Great Britain or the Legion of Honor in France. Before Joel is honored at a gala on Dec. 8, he and the rest of this year's Kennedy Center class -- opera singer Martina Arroyo, musicians Herbie Hancock and Carlos Santana, and actress Shirley MacLaine -- will also be guests of honor at a State Department banquet and a White House reception. (The gala will be taped to air Dec. 29 on CBS.)

"It's kind of knocked me for a loop," Joel says. "I think there's a lot of worthy artists in the country they would pick before me.... But I really do appreciate it. It's an honor."

Joel and his fellow honorees were selected for lifetime contributions to American culture through the performing arts. "Billy Joel's melodies have provided the soundtrack of our lives for over four decades, making him one of pop music's most prolific and memorable singers and songwriters," says Kennedy Center chairman David M. Rubenstein.

Rubenstein says Joel and the others spent their careers "elevating the cultural vibrancy of our nation and the world."

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That certainly applies to Joel. The Hicksville native has sold more than 150 million albums around the world and is the third-biggest-selling solo artist of all time, behind only Elvis Presley and Garth Brooks. His

"Greatest Hits, Vols. 1 and 2" album is the third-biggest-selling album of all time, behind only Michael Jackson's "Thriller" and the Eagles' greatest hits collection.

Legendary concert promoter Ron Delsener says he had tears in his eyes when he learned Joel was going to be honored by the Kennedy Center. "He's the greatest symbol of America that we have today," says Delsener, who began supporting Joel in 1970, when he booked Joel's band The Hassles in Central Park.

"He's George Gershwin," Delsener adds. "His lyrics touch everybody. He's a poet, much like Bob Dylan and Paul Simon -- Billy's right there with them. And he's a Long Islander! That makes me very proud."

Jimmy Webb, chairman of the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the singer-songwriter behind classics like "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" and "Wichita Lineman," says that even though Joel has been wildly successful, he is still underappreciated.

"Sometimes, the commercial aspect of Billy's career overshadows the fact that he's this deep musician who has reached into classical music for a lot of the inspiration that drives these pop songs," says Webb, who counts Joel as a friend and a neighbor, since he and his wife moved to Bayville. "And he writes some damn good lyrics."

A song like "Allentown" shows Joel's skill, Webb says, combining a catchy melody with lyrics that explained an important American issue. "It's a masterpiece," he says. "He has earned a kind of universal respect among songwriters for his powerful writing voice -- the persona of the blue-collar hero that everybody here in America admires. And there's a deep connection between him and the working guys. They know when people care about them, and they know when they don't care about them."

Webb, whose collaboration with Joel on "Wichita Lineman" for his 2010 album "Just Across the River" is Joel's most recent pop recording, says Joel "richly deserved" the Kennedy Center honor. "He has an enormous talent as a composer," he says. "He's a composer like Aaron Copland."

Pop culture critic and author Chuck Klosterman says Joel's Kennedy Center qualifications go beyond music. "His influence is much more cultural than musical," he says. "Billy Joel has had more influence in defining the type of culture he has consistently written about --

blue-collar intellectuals."

Klosterman says Joel's cultural importance is indisputable. "Nobody is as famous as Billy Joel and as successful as Billy Joel without being great," he says. "It's impossible to make the argument that his success is due to anything besides his ability to create songs that mean a lot to people."

However, Joel's influence stretches beyond pop culture.



Theodore Levin, an ethnomusicologist and professor of music at Dartmouth College, says Joel's six concerts across the Soviet Union in 1987 helped end the Cold War. The tour was the first time most Soviets had seen rock music from the West, and their initial reactions were just like their American counterparts'.

"The Billy Joel concerts had a major impact," says Levin, who helped organize the exchange. "It really was a symbolic opening to the West and to Western culture. Until then, Western-style rock had been underground. It had been ideologically verboten. It had been promoted as a symbol of a sick society, musically degenerate. Suddenly, here was an official embrace of a major Western pop star and everything that went along with that. This was absolutely a turnaround."

Joel became part of a movement of "citizen diplomacy," where residents of both countries would get acquainted through various cultural exchanges and learn that they were more similar than different, Levin says. The hope was that citizens in both countries would then pressure their

governments to normalize relations.

By hosting Joel, the Soviet government hoped to show its people and the rest of the world that they could produce a first-class concert tour as well as anyone in the West.

Joel shouldered more of the risk. There was no telling how the Soviets were going to react -- or if they would even come -- to a rock concert. And some American groups questioned why he would want to entertain people who were, at that point, seen as enemies, Levin says, adding that when the tour was announced, a handful of people protested. "It was very courageous of him to do this," Levin says. "No one knew how this was going to play out."

Joel recognizes the concerts gave him a strong bond with the people of the former Soviet republics, but he sometimes forgets how deep it goes.

"I was in Florence, Italy, last week, and I was having dinner," Joel says. "This guy who was the director of a Russian ballet company saw me and freaked out. He couldn't contain himself. He was jumping up and down."

"Oh, my God, I saw you when you played in Moscow in 1987," the ballet director told Joel. "Everything changed. You changed entire country. Now, we do whatever we want. We are free. And you helped do this."



"I was really taken aback," Joel says. "I knew it was a momentous point in their history. I don't think it was because of me, necessarily."

Joel says the excitement was more because a Western performer was bringing the same kind of concert Americans would see at Madison Square Garden to the Soviet Union.

"It was palpable that something was going to happen," he recalls. "It felt like America in the '60s... . The people in the street were buzzing with change. Kids were looking like we looked in the '60s. They were at the edge of transition."

Before Joel's shows, concert fans in the Soviet Union weren't allowed to stand during performances. When Joel played, that became impossible to enforce. "The audience was as good as we've had anywhere," he says. "They went crazy. They wrecked the chairs. All of a sudden, the rules changed.... It was a very exciting series of shows -- maybe the most exciting shows I've ever done."

It ranks with his Berlin concert the night of German reunification and the night he played in Cuba in 1979. "There were armed guards with AK- 47s surrounding the stage, and the kids just pushed right past them," Joel says. "That's when I realized this is powerful stuff. It's not just me. It's popular music. It's popular culture, rock and roll."

He saw it in the Soviet Union, where American culture was popular -- blue jeans, Coca-Cola, Hollywood movies. "That was a bigger influence to them than politics," Joel says. "Popular culture is politics."

Such international acclaim is confirmation of Joel's musicianship and the strength of his catalog, Klosterman says. "When you see an American succeed in other countries, it suggests that they are actually dealing with the art directly as opposed to filtering it through the media's perception of someone," he says. "To say you're a huge Billy Joel fan in the United States has a specific meaning. In other countries, that's not how it is. In other countries, it's actually just the songs, especially in countries that are not predominantly English-speaking."

That's heady stuff for a guy who took boxing lessons in order to protect himself when he first started taking piano lessons, especially when it wasn't always clear that he showed promise.

Morton Estrin, who taught classical piano to Joel, says he remembers the then-11-year-old's interest in Beethoven but doesn't recall thinking his student was anything out of the ordinary. "He was OK for the elementary level," says Estrin, who still teaches piano in Hicksville, though he has cut back on his own performances. Estrin says he does see bits of classical music training in Joel's work. "He borrows melodies from great composers and applies them into his own style," he says. Asked if he was surprised by Joel's career success, Estrin says, "Well, it happened."



Joel, who will celebrate his 50th year in the music business next year, has generated intense, divergent opinions about his career that few superstars can match. "What makes him different is how literal and straightforward the lyrics are," Klosterman says. "When your words mean exactly what they say, it makes someone who is looking for art to be strange or art to be complicated to be disappointed and think, 'This is schlocky' or whatever. To the average person, who is looking for art to inform their life, when they hear a song that is straightforward, they think, 'I know what this means, and I know how this feels.' That might be part of the dissonance between how audiences respond to Billy Joel and how critics and hipsters do."

Klosterman says another part of the problem some critics have with Joel is that he may be too nice. "In pop music, figures who are more villainous, like Lou Reed, tend to be appreciated more because they're more interesting," says Klosterman, whose most recent book, "I Wear the Black Hat," focused on the idea of villainy. "With Billy Joel, the issue seemed to be that he was perceived as being uncool. No one said he couldn't play. No one said he couldn't sing. It was 'He's not cool.' His attempts to be cool seemed to be more damaging. But over time, nobody cares about that. Cool is definitely a present- tense thing."

After Joel's recent tour of England and Ireland, critics were calling for a reappraisal of his career, because, as Caroline Sullivan of The Guardian wrote, "it was obvious that he has been the victim of an injustice."

However, Joel says he's not really interested in that. "There will always be revisionism," he says. "If something lasts and has resonance throughout time, there will always be reappraisals. I gave up trying to second-guess what critics want a long time ago. I never really understood what the problem was in the first place. Everybody's entitled to not like my stuff. Maybe it's my voice. Maybe they hate the subject matter. Maybe they just don't like the way it's produced. Who knows? There's a million reasons why. I can't figure that out, and I gave up trying."

And the reappraisals may have to wait, anyway, since Joel's career isn't over yet.

He has developed a new show, mixing classics with songs he hasn't often played live before and booked a string of area dates including his first concert in Brooklyn, at Barclays Center on New Year's Eve. His planned return to Madison Square Garden, where his 12 shows in 2006 set a record for longest sold-out run, has already been extended to four shows running into April.



Joel says he hasn't decided whether he'll do shows in other parts of the country, aside from a run of January concerts in Florida. "I have said I'm tired of touring and that I may not tour again," he says. "The reason for that is I wonder if I'm still any good at it. I don't want to do it if I suck. If I'm no good at it, I'm gonna take myself out of the lineup. I would retire."

His friends, like Delsener, who saw Joel at a rare, intimate show at the Paramount in Huntington in October, have told him to keep going. "He doesn't have to do it," Delsener says. "His fans demand it. And he's happy with his life now, so he's coming out to do something."

Joel says the fun he had at the Paramount and the reaction he got at the "12-12-12" benefit for victims of superstorm Sandy last year encouraged him to return to limited touring.

"When we came off the stage , we looked at each other and said, 'OK, that was all right.' We didn't think we were that good. But the reaction was 'Oh, my God, you were so good! Are you gonna play again? Are you gonna play again?' I guess people really liked what we did. I thought, 'Maybe I should give it a try.'"

At this stage in his career, Joel knows why he keeps performing. "If I can't do it well, people would probably still come to see me," he says. "People would probably come to hear the songs. But if I'm not good at it, I don't see the point in doing it, even if I could make money. That's not what it's about. That's never been what it's about. It's about the fun and the joy of it and knowing that the audience is feeling good and that you made a lot of people happy. That's a great feeling."

Yes, after all these years, after all these accolades, The Piano Man keeps going because he gets us feeling all right. He knows we want him to sing us a song.

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