Billy Joel will usher in a new era of entertainment on Long Island when he plays the first concert at NYCB Live’s Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale. But he’s also ready to make some changes in his own life, ready to spend more time with Alexis, his wife since 2015, and their 19-month-old daughter, Della Rose, even as he breaks records with his Madison Square Garden residency and a tour of stadiums this summer. He wants to keep his plans for April 5’s show at the Coliseum a secret. But, in an exclusive interview with Newsday’s Glenn Gamboa, Joel says he wants Long Islanders to be proud of their heritage and to support people and institutions that continue to build it.
Are you looking forward to the Nassau show?
Yeah. I don’t even know what the place looks like now. I’m interested to see the new Coliseum. It kind of looked like a spaceship the last rendering I saw. . . . I’m a Long Islander and that’s the venue. It has been for many years of my life.
Madison Square Garden is The Garden obviously. But you’ve said that part of the reason you played there is because you weren’t so happy with the way the Coliseum sounded or the way it was run in recent years.
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It turned into a barn after a while. We called it an acoustic barn. A lot of big acts came through there. I saw a lot of great bands play at the Coliseum. But it was getting a little tired. Then when the Islanders left, it was kind of sad to be there. It was almost as if there was this huge edifice in Uniondale and “What are you going to do with this place?” I think a lot of people had that thought.
The city is close. Does Long Island need its own arena?
Absolutely! Long Island is its own metropolitan area. . . . Long Island definitely deserves its own arena. It’s a world-class area.
But so much of Long Island’s identity is tied up in being in the shadow of New York City.
Yeah, we’re referred to as Islanders. You talk to people in the city about where you live and they kind of make fun of your accent. “Oh, you’re from LawnGuyLand.” And I say, “Yeah, but you live on an island, too.” . . . I see no reason for people to look down their noses at Long Island. We’re the country bumpkin cousins, I suppose. And we’re all tied to New York City, that’s the Big Apple. But we’re our own people.
A lot of people’s Long Island identity is tied up in your music. Do you recognize that you are part of people’s lives in that way, that you are a symbol of what Long Island can be?
Jeez, I hope not. I’m just a musician. I’m a piano player. I don’t really think of myself as symbolic of anything. I know a lot of people have said to me that I wrote the soundtrack to their lives. But I hope their lives were somewhat different than mine. . . . I suppose in a lot of my songs I’ve made a lot of geographic references to places on Long Island and the experience I had growing up. I was a postwar Baby Boomer. And we’re starting to age a lot and there’s a new generation coming up. It should be interesting to see how and where Long Island goes from here. A lot of the old Island has disappeared and it’s up to each generation to forge their own identity.
Is that why you wanted to get involved with trying to save the Long Island High School for the Arts?
Very much so. Long Island is really a great breeding ground for talent. Almost every top comedian seems to come from Long Island for one reason or another. We’re funnier than other places. We recognize that and we can poke fun at ourselves. All the comedians who come from Long Island have a particular kind of humor. A lot of great actors came out of Long Island. A lot of musicians. It’s a large pool of talent and it would be a shame to not have an educational institution that helps people to develop their talent. The Long Island High School for the Arts does that and as far as I know, it’s the only place that does that.
You spend so much time playing stadiums now. Do you miss playing in clubs?
Oh, sure. I miss the jewel box theaters. . . . On the other hand, I find myself playing Fenway Park in Boston and Wrigley Field in Chicago and there’s 40 or 50 thousand people and I marvel, “How the hell did this happen?” I find it ironic. I’m just a piano player. We played in London not too long ago at Wembley Stadium. There were 62,000 people. I was wondering if it was because I had stayed away so long. Maybe I should work less more often.
But once people see you, they want to keep seeing you. It’s why the residency at The Garden works. And you’ve turned playing Fenway and Wrigley into annual events. So people don’t want you to go away.
We’ve played those stadiums multiple times. This year, we’re breaking the records at all those stadiums. I don’t understand it. I can’t explain why that is. I’m just grateful that it is. … I think it keeps you young at heart. I started out doing this as a teenager and here I am at 67 — 50 years later — playing in stadiums, basically doing the same job I did as a teenager.
There was a point not too long ago when you were thinking of calling it quits. You’re enjoying it more?
I’ve learned to never say never. Every time I’ve thought it’s time to get off the bloody stage, that I’ve had my say and maybe I’ve overstayed my welcome, it just manages to keep going. As long as people want to see us, I suppose I should consider continuing. The only thing that would hinder me from doing it would be my own physicality, because there’s a lot of physicality involved. And at my age, I can see that there’s going to be a time when I’m physically not going to be able to do it anymore. . . . I was in excruciating pain for a number of years. I couldn’t even walk at one time. I had to use a scooter chair until my hips were replaced. I feel like a cat with nine lives.
Next year is the 25th anniversary of “The River of Dreams.” I know you get a lot of questions about why you don’t put out more music. But I really can’t think of anyone who summarized their career any better than “Two Thousand Years” and “Famous Last Words.”
I felt like I had had my say as a songwriter and a recording artist. I wanted to try writing different kinds of things. I was starting to get bored and maybe a little frustrated with the art form of songwriting. I wanted to expand it, which is why I got into composing instrumental music, which I’m still doing to this day.
Will you do anything special next year to celebrate “The River of Dreams”?
Nah. [Laughs.] I don’t think so.
So the plans are really just the stadium tour and the Garden residency then?
The Garden residency, we’re just going to play that one by ear. I don’t know that I’m going to be able to continue selling out shows at The Garden. We’re at what show, No. 40 now? Eventually there has to be an end to the arc. It has to start dissipating, and when we get an indication of that we’ll probably fold the tent. I don’t know when that will be. I’m probably going to start playing less and less gigs. Right now, we do a Garden show once a month and probably two other shows in other places around the country. I mean I’ve got a new baby now and I’m trying to husband my time more for having a personal life. So I’m looking at less work. . . . It feels like I’m entitled. I’ve been working my whole life. It’s time to slow down.