This article was originally published in Newsday on March 31, 1974
So you decide to take a holiday
You got your tape deck and your brand new
Ah there ain’t no place to go anyway
So you’ve got everything but nothin’s cool
They just found your father in the
And you guess you won’t be going back to
-from Captain Jack*
On a recent night at Max’s Kansas City, Billy Joel was singing those words from a song that he wrote. In the smoky and crowded room, a girl dressed in Chelsea chic whispered to her companion, “We went to Hicksville [High School] together. Like he was nothin’ then.”
Today, Billy Joel is something. He’s playing some of the top spots around the country, and his “Piano Man” album is working its way upward on the charts. At 24, the former Long Islander with a background in classical music seems to be finally reaping the benefits gained from his earlier days, when he was making the rounds of local Sweet 16 parties and club dates.
It was a dismal opening night for Joel, who apologized to the audience at Max’s for his voice. “The pipes are gone,” he told them. “The doctor says it’s my tonsils—they gotta go.” Later, Joel was to cancel the remaining three days of his appearance at Max’s, considered a major New York booking in the rock field, because of his illness (he will be back at the club in May).
An intense young man, despite an outwardly calm manner, Joel led a visitor to a dressing room upstairs at the club to chat, shortly before performing his second and final show of the aborted engagement. Joel’s music is mostly his own and he plays the piano with a great deal of technical virtuosity. His lyrics are sometimes bitter; they strongly reflect his suburban background, and, admittedly, “they sort of give my personal view of the world around me.” When he sings, Joel has a soft baritone that rises to a higher pitch at times. The music critics have had good things to say about him, and John Rockwell of the New York Times wrote that Joel “is fast developing into an important artist.”
When you’re only 24, your career can’t go back too far, but Joel said, “I’ve been earning money with my music since I was 14. It was back in Hicksville when with some other kids we formed a group called the Echoes.”
Joel began studying piano when he was 4, eventually learning under Morton Estrin, a Hicksville teacher and member of the music faculty at Hofstra University. “It was a classical orientation,” Joel said, “but it was good—lots of today’s rock music is easier to approach if you look at it from a different point of view.” As a teenager, Joel and his group kept busy hopping through Nassau County. “The big dates we had were Sweet 16 parties,” he said. “I was playing the electric organ at the time, and we had to lug our heavy amplifiers and instruments all over the place by cab, since nobody was old enough to drive. Finally, one of the guys got a license and a car, so it was easier. I think I hold the record for looking at corsages with sugar cubes.”
By the time he was 17, Joel’s career picked up considerably when he joined one of Long Island’s better known rock groups, The Hassles. Along with other such Long Island-spawned combos as the Pigeons (later to be known as Vanilla Fudge), the group played an endless string of local nightclubs—places now defunct and places still going strong. Spots like Action House in Oceanside and My House in Plainview, as well as clubs in the Hamptons.
“After we started getting gigs in bars on week nights, I’d be half asleep in school all day, and the teachers thought, I was always stoned even though I never was,” Joel said. For a teenager, Joel was pulling down a considerable sum of money. “At time, I made $200, maybe $300 a week, and that’s pretty cool for a kid.” The young composer-pianist said that he spent a lot of time “just hanging out” in Cold Spring Harbor. His initial record album even was titled “Cold Spring Harbor,” but Joel said it never went anywhere “because the distribution got screwed up and it never got into the stores.”
At one time, the family also lived in Oyster Bay (his parents are divorced—his mother now lives in Valley Stream and his father is in Germany) and Joel acknowledges that he draws upon Long Island memories for his music. In his song “The Ballad of Billy the Kid,” a western-rock tune, Joel sings,: “From a town known as Oyster Bay, Long Island/ Rode a boy with a six-pack in his hand/And his daring life of crime/Made him a legend in his time/East and west of the Rio Grande.”** Although Joel never led a life of crime, he smiled and quipped, “I’m familiar with Oyster Bay and six-packs.”
After leaving the Hassles, Joel joined with another musician and they formed a duo named “Attila the Hun,” which came to a sudden end. At one point, Joel tried some local factory work. “I lasted two weeks,” he said. “When the foreman began telling me about retirement benefits in 30 years, I quit right then.” In 1971, he began his solo career, and eventually he was spotted by Family Productions, which flew him to Los Angeles to record. For six months in 1972, Joel toured the country and from then on, things have been looking better than ever for the soft-spoken artist.
Joel has been likened by some critics to Elton John and Leon Russell, comparisons that he shrugs off. “I’m my own man,” he maintained, “and what I do, I do for me.” His former piano teacher, Estrin, remembers Joel as being “not particularly outstanding, but that might have been because there were problems at home.” Mrs. Rosalind Joel said that her son was a child prodigy. “When we saw he loved Mozart at 4, I took him by the scruff of the neck and dashed off to find him piano lessons.” She added, “He’s made me very proud, naturally.”
Joel now lives in a comfortable house in Los Angeles with his wife Elizabeth (from Syosset), and their 6 year old son, Sean. But for a young man who has spent more time in hazy nightclubs than most others his age, his lyrics often reveal a transparent personal reflection, perhaps not voiced so easily except in song. From Billy Joel’s “Piano Man”:
It’s a pretty good crowd for a Saturday
And the manager gives me a smile
Cause he knows that it’s me they’ve been
coming to see
And the piano sounds like a carnival
And the microphone smells like beer.**
*© 1971 by Rippartha Music and Higher Music.Rights administered by April Music Inc.
**©1972 and 1973 by Home Grown Music and Tinker Street Tunes, rights administered by Blackwood Music Inc.