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 The Many Lives of Billy Joel

Blacklight Bar

With a fresh boxed set in stores and a just announced new solo U.S. tour,
the singer looks back over a turbulent career and ponders his future.
Will the Piano Man ever record another pop album?

by Tom Sinclair in Entertainment Weekly

Billy Joel on a motorcycle
omewhere in Billy Joel's palatial waterfront Long Island home, a telephone is ringing.

Sunk deep in a plush leather chair in his book-laden den, Joel chuckles mischievously. "Why, people are trying to get a hold of me," he says. Making no move to answer the phone, he stage-whispers with a nyah-nyah-nyah cadence: "Ha ha ha. I'm IN-COM-MU-NI-CA-DO!"

Of all the all the advantages to being a very wealthy, semiretired rock star, the freedom to blithely ignore the outside world's entreaties must be the sweetest. It's now been 12 years since Joel stopped chasing after hit records. "It's always hard to say goodbye/But now it's time to put this book away," he sang on "Famous Last Words," the final song on his 1993 album, River of Dreams. He hasn't released another pop CD since.

True, in the past few years Joel, 56, has toured with Elton John and recorded a classical album (2001's Fantasies & Delusions). But he professes to have zero interest in reentering the pop-music wars. "I've always admired guys who walked away at the top of their game," he says. "DiMaggio did it. I've had my time in the sun." To the fans and record execs clamoring for a new album, he has a blunt message: "You can't squeeze blood from a stone."

Maybe not, but a canny record company can always squeeze a few dozen rarities, outtakes, live tracks, and demos from an erstwhile workhorse like Joel (who has sold more than 100 million albums worldwide and has been awarded six Grammys). On Nov. 22, Sony released My Lives (see sidebar below), a career-spanning four-CD/one-DVD boxed set that's the closest thing to a "new" Billy Joel album we'll see anytime soon.

"My Lives is the right title for this thing, 'cause I feel like I've had a series of lives," says Joel. In his 40-year career, he has indeed inhabited numerous personae: garage-rocking punk, superstar slinger of gooey ballads, classical gasser, angry young man, innocent man, falling-down drunk, Mr. Christie Brinkley, doting father of a daughter, Alexa Ray, now 19. He says his latest incarnation -- former rock star living in quiet repose with his third wife, 24-year-old cable-television personality Katie Lee, whom he married on Oct. 2, 2004 -- suits him best of all. "I'm content," he says. "Content to the point where I'm not feeling like it's necessary for me to prove anything."

oel grew up about 15 minutes from his Gatsbyesque mansion, in the working-class town of Hicksville, N.Y. Back then, he never dreamed he would one day live on a 15-acre estate, complete with a tennis court he has never used and, he claims, so many rooms he has yet to see them all. "When I was a kid, I used to ride my bike up here with my friends and just look through the gates at the end of these drives and go, 'Wow! These rich bastards living behind these wrought-iron gates...' I didn't like rich people." He laughs. "An now I am one."

Billy Joel - My Lives
"Just the Way He Is"
Billy Joel riffs on selections from My Lives

"You've Got Me Humming," the Hassles (1968)
The teenage Joel's garage band tried for a hit with this number by soul men Sam and Dave. "This was typical of the kind of thing a lot of bands were doing then, covering the more obscure R&B artists. Of course, ours doesn't compare to the Sam & Dave recording."

"Amplifier Fire," Attila (1970)
An instrumental from Joel's ill-fated drums-and-organ power duo. "This particular track was more of a jazz thing than a heavy metal thing. A lot of Attila was us trying to be Led Zeppelin with two instruments. This shows a different side of things. One of my big heroes was jazz organist Jimmy Smith."

"Zanzibar" (extended version) (1978)
This full-length version of the 52nd Street track features trumpeter Freddie Hubbard's unedited wailing solo. "They used to say rock & roll guys can't play jazz -- we don't have the chops. But we tried on that particular track. After we recorded that, my bass player looked at me and said, 'Now I feel like an adult.'"

"Keeping the Faith" (12" remix) (1984)
"This was from when house music was really big in the mid-'80s. These crazy guys from Philly did the remix, and they were in the studio just going nuts. I kind of dug it, 'cause they took it in a direction I hadn't even considered. I liked all the syncopation going on, the percussion and different sounds. A good piece of music should be malleable."

"Highway 61 Revisited" (demo) (1999)
"Bob Dylan was a real inspiration to me. The imagery he came up with for this song was so fantastic. Whether you know what it means or not, it doesn't really frickin' matter. What matters is how it hits you. It's a fun song to play on the piano, too. It's got a real boogie-woogie thing going on."
If not for music, Joel could easily have ended up like many "Lawn Guyland" kids of his generation: a civil servant, a career military man, a burnout. He studied classical piano as a child, but once the Beatles conquered America, he caught a serious case of the rockin' pneumonia. In 1965, while still a teen, he dove into the vibrant Long Island rock scene, pounding keyboards and singing in a series of scruffy bands like the Lost Souls and the Hassles. The late '60s was a great time to be a fan as well. Joel recalls how he and Hassles drummer Jon Small once conned their way into a sold-out Jimi Hendrix show at the now-defunct Singer Bowl in Queens. "I did a pretty good English accent," he says, "and we bulls----ed the people who worked for the promoter, like, 'Jimi's waiting for us, we've got to set up his amps." The ruse worked: "We were told to sit on the stage and make sure the amps didn't fall over. Jon and I were on the revolving stage and I was waving to friends in the audience: 'Yeah -- it's me!" Joel even worked for a time as a rock critic, filing concert reviews for long-gone publications like Go and Changes for "25 bucks a pop...pretty good!" But he quite after he panned an Al Kooper show and found he "didn't have the stomach for it. To this day, I want to apologize [to Kooper]."

Billy Joel in 1971 & with The HasslesPlaying in bands and monitoring the rock scene, Joel exulted in the era's headiness. But it wasn't all laughs and fast times. As the '70s dawned, it seemed that Joel's hoped-for big break would never come. The Hassles had broken up, and a misguided attempt at a two-man heavy metal band, Attila -- Small on drums, Joel on organ -- yielded a bombastic album that had no commercial impact whatsoever.

Further complicating matters was Joel's volatile domestic situation circa 1970: He was living with Small, Small's wife, Elizabeth Weber, and the couple's young son...and having an affair with Elizabeth behind Small's back. The stress of that impossible setup would have extreme consequences: In 1970, Joel attempted suicide by downing a bottle of furniture polish. He ended up in the psych ward of Long Island's Meadowbrook Hospital. "That was a dark time, a time of great self-examination and self-obsession," he says of 1970. "I was examining my own navel so much that my head actually went up my butt."

Joel looks back on the furniture-polish episode as a painful but necessary "transitional time between adolescence and adulthood." And there was little danger of it damaging his career prospects. "The music business back then was run by loony tunes and outlaws from the schmatte business," he says. "Did they care that I'd been in the hospital? No. Those were freewheeling days when anything was possible."

By 1971, Joel had a record deal, and his solo debut, Cold Spring Harbor, came out on an independent label; it was well-reviewed but underpromoted. Even so, a Philadelphia station jumped on a then-unreleased version of a new Joel song, "Captain Jack" -- a scathing portrait of suburban ennui and substance abuse that was inspired by watching rich kids cop drugs at a housing project -- and buzz began to build. Soon it was loud enough to reach the ears of Columbia prexy Clive Davis, who signed Joel in 1973. By that time, he had married Elizabeth and the couple (along with Small's son) had moved to L.A., where Joel found work as the pianist in a Hollywood bar called the Executive Room. The experience proved invaluable, providing him with lyrical fodder for the song that would become his signature (and the title track for his Columbia debut).

If Piano Man was Joel's coming-out party, it was his fifth album, 1977's 10 million-selling The Stranger -- packed with such soon-to-be radio staples as "She's Always a Woman," "Movin' Out (Anthony's Song)," and the blockbuster ballad "Just the Way You Are" -- that made him a household name. The Stranger kicked off a 16-year hot streak, during which Joel released seven hit albums and a steady flow of singles, the last of which, "All About Soul," went to No. 29 on the pop charts. Then he walked away.

Sony Music chief Don Ienner hasn't given up hope of luring him back. He's developed a habit of calling to "prod" Joel about doing another CD. The results, according to Ienner, have become predictable: "He says he's not ready; I get disappointed." Usually, Joel just brushes off these calls. "I've done pretty well for Columbia Records," he notes dryly.

ack on his Long Island estate, Joel is talking about one of his greatest passions: boating. He proudly shows off a cluttered room where several pictures of speedboats are hung. "When I go into the city, I always take my boat," he says. He conspicuously ignores his six Grammys, which sit on a mantel across the room. When they're pointed out, he glances over and simply says, "Oh...yeah."

Is Joel really interested in sailing off into the sunset, both literally and metaphorically, than in navigating his way back onto the pop charts? He insists he is. "I know Elton John has said in a couple of interviews, 'I hope Billy gets his confidence back and has a No. 1 album,'" says Joel. "But I think Elton might be mistaking confidence for desire. You have to have the desire to be competitive in the rock & roll world. I don't have it."

It's odd to hear Joel, who has led an intense life filled with passion and drama -- from that youthful suicide attempt and his two failed marriages, to his well-documented problems with alcohol, a multi-million-dollar lawsuit against former manager Frank Weber, and three high-profile auto accidents in the past few years -- talk as if he just doesn't give a damn anymore.

Of course, things aren't always as they seem, as will become apparent a few days after the interview (more on that shortly). But talking to him over the course of this afternoon, it's obvious that Joel is thinking more clearly about his life and career than he has for quite some time.

A big reason might be his newfound sobriety. He has now been off the sauce for more than six months, following a 30-day stint at a rehab program at Silver Hill Hospital, in New Canaan, Conn. "I haven't gone this long without anything to drink in my whole life," he says, touting what he calls the "unique concept" rehab exposed him to: "'Just...don't...drink.' I never thought of that!" In the past, he has attributed much of his (sometimes very public) drinking to frustration over failed relationships with women. While he isn't particularly keen to rehash the devastation of his boozehound days of the past few years, he does allow that his new bride played a part in persuading him to finally straighten up. "It's goin' great," says Joel of his marriage to Katie Lee, whom he met when she was a 21-year-old college student. "Having your personal life not be in turmoil is nice."

Joel can't imagine why anyone would think a rock star developing an alcohol problem is a big deal. "Look, in this business [going to rehab] is like going to get your teeth cleaned." And it still irritates him that the public has linked his automotive mishaps with his drinking, claiming that none of his three documented car wrecks were alcohol-related. (He also wants to set the record straight on his choice of poisons. "I've seen references to my drinking Jack Daniels," he says indignantly. "I only drank scotch. Dewar's White Label.")

But for fans, Joel's recent changes could be a big development. A few days after the Long Island interview, Sony's Ienner is on the phone, discussing his fruitless attempts to coax him back into the studio. Although Joel didn't say a thing about it over the course of a three-hour interview, Ienner now reveals that just days earlier, Joel called him to ask about booking some studio time to work on a new pop song. Nobody's talking about a full album yet, and the singer himself is obviously not prepared to discuss it. But maybe, just maybe, Billy Joel is ready to start answering his phone again. 

 Fightin' Side of Merle

Blacklight Bar

An old iconoclast storms back with a new CD, Chicago Wind.

by Chris Willman in Entertainment Weekly

EXTRA! act picture
 couple of years ago, Merle Haggard -- legendary for such love-it-or-leave-it hippie bashing hits as "Okie From Muskogee" and "Fightin' Side of Me" -- made news with "That's the News," a song that took a skeptical view of the Iraq war and its media coverage. His new album, Chicago Wind, is a bit on the slicker side, but it too has a couple of potentially controversial numbers, in the antiwar "Let's Rebuild America First" and the anti-Patriot Act "Where's All the Freedom." Haggard sounds almost apologetic. "I said to [producer Jimmy] Bowen, 'Why don't we leave that stuff off, and for once do an album that's totally about music and doesn't have any political undertones?' But he says the American Haggard fan wants to hear my opinions as much as the music." He offers a suit-yourself shrug.

Trying to figure out the Bakersfield maverick's politics has been a favorite guessing game of country fans for four decades. In the '60s, his poetic songs about poverty and hard times, like the stunning "Hungry Eyes," won applause from folkies and liberals -- who dumped him when "Okie" went to No. 1. His independent streak hasn't changed: In his shows, Hag takes disgusted nightly digs at "G.W." ("Cant he get just one smirk into a smile?"), but as his favorite modern president he names Reagan (who, as California governor, pardoned Haggard for the felonies that landed him in San Quentin). This singer would no sooner commit to a party than he would to a prepared set list.

"There are things I go for on both sides of the fence. And both of 'em disappoint me." It's an endemic condition. "Somebody asked my mother, 'Can you describe your son in a paragraph?' She said, 'I can in one word. Unpredictable.' And I come by it honestly -- but I also plan it. I intend to take a different route this morning than yesterday, and I'm not gonna leave at the same time. And I won't worry about the next show until I get on stage. You might even trick the devil once in a while, if nobody knows what you're gonna do." 

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