Billy Joel is a legend. He has rocked this world from Leningrad to London, from Tokyo to New Orleans. His working class roots and his family’s history as survivors of Nazi Germany have kept a boxer’s spring in his step, on stage and in the wider world. Pretension irritates him, and he can spot it a mile away. And all of these aspects of who he is, together with an innate musical sense, have created some of the best songs this world will ever see. Someday the Piano Man will leave us, but his legacy will be with us forever.
My thanks to Net Galley and Crown Publishing for the chance to read and review this one in advance. It will hit the shelves October 28, just at the time you want to crawl into a warm place with a great book.
Joel began his musical career in adolescent garage bands. They didn’t really go anywhere, but he did. He would have been content, in the beginning, to write music for others to perform, but others counseled him that the artist needs to make a demo. And whereas musical greats like Carole King, Barbara Streisand, and Garth Brooks have performed hits he has written such as New York State of Mind, Shameless, and a number of others, his most outstanding work has been that which he has performed himself.
For this reviewer, his most memorable album is Glass Houses, which came out in 1980. In the mid-80’s, I had been married for nearly a decade, and when I turned thirty, it occurred to me with a startling immediacy that I could break free if I wanted to. The sound of breaking glass followed by the authoritative, take-charge chords and Joel’s sassy, do-what-I-feel-like voice was a tonic, and I listened to it over and over and over again. I can never think of that time period without hearing “You May Be Right”. Later I would dance at a high school reunion to “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me.” And it was, and it is.
Joel has given so much of himself in his work that it is no surprise that he has in turn stepped into untold people’s lives as he did into mine. There seems to be a running joke between Joel and those around him about the number of weddings at which his music has been performed. And while this is just one more sign that the bond between Billy Joel and his audience is rock solid, it is also a little bit worrisome.
According to Schruers, every time something monumental has occurred in Joel’s life, he has headed for the piano. It has been his therapist and his source of cartharsis, and so for decades, his personal life and his innermost feelings have been out there on display in the work he performs. He isn’t the first to feel the best understood and maybe the most alive when communicating with fans that are listening to him perform. I could reel off a string of names, but I don’t need to, because the reader has probably already thought of half a dozen such people. Joel’s marriages to Elizabeth Weber; Christie Brinkley; and Katie Lee are all out there for the world to share. We bounce joyfully to “Uptown Girl”, and when he makes a joke at a concert where a fan is proposing marriage, telling the groom to get a pre-nup, everyone who isn’t Billy laughs.
So what happens when such a man reaches his sixties and finds that he now wants a modicum of dignified privacy? Many of those he loved best in his personal life have moved on and left him behind. His fans are ready to receive more, more, more, but there is a point in life when we become a little more reticent about spilling all the beans to whoever wants to know. And here it was inevitable, this being the time it is, that I think about Robin Williams, and about Michael Jackson. They gave us everything, and look what happened. And I think those who bond with the public in such an unfettered fashion are in a way set up for that kind of ending. It scares the hell out of me. I am not the weepy type, but I am struggling a little as I write this.
Billy Joel is a legend, a working class guy from Levittown who made good through hard work and immeasurable talent. He has used remarkable restraint in dealing with those who have shown him bad faith; have cheated on him romantically and financially; and in some cases, all but robbed him blind. He has climbed back, but of course it has cost him emotionally. He would have to be stupid to remain unaffected by it, and the man is anything but stupid.
He credits as his early influences Ray Charles, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Otis Redding, and a host of other musicians. His love of the classical causes him to reference Beethoven and Bach when he talks about music, and his album of classical piano music went straight to the top of the Billboard charts; I think I want that album. Apparently he has been called “derivative” at some time in the press, with which he initially had a similar relationship as one of my personal heroes, General Sherman. Derivative of what, and of who? He freely admits that the genre was begun by brilliant Black musicians, but does that mean nobody else can do that or go there? Of course not! And it should be noted that the press, from the New York Times to Rolling Stone to Billboard, lauded him unconditionally in more recent coverage.
The man has more than paid his dues. He has been around the block a time or two, and he knows more about the business and about life than when he was brand new to the world of professional music.
I recently wrote a review for Mark Kincaid’s bio of comedy king Bill Cosby. When Cosby’s manager was dishonest, Cosby solved the problem by handing the business end of his work to his wife, Camille, and it was a strong move. But Billy did the same thing, and it took the warnings of several trusted friends and associates to help him understand that his faith in his wife was misplaced; she too was robbing him blind, and putting plenty of resources into her own name in anticipation of the inevitable split.
What’s a guy gonna do?
After their separation, estranged wife Christie Brinkley and beloved daughter Alexa are injured in a helicopter crash in which Christie’s boyfriend died. Joel had them taken to his home, arranged for medical care and paid for everything, and came home one day to an empty house. Was there even a note? We don’t know.
There are two sides to every story, and I am sure the women who have loved him and left him have theirs. This writer grew up with two parents with serious alcohol problems, and so I know it isn’t easy. Brinkley’s heartfelt plea that he deal with it—though I question the public nature of the plea—hit a resonant chord for me.
At the same time, I want to cheer when Joel says flatly that he is an atheist, and there is no Higher Power to whom he wants to give his worries. He doesn’t want to let go and let god. WHO? Oh, hell no. And again, this reviewer remains close to two (other) family members who cast off the demon alcohol without any kind of religious juju, and without standing up in front of strangers to testify. It can be done, and if Joel hasn’t, I too hope he will.
But there we are again, in the middle of his private business. See what I mean?
In his path to glory, this iconic musician has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, honored at the Kennedy Center, has played with Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, and a host of others. He has collected Grammys like some folks collect baseball cards; in 1989 he was honored with the Living Legend Award. And since the baseball simile has arisen, let’s note that he was also there to close Yankee Stadium, and then help McCartney reopen it under its new carnation. Leonard Bernstein asked him to write musical scores. Joel not only has a record for the number of appearances in Madison Square Garden, he had, at the time the biography was written, a standing engagement there, for as long as his new, bionic hips and aging spinal column can hold on.
What then? Joel has developed side interests. He has customized motorcycles and also has a boat business. His financial empire has recovered many times over despite the double dealings he was dealt when he was younger and more trusting. And he has a bond with daughter Alexa that nothing can take from him.
And so, when it’s time to go home, when the last curtain comes down and Joel has had enough of life on the glittering stage, I hope that the satisfaction of a career well managed; a high road held both in terms of how he has dealt with the ticket-buying public, his former loves, and his former associates; his new, more physically manageable interests; and the love of his daughter and other family members, will suffice.
As for our scribe, Fred Schruers, I was initially taken aback by the lack of documentation and footnotes, but after reading the postscript, I came away reasonably satisfied that he had covered his bases. He sure knows how to tell a story.
And what a story it is!