Billy Joel hasn’t made a new album of songs since “River of Dreams” topped the U.S. charts in 1993, and he’s fine with that.
“You get to a point where you realize: ‘I’ve done the best I can. Why am I driving myself crazy?’ ” Joel said. “As Clint Eastwood put it (in the 1973 movie ‘Magnum Force’): ‘A man’s gotta know his limitations.’ ”
Joel’s only post-1993 album, 2001’s “Fantasies & Delusions: Music for Solo Piano,” was an all-instrumental collection with a clear stylistic debt to Beethoven, Chopin and other classical music icons. It was not a commercial success, and Joel seems fine with that, too.
“I never wanted to be an oldies act, but I suppose I am,” he said. “I never wanted to be a nostalgia act, but I suppose I am. But I listen to Beethoven, and that’s really old stuff. Is that nostalgia? To me, that music is as alive as it ever was.”
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Even without any new albums or songs, Joel continues to be one of the biggest concert draws in the world.
Joel headlined last year’s Bonnaroo festival in Tennessee, playing for a millennial-heavy audience of about 80,000. A pop-radio staple for decades, he scored 33 consecutive Top 40 hits, beginning with 1973’s autobiographical “Piano Man.” Since then, he has sold close to 150 million albums worldwide, won six Grammy Awards and seen his songs fuel the Twyla Tharp Broadway dance-and-music hit “Movin’ Out.”
He earned $31.7 million in 2015, according to Billboard magazine, a figure topped last year only by Swift, Kenny Chesney and the Rolling Stones. He did so without releasing any new music, and by performing only 30 concerts — 12 at New York’s Madison Square Garden and 18 in other cities.
None of this means Joel won’t continue composing new material, at least for his own pleasure, on a regular basis. It does mean, however, that fans hoping for a new album of any kind from him will probably keep waiting.
“I’d recorded 12 albums, and I was content, to an extent,” Joel said. “Then I got to a point where I thought, ‘OK, I’m not compelled to do this anymore.’ I know a lot of people may not understand why.
“It’s not that I’m not into being creative any more; I just don’t feel compelled to write songs. Did I grow up? Am I out of that (pop-rock) genre now? It almost became boring to me. I wanted a different challenge, and (classical) instrumental music does that for me. But I don’t feel compelled to record that.”
“I don’t know,” replied Joel, who then pondered the question. “I’ve had my say (composing the music); I don’t need the world to hear it.”
Nevertheless, Joel still owes Columbia Records several more albums. Does his contract stipulate they have to be albums of songs, with lyrics? Or could he give them another all-instrumental album of classical music?
“That’s a good question. I should ask my attorney that,” Joel said. “I agree with what Prince said about the indentured servitude of recording artists. I still don’t own the (master tapes of) my own recordings. I’m sure part of me said: ‘I don’t want to work with them.’”
To underscore his point, he playfully invoked the opening line of a Bob Dylan classic, singing aloud: I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more.
But Joel still loves being onstage, as befits a pop-music legend who on May 27 performed his 40th consecutive sold-out monthly concert at Madison Square Garden. No other artist has come close to performing at that historic Big Apple venue so many times, let alone filling its 20,000 seats so often.
In a nearly hourlong interview, Joel reflected at length on his half-century music career and explained why he’s only an “incidental singer.” He recalled how he sneaked into a Jimi Hendrix concert (by pretending to be a road crew member), chuckled about his short-lived heavy metal duo, Attila, and disclosed the reason he turned down an invitation to sing on Frank Sinatra’s all-star “Duets” album. He also shared his insights about musical innovation: “The only thing original anyone ever does is screw up.”
Here are excerpts from that conversation.
Q: Duke Ellington was once asked what inspired him to compose. He smiled and said, “Give me a deadline.” Since you have the luxury of not having deadlines, unless they’re self-imposed, what inspires you to write now?
A: Everything! (Laughs.) I don’t write songs anymore, although I do write music. And some of that music, I suppose, could be the music part of songs. I’m used to writing in song form – let’s put it that way – and probably, unconsciously, I still do write song-form music.
Q: Meaning, music but not lyrics?
A: Yes. For me, nowadays, there is already an inherent lyric in the music on its own. I only listen to classical music; I don’t even listen to pop on the radio. I find myself listening to (classical) music and decoding what the composer was saying. I do that with Beethoven a lot. And, I suppose, I do it with my own music. I tend to write in sonata form.
Q: Decoding in terms of what you’re hearing, or in terms of historical knowledge of those composers and their work?
A: Yes, some of it may have some historical meaning in it. But when I listen to Beethoven, I hear a lot of revolutionary ideas and martial themes. Because it was very revolutionary; during Napoleonic times, they were overthrowing kings and monarchies.
Q: When do you write? Do you have a regular regimen, or is it whenever the mood hits you?
A: It’s whenever I’m in the mood. It can be first thing in morning. I can have the music running through my head; I think I dream a lot of this stuff. As a matter of fact, I realized when I was writing songs that I was sometimes unsure if the melody I’d just written was original, or had I heard it before? And it troubled me. Then, I realized, it was occurring in my dreams. I could dream entire symphonies and not remember them when I woke up.
Almost all songwriters have to ask themselves: ‘Has this been done before? Am I taking something from somebody else, unconsciously?' That happens with me a lot. … I think it does help to have a deadline to be productive, whether it’s your own, self-imposed deadline, or (that) the record company expects what they call ‘product.’ But there’s no particular reason for me to write, other than my own sense of, ‘OK, do something.’
Q: What about keeping in practice simply to maintain your digital dexterity and technique on the piano? Hank Jones, the great jazz pianist, once said: “If you don’t practice for a day, you know it. If you don’t practice for a few days, your wife knows it. And if you don’t practice for a week, the whole world knows it!”
A: I think you’d get a different answer from a different pianist. If you’re a virtuoso, you tend to lose a step, in terms of your own dexterity, if you haven’t practiced. I was never a virtuoso pianist. I recognized early on, as kid – even when I was taking piano lessons – that I was not going to be one of those guys. I think a lot of the songs I wrote were due to my limitations more than my expertise. My theory is: The only thing original anyone ever does is screw up. You can learn all the dots (in a musical score), but you can only create something really unique due to your incompetence. That’s how you come up with new things; you stumble on to something.
Q: Could you give an example?
A: Um, I’m trying to think one of the later things. With (the song) “The River of Dreams,” I was trying to figure out how to play what sounds like a three-chord progression. The song sounds like a gospel song. On first listen, you might think it’s a 1-4-5 (progression), big deal. But it’s not. It’s a 1-6-1 and a 9th. I just happened to stumble across it, and thought: “Wait a minute; I kind of like this – it appears to be one thing, and it’s actually not.” And it was accidental. Had it been a standard 1-4-5- thing, I wouldn’t have written it, because I’m not a gospel singer.
Q: You have the record for most performances at Madison Square Garden by one artist, and you have more to come. Out of curiosity, what was the first concert you ever attended at the Garden, and did you ever sneak in without a ticket?
A: Oh, yeah, I sneaked in places without a ticket. I went to see Jimi Hendrix back in the late 1960s. He was playing at what is now Flushing Meadows Tennis Stadium, where they have the U.S. Open. I went with a friend and made believe I was one of Hendrix’s roadies. I had on a baseball cap and wrapped some (electrical) cable around my shoulder. I started to try to talk with an English accent: ‘Jimi’s got these cables I need to take to him.’ I made my way closer and closer inside the venue, and I finally got close to backstage.
Then. Jimi’s famous roadie, Keith Robertson, motioned to me, and said: ‘You, come over here! You’re pretty good. Now, I’m going to put you to work.’ He had me lug Hendrix’s huge Marshall (speaker cabinets) onstage. … I spent the entire concert on the edge of the rotating stage, watching Hendrix perform – and watching my friends in the audience. I couldn’t believe it, and neither could they! I did that (phony roadie) thing a number of times.
Q: What about your first concert at Madison Square Garden?
A: The first big show I ever saw was at the original Madison Square Garden; it’s moved since then. This was back in the early 1950s, when I was little kid. My parents took me to a Christmas show there featuring … who was that singing cowboy?
Q: Roy Rogers?
A: No, not Roy — Gene Autry. He had a hit at the time with ‘Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer.’ We were up in nosebleed section and it was the biggest place I’d ever seen. It was kind of scary! Gene asked the audience to sing along. They did, but I guess not loud enough. So, he pulled out his two six-shooters, fired them, and said: ‘I said, everybody sing!' It scared the crap out of me, and I started singing, really loud.
Q: So, at a young age, you had a vivid preview of how the music business works.
A: (Laughs.) Yeah, I guess I did!
Q: Chuck Burgi, your drummer, replaced Phil Collins in the band Brand X in the late 1970s. You and Phil are, I believe, the only two singers who declined to appear on Frank Sinatra’s all-star 1993 “Duets” album, after learning you wouldn’t be singing with Frank, or even be in the same room with him. It was a gutsy move to decline, but do you have any regrets now?
A: No, I don’t regret it. I thought it would just be phony if I went in (the studio) and sang (alone), and made believe Frank was there. For me, the whole point of singing a song with Frank was to be with Frank, and to try to capture that dynamic. And, as much as I admired him – and still do to this day – I wasn’t comfortable to not sing with him. I mean, I don’t even think of myself as a singer. And to make believe Frank was there, I would have felt (even more) out of place. I just happen to sing, incidentally.
Q: Incidental to playing the piano?
A: Yeah. When I started out I was a pianist. When I was in my first band, everybody took turns trying to sing lead. And the band picked me to be lead, because – they said – ‘Your voice is better than (ours).’ I was singing in tandem with playing piano.
Q: This was before you joined The Hassles?
A: Yes, this was with The Lost Souls, around 1965. I joined the band to become the keyboard player. But somebody had to sing some of this stuff; I became the singer by default.
Q: No one, probably even not Frank Sinatra, grows up thinking: “I’m going to become an icon,” or “I’m going to become a part of the fabric of American culture.” You have done both, and have received a Kennedy Center Honor, among many other accolades. Do you feel comfortable being thought of as an icon, or would you not agree with that characterization?
A: Um, I don’t really think of myself as an icon. Maybe it’s more that what I’ve created has become this iconic thing. It’s funny – I never think of myself as a rock star. I don’t look like a rock star. I don’t dress like a rock star. But there you go; you hang around, stuff happens.
Q: The last time we spoke was in early 2001. At the time, you told me: “I don’t know who I am, and I kind of like that. Because I assume, at this age, that you’re kind of stuck in who you are. And one of the great things about being this age – and, of course, having a lot of bucks! – is that I’m open to anything. I can be whoever I want to be. I don’t even have to be the other guy I used to be. If, 10 years ago, somebody would have told me that, today, I’d be in the boat-building business, that I’d be playing classical piano, be single and dating, and that I was going to sell my (Long Island) house to Jerry Seinfeld (for $37 million), I would’ve laughed. So a lot of funny things happened, and I’m kind of enjoying them all. As far as asking, who am I? I don’t know. Am I a man in the midst of a middle-age crisis? I don’t think so. Am I an aged rock star? Yeah, I suppose so… Does that mean I have the other foot in the grave? I don’t know. But it doesn’t mean I’m still Billy Joel.”
So, here we are 15 years later. Who are you now?
A: I think I’m still that same guy. That’s interesting. I was 51 … Yeah, I remember that. I think I’m still the same old guy, just older. If that’s Billy Joel, I guess I’m him.
Q: Let’s go back in time, to 1970. Can you finish this song lyric? About two years ago, working in a rodeo…. I saw the strangest looking man, playing in a rock ‘n' roll band.
A: Oh, geez. “California Flash?” Oh my god! How do you know about that? That was (on the 1970 album) “Attila.” I don’t know what the hell I was trying to do
Q: In “Attila,” you were playing a very amped-up Hammond organ through a wah-wah pedal, a fuzztone, and other devices more commonly used by hard-rock and heavy-metal guitarists. Was there a cause-and-effect from having been at that Jimi Hendrix concert you conned your way into, and wanting to sound like him, only on an organ, instead of a guitar?
A: Yeah. I would have liked to do what Hendrix did with a piano. But I didn’t. I suppose that was my attempt.
Q: Here’s another “Atilla” lyric: I'll retaliate / Let’s see who’s laughing now?
A: Oh! “Revenge is Sweet.” I think I was all of 21.
Q: Were those lyrics prophetic? Were you seeking, if not exact revenge on someone, to make a strong point?
A: That’s an age when you have a lot of hostility in you. It’s probably why they take you, when you’re that age, in the Army. Because the Army wants people who are hostile, so they can channel that hostility their way. (He sings:) Revenge is sweet / My victory, complete. My God! It’s a strange age. You have tour head so far up your ass, you don’t see very well.
Q: When did you start to see things more clearly?
A: I don’t know. It was a long time ago, and I don’t really know who that guy (in “Attila”) is these days. But he was very ambitious!
Q: What do you think now when you look at the cover of Attila’s only album (which shows a mustachioed, long-haired Joel and drummer Jon Small, both in suits of armor, standing in a meat locker filled with animal carcasses)?
A: I hated that cover from the get-go! As soon as they explained what they were going to do with that photo, I said: “I don’t want to do that.” I didn’t know, in those days, that the artist could not do what the record company said. But I do have a good laugh when I see that cover.
Q: You’ve had enormous success. You also spent a number of years struggling to get your foot in the door. Given the benefit of hindsight, is success or failure a better creative impetus for you?
A: Hmm. I liked the process of writing (songs); I always liked the feeling of having written. Writing was always a battle for me, but I loved when the battle was over. The only problem was that it was only a matter of time before postpartum depression kicked in! It’s a vicious cycle, the feeling of having been productive and then the wearing off of that feeling. It does take a toll on you. I don’t know if other writers go through this, but there must be something similar with people who have written.
Q: Your half-brother, Alexander, is a classical-music conductor. Have the two of you ever informally collaborated, or just traded shop talk?
A: We do talk shop. He’s an opera conductor and he’s steeped in that tradition. He works in Europe all the time. He does very well, he’s very successful. He just made his American debut in Boston, doing “The Merry Widow” with the Boston Lyric Opera Company. It’s interesting to compare notes with him, because there are a lot of odd similarities. I think we’re both very much like our old man.
Q: How so?
A: Well, I remember my dad would play classical pieces on our old upright piano at home. And I’d listen from another room and think it was beautiful. He’d play Beethoven, Chopin, Rachmaninoff, but he’d walk out, mumbling: “I’m not good enough.” He was always discontented, and I notice that in myself and in my brother. We’re hardly ever content. It must be a family trait.
Q: How do you strike a balance at a stadium gig between playing your hits and deep album cuts?
A: We do album tracks and I prefer playing them to the big hits. You have to do a certain amount of big hits, because the audience wants to hear what they know. But if you play too many album tracks, it’s like playing your whole new album, and people go: “Uh-oh.” There are a lot of songs people don’t know I’ve written, which are the album tracks, and I find it interesting to revisit them. Sometimes, you get what we call a “fielder’s choice.” I tell the audience: “I can’t do everything, so I'll give you your choice of two songs.” And, depending on their response, that’s what we do.
Q: Is it possible to achieve even a hint of musical nuance in a stadium?
A: Yes, I think you can. It depends on the acoustics, the night, the audience. And it depends on us, which is one of the pleasures of playing live, because anything can happen. We’re not programmed to do everything the same every night. We’re human. I even explain it to the audience: “We haven’t done this song in a long time, and we may (screw) it up, but what you'll hear is an authentic (screw) up” … Sometimes, what makes things feel really good for the band is we’re all at the same place at the same moment, and the only thing that can account for that is some kind of musician chemistry, which is difficult to explain. The other thing is the ability to have fun. The great thing about rock ‘n' roll and pop music that I’ve recognized over the year is the element of fun. Once that goes, it just becomes a job. If you’re not having fun, you’re not doing it right. The musicians I work with enjoy what they’re doing, and I do, too.
Q: Linda Ronstadt once told me she prefers to have musicians in her band who are about the same age as her, because they all share the same musical reference points. Does that apply to your band as well?
A: I think it does. The youngest guy with me now is in his mid-forties. When we do a (pre-concert) sound-check – and this drives my sound man crazy – we never play my stuff. We play stuff by the Stones, Beatles, Otis Redding, Hendrix, Wilson Pickett, The Rascals, you name it. We just jam on other people’s stuff. The fact is that the guys in my band know the same songs I know, because they all came out of bar bands, like me.
Q: Ultimately, how — and for what — would you like to be remembered, and not remembered?
A: How would I want to be remembered? For being a good dad, I guess.
Q: And musically?
A: Well, I would hope the music would be able to continue, in one form or another, whether through my own recordings or some variation thereof. I don’t know why, because I’m not going to be around to appreciate how much I’m appreciated. As I get older, I wrestle with these questions more and more. Part of it is: “Why should I care? I won’t be here.” On the other hand, there’s the ego – you want to be known for having done something. But these are all philosophical questions. And I’m not a philosopher.