This article was first published in May 1982
A candid conversation with the kid from hicksville—and one of america’s hottest singer-songwriters—about his music, his feuds and his macho image
In a time when record collections are updated as often as wardrobes, Billy Joel seemed destined to be another fad. True, his 1977 single “Just the Way You Are” was a smash hit, but both he and his music seemed too normal to make it in the world of musical flash. For one thing, Joel doesn’t look like a pop star: He has a nice, boyish smile and big, sad eyes that bulge like Marty Feldman’s. For another, his tunes are catchy, hummable melodies, but not what anybody would call hip. “Just the Way You Are,” for instance, with simple, straightforward lyrics has a bossa-nova beat, of all things.
But within months of that 1977 release, three other songs from the same album, “The Stranger,” broke into the pop charts, making the album one of the highest selling ever, and The New York Times was calling Joel “the hottest male singer in the land.” In the five years since, Joel has sold an astounding 26,000,000 record albums, has received innumerable honors from the music industry, including five Grammys, and Playboy readers selected him as their favorite composer for two years, as their favorite vocalist for three years and as their favorite pianist for an unprecedented four consecutive years (1979-1982). He continues to sell out concert halls and auditoriums throughout the United States, Europe and Japan and is easily one of the world’s most popular performers.
When art becomes commercially successful, however, it is looked at with distrust; and in pop music, the hostility can be devastating. The Times quickly forgot its early superlative and reviewer Robert Palmer set the tone for subsequent press attacks: “Yes, Mr. Joel has written some memorable pop melodies. Yes, he’s an energetic, flamboyant performer. But no, this listener can’t stand him. . . . He’s the sort of popular artist who makes elitism seem not just defensible but necessary.” The slings and arrows stung. After Joel’s “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” from his 1980 album “Glass Houses” became number one on the record charts, a Rolling Stone critics’ poll dubbed the song “the worst ever written about rock ‘n’ roll.” At least as far as the press was concerned, Joel could now do nothing right. His appearance in 1979 in Cuba was criticized by the right. When he appeared in Israel, he was blasted by the left. In neutral territory, there was still flak: Rock ‘n’ roll’s hard core wrote him off, charging that his music was cranked out for mass appeal. Fans of his ballads criticized him for his rockers; he was condemned by the Catholic Church (for “Only the Good Die Young”), called a sexist (for “She’s Always a Woman” and “Big Shot”) and sued for stealing a song ( “My Life”).
As a result of all the heat, the young man who seemed too ordinary to be a pop star became a figure of fiery controversy, reacting to press criticism by tearing up newspaper reviews onstage and berating his detractors through loudspeakers. He’d grown up, after all, something of a street kid, and street kids hit back.
He was born May 9, 1949, William Martin Joel and was raised in Hicksville, Long Island, a blue-collar suburb near New York City. He began piano lessons at four (both parents, who were divorced when he was a boy, were musical). His father, who was German, took a job in Europe and Billy grew up among women as a cocky little boy. He became an amateur boxer as a teenager (and earned a broken nose) while he continued his musical training. One Sunday evening in 1964, his life changed as he sat mesmerized in front of a TV set, watching four smartass kids from England usher in a new era of music. For Joel, those few minutes when the Beatles performed on “The Ed Sullivan Show” were the difference between life as it was in Hicksville and life as it could be—as it would be.
At 14, he formed the first of a series of garage bands. He played clubs till dawn before he was of age; as a result, he slept through much of high school. Although he passed his courses, he wasn’t allowed to graduate, because of poor attendance. In bands called The Hassles and Attila, Joel tried to make it as a professional rock-’n’-roller. When the bands’ three albums flopped, he found himself alone, broke and depressed, and, on the verge of suicide, checked himself into a mental hospital for a horrifying three weeks of “observation.” When he was released, he managed to get a solo record deal, but he signed away a part of his songwriting rights in the process. The resulting album was recorded too fast and made Joel sound, he admits, “like Alvin and the Chipmunks.” Live performances in which he was remembered more for impersonations of Joe Cocker than for his songs also characterized that period.
When the album bombed, Billy left New York with Elizabeth Weber (who had been married to one of his bandmates) and her son, Sean. They moved to Los Angeles to try to straighten out the business deals while he worked incognito at a piano bar. A new album was released on another label, Columbia, and Billy had a cult hit with the single based on the experience, “Piano Man.” But that album, too, faded, and a follow-up album, “Streetlife Serenade,” did even worse. Interestingly, however, Joel had received critical accolades for “Piano Man,” and so began to sell out Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center for live performances.
Billy and Elizabeth, who were married in 1973, returned to New York to complete his “Turnstiles” LP. It received more attention, especially when Barbra Streisand recorded “New York State of Mind.” Elizabeth took over as Joel’s manager and in addition to renegotiating his contract with Columbia, she introduced him to producer Phil Ramone. It was Ramone’s production of Joel’s next album, “The Stranger,” that made the difference, and six months later came the success of “Just the Way You Are.” Since then, Joel has been a permanent fixture on the world’s musical scene.
To explore his contentious life, Playboy sent San Francisco-based writers David and Victoria Sheff to meet with him at his home on Long Island. (David Sheff’s last interview for Playboy was with John Lennon and Yoko Ono in January 1981.) The Sheffs report:
“We were surprised, upon arrival, to find him so nearly invisible, so hard to pick out from the group of young men—assistants and assistants to assistants—scurrying about his offices in downtown Hicksville. He is short, with a slight potbelly and hair sticking up like Dennis the Menace’s. ‘Want a soda?’ he asked, grabbing a root beer.
“We sat down at a long table and chatted until Elizabeth walked in. Joel’s wife of eight years, Elizabeth is the inspiration for most of his love songs, and she’s preceded by a reputation as a tough cookie; but when she walked in that afternoon, she was open and friendly. Toward Billy, she was loving and motherly. Elizabeth made all the decisions about Billy’s meeting times and places. He deferred continually to her counsel. When she had advised us what time to show up at their new house a couple of days later, she turned to Billy: ‘All set? I’ll race you home!’ They waved goodbye, walked outside and jumped onto their wheels: he on a root-beer-colored 1340-c.c. Harley-Davidson Electra Glide, she on a red 750-c.c. Yamaha Virago. Seconds later, they were tearing down the center of town, side by side.
“When we arrived at their house in Oyster Bay, a moving van was still being unloaded outside. There were almost no furnishings in their small stone castle. The living room, set over the crashing waves of Long Island Sound, was empty except for a grand piano. Billy showed us around proudly. As the move proceeded, and the interview began, the mayhem was increased by the arrival of two parents, one in-law and the parents of Elizabeth’s ex-husband, all of them dodging the men who were carrying boxes and hanging pictures—to say nothing of two intrepid interviewers. Joel was always available to approve or disapprove a furniture decision, no matter how minor. He almost lost his temper a few times but caught himself. Mostly, he enjoyed the constant stream of diversions. As Elizabeth remarked, ‘He loves being the godfather of the family.’
“A couple of hectic days passed and slowly a number of Billy Joels began to emerge: one large part kid, some part James Dean, another part gushing romantic, veering from sentimental to sarcastic at the oddest times. One evening, in a contemplative mood, he sat down at the piano and poured his soul into a haunting classical piece, and then choked us all up by playing a beautiful version of ‘Lennon’s In My Life.’ Abruptly, he cut into a silly ditty, a raggy ‘Good Evening Friends,’ changing the mood jarringly. There seemed to be a fear of taking any emotion to the limit, lest there be no return.
“That fear showed at other times: When the interview came to its most personal moments, Joel would find a reason to end things—and he would be off in his leathers and helmet, aboard his Harley, exploring the limits of each gear as he watched out of the corner of his eye for police.
“One night, after all the relatives and employees had gone, we sat outside on the rocks above the shore. He serenely cast his favorite lure out into the bay. There were no fish to be caught; that wasn’t the point. The sun was setting. Joel, dreamy-eyed and content, recited a chant he had learned long ago when he worked on an oyster boat: ‘Red sky in the morning, sailors take warning. Red sky at night, sailors’ delight.’ The sun confirmed it; everything was OK: His Boston Whaler was anchored nearby. His fishing boat and Elizabeth’s racing boat and sailboat were safely moored. His eyes darted from his boat to his salt-water swimming pool with the juke-box beside it, then to his beautiful new home. He looked at us and spoke thoughtfully, shaking his head. ‘I keep waiting for the grownups to come home,’ he said.”
Playboy: It all began with The Stranger. Didn’t 10,000,000 people buy that album?
Joel: I don’t know. I don’t want to know. I can’t grasp it. I know something must have happened, because I’ve got this house, these motorcycles, but I can’t grasp 10,000,000 people. I can’t grasp 10,000,000 anything.
Playboy: It became Columbia Records’ biggest-selling album ever, didn’t it?
Joel: It sounds good, but think about it: What does it have to do with anything? Did Jimi Hendrix, who I think made some of the best albums ever, have the biggest-selling albums on his label? Does biggest equal best? I just can’t think in those terms.
Playboy: The song Just the Way You Are, from that album, obviously hit a responsive chord.
Joel: Yeah, I was just saying, “I love you just the way you are.” Simple. It was a normal thing to say. I think I’m normal, not a particular innovator, and that takes people by surprise. It’s good to hear it’s OK to be human. Maybe there’s a lot of pressure not to be the way we are: that I can’t love you unless you change. I’m OK, you suck. Who wants to hear that all the time? I’m not trying to be a preacher or deliver a message. I say what everybody says, but people find it a revelation to hear it: “Oh, wow, I’ve thought of that!” What most people consider mundane, I consider romantic.
Playboy: We read somewhere that Just the Way You Are has been played at more weddings than any other popular song these past few years.
Joel: Yeah, whatever that means. I get a lot of letters that make me wonder, Wow, have I written Here Comes the Bride? Am I going to be blamed for the divorce, too?
Playboy: You could write a song for that.
Joel: Right. [Sings] “Why didn’t you change to try and please me? You shouldn’t have listened to me, I was wrong. . . .”
Playboy: The common criticism of your music is that you consciously formulate it for the mass market. How do you respond to that?
Joel: Listen, it’s a definite temptation to repeat a successful formula. But I have never done the same thing twice. I don’t care what anybody says! After Stranger, I could have done Son of Stranger, but I’ve never done that. To keep me interested, there always has to be something new, something different.
When I come up with a melody, it is not calculated. It’s like an erection: It happens. There’s no formula. I do try to write complete melodies; that’s a constant. Because there are only so many notes and so many combinations, it gets tougher all the time to stay away from what’s been done before. But everything I’ve done is different. The proof is that some people think I’m a balladeer, others think I’m a rock-’n’-roller, still others think I’m the “piano man.” I don’t have a signature. Yes, critics have said I write cleverly and without spontaneity, in cold blood. I don’t. I write in hot blood. If it’s commercial, it just happens to be commercial. If you don’t like my music, fine. But don’t question my motives.
Playboy: Reviewers apparently do just that.
Joel: [Angrily] What they say has absolutely no effect on me! I really don’t care what they say. It doesn’t bother me. It’s irrelevant!
Playboy: You’ve certainly been bothered to the point of ripping up newspaper articles onstage.
Joel: I’ve been known to do that. I ripped up a thing in the paper that said I had been turned down for an apartment at the Dakota [on New York City’s West Side] because I was an admitted drug user. They printed that without giving me a chance to rebut it. In an interview I did a long time ago, I admitted I once smoked a joint before going onstage. That came up in the meeting with the Dakota board—these bankers and lawyers. We’re looked at as undesirables—addicted to drugs and sex orgies. In truth, we happen to be duller than those bankers. So that comes out in the paper: Billy Joel was turned down for being an admitted drug user. I did rip that one up onstage—and there have been others.
Where I come from, somebody smacks you in the face, you smack him right back. You don’t turn the other cheek. You hit him back as hard as you can. Onstage, I have a forum for saying what I think. Reviewers can say something bad in the newspapers, but they have to take into consideration that if I’m going to play a 20,000-seater the next night, I’m going to say exactly what I think of a review. The smart thing for me to do would be to forget it, not to mention it, but that’s just the way I am. [Sings] “Just the way I am. . . .” Well . . . how the hell does a reviewer know why I’m doing what I do? He has no idea what motivates me! For the most part, I don’t give a shit. I think it’s funny. I love getting bad reviews—especially when they’re ass-backward. I read it aloud to my audience and ridicule the reviewer.
Playboy: What about the New York Times reviewer Robert Palmer, who said you have as much to do with rock ‘n’ roll as “Beethoven has with a sneeze”?
Joel: He’s irrelevant. He is nothing. He gave away his prejudice in his review. He said, “I never liked him.” So why the hell did he come to review the concert in the first place? I mean, he doesn’t fool anybody. I will not write what the critics think I should write, and that infuriates them most of all.
Playboy: You don’t seem to acknowledge the purpose of critics.
Joel: Oh, but I do. Criticism is healthy. It’s needed. I’ve been busted for things where they were right to bust me. Sometimes the show wasn’t up to par and they say the show wasn’t right. But if somebody doesn’t like the music up front, he’s not going to like the show. That’s not criticism. That’s just publicly stating your prejudices.
There’s another thing to consider. The reviewers never pay for tickets. They don’t know the value of anything. They never buy the records. They get them free in the mail. They don’t stand in line or pay money like everybody else. They’re not going to a show because they want to, they’re going because they have to. How do they know whether a show is any good or not? Tell them to ask the people who waited in line and paid the money.
Palmer said something like, “The audience probably liked the show but. . . .” What’s he saying? If an audience loves a show and the reviewer hates it, what does that say? He’s saying the whole audience is a bunch of idiots. That review said that I make elitism defensible. So he’s admitted he’s elitist. If you’re busted for something you did wrong, that really hurts. You feel stupid. But the vitriolic, hateful reviews reveal themselves to be just that.
Playboy: All reviewing is a form of elitism, isn’t it? Critics set the highest standards.
Joel: If the reviewer goes in hating the performer—an opera star, say, or the opera itself—he’s not being fair. He could write the review without going to the performance. Where does anybody get off—— [Smack! He destroys a fly in mid-air.]
Playboy: Good shot.
Joel: I never miss.
Playboy: Has your press gotten worse as you’ve gotten more popular?
Joel: I think what happens is that after you reach a certain point, the press can’t control your career anymore. All it can do is comment on it. I think there’s a certain amount of bitterness. It loses power, so the only thing it can do is attack, attack, attack. It doesn’t affect anything, except people who are fans of critics, and I don’t know many of those.
What is rock ‘n’ roll, anyway? The critics take away a lot of fun because they pontificate about something that should be enjoyed. They get very pretentious, intellectual, and they don’t seem like they’re getting any fun out of it. They have to analyze, critique and dissect. When they are at the concert, they aren’t hearing the concert. They’re judging it. A record, the same thing. I listen to a record, I just let it hit me. I don’t sit there and critique. It’s not an intellectual process: “Oh, here is Chuck Berry’s new album. Ya da da da da da. Mr. Berry’s chord progressions are very primitive, reminiscent of early whatever.” What the hell is he talking about? I don’t know. It’s making it mathematics. And I hate math!
Playboy: You said some of that in It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me.
Joel: As I said, I don’t turn the other cheek. It didn’t help me any with the press, ya know [laughing], “There’s a new band in town, but you can’t get the sound from a story in a magazine.”
Playboy: A Rolling Stone critics’ poll voted It’s Still Rock and Roll the worst song ever written about rock ‘n’ roll.
Joel: The song is an out-and-out attack on the press, so why shouldn’t it try to get even? I’m totally discounting everything these guys say. I don’t sit around and play footsie with the press, especially with Rolling Stone. I have a running battle with them. I don’t know when it started, but I know I’m not about to let it drop. I’m going to keep it going. I kind of dig it.
Playboy: What did you mean by “It’s still rock ‘n’ roll to me”?
Joel: Everybody puts things in categories. Everything has to fit into a certain bag: New Wave, next phase, dance, funk, punk. . . . Call it what you want, but it sounds like the music I heard in the early Sixties. The New Wave isn’t new. It’s just the explosion of a lot of groups, which I think is good.
Playboy: So what is rock ‘n’ roll to you?
Joel: It’s music with a beat. No, that’s not right. It’s music that has passion in it, whether it’s a ballad or whatever. There’s some kind of intensity.
Playboy: Are you arguing that music other than rock ‘n’ roll lacks passion?
Joel: Well, take M.O.R. [middle of the road]: You can hear it and not hear it. That’s how a lot of music is. Rock ‘n’ roll is music you have to hear. People say I’m not rock ‘n’ roll because of my ballads, but that’s not right: Take a song like Yesterday, a ballad created by a member of a rock-’n’-roll band. Is that rock ‘n’ roll? If you’re a rock-’n’-roll snob who hates ballads, you never would have listened to the Beatles. If the Beatles were around today, they would never make the hard-rock stations. You see, elitism of any kind is bad. You’re shutting yourself off. Christ—Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones have done ballads. I think a lot of it has to do with the emotion behind it. If it’s performed with passion and recorded with intensity, and it’s written in some rock form, it’s rock ‘n’ roll. If I like it and I hear it on the radio and it gets me going, stimulates me, it’s rock ‘n’ roll.
Playboy: Haven’t you ever been stimulated by a Frank Sinatra song or a Beethoven symphony?
Joel: They don’t stimulate you in the same way.
Playboy: What’s the difference?
Joel: It’s the difference between Valium and speed, I suppose—to use a drug analogy. And we’re talking about rock ‘n’ roll in general—the vast group of pop music we call rock ‘n’ roll now. Classic rock, the Chuck Berry and Little Richard stuff, is even more defined—and it’s coming back, by the way. The kids are discovering rock-a-billy: Billy Burnette, Stray Cats. It’s interesting to kids, but it’s not new; it’s rehash. It’s coming back as part of a cycle, like there are dance cycles and blues cycles. It’s constantly changing and refreshing itself. Hybridizing. So the purest version of rock ‘n’ roll is being kicked alive again. And it’s nice to see it sit up and smile. I welcome it back.
You see, whatever the new stuff you want to talk about, I’m not intimidated. I think new is good, it’s healthy. It’s giving the whole music business an enema, which it needs periodically to clean itself out.
There will always be crap—garbage like groups that go onstage and blow up Cadillacs. But that’s like a circus. It’s a show, but it doesn’t necessarily have a lot to do with music. Even with all the new groups, there aren’t a lot of them really breaking through. Music is very conservative now, really. When I was a teenager, music progressed because people were exposed to a lot of everything. On the radio, one pop station would play new music, blues, soul. There don’t seem to be any melting-pot stations now, only heavy-metal stations, easy-listening stations, R & B, whatever. People are mostly exposed to one thing, which I think is bad. You got a lot of people who listen only to New Wave. You got people who listen only to heavy metal. They shut out everything else, past and present, in the world. They want to get an ax and kill Anne Murray. They can’t stand her; she’s the worst. But because they don’t like that kind of music doesn’t mean she’s bad or not right. If she ever does something they might like, they’ll never know. They shut themselves off from all kinds of music: That’s what’s bad. It’s like getting a steady diet of one kind of food. You get anemic after a while.
Playboy: It’s still rock ‘n’ roll to you, but the whole point of a lot of the New Wave and punk is that music is dying, that it’s going nowhere.
Joel: I somewhat agree with that. I understand the philosophy. But it’s happened before. That’s what I was saying before: An enema is good now and then, and that’s the effect of the people trying to tear it all down.
Playboy: Part of it is a rebellion against the more complicated, heavily produced rock ‘n’ roll.
Joel: Yeah, but you listen to a lot of the new groups and it’s not that simple. It’s very intellectual stuff. It’s not “I love you, baby, let’s dance.” Now, that’s rock ‘n’ roll, right? A lot of the new stuff is sadism and rejection and all kinds of anger and political stuff. It’s not stripping music down to basic rock ‘n’ roll. Maybe it is musically, productionwise, but lyrically, it is very sophisticated. I happen to prefer records that sound good. But I do agree that killing dinosaurs is healthy. It’s a part of life. Old things have to die and young ones take their place.
Playboy: What constitutes a dinosaur?
Joel: Something that sits back and lives off its own fat. It’s there just ‘cause it’s so big.
Playboy: For example?
Joel: Big, huge groups that go out there and have tons of equipment and 5000 gongs and they’re not doing anything interesting or meaningful, they’re just doing it because they are that group and everybody will come see them make a lot of money. Emerson, Lake and Palmer did it. They kind of short-circuited. They got to be a dinosaur; they weren’t doing anything except being Emerson, Lake and Palmer.
Playboy: You’ve been accused of being in that category.
Joel: I’m sure a lot of people look at me and think I’m a dinosaur. They might not like what I’ve done in the past, they might not like what I do in the future, but I’m not resting on my laurels. Still, I suppose rock ‘n’ roll may have run its course. It’s quite possible that we may have seen the golden age of rock ‘n’ roll come and go. What we see now may be an aftershock—maybe even what I’m doing. Who knows? Maybe it’s not rock ‘n’ roll anymore. I don’t know. I’m just a songwriter who happens to like to play what I call rock ‘n’ roll.
My time will come just like everybody’s. It’s a natural progression. I’m not so hung up on being number one and staying on top that it’s going to drive me crazy. If I’m not number one, it doesn’t mean I’m at the bottom. People think I’m so hung up on being on top that I’ll do whatever it takes to stay there. They say I came out with Glass Houses to take advantage of the New Wave.
Playboy: Did you? Some critics said you were imitating Elvis Costello’s New Wave.
Joel: I like Elvis Costello, but I have never tried to duplicate anyone. If I consciously try to emulate anybody, it’s the Beatles. I’ve tried to compose in a certain style—for instance, I was thinking of Ray Charles when I sat down to write New York State of Mind—but that’s different. I am inspired by performers, but I don’t try to copy people. We didn’t set out to make Glass Houses New Wave. We looked at it as a rock-’n’-roll album. But we knew they would throw rocks at it.
Playboy: Hence the cover, which shows you throwing a rock at your glass house.
Joel: Right. It was, “I’m going to throw a rock at the image people have of me as this mellow balladeer.” We had been doing rock ‘n’ roll before, but there happened to be more of it on this record. The old thing about people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones—I don’t believe it. I think, Why not? Take chances. I really wanted to throw a rock at my own house.
Anyway, playing all that rock ‘n’ roll was fun. One rock-’n’-roll song kicked off another. Also, I’ve started to jump around onstage more. I used to stay behind the piano.
Playboy: A newspaper clip remarked that your stage show changed in that direction after you saw Bruce Springsteen. It spoke about a rivalry between the two of you.
Joel: I don’t think we’re anything alike at all. Bruce writes his Jersey stuff and I write my Long Island stuff. I thought that guy was a friend of mine. We don’t have any rivalry. There’s plenty of room for both of us. Bruce is the Boss: I have no pretensions to his throne. I just do what I do. I’ve seen Bruce. He’s great. But I don’t know how good I am, because I’m up there working. It’s another thing the press does: “Billy Joel is trying to be Bruce Springsteen.” I get a kick out of it. It’s hard for people to realize you’re just doing what you want to do. The press has nothing better to do than attack. I’ve lost a lot of respect for what I read.
Playboy: Nonetheless, your last album, Songs in the Attic, got generally good reviews. Why?
Joel: I don’t know. It worries me. It means something is probably wrong.
Playboy: Sometimes it sounds like Billy Joel against the world—or at least against the press. What else gets to you?
Joel: Bureaucracy: record companies, the telephone company, the post office and, oh, yeah—the Department of Motor Vehicles. I might take a swing at that. I mean, everybody hates that place! [A fly buzzes by; Joel nails it] Flies. I’m constantly rebelling against flies. Authority. When I was a kid in school, I always saw how stupid rules were. I would do something that didn’t hurt anybody, but it broke the rules and I would get in trouble for it. My life has been a constant rebellion against that. “This is my life. . . . Leave me alone.”
Playboy: You’re quoting from My Life.
Playboy: You were taken to court over My Life, weren’t you?
Joel: Yeah. [His eyes narrow and he smiles sinisterly] Hey, you want to go to Reno and beat somebody up? That’s where he lives—the creep who says I stole his song!
Playboy: What happened?
Joel: This is it: I wrote that song. I remember writing that song. I gave birth to that song. It’s my song. But I got a call one day saying I was being sued by a guy who had a song with the same kind of notes that he copyrighted and sent to Columbia Records or somebody, and they sent it back, saying, “Thanks, but no, thanks.” Based on the fact that I wrote the same kind of song and the fact that Columbia had his tape, he said I heard his tape and stole the song. When I heard about it, I said, “Let’s go to court. Let’s kill him. I want to kill him.” But the lawyers said, “Look at it this way. You’re going to go to Reno, Nevada. You’re a big successful rock star. Here’s this poor little schlump. The jury’s going to be from Reno. We’ll have our musicologist, he’ll have his musicologist. Who’s to say? You can lose.”
I said, “How can I lose? I wrote the song! I know I wrote the song! My wife is a witness!” “Your wife can’t testify.” “But she was there! I went through all hell writing this damn thing!” Anyway, they told me I should settle out of court. I said, “What! Why should I settle? I wrote the goddamn song!” But they advised me to settle, because life is not fair. So they settled for the minimum amount of money. After everything, the guy probably got $5000. It was a nuisance suit. But by the agreement, we were supposed to get a letter saying that I did not steal his song. I was totally against it, but I went along with the lawyers for once. So I’m supposed to have this letter. I’ve never seen this letter. And I hear that the guy does an act now and says, “This is a song I wrote that Billy Joel stole.” So I’m going to kill this guy. [He downs a glass of Scotch] I want to break his legs with my own hands.
Somebody else was going to sue me for another song; he claimed I was in a movie theater and heard a tape of his that I stole. When I heard about it, I said, “Listen, no more of this settling shit. If somebody sues, you have to countersue. Tell the guy, ‘I’m going to countersue you for every penny you ever make, and I’ll give it all to charity. I don’t want your stinking money. You go after me, I’ll kill you!’“ I never stole nobody’s song! I’m still mad at the lawyers for letting me settle. It sucks. Lawyers kind of run the country. So, anyway, I don’t care how much it will cost me. If it ever happens again, I’m going to go for the jugular. After my lawyers went back to tell the second guy we wouldn’t settle, we never heard from him again.
Playboy: Do you——
Joel: Man, the thing that bugged me about it was that it was like they were taking away my kid! I give birth to these songs. I go through labor pains with these songs. It’s not the money. It’s the birthright. Writing is the worst thing. It’s the scariest thing in the world. I hate to write. I absolutely hate writing. You tear your guts out of yourself. You’re in the middle of a hot, dry desert. There’s nothing but this blank piece of paper in front of you and this piano that has 88 white teeth staring at you, waiting to bite your hands off. That’s what it’s like. It’s horrible—until you finish. Then it’s, “Don’t talk to me! I just did something really cool. Look at my child.”
For somebody to come up and say, “That’s not your child. . . .” No way. Fuck you! So if I ever meet that guy, I’m going to break his legs, I’m going to break his face. That may sound real macho and stupid and brutal, but I don’t care: Don’t take my child away. That’s it.
Playboy: OK. Earlier, you said you found the normal to be romantic. What did you mean?
Joel: To me, one of the noblest endeavors in the world is the guy who just tries to bring up a family and goes to work every day from nine to five, battling inflation. It’s romantic to me: the workingman, just trying to cope and survive. People think it’s dull, they think what I do is fascinating; but I look at it the other way.
Playboy: Isn’t it pretty easy to romanticize when you’ve got enough money not to have to do it?
Joel: Maybe it is, but the people in that life can’t see it, it’s too subjective for them. But I’ve done it, I’ve been there. Back then, I still felt the same way: It’s a noble thing just to strive. I’m trying to point out to people, what you’re doing is worth while, it’s good. Make sure you’re doing what you like to do to begin with. Don’t let anybody else tell you what to do. Find out what your real talent is; fulfill your potential. Be good at what you do and be happy; otherwise, your unhappiness and your unfulfilled life will become a burden to me and the rest of society. You’re doing everybody a favor by fulfilling your life, especially in America. I’ve been around the world, and there’s no other place where you really got a good shot like you do here. So those thoughts and observations, whatever, inspire me.
Playboy: Your songs are often contradictions within themselves: A fairly tough, raw statement comes packaged in a sweet melody.
Joel: That’s true. Probably because my music and lyrics aren’t written at the same time. I always write the music first. A lot of times I write bail-out lyrics, just to carry along the melody while I work on the real lyrics. My Life was originally [singing] “Welcome back, welcome back, welcome back to the real life.” Those were the bail-out lyrics. Honesty was originally Sodomy. My drummer, Liberty DeVitto, will sometimes make up some dirty lyrics and we use those until it gets to the point where I say, “Uh-oh, I’d better write real lyrics for this or I’ll have to get up onstage and sing Lib’s words.” I can just see getting up onstage and going [singing], “Sodomy, it’s such a lonely word.”
Playboy: Are lyrics less important to you?
Joel: No, words are just as important as music, but the first thing you hear with any song is the music. You hear the melody first.
Playboy: So you’re saying that no matter how brilliant the words, no one is going to care if they’re not packaged prettily?
Joel: Dylan was the only one who could get away with not having the music as complete as the lyrics. A lot of times, I just write words for the sound of them, to complement a particular key or a particular pattern of notes. Not to take anything away from the importance of lyrics, but the melody has to be complete first. It has to stand up alone. If my words don’t emotionally match the music, that’s because they are made to fit in afterward—and I guess that’s backward from classic songwriting. You’re supposed to write a poem or something and set it to music.
Playboy: Have you tried that?
Joel: I’ve tried it. It ends up as a pretentious pile of garbage. I’m not a poet. When everybody was trying to figure out the hidden meanings behind the Beatles’ songs, I was just listening. When Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds came out, I didn’t think of LSD. I said, “Well, that’s a nonsense song. That’s OK. The words sound really pretty.” A lot of people I knew were having stoned discussions about what the songs meant; they were playing the records backward and turning the album covers upside down, and I used to sit there and go, “You’re all full of shit. It doesn’t mean anything more than it says.”
Playboy: What about songs by Dylan or Paul Simon or the Beatles, songs that required you to think about the words?
Joel: If I had to work at figuring it out, I stopped there. I liked that stuff because of the imagery, and maybe it had a definite symbolic message, but I couldn’t bother sitting around to figure it out. I liked the sound of it.
Playboy: Wasn’t some of your early material with the group The Hassles pretty stony, psychedelic music?
Joel: It was an attempt at being psychedelic without ever having taken acid. It was a stab at that kind of imagery, but it really wasn’t my kind of thing. The early songs were either about love and girls or pretty abstract stuff. When you’re a teenager, you go through very heavy heartbreaks. You think your love is the only love in the world. I wrote a couple of those songs and then said, “Well, I’ve said that. Now I have to say something abstract and surreal.” So I’d go on about the cosmic rings of Saturn. I couldn’t relate to the San Francisco music like Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. It was all a little too profound for me. I couldn’t get into the heavy drug message of “One pill makes you larger and one pill makes you small.” I thought Grace Slick was talking about aspirin. I didn’t find out about drugs until later in life. I liked the folk stuff, but I couldn’t relate to a lot of it because it was all acoustic guitar. It didn’t transfer very well to the piano. Blowin’ in the Wind sounds pretty horrible on piano unless you do a sort of Gospel version.
Playboy: What did you listen to while growing up?
Joel: I liked The Rolling Stones a lot. Their music was dirty and ragged and there were mistakes all over the place. My friends would go, “Wow, did you hear that note the drummer played?” They claimed they were doing that stuff on purpose, but I knew they were mistakes. I liked every song on every Beatles album. In school, I always was in chorus, even though I thought chorus was kind of faggy. I did it because it was one of the easier classes to do and I did like to sing. So there was that kind of music. Elvis was a little before me, but I do remember doing an Elvis Presley impression when I was in the fourth grade. It was the first thing I ever did in front of people. I sang Hound Dog and I was jiggling my hips like Elvis. I remember this because the fifth-grade girls started screaming. I really dug the fifth-grade girls. I thought, Hey, this is pretty neat. When the girls started screaming, the teacher pulled me off the stage. She said it was because I was wiggling my hips. Now, in fourth grade, you don’t have hips. Anyway, I listened to everything. I loved Traffic later on. Steve Winwood is a hero. Paul McCartney.
Playboy: So you grew up wanting to become a rock star?
Joel: I don’t feel like a rock star today. Rock stars to me are still Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger. I’m supposed to be a rock star, but I just feel like the guy from Hicksville, only I was able to get out of Hicksville. But it still takes me by surprise when people come up and do those [screeching] “Oh, Billy Joel!” things. I don’t look any better than I did ten years ago. How come all these girls are coming on to me now? Where were they in high school when I needed them?
I don’t think I’ll ever get used to it. I ride in limousines and I sit in the back and I giggle, because I really don’t belong there. I don’t have no three-piece suit and briefcase, like you’re supposed to in a limousine. I sit in my jeans and T-shirt and smoke Camels and drink root beer. You’re not supposed to let people see you when you’re driving around in a limousine, but I stick my head out and go, “Nyah, nyah!” I play with the TV and the stereo. It’s fun because I don’t belong there.
Playboy: How do you handle recognition on the streets?
Joel: That’s kind of funny or weird, depending on the situation. On my bike, I stop at a light and somebody will say, “Hey, Mr. Joel,” or “Hey, B.J.” I’m pretty shy, so it’s a great way to meet the world, to tell you the truth. But it can get to be too much. One day, I found I couldn’t go to Yankee games anymore. That was a drag.
Joel: I wouldn’t see the game. Everybody would be coming up for autographs and every time I’d look down—bam! Reggie [Jackson] would have hit one out of the park. I’d always miss it. One time I didn’t shave, I wore sunglasses, I brought one of those radios, I put a bandanna around my head and I made believe I didn’t speak English. But suddenly there was a whole bunch of kids behind me, pointing, singingHonesty. I really felt like a jerk. On the other hand, I had some of the Yankees over to my house for dinner. That was too much. This guy with the Yankees talked to our agent and said that the players were fans of mine. I said, “My God, these are the New York Yankees in myhouse!” And they’re sitting there eating, saying, “My God, we’re eating over at Billy Joel’s house.” We were a bit awkward for a while, but after a couple of beers, we got pretty loose.
Playboy: So much for fame. How are you reacting to the money?
Joel: I don’t worry about that. I never have. You can live in a nice house and everything but still have a crazy life. It used to bug me. I read these stories about Peter Frampton’s multimillion-dollar mansion, 15 Rolls-Royces and all that. Who cares? It’s all bullshit. What was his last record like? Was it any good? That’s the question. People get hung up on the money thing. It’s nice to have four motorcycles. It’s fun. And I walk into the garage and go, “Holy shit! I’ve got four motorcycles!” But I don’t go beyond a certain point. I got the Harley Electra Glide. I looked at it and said, “What else do I need in my life? This is it! This is all I need!”
Playboy: What happens when Harley builds a bigger bike?
Joel: I don’t know. [Grins] I’m in trouble. That’s my illness. It’s my disease. I’ve moved into a smaller house, so what the hell? I don’t see what else I could want. Elizabeth will come up with something. [Laughs]
Playboy: Then how has money changed things?
Joel: It hasn’t that much. When we bought the first house, people thought it was going to be a $1,000,000 mansion. We got a $300,000 house with a mortgage like everybody else.
Playboy: But you could have bought a $1,000,000 mansion. That’s the difference, isn’t it?
Joel: I don’t know. I don’t trust rock-’n’-roll money. I’ve heard too many horror stories about the guy with the cars and jets and furs, and then the next year he’s totally broke, looking for work. I liked my house. I really didn’t want to get into any bigger deal. I didn’t even know how much money I had. I didn’t want to know. I don’t want to know.
Joel: Because I’m afraid to know. I don’t understand it.
Playboy: Is the idea of being a millionaire scary?
Joel: Yeah, it is. I mean, I still eat pizza and walk around in jeans with paint on them. I wear T-shirts. I always thought millionaires looked like Richie Rich and Scrooge McDuck. How much money do you need? It can really get sick. Accumulation of too much wealth, I think, is an illness. Strange things also happen to other people when you have money. People start suing you. I don’t want to know about it. I’d rather just know that I can go out and eat, live in a comfortable house and drive my motorcycle.
Playboy: Nonetheless, you have a lot of money coming in.
Joel: But it goes out, too—pretty quick. The more you have, the more you spend. So we’re also responsible for a lot of different people’s income. The money coming in is creating employment, too, creating jobs. I’m not really a capitalist. I never was. I’m kind of a quasi socialist; I’m embarrassed by all the money. Elizabeth is a very good capitalist; she’s very sensible. She exists in this society and she accepts it.
We give money to charity. I help my family out. I kind of like that. We never had no money and now I can help out. See, I’m afraid to get too business-oriented. It gets in the way of creativity. I’m not saying I subscribe to the theory that you have to be hungry to create; I don’t buy that, because I’ve eaten a full meal and sat down to write. But I’m not doing this for the money. It’s kind of weird—the values. Jonas Salk invented the polio vaccine. I’m probably worth a lot more than Jonas Salk. That’s pretty weird. I didn’t cure polio; this guy did. I walk into a bar and a whole bunch of people know who I am. Jonas Salk probably can’t even get laid. Now, figure that out.
Playboy: So one of your few overindulgences is motorcycles?
Joel: Yeah, and it’s not an expensive hobby. They’re relatively cheap. If the money disappeared, as long as they didn’t take my motorcycles away, I think I’d be able to cope very well. I could live in a small apartment in Brooklyn if I had to.
Playboy: And if the motorcycles were taken away?
Joel: I’d get violent. I couldn’t talk anymore.
Playboy: Why are motorcycles such a passion?
Joel: A motorcycle is an amusement-park ride. It’s dangerous. Everybody out on the road is out to get you. A truck goes by and it can blow your right off the road. Cars are constantly pulling out in front of you like you’re not a real vehicle. I had an accident on one when I was a kid. I’m surprised I still do it. Terrifying. You’re constantly playing terror chess: “What am I going to do if this guy does that?” It clears all the cobwebs out of your head. When you get off the bike, it’s, “Whew, I made it.”
Playboy: When you boxed in your younger days, did you do that for the danger, too?
Joel: Maybe. I think about it now and I must have been out of my mind, because boxing is very violent, brutal. It’s dangerous—and, yes, crazy. But I really enjoyed it while I was doing it. I got my whole male-identity crisis out of the way in those three years of boxing. Now I know manhood is a matter of gender and not of physical force.
Playboy: Proving your manhood was—or is—a big thing for you, isn’t it?
Joel: Yeah, well, now when I get too romantic or mushy, I jump on the bike or I go to a bar, but I don’t stay in the macho thing for too long. I’m mostly over it.
Playboy: Did your broken nose help you learn that?
Joel: Yup, and I won that fight. He hit me in the nose and it was just sort of laying over on the side of my face. I thought it was just swollen. The doctor took it and moved it back and just put a bandage on it. It was broken, though, and never healed right. I’ve got two different-sized nostrils. Hey, I used to have a pug nose. I used to be cute, believe it or not.
Playboy: You never got it fixed?
Joel: No. It didn’t hurt Marlon Brando. My mother says it gives me character.
Playboy: How old were you when you boxed?
Joel: From 16 to 19. I was pretty good, too. I had 26 fights—two decisions, two losses by knockout and 22 wins. I lost my first fight and I lost my last fight. The last one was enough to convince me to stop. This guy’s arms were the size of my entire body. I was dancing around this guy like a fly buzzing around. I couldn’t hurt him. I thought, If this guy don’t know I’m a better boxer than he is, I can’t convince him. He got me with a left hook. Boom! I went right down. I could have gotten up, but I decided to hell with it, who needs this?
Playboy: Were you always a tough guy as a kid?
Joel: The tough-guy image has been blown out of proportion. I never thought of myself like that. I was just like everybody else, trying to look cool, like West Side Story, but never really that cool.
Playboy: What was your home town, Levittown, like?
Joel: It’s a suburb, but not like most—it’s just an extension of New York City. We were blue-collar poor people, which is different frompoor poor people. You don’t go to welfare when you’re blue-collar poor. You somehow work. Kind of Archie Bunker: You never ask for a handout. You would die first. Your kids would starve to death first.
This guy Levitt founded the town. He bought up a lot of land and people from the Army could get a house with a GI loan for $40 down. It was supposed to be a house in the country. So all these people fleeing from Staten Island and New York City moved out to Long Island but ended up living next door to people they just moved away from. It was the inner city all over again. There weren’t even any playgrounds in Levittown, so we played stickball in the streets.
Everybody had the same house, so they’d try to make theirs different by fancying up the driveway or painting the trim different. All the kids on the block would look at the houses and laugh, because we all knew they were the same houses and it didn’t make any difference what you did.
Playboy: What was your family like?
Joel: My parents split when I was eight or nine. My father left for Switzerland. I didn’t see him until I was grown up. My mother raised us—me and my sister—by herself. She had to go out and get work. Now, this is the days before women’s lib, so my mother had a hard time getting work and she took anything she could get, which was usually bookkeeping or secretarial or whatever.
Playboy: Was the divorce hard on you?
Joel: It was hard on me because it was hard on my mother. But it was the best thing my parents could have done; because they weren’t happy together. My mother had to get tough fast. It was hard to watch. She kind of got beat by the system. We were the gypsy family; the only family where there had been a divorce, the only one that wasn’t Catholic, the only one without a driveway. It was hard for her.
Playboy: Is she your biggest fan today?
Joel: No, actually, she’s only a five-footer.
Playboy: When did you see your father again?
Joel: In 1972, I did a European tour and I was trying to track him down. All I knew was there was a Howard Joel who worked for General Electric. Just as I was leaving to go back to the States from Milan, I got a telegram: “Urgent, We’ve Reached Your Father.” My heart’s pounding. I flew back to the United States and it was like a movie, really dramatic. The strings would have come in then. We had moved to California and he was coming in to LAX. He got off the plane. I knew immediately it was him. For all he knew, I had been killed in Vietnam or I was a drug addict. We’ve got the same eyes. But he doesn’t have any hair. Liberty, the comedian in our group, called me “Herr Joel” and him “No-Hair Joel.” My father just looked at him and said, “Fuck you.” Anyway, it was awkward for a while. We just kind of sat. We didn’t know what to talk about. So he came to my house. This was around the time of Piano Man. I wasn’t making a lot of money, but I was doing all right. So, basically, it turned out that this guy who I was fantasizing about all my life was a nice man. It’s been fine since then.
Playboy: What do you think was the effect of growing up without him?
Joel: Well, I probably got away with murder. I was brought up by women, my mother and my sister. So it was a very gentle upbringing, very loving. I’m not afraid to be affectionate or any of that stuff. But, on the other hand, there was an identity crisis. So I had to go out and find my manhood and prove myself by boxing. So I proved I wasn’t a sissy and moved on from there.
Playboy: Where did your earliest musical influences come from?
Joel: Well, my father was an accomplished pianist. I remember him playing the piano when I was very young. My mother sang. She was in a Gilbert and Sullivan company at CCNY. That’s how they met. It choked me up when I went to see Linda Ronstadt in The Pirates of Penzance recently. So my mom played a lot of Gilbert and Sullivan and classical records. There was music all around and it just seeped in, I suppose.
Playboy: When did rock ‘n’ roll come into the house?
Joel: My sister and her friends were into Fabian and Elvis stuff. Pop music didn’t hit me until the Righteous Brothers and Ronettes—the Phil Spector records—and Sam and Dave, Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding. That’s the first music I felt. There was passion in it, intensity. I didn’t start going out and buying records until the Beatles in ‘64. I saw them on The Ed Sullivan Show and that just knocked me out. I thought, These guys don’t look like Fabian. They don’t look like they were manufactured in Hollywood. They look just like me and my friends. I could see this look in John Lennon’s eyes that told me something: They were irreverent, they were making fun of the whole thing. It was this smirk on his face. They were a bunch of wise guys like me and my friends! That’s when it all took shape. I said, “That’s what I want to do.”
Playboy: What did your mother think? Was there resistance?
Joel: No. She thought the Beatles were great. She liked the harmony. I don’t see how anybody who had an appreciation for music could avoid liking the Beatles. The resistance came from the teachers in school. I started playing with my friends at night and stopped showing up for classes. Soon after the Beatles came out, there must have been 20,000 garage bands. I was in one of those, not so much playing the piano but singing. School never got in the way. That’s one thing I always kind of liked to do: to see how far I could push the system. That was where it began. When I got pulled off the stage for singing like Elvis in the fourth grade, it was kind of like I beat the system. I got away with something before they could stop me.
Playboy: Were you a musical prodigy?
Joel: No. I practiced a lot. I learned to play piano by ear because I got tired of reading the music that the piano teacher would give me. She would give me a Beethoven piece and I would go out and get the record and learn it that way. It was less like work. It came from doing it over and over again. I think my first writing was making piano lessons interesting by making up my own Mozart. I wasn’t learning my lessons; when it came down to playing the pieces for my teacher, I would just sit there.
Playboy: What about school?
Joel: I liked school at first. I did good without doing any studying or anything. I used to read history books like they were novels to pass the time, since we didn’t have a TV. But in junior high school, I started hanging out with a wild crowd. I started in my first band when I was 14 or so and I would come into school missing three classes. My eyes were red. Teachers thought I was a drug addict. “You look stoned.” I said, “I’m not stoned. That’s just the way I look naturally.” I would show up and get a B on the tests, but the teachers wouldn’t pass me, because I wasn’t in school enough. I would say, “Well, I passed the test. I know the stuff I’m supposed to know. What’s wrong with you?” It’s the same thing—the running battle I have with bureaucracy.
Playboy: You never graduated from high school?
Joel: I went all the way to the 12th grade, and then I was called down to the office, and they said, “We’re not going to graduate you, because you haven’t showed up for classes enough.” I felt bad, because my mother wanted me to graduate, but I told them. “Well, the hell with it. If I’m not going to Columbia University, I’m going to Columbia Records and you don’t need a high school diploma over there.” I just split. I suppose I broke my mother’s heart. But I told her. “Don’t worry, Mom, I’m going to make it up to you. Someday I’ll buy you a house.”
Playboy: Did you?
Joel: Yes. One way or another, I was going to make it up to her for that. All the little troubles I had growing up, I never brought it home. I never shamed my family. It was a big thing in our neighborhood: Don’t bring trouble back to the house. It’s hard enough to get by without problems from your kids.
Playboy: What kind of girls did you go out with?
Joel: Well, if you were from the more industrial, blue-collar part of Long Island, you wanted to go out with the girls from the North Shore—Oyster Bay, Cold Spring Harbor and Syosset—because they had a lot of class. Those girls weren’t supposed to go out with us, because we were on the other side of the tracks—and that made the girls want to, of course. There were a lot of great local girls, too. We’d go to somebody’s house whose parents weren’t home and try to get beer and blast rock-’n’-roll music and everybody would sit around and make out. Nobody went all the way, but everybody said they did. We spent a lot of time trying to convince girls they should.
Playboy: This was the late Sixties. Any involvement with drugs?
Joel: We had long hair and we looked like drug addicts, but I hadn’t even smoked pot yet. People assumed we were on drugs, but I missed it somehow. Later, I tried being a hippie for about two years. I was an absolute failure as a hippie. I didn’t make it. I didn’t turn on, I wasn’t into flower power. I’d give the peace sign like everybody else, but I just didn’t feel it. The counterculture movement was a system all its own. Everybody had to wear beads and smoke pot and not wash his hair. I went to Woodstock, but I hated it.
Joel: It was rain, mud and acid. I didn’t like any of that. I stayed for one day.
Playboy: And you left?
Joel: Yup. I couldn’t find any place to sleep but the mud. If you wanted to go to the bathroom, you had to wait in these long lines for these smelly Port-o-sans. After a day, I thought, Well, I guess you have to be stoned. I had nothing against it, just that I didn’t do it. I hitchhiked home.
Playboy: Those were also the days of the Vietnam war and the draft. What were your feelings?
Joel: I wasn’t very political, because Hicksville was pretty much blue-collar. A lot of guys from Hicksville volunteered because they wanted to fight for America. But something about it bothered me. I didn’t understand the reasons for going to Vietnam and killing those people. A lot of my friends went and got killed. I didn’t have anything against Vietnamese people. I didn’t know why I should go over and shoot them because the Government said so. It was another system to rebel against.
Playboy: So you opposed the war?
Joel: Yeah, but also, it was a very important time in my life as a musician. If a baseball player gets drafted from 18 to 24, it’s his prime. That’s how I viewed what was going to happen to me.
Playboy: How did you avoid the draft?
Joel: I lied to get out. The richer kids could get psychologists to write letters and attorneys that had pull and all that stuff. Kids who didn’t have any money went. I didn’t have any money, but I said, “To hell with this, I’m not going.” I would have gone to Canada. But I told them, “I’m my mother’s sole support. My X amount of dollars a year as a musician is supporting the family.” They went, “Oh, OK.” I got a temporary deferment. Then, when I was 20, they instituted the lottery. My number was 197 and the draft went to 195. I swear. And that’s how I got out of the draft. I’m no less guilty than the guys who went off to Sweden and Canada and went underground as draft dodgers. When amnesty was declared, I felt a pang of relief myself. I’m not particularly proud of it, because I didn’t dodge the draft for these political reasons. I just had nothing against the Vietnamese.
Playboy: You never protested the war?
Joel: No. I didn’t go for that kind of stuff. Like I said, the counterculture was its own system. It kind of reminded me of Nazi Germany, everybody standing around chanting. I thought, Wait a minute, didn’t I see this in an old movie? I feel it was a hypocritical. The theory behind the antiwar movement was good, but a lot of people were doing it for selfish purposes. It was the hip thing to do.
Playboy: What did you do then?
Joel: The group I was in, The Hassles, continued to appear in clubs and we put out an album. Our second album came out and when nothing happened, we just broke up. Jon [Small] and I decided to form a two-man group, really heavy Led Zeppelin, heavy-metal stuff. I’d figured out a way to wire the Hammond organ to amplifiers and make it sound like a guitar and also to play the bass on the keyboards. I played the organ, the guitar sound, my left hand was playing the bass and I played the harmonica and was screaming at the top of my lungs. Jon played the drums.
Playboy: That was Attila?
Joel: Right. Attila—destroy the world with amplification. I had ten huge amplifiers. People would come just to see the setup. We released one album and played five or six gigs. I thought, This is insane; I can’t do this. Finally, when I was 20 or 21, Attila split up. I had been going out with this girl and we split up. I felt really sorry for myself. That’s when I checked into a nut house.
Playboy: What made you go that far?
Joel: My life was very scary. I didn’t have a high school diploma. Nothing was working out for me musically. My big, heavy romance had broken up. I had no money, no place to live. I was sleeping in a laundromat.
Joel: Yeah. I couldn’t pay the rent. I was sneaking into empty houses, sleeping wherever I could. In the wintertime in New York, when it gets really cold, the only places that were warm on Long Island were the all-night laundromats.
Playboy: Couldn’t you go home to your mother’s house?
Joel: I did once or twice, but I felt like such a bum. I couldn’t do it. Some way or another, I was going to stick it out, but I started thinking, What’s the use? You take yourself so seriously at that age. I’m sure everybody goes through it. I was feeling suicidal, so I checked into a nut house. I thought my problems were the worst in the world.
Playboy: Did you ever actually try to kill yourself?
Joel: No, but I was thinking of doing it, I was in such despair. I thought the world would be better off without another piece of flotsam and jetsam.
Playboy: What was the mental institution like?
Joel: It was a version of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I went to Meadowbrook Hospital in East Meadow, Long Island, and said, “Listen, I’m going to do myself in. You’d better look me over.” Once you check in, you have to stay for three weeks. You have to take your clothes off. They give you a smock to wear with your ass hanging out, and they give you Thorazine all the time. You can’t carry matches, no razor blades, no personal possessions, and you sleep in a big room with all these other guys. They keep you sedated all the time while they observe you. I’d walk over to the nurse’s station and knock on the window and go, “Hey, I’m OK. These other people are crazy. So can I get out of here? And they’d go, “Sure, Mr. Joel. Here’s your Thorazine,” and they would close the gate. I’d just watch the other people who were really crazy.
Playboy: They weren’t simply depressed like you?
Joel: They were homicidal maniacs, guys out of the county jail. One guy thought he was Kaiser Wilhelm. There were guys kicking heroin, kicking booze. People who really had problems. All the time, you were trying to avoid these murderous guys. If you looked at them wrong, they would run over and grab you and bang your head against the wall. I figured, OK, I’ll just be cool, but I’m going to get out of here as fast as I can.
Playboy: How did you get out?
Joel: At the end of the three weeks, I told the shrinks, “I’m fine. I did a real stupid thing.” They showed me ink blots and asked, “What do these look like?” “Like smeared ink, I don’t know.” So they let me out. I got out and the door closed behind me and I walked down the street and said, “Ohh, I’ll never get that low again.” It was one of the best things I ever did, because I’ve never gotten to feel sorry for myself, no matter what’s happened. Any kind of problem since then is nothing compared with what I’ve seen other people go through.
Playboy: What did you do then?
Joel: I decided that at that point, instead of being hung up making it as a performer, I was going to be a songwriter. The guy who managed Attila got me a deal somehow to make a record. I now know that to get that record deal, I signed away all my publishing, all my copyrights, most of my royalties. It was a real screw job. I didn’t know what I was signing. But I probably would have signed anything to get a deal. I got an advance so I could buy a piano and pay the rent. I prepared a record thinking that the best way to get people to record my songs is to get them to hear them. And if you want to get people to hear your record, you go out on the road and tour. So it ended up being the same thing again, but I at least felt I had more control over it.
Playboy: So you recorded Cold Spring Harbor.
Joel: Yes. We toured for six months. Nobody got paid. We ate peanut-butter sandwiches. I never saw the record in a store anywhere. I never heard it on the radio. After six months, I said, “Something’s not right here.” That’s when I realized I’d blown it. When I got home, I was supposed to get a rent check from the record company. It didn’t come. I hate being in debt. I hate owing money. That was it. I said, “To hell with this, I’m going to get out of this field one way or another.” We moved to California to start over and straighten things out.
Playboy: We means you and Elizabeth?
Playboy: How did you get together?
Joel: We had been friends since The Hassles. While I was making Cold Spring Harbor, she had divorced Jon [Small]. When I came back to Oyster Bay, we started seeing each other more and more and finally got a house together in Hampton Bays—the working section of the Hamptons, not Southampton or East Hampton. We got a little house right on the water and lived there in the off season ‘cause we wanted to be alone. She was going to Adelphi. She came out on tour with me then and we’ve been together since. We moved in together for a couple of years and got married in California.
Playboy: Elizabeth has quite a reputation for being tough.
Joel: Well, that image comes from the fact that she’s a good business person. She’s very soft and gentle, but when she’s protecting her business interests, she can be as tough as the next guy. I kinda expect her to be good at what she does. That’s part of the reason we like each other. I couldn’t do what she does, she can’t do what I do. It keeps us interested in each other.
Playboy: How do you spend your time together?
Joel: Fooling around.
Playboy: Besides that?
Joel: We go out to movies, to dinner, and we ride motorcycles together. I liked riding and I didn’t want to leave her alone, so I got her a 400. Once she rode the Virago, a 750, she said forget the 400. Now she drives down the street on the Virago, which is bigger than she is, in a little halter top and gets a lot of looks and whistles, and suddenly it becomes a whole new thing.
Playboy: Is she a critic of your music?
Joel: I run everything by her. If I like it, I want her to like it, too.
Playboy: Does she inspire your songs?
Joel: Yes. Sometimes it’s specific and sometimes she represents women to me. I use her as a model like painters use their wives and mistresses. She represents all women.
Playboy: For instance?
Joel: She’s Always a Woman is about women, but the song was misinterpreted. People said it was sexist, chauvinistic, but they missed the whole point. I was saying that if a woman like Elizabeth enters the work force and is aggressive, she’s called a bitch; if a guy is aggressive, he’s called ballsy. I’m saying, like, you’re just as good as me, if not better. She can compete with me on that level, but it doesn’t mean she’s not a woman.
Playboy: That’s not the only time you’ve been accused of being sexist.
Joel: Yeah, but it’s funny: Any criticism about my being a chauvinist has always come from guys. I haven’t gotten a complaint from a woman yet. These guys set themselves up as protectors of women, yet they don’t have a clue what it’s all about. If you happen to say that a woman is human, that she has moods, then it’s a chauvinist song.
Playboy: Back to the Billy Joel story. You moved to California.
Joel: We put everything in Elizabeth’s station wagon and drove across the States. I was going to get out of a bad business deal and get myself a lawyer and different management. I knew I’d got screwed. The people who did it were in L.A. I figured that was a good base of operation for me to try to get out of the deal. And that they weren’t going to look for me right under their noses. So I used a pseudonym.
Playboy: Billy Martin?
Playboy: No relation to the baseball manager?
Joel: No, that’s my name. So I thought I was going to live in L.A. temporarily, just long enough to get my contract renegotiated, but because it was nice and an easy place to live, we stayed—for three years. I got an agent to book me and I worked first at a place called Corky’s, then I got a job at the Executive Room in the Wilshire district. They put up a little sign in the window, Billy Martin At The Keyboards. During this time, I got a lawyer to begin renegotiating my contract. The record company I had signed to finally figured if they didn’t renegotiate, they were never going to get anything from me. I got some of the rights back. I hasn’t been until recently that I’ve owned everything I do.
Playboy: What was it like in the Executive Room?
Joel: It was six months of being the “piano man.” I wrote the song there.
Playboy: Are the people in the song real?
Joel: Yeah. John was the bartender. There was this guy Davy who was in the Navy. Paul was a real-estate broker, but he wanted to be a novelist. Elizabeth was working there as a cocktail waitress. She wore this hot little cocktail outfit and tried to go fishing for tips. We never let people know we were living together.
Playboy: What happened then?
Joel: They renegotiated my deal and I got signed to Columbia. I was finally on a good label. Clive Davis was the president and had seen me play before. When word leaked out that Billy Martin at the Executive Room was actually Billy Joel, he came down and heard me there. So we were offered a deal. In the meantime, I had written all the songs for our album. I was just trying to be a better songwriter; I thought other people would cover my material and that would be fine. I’m not happy with the production of that album, really. I think my voice sounds kind of powder-puffy and mushy. I wanted to use my own band, but we ended up using studio players.
Playboy: And Piano Man became a top-25 hit.
Joel: It took a while. Piano Man was pretty uninteresting melodically. The lyrics are probably stronger than the melody. It surprised me that it was a hit. It made some noise. The album eventually went gold. [Whack! He smacks another fly.] Since Piano Man was the single, I got pegged right away. A lot of people confused it with Taxi, the Harry Chapin song. They thought I was another Chapin, a storyteller. But the album had a lot of other things, like Worse Comes to Worst and Captain Jack, which were very different.
Playboy: What was Captain Jack about?
Joel: I wrote it when drugs were in full flower. A lot of useless, wasted deaths. Friends of mine were killed. Drugs can be fun, but they can kill, too. Some guys who lived near me in Oyster Bay used to score smack from a guy called Captain Jack, although I didn’t write it to necessarily mean heroin. I meant any kind of drug you have to take over and over again.
Playboy: You didn’t take drugs when you were young. How about later on?
Joel: I smoked pot when I lived in California. For some reason or another, it made sense. It was just part of what they call the mellow life. Everything was laid back. We got into natural foods. The whole thing. When I got back to New York, I stopped. It just didn’t make sense anymore, and I was eating too many chocolate-chip cookies. I smoked a joint and walked onstage once. It was the worst. I got real paranoid. I wanted to hide under the piano. I started going into this cosmic rap and all the guys in the band were going, “Oh, shit, we’re in big trouble tonight.” Somebody’s got to be in control up there. That was the last time I did that. When you’re up there and there are thousands of people going “Yeah,” that’s intoxicating on its own.
After a show, I’ll have a smoke sometimes. I’ll have a couple of beers, some Scotch. That’s it. Nothing to excess, though I’ve tried everything once. I tripped on acid when I was in California. I saw rocks move. It scared the hell out of me. I don’t know if I’m ready for that stuff.
Joel: Yeah. I’ve tried that.
Joel: Even heroin.
Playboy: But you never succumbed to Captain Jack?
Joel: No. I saw too many people get hung up on it. I don’t need it. It gets in my way. Drugs can be fun; it’s something I do once in a while, but I’m not a drug addict. Although the rumors. . . . I didn’t want to go to the Grammys last year, but my mother said, “Why don’t you go? Nobody believes you’re my son.” I went and the cameras kept poking right in my face like I was a dancing monkey or something. Everybody who saw me said, “Man, you were really stoned, weren’t you?” No, I was just mad at the cameraman and that’s just the way I look, especially when I’m mad.
Playboy: Back to the early years. When did you start touring?
Joel: In 1971, for eight or nine months a year. Slowly we built up sort of a cult. Well, maybe there’s a better word—when I think of a cult, I think of people with black capes and incense out killing babies or something. But we built up an audience around the country. People came to hear us because of word of mouth. It wasn’t necessarily that they heard a song on the radio and then wanted to hear us. First it was small, small clubs. Then we started doing some better clubs, and then I was opening for the Beach Boys or Doobie Brothers or Eagles or Linda Ronstadt—just about everybody. Half the time we didn’t even get billing. We were just “special guests.” I would start Piano Man or something and they’d go, “Boo, we want to hear the Beach Boys.” So we had to get good pretty quick.
Playboy: Your Joe Cocker impersonation got a good response, though.
Joel: In the early days, I did it, but we couldn’t hinge everything on that. We had to give a good show. I stopped doing the impersonation because everybody went, “He’s the guy who does a great Cocker impersonation,” which was not what I wanted to be known for.
Playboy: Did you ever do Joe Cocker for Joe Cocker?
Joel: Oh, definitely. In L.A. I don’t think Joe knew what was going on.
Playboy: How does your Cocker compare with John Belushi’s?
Joel: Well, we once tried to outdo each other. We were at a comedy place on the East Side of New York—this was before Saturday Night Live took off. He came up to me and said, “I hear you do a pretty good Cocker.” I said, “Yeah, I hear you’re not so bad yourself.” Of course, we’re at least half lit and being egged on, so we do our dueling Cockers. He did his and fell down and I did mine and fell down. I don’t know who won; we were too smashed. People were pouring beer on us. On of those nights.
Playboy: You haven’t toured for a year or so. Is touring over for you?
Joel: Oh, no. We just won’t tour for nine months a year—we’ve got families now. I’ll never stop playing, but touring is a young man’s gig. I’m 32 now. It’s a 19-year-old’s thing.
Playboy: Tell that to Mick Jagger.
Joel: Yeah, well, he often only does an hour show. We do a two and-a-half-hour show. I’m the only singer and I gotta play the piano and jump around and sing all the time.
Playboy: But do you miss touring?
Joel: The clichÃ© about the grass being greener applies: When you’re on the road too long, you want to go home. When you’re home too long, you’re itching to play. There’s this schizophrenic thing I’m able to live out that most people aren’t. Offstage I’m very dull and kind of low-key. Onstage, in front of 20,000 people, I act like a maniac and yell and sing and bang and run around. I’m comfortable being just me offstage as long as I get the chance to get the wildness out. That’s why I’ll write these pretty songs and sit down and play a nice ballad on the piano and then go out and scream on my Harley. I don’t want to give up either one. It’s not a matter of having financial ability to do it. We don’t need money to jump from one world to the other. I did it when I was a kid, too: I played make believe, let’s pretend. Even sitting here being interviewed for Playboy is kind of a fairy tale for me, like, “What am I doing here?” I’m really waiting for somebody’s parents to come home and kick me out.
Playboy: Your next two solo albums didn’t sell very well, did they?
Joel: Right. There was Streetlife Serenade and Turnstiles. After the first came out and did nothing, I woke up one day and said, “What am I still doing here in California? I’m a New Yorker.” Elizabeth found us a house in Highland Falls. I got off the Greyhound bus and walked into the new house and sat down at the piano and wrote New York State of Mind. That’s how I was feeling: glad to be home in New York.
Playboy: Barbra Streisand recorded New York State of Mind. How did it feel to have an artist of Streisand’s statute record your song?
Joel: It was amazing. She sent me an album and inscribed it: “Dear Billy, Thanks for the song, hope you like it. Love, Barbra.” I still have it in a frame. My mother came over and saw it; all of a sudden, I became legit in her mind. The fact that Barbra did the song made other people pay attention.
Playboy: Wasn’t that also the time that Elizabeth became your manager?
Joel: Yes. I was with different management companies and always being told what to do. Nothing much was happening, so there wasn’t much to lose. One day I turned to Elizabeth half jokingly and said, “Why don’t you manage me?” We had moved from Highland Falls to Manhattan, and the very next day, there were phones and shelves and typewriters and secretaries in our apartment.
Playboy: Was Elizabeth experienced at management?
Joel: She’d seen managers and agents come and go. She knew what had to be done. Also, if you can’t trust your wife, who can you trust? And I figured this will be the first case of Artist Screws Manager. [Laughing] Really, I knew she was smart. I knew she could do it.
Playboy: And it worked out?
Joel: It was funny. The record company considered her just another rock-’n’-roll wife. A lot of people underestimated her. They turned around and it was like, bang! They didn’t know what hit them. It worked to our advantage. She did a really good job while they were thinking she was this dumb chick who could be conned and not know it.
Playboy: As manager, what did she do?
Joel: She renegotiated my contract with Columbia, and renegotiated my publishing copyrights and a better record-royalty rate. Since my albums hadn’t done much, everyone sort of wrote me off. She saw that I was doing great live, selling out 5000-seaters. We were blowing away headliners. We’d come on first and have only 40 minutes, so we did what we call our kamikaze show: Bam! We’d hit them with our hottest stuff and be gone. They’d say, “Who was that guy?” We became show stealers. No one wanted to play with us. We didn’t do it on purpose, but we just played our best. So we came back as headliners.
Then Elizabeth got me together with Phil Ramone. I wasn’t a good producer at that time. I couldn’t translate things correctly onto a record. And I couldn’t really work with other producers who wouldn’t let me use my own band. Phil had been an engineer on a lot of records for people like Paul Simon, and somehow Elizabeth knew we would hit it off. She put us together and it was magic. Also, Elizabeth set things up so we could be booked properly. Once somebody put us on a tour with Olivia Newton-John. We called it the Snow White and Lenny Bruce Tour. It didn’t make sense at all. She was playing the big coliseums full of Sunday-go-to-meeting crowds and I’d be doing Captain Jack. Instead of singing “You just sit at home and masturbate” in Captain Jack, I would sort of slur the words: “You just sit at home and contemplate.”
Playboy: Didn’t Elizabeth’s work on your career interfere with your personal relationship?
Joel: Not really. We kept business out of bed. That was a rule. She wasn’t going to manage me forever, just long enough to straighten things out. She did it for two and a half years.
Playboy: Which is when things really started to happen.
Joel: Right. We made The Stranger in the summer of 1977 with Phil Ramone.
Playboy: What difference did Ramone make?
Joel: The band had been under the gun with other producers, having to prove themselves, and also, there were always studio players, who were good but who weren’t me. Phil liked my guys right off the bat. He heard them play the songs and said, “Don’t play any different than you play on the road—be the rock-’n’-roll animals that you are.” We did songs in five takes instead of 15 or 20. He was one of the guys. We’d throw around ideas, kick the songs around, try them different ways and get them right. Sometimes we’d throw pizza at each other. That’s how it was with Phil.
He also has a great sense of what’s right. I was originally going to do Only the Good Die Young as a reggae song. Phil heard it and said, “Try to play it as a shuffle.” It worked. He got us to try Just the Way You Are as sort of a backward samba. That’s the way the songs develop. It’s a communal thing in the studio. It was inspiration! We created heat in the studio.
Playboy: The Stranger wasn’t an immediate hit, was it?
Joel: No. We first released Movin’ Out, but it didn’t happen. Stations started playing Just the Way You Are on their own. Columbia thought, Maybe we have something here, and released it as a single. Then Movin’ Out was re-released as the second single.
Playboy: Only the Good Die Young, another single from The Stranger, kicked up some controversy, didn’t it?
Joel: Right. I got a lot of flak for that one. Jewish guilt is a very popular topic, but Catholic guilt is never discussed. Although I’m Jewish, I grew up as if I was Catholic—I went to Mass on Sundays with my friends, because that was the thing to do. I know what Catholic guilt is. So the song’s first line was, “You Catholic girls start much too late.” It was banned. That made it a big record.
Playboy: And suddenly you were number one.
Joel: Well, The Stranger didn’t make number one. It came out at the time of Saturday Night Fever. How’s that for luck? But it did pretty well, and I was playing the 20,000-seaters.
Playboy: What did that mean?
Joel: The audiences got louder; that’s about it. We always put on a good show, so that didn’t change. People knew the songs, which was nice. And we were ready for it. A lot of groups have a big record but have no road experience. They have only one album’s worth of material. They’re on, they’re off. And nobody’s going to come back to see them again. We had four albums’ worth of material and seven years’ road muscle. We went to the coliseums and people thought they were going to hear Just the Way You Are but we had rock ‘n’ roll from Captain Jack to Piano Man and Say Goodbye to Hollywood, stuff people had vaguely heard of before: “Oh, so that was his song.” Audiences got their money’s worth. They felt they got a bargain.
Playboy: What about Big Shot, from your next album, 52nd Street? That was another big hit.
Joel: Yeah. It’s about anybody who has ever had a hangover. Wake up in the morning and you can’t move and you’re so hung over saying, “You stupid idiot. You had to be a big shot.” I did a lot of personal research for that song.
Playboy: We haven’t talked about your controversial concert in Cuba during 1979. What was that all about?
Joel: We wanted to see what it was like playing in Cuba. When we were asked to play there, we were really excited. My father had lived in Cuba, so I was interested for that reason, and we were just leaving Europe, where it was cold and wet, and we thought, Cuba, what a nice idea! It was a special concert that included other performers organized by CBS Records. We were told it was just to bring American music to the Cuban people. We understood before we left that we were only going to play—not be taped or recorded. Then, when we got there, they had all these plans to tape the entire show. We said, No, we weren’t going to be on a record we had no control over. We were not going to help bail CBS out for what it spent on this thing and rip off the Cuban people. We were there to play, not exploit it. Then all these stories came out about how we ruined it for everybody because we wouldn’t let them tape our part of the show. The stories said that Elizabeth was giving everybody a hard time and we were prima donnas. Well, that’s the press again.
Playboy: What was the concert itself like?
Joel: We didn’t think the Cubans would know any of the music, but they pick up Miami radio stations, so they knew the hit records. The main thing was that the kids wanted to hear American rock-’n’-roll music. We were the last group on. The kids stormed the stage. The guards were there with machine guns, trying to figure out what was going on, since the kids had been sitting politely for the other acts. You see, the other groups had gone onstage and . . . well, Stephen Stills came out and made this big speech about “Â¡Viva la revoluciÃ³n!” in Spanish. And the audience just kind of went, “We’ve been hearing this stuff all our lives. We don’t need to hear this.” They came to hear rock ‘n’ roll. Now, I know that critics like Robert Palmer don’t consider me rock ‘n’ roll—he thinks I’m the new Neil Diamond or something—but we played a rock-’n’-roll show! The only thing I said onstage was, “No hablo espanol,” then went into Big Shot and the place went, like, “Whaa!”
You know, music is something everybody has. People fall in love, people have families, they have sadness. It doesn’t matter if they’re Marxists or Communists. These kids want to party. They want to have a good time, to hear music. They want to dance at night. We have all these ideas about what they’re supposed to be like. Even on the level of Cuban kids coming up to us and asking us if we wanted to buy marijuana. We didn’t. They said to us, “But you’re americano! Americano want pot!” We buy what we hear about them, they buy what they hear about us. A lot of it has to do with the image projected by the press. We’re fed a lot of crap. We’re taught not to relate to foreigners as people. I went to Cuba to play for people. I got criticized in the press for playing in Israel, but it was the same thing.
Playboy: Criticized by whom?
Joel: I was in Turin for this press conference and this well-dressed journalist with wing-tip shoes from a left-wing paper asked, “Why did you play Israel?” He was trying to create controversy. I said, “I played in Israel for the same reason I played in Cuba—to play for the people. We wanted to see what the people in Israel were like instead of listening to the propaganda we get in our country.” The people at the press conference stood up and clapped. It was the same thing: Capitalist or Communist, it doesn’t matter. You can play Cuba or Israel or Hong Kong or Russia. Kids just want to rock out.
At the press conference, they also wanted me to put down America: “What do you think of all the problems in your country?” I go, “Well, we’re better off there than you are here.” So suddenly I’m a right-wing fascist. Well, I’m closer to a socialist. But I’m not blind. I like my country. I’ve seen a lot of places, and while we’re not perfect, there is none better. The hip thing is to put America down, but I don’t care about being hip. I think it’s the greatest country in the world. We’re all supposed to hate America. That’s more propaganda.
Playboy: By the time this interview appears, your new album will probably be out. You’re calling it Goodbye Saigon. Is it a political statement?
Joel: No, but it is a serious album. It’s about the stuff kids in my age group have gone through, about our attitudes, not our politics. People my age, 25 to 40, who grew up as Cold War babies, we don’t have anybody writing music for us. There’s a lot of chain-saw heavy metal aimed at the 14-year-old market, and there’s stuff at the other end of the spectrum—Barry Manilow, Neil Diamond, Barbra Streisand. But the music business seems to be writing people my age off. So, in a way, this is an album dealing with us, with our American experience: guilt, pressures, relationships, the whole Vietnam syndrome. Incidentally, the music is gonna be a lot richer and more textured than in my past albums. I’ve been on a diet of lean music, lean food—I want to eat some rich food once in a while.
Playboy: Have you endorsed a politician since you’ve been famous?
Joel: No. I lean to the left, worked for George McGovern in ‘72 and voted for John Anderson in 1980. But I won’t mix music and politics. I think it’s an abuse of the privileged position that we’re in. Who the hell am I to inflict my politics on people just because I’m famous? My politics don’t mean a damn thing as far as most people are concerned. They’re just my politics. I don’t like seeing actors and performers do those kinds of things—benefits or endorsements. I believe strongly in the E.R.A. and I’ve been asked to do things for it, but I won’t. It’s a dangerous thing to do. What if I liked some terrible thing? I’m in a trusted position and I don’t want to abuse it.
I won’t endorse things commercially for that reason, either—except I endorse Baldwin pianos, because they’re good pianos. I also could see endorsing Harley motorcycles, because I love them. But I turn down incredible amounts of money to endorse all kinds of things. We sell our own T-shirt and stuff like that for the same reason. We don’t want people who trust me to get ripped off. We don’t sell T-shirts for the money; our merchandising company operates at a loss. If people are going to buy that stuff, at least we want them to be able to get good quality. We sell T-shirts, posters and we put out a newsletter. That’s it.
Playboy: No Billy Joel belt buckles or ashtrays?
Joel: No. We don’t want to exploit the Billy Joel thing. I’m not really comfortable with even selling T-shirts, but that’s why I do it.
Playboy: You’ve gone to court to stop the bootlegging. Why?
Joel: At a lot of concerts, these guys would be selling T-shirts for a lot of money that were garbage. The first time you would wash them, the face would wipe right off. People who bought them were getting ripped off and these guys were using my name to do it. I decided to try to stop them. When I did it, the papers came out like I was trying to close down the little guys: The millionaire is trying to put these little guys out of business. But it has nothing to do with money. I’ve just spent too much time trying to hone my craft and I’m not going to have it watered down, bastardized, whatever, by somebody else’s greed. If they interpret that by saying I’m greedy, that’s bullshit. The press tried to nail me for that one, but when Jackson Browne and Bruce Springsteen did the same thing, it became a noble thing.
Playboy: Why was it greed from you, nobility from them?
Joel: Hey . . . [shrugging his shoulders] how the hell should I know?
Playboy: They were both part of the “No Nukes” concert at Madison Square Garden. Did you consider taking part?
Joel: I’m not into that kind of thing. I think it’s a lot of crap.
Playboy: What’s a lot of crap?
Joel: No nukes. These people don’t know anything about what the workingman goes through. Without nuclear power, everybody would be a lot worse off than they are. “No Nukes” is a bourgeois issue. I’m not saying I’m a Ronald Reagan pronuke, but I understand that we don’t have any alternatives. It’s either develop nuclear power or pay the Arabs a hell of a lot more for oil. I’ll be damned if I’m going to support that. We’re dependent on some kind of energy. We have the resources to utilize nuclear energy, so why the hell don’t we do it? As long as it’s carefully controlled. You know, it’s funny. The “No Nukes” concert was held at Madison Square Garden. Do you know where Madison Square Garden gets its power? The Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant. Talk about the height of hypocrisy. . . .
Playboy: Now you’re going to be pegged as a pronuclear whale hater.
Joel: It’s always something. I need something to get me going. Like my mother says—the older I get, the smarter my mother gets—if you have everything going smoothly, it’s no good for your character. I gotta have some kind of aggression coming out. You see, rock ‘n’ roll was about the closest thing to religion I ever got. Everything else always kind of let me down in one way or another. But rock ‘n’ roll has never let me down. Outside things have: the press, the music business, whatever. I may not be what everybody thinks I’m supposed to be, but I don’t care, My own creativity won’t let me down. These other things. . . . Don’t you ever get the feeling that you want to just go out and fight? Just looking for somebody to smash? Taking everything that’s ever bothered you—everything—out on that poor, unsuspecting drunken slob?
Playboy: Somehow, you don’t appear to be very content with all your success.
Joel: I’m not content. I’m content, though, not being content. I have a theory: I don’t think you ever are really satisfied. I don’t worry about being satisfied all the time. All I’m looking for is a little relief now and then.
Playboy: So that’s rock ‘n’ roll to you? Relief from dissatisfaction, rebellion?
Joel: Some of rock ‘n’ roll is rebellion; some rock ‘n’ roll is acceptance.
Playboy: What do you mean?
Joel: Well, there is passion in surrender, too. Just looking and accepting—there’s beauty and passion in that, too.
Playboy: At least you’re no longer trying to get out of Hicksville. You’ve accomplished that.
Joel: I’m always trying to get out of something.
Playboy: What will you find to rebel against next?
Joel: It will present itself, I’m sure. It will loom large, and I’ll take a mighty swing at it.
Interview conducted with Vicki Sheff-Cahan