The following events occurred in March of 1996. I was 23 years old at the time, had graduated from Penn State nearly two years earlier, and was living in Nashville and pursuing my dream of being a professional singer/songwriter. Billy Joel was 46. His most recent album was River of Dreams, released in 1993 (as it turns out, he has not released another album of new material as a recording artist since, though he did release an album of original classical compositions performed by pianist Richard Joo, Fantasies and Delusions, in 2001). Anyway, here’s the story. Enjoy!
My brother calls from Penn State to inform me that Billy Joel is coming to the campus as part of a series of college dates he is doing. Not exactly a concert, the event is billed as: “Questions, Answers, and a Little Music with Billy Joel”.
This is my chance.
Somehow, with Billy Joel physically being on the turf of my alma mater, the possibility of meeting him face-to-face seems plausible. I purchase tickets to the show and, to the credit of my bosses, get some time off from work approved even though I am pretty new on the job.
A week before the show, an idea occurs to me. I dig up the number I had found years before for Joel’s business office in New York City, Maritime Music, and call it. I get a recording saying the number has been changed, and I call the new number. Adrenaline surges through me as the call is connected and I hear the rings through the receiver. A voice on the other end picks up.
“Maritime, Keith speaking.”
“Yes, hello. My name is Eric Teplitz, and I’m a freelance writer for the Penn Stater, Penn State’s alumni magazine,” I begin in as professional a tone as I can muster. “I was hoping to interview Mr. Joel while he is in State College for his upcoming appearances at Penn State on Wednesday, the 27th and Thursday, the 28th. Would that be possible?”
I brace myself, anticipating one of three possible responses on the other end: a) outright laughter, b) the “click” of an instant hang-up, or c) “a)” followed by “b)”.
Instead, I hear: “What you’ll need to do is put the request in writing and fax it to us,” and then Keith gives me the fax number. Is he simply getting me off the phone in the politest way possible? I have nothing to lose by following up as instructed, and so I do.
The next morning, when I return to my desk after a work errand, there is a message on my chair. I pick it up. It says that Keith from Billy Joel’s office called! I dial the number and get him on the line.
“Hi, Eric. We received your request, and Billy won’t be able to do an in-person interview, but he’s agreed to a phone interview. Is that okay?”
Holy mother of-
I pause just long enough to compose myself and reply calmly, “Sure, that’d be fine.”
“Great,” Keith continues, “let me give you the number of Max Loubiere, Billy’s tour manager. Give Max a call Monday morning at ten, and he’ll put you through to Billy for the interview.”
I’ve heard the words with my own ears, but I still cannot fully believe it. Of course, none of this would have happened were it not for my attempt months earlier to interview Mike Reid (another story for another time). It was only through my desire to interview him that it even occurred to me that, as a Penn State alumnus, I could even be a freelance writer for the alumni publication. And though my proposal for that article was ultimately rejected, it set the stage for this unbelievable opportunity now to talk to one of my all-time heroes.
I am still skeptical, but in case this is for real, I spend the weekend drafting a list of questions, and set some ground rules for myself:
- I will not ask Billy any questions about his personal life – only those relating to his career and music.
- I will be respectful and professional, but I will have to take my reporter face off at least once and let him know how much of an inspiration he has been to me personally, because this is most likely a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do so.
- Since this whole interview is under the guise of being for a Penn State publication, I will craft questions directly related to his tour of college speaking engagements or that are in some way relevant to the college audience.
- I will brainstorm a list of questions I would personally love to ask him, but I will prioritize these based on the inevitable time limitation, which I presume could be in the vicinity of five to ten minutes.
Monday morning arrives and at 10:00am precisely I put a call in to Max Loubiere, Billy Joel’s tour manager, at the phone number I was provided (the number has a New Orleans area code, which is the same time zone as Nashville). Max asks for a phone number where Billy can reach me, and I give it to him. My bosses are being super cool about this whole thing. Not only are they allowing me to conduct this interview at work, they are letting me use the business fax line for receiving the call, so that I will have a line to use that won’t be intruded upon by other calls coming in.
“OK,” Max says, “if you don’t hear from Billy within an hour, give me a call back.”
I am now situated at a desk one level up from my usual work station in my boss’s house, where the fax machine usually rests. In its place, I have hooked up to the fax line the combination phone/answering machine that I brought from home, which I will use to both conduct and record the interview, should it actually take place. Presumably, this phone is going to ring sometime within the next hour, and it will be BILLY JOEL on the other end…calling for me!
The time passes slowly – the anticipation is excruciating. I am poised to receive the call, all the while unsuccessfully trying to otherwise occupy myself while I wait. In front of me are some notes to myself on what to say (should my brain betray me), and a list of questions I have brainstormed over the weekend in preparation for this dream interview.
Finally, the phone rings. I am alert as I’ve ever been in my life. I pick up the receiver, anticipating the only person who it could be on the other end, and hear a deafening eeeeeeeeeeeeeeowwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwiiiiiiiiiiierrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr sound in the earpiece. It’s a fax.
I hang up the phone, my heart racing as if I have just avoided what would have been a fatal car crash with an oncoming vehicle had I not swerved out of the way.
Of course it’s a fax. This is the fax line, after all.
I take a deep breath, and resume my attempt at nonchalance.
The clock strikes 11. A full hour has passed, and no call from Billy. I dial Max’s number once again. He answers.
“Billy must still be doing his interview for The Daily Collegian. Hang tight, you’re next.”
“OK, thanks, Max,” I respond as professionally as possible. It is then I realize what a genius I am. If I had said in my initial contact with Joel’s office that I was a freelance writer for the Collegian, my bluff would have been called instantly and that would have been the end of it. Of course the student paper was on top of this, but the alumni folks clearly were not. And because of this, I was green-lighted!
But truthfully, I am still not totally convinced this is really going to happen. I wait by the phone like a starving man who hasn’t eaten in a month waiting and watching intently for promised food to arrive. A minute seems like an hour. The waiting is unbearable.
Twenty more minutes go by. Thirty. My spirit sinks.
He’s not going to call. I don’t know why. It all certainly sounded legit. It sounded for real. But apparently, for whatever reason, it’s not going to happen.
I feel defeated, as if the Universe is paying me back for all those years of mercilessly teasing my younger brother when we were kids.
And then…the phone rings.
I pick it up.
The voice on the other end says, “Hi, is Eric there?”
“This is Eric,” I say, looking at the piece of paper in front of me reminding me what to say.
“Hi, Eric, this is Billy Joel.”
Only here’s the thing. It doesn’t sound like Billy Joel’s voice at all. In addition to the fact that all of his recorded music is indelibly woven into my nervous system, I have heard his speaking voice on numerous radio and television interviews over the years, and this does not sound like Billy Joel. It sounds like…one of my friends playing a practical joke on me. “This is Billy Joel.” Yeah, and I’m Albert Einstein.
But no one I know has this number at my workplace. It can’t be one of my friends toying with me, I am pretty certain.
Another idea quickly pops into my head. Oh, I get it. This is some kid who works for Billy Joel, “being” Billy for the sake of this interview, the chore having been delegated to him from up above.
“Excuse me?” I reply into the mouthpiece of the receiver.
“This is Billy Joel,” I hear again, but remain unconvinced.
“Oh, I’m sorry….” I continue. “It doesn’t sound like you.”
“Well, what did you expect me to sound like?” the voice on the other end says, not without a trace of irritation.
A voice from within, my higher intelligence if you will, suddenly grabs the microphone in my brain: “You better give him the benefit of the doubt!”
“I’m sorry,” I say. And then, more professionally, “Do you mind if I record this for transcription purposes?” I read somewhere that it is illegal to record a phone conversation without the consent of the other party, and I want to make sure I cover my bases.
“That’s fine,” the voice says.
“Did you hear that beep?” I ask him.
“Okay that means that this is recording.”
Still not at all convinced that I am talking to the “real” Billy Joel, I proceed. “Okay!” I begin. “How did the idea of doing a tour of speaking engagements at college campuses come about?”
“Well, I’ve spoken at a number of colleges and universities for – it must be over fifteen years now. I’ve never done it in a tour situation. I would do this from time to time, and I’ve…let’s see, I guess I looked at the beginning of this year – I made the decision to do this last year.”
His voice is calm and unhurried. He’s clearly thinking through his answer while talking to me, and taking his time doing so.
“I’d been on a road tour which lasted two years, of concerts,” he continues, “and I got very burnt out doing that, and because – I actually enjoy doing these college speaking engagements, and I learn a lot from it myself.”
As his speech moves along, I detect the unmistakable “lawn-guyland” (Long Island) accent, and it starts to dawn on me: holy shit, this really is Billy Joel! The longer he goes on, the more I am convinced, listening to his speech patterns.
“I decided to put together a series of them. I really hadn’t thought of it as a tour, but you know what, you’re right.”
I’m right! Billy Joel has declared it so!!!
“I guess it is a tour of sorts. I will be doing this until the end of the college year, which is in May. So…it was something to do!”
HOLY MOTHER OF CHRIST. I AM TALKING TO BILLY JOEL ON THE PHONE – FOR REAL.
“How did you go about deciding which schools?” I pick up, as if I were speaking to – I don’t know – someone who isn’t Billy Joel. “Was it based on location?”
“Well, it was partly location, although I couldn’t have picked a worse location this winter than the Northeast. This is the worst winter in my memory and I’m 46 years old. One hell of a winter. I didn’t want to have to spend too much time away from home so the way it was set up was that we would go to one area for a few days and then I could go home again. Because, as I said, over that two-year tour I did of concerts I got very homesick and I really don’t want to spend that much time away from home anymore. We’ve pretty much limited it to colleges east of the Mississippi, for this particular leg. We may do this again at another time. Believe me, it’s not to enrich myself!” He chuckles at this last statement.
I’m guessing not. I’m guessing he doesn’t have to do anything for the money anymore. Cause he’s Billy Joel. And I’m talking to him! “You mentioned that you learned a lot from the experience when you’d done it in the past,” I say, veering from my script of questions and feeling more at ease, “I was curious if you could elaborate on that.”
“Well, I’ve been finding out that people at the college age are familiar with my – or, the people who come to see me at these things, anyway – tend to be familiar with a lot of the more obscure music that I’ve written. Not necessarily hit records like ‘Uptown Girl’ and ‘We Didn’t Start The Fire’ and the ones which are, you know, commercial radio successful records. They’re more interested and relate more to the tracks on the albums that don’t get any airplay or are obscure, which I think is good. I happen to prefer to be known for the work which is not hits because that more represents the sum and substance of what I do than the ones that are hit records. Because to me hit records are always sort of flukes and freak records, and even novelty songs. They don’t really represent–”
“The whole body of work,” I say, interrupting him and finishing his sentence.
“The whole body of work,” he agrees, “or even the album that they were culled from. If you take a song like ‘We Didn’t Start The Fire’ – it doesn’t necessarily represent the Storm Front album, which is a whole other group of songs, which—”
“It’s an entity in itself, in other words,” I interject. Who am I, Larry King here, asking Billy to move it along??
“That’s right,” he says, sounding like his point has been understood.
Taking a cue from his response, I mention to him how much his song “James” (a lesser-known track from his 1976 album Turnstiles) has meant to me personally, and how a lot of kids at the college age can identify with lyrics like “Do what’s good for you, or you’re not good for anybody.”
“One of the things that is educational for me,” Billy says, “about talking to people at this age level is – I have a theory that that person who is at the college age, the age of college graduation, say 20, 21-years old, is a person you’re gonna take with you the rest of your life. That part of you doesn’t really change. It’s the core essence of who you are, that idealist. The political philosophy of that person, the morality of that person, the ethics of that person, is somebody who stays with you. And I’m 46 years old, so I’m more than twice the age of people who are graduating college and I’m still dealing with that person. And as a matter of fact I’m becoming – I’m refamiliarizing myself with him lately more than ever because I’m beginning to write a different kind of music.”
“Yeah, I’m gonna ask you about that in just a bit. And I wanted you to know that, by the way (here I go…) since you do relate to that age and understand that – you know, you said that that character has shaped and is still who you are, or a part of who you are…this conversation for me is like you getting a chance at my age to talk to John Lennon. I mean, this is – I just wanted you to know that!”
“Thank you, I would very much liked to have talked to John Lennon.” He chuckles.
“Yeah, I mean this is quite a moment!” I resume my professional demeanor and proceed with the next question. “I remember hearing a few years ago about Glenn Frey teaching a songwriting class at a college out in California, and I was wondering if you had any aspirations to someday teach at the college level.”
“Well, I feel like I’ve been doing that somewhat by doing these speaking engagements. This started out as me talking specifically to music schools and music students. I did a few of these at performing arts schools, at Berklee College of Music, at NYU for the music students, and gradually I expanded this to the general college population because there are people, whether they’re interested in becoming musicians or not, looking to have careers in industries which are ancillary to music: law, accounting, there’s all kinds of businesses which are possible ancillary industries to some kind of entertainment career. And there are also people who are just generally interested in what it is I do, so rather than confining it just to talking about songwriting – although, there are questions every evening about the writing of music, about the composition of music, about the recording of it, about how lyrics get done, how notes get put together, how things get produced. Those questions do come up even in a general college level. So, I don’t feel like I’m going to retire to academia at this point. I’m working on a – well, as I said, I’m working on a different type of music these days. It’s not popular music, it’s not rock and roll.”
I take this as my cue: “Let me ask you about that. More and more popular songwriters, it seems, have taken up the challenge of, quote, “classical composition”: Paul McCartney’s Liverpool Oratorio from a few years ago which he composed with conductor Carl Davis, Elvis Costello’s collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet, The Juliet Letters, I don’t know if you’re familiar with that-”
“Yeah, I know that album,” Billy assures me.
“And even Penn State’s very own alumnus Mike Reid who has had-”
This time Billy interrupts me: “The football opera.”
“Yeah! Different Fields, right!” I am tickled that Billy knows about this, and I would guess Mike Reid might feel similarly.
“It’s really – it’s not that far afield from what a songwriter does,” Billy says. “I have a theory – just as there’s a scientific theory that dinosaurs evolved into birds – my theory is that classical music evolved into popular songs. If you look at a lot of the more melodic popular music, it could have been…written and arranged in the era of Mozart. It’s just, pop music tends to be more redundant, it tends to have to have drums, it tends to have to follow certain strictures, but so did classical music in the sonata form. If someone is good at writing melodic music and good chord structure, it’s not that different than classical composition. Unfortunately, it’s becoming more and more a rare bird these days.”
“How is your piano concerto coming along?” I ask, having read up on his latest musical ventures.
“Well, I don’t know if it’s a piano concerto. It changes from day to day – the more I write and the more I tinker with the thing, the less it becomes a formalized concerto or a symphony, the more it becomes a composition which is, you know, it’s flexible as to what form it will take. I’m still working on a number of different pieces which are orchestral pieces.”
“And do you write the arrangements with a synthesizer so that you can hear what an arrangement would sound like, is that how you do it? Or do you compose strictly at the piano and imagine voicings and instruments for particular passages?”
“I don’t really need to play the synthesizer to hear horns and woodwinds and that kind of thing. If you’ve written a good piece of music, you can pretty much imagine what the orchestrations should be. I mean, look, Mozart wrote, he didn’t have a synthesizer. Neither did Beethoven. Although they might have utilized it, hell, Beethoven couldn’t have utilized it because he was deaf, so he wouldn’t have heard it anyway! It’s all really inside your head, but it’s really coming up with a composition that’s viable. I have a number of different compositions as I was saying that could be done as piano concertos, they could be done as sonatas, they could be done as orchestral works, they could be done as quintets, or chamber, ensemble work. I don’t know yet. It hasn’t taken a big form yet. They’re basically small pieces, but I’m writing classical music and I’m enjoying it, and I realize that’s my first love, it’ll probably always be my main love. But I love all kinds of music, too.”
“Is it a relief to you – I read recently in The Performing Songwriter magazine that interviewed you – that you always have a complete musical piece before you begin to put words to it—”
“Most of the time I do have a completed musical idea,” Billy affirms.
“Is it a relief that you don’t have to even concern yourself with expression through words – you can do it purely through music in this context?”
“I wouldn’t call it a relief. It doesn’t make it any easier to write a good piece of music to not put lyrics to it. I mean, there is some opera which I think is phenomenal, and I’m not discounting the possibility of some of this music becoming song music, or music which is sung: whether it be opera, whether it be a Broadway musical or even if it ends up being popular music because – I’ve done this before, and these songs, they’ve turned out to be popular songs. I’ll give you an example. ‘For the Longest Time’ started out as a piano, a classical piano piece. So did the ‘Lullabye’. So did many pieces that I wrote.”
“That’s interesting. I’ve heard you perform ‘The Longest Time’ in the style of Mozart and, for me that song is such a perfect marriage of words and music that it surprised me that that was the origin, the germ of the musical idea. Because I think that the words are almost…it sounds like it was born that way. The mood that’s created by the ’50s doo-wop thing that’s happening and the romantic sentiment of the words and music seems to be almost indivisible to me. It’s very powerful.”
“Thank you, I appreciate the compliment. That’s what good songwriting is supposed to be. It’s supposed to sound as if it was conceived all at once. You’re not supposed to hear the nuts and bolts, you’re not supposed to be able to analyze how it got done. It’s supposed to appear as if it were an immaculate conception. That’s what good songwriting is.”
“That’s what brings the mystique to it, I think.”
“That’s a big part of the craft, which is what I’m trying to explain to people when I do these speaking engagements – a lot of people just assume that, you know, it’s all a matter of inspiration, it’s all just a matter of artistic eccentricity, and it’s not – a lot of it is pure sweat, and a lot of it is pure craft. Craft has a bad word nowadays, but I happen to be a proponent of it. I go out and talk about these things to try to encourage people to learn the fundamentals if they are interested in having a career in music. It’s like baseball. Look, you can’t really get to the major leagues ‘til you learn how to hit, run, and throw. And I’m asked many times how do I explain the reasons for my longevity in an industry where the usual career span is two years and I said look I don’t think I happen to be that extraordinary. I just think I happen to be competent. But, in an era of incompetence, that makes me appear extraordinary!” He laughs as he says this last line to me.
“So then, how do you see the horizon for music going on into the next century?”
“Well that I don’t know,” he admits. “I don’t know if I see – if I can forecast a movement or a new era of art. I think we’re in a transitional era right now. I happen to feel that what may happen is a rediscovery of the riches of music that we have already, which has not really been fully appreciated. There are a number of generations of people who know nothing about classical music and I have a feeling if they’re exposed to it that they’re gonna go crazy over this stuff. I happen to believe that there is a lot of very very good American and European music that most people are unfamiliar with that they probably need to rediscover before we can move ahead.”
“It seems to be that with pop culture as it is – everything’s MTV and short attention span – it seems like it just needs an opportunity to be absorbed by people in some sort of swallowable or palatable way, whatever that is. A lot of people learn classical music by watching Bugs Bunny, you know?”
Billy laughs at this (I made Billy Joel laugh!). “True,” he says. “I predicted – sorry, hang on one second…”
Billy is gone momentarily, apparently trying to pick up another call, but returns quickly and continues his thought. “I knew a long time ago actually in the earlier era of rock and roll that television was gonna pretty much kill rock and roll. Television is the antithesis of music. Television is eye candy. Television is prepackaged and sanitized and unintellectualized, you know, it’s like – I call it, what you see on MTV, they call them videos, I call them musical suppositories. They’re pretty much concocted and they’re jammed up your butt. There you go. Walk around with that for awhile.”
Now I’m the one laughing.
“That is not what music is about,” Billy contends seriously. “Music is interpreted by the individual, not by the mass. And, if enough individuals are moved by this music, then you have a community which understands it, but when it’s prepackaged like they do on TV forget it, it’s killed.”
“It’s commodity before it’s anything else,” I add.
“Yeah, I mean even these newer bands, the alternative bands who don’t like the MTV stuff – I happen to agree with them – but they still gotta make these goddamn videos to help promote their albums or else they won’t get airplay. Radio is now being driven by TV, which is absurd. It’s the tail wagging the dog.”
“What do you suggest for musicians nowadays who are in this situation?” I am now far off the course of the questions I’ve prepared ahead of time. I am in the midst of a dialogue now with Billy Joel(!), and I am responding to his own comments with questions I personally wish to ask him outside of the formality of interviewing him for The Penn Stater. “What approach do you suggest they take, because radio itself is extremely conservative now as to what it will play, the record companies are investing so much money into marketing an act that they don’t want to take a chance…”
“Well, you know what,” replies Billy Joel, who I am having a personal conversation with on the telephone at this moment, “that’s been the case for a long time now, I think since the late ’60s, radio has formatted itself very very strictly. They don’t play things the way they used to. The playlists are preordained by some consulting firm, by some Arbitron ratings. It’s no longer the artists driving the industry, it’s now the industry dictating to the artist. The artists really have to reclaim the art and the art medium, but the way to do that is to be – I guess, you know, the funny thing is what the mainstream is now is essentially alternative bands. They were first called ‘alternative’ and now they’ve become the mainstream. They’re now the establishment. And the funny thing is an artist like me who was sort of a mainstream artist is now an outsider…which I kind of enjoy!” He laughs at this statement. “It’s sort of the shoe is on the other foot. I’m turning around and thumbing my nose at them, you know, but well who’s middle-of-the-road now? So, it happens, you know, that’s the way the cycles work in this business, but my advice to an artist would be: be true to yourself. Be original, don’t cut your conscience to fit the fashions of the day. Don’t try to follow a trend. Just do what you think you should do. Do what you’re good at.”
How cool is this? How many people get to hear one of their heroes tell them in a one-on-one conversation to listen to their hearts, to “be true to yourself” and to do “what you think you should do”?
“Okay,” I say, “I have a couple of questions for you regarding the creative process itself. This is a classic one for you: how important do you think is suffering to the creative process, and what motivates you creatively?”
“Well, I don’t think suffering is a prerequisite,” he replies. “It’s certainly a deeply felt human emotion, and any deeply felt human emotion is something which inspires creative expression. It’s just as important as ecstasy. I don’t mean the drug [he clarifies], I mean the emotion!”
We both laugh.
“I think Beethoven didn’t sit around and wait to be in a happy, you know, upbeat mood to write a lot of his stuff – some of his stuff was written out of great suffering.”
“Right, that’s been the argument over the years,” I chime in, “that anything of artistic merit comes about – it’s sort of a romantic myth. I know Sting had talked about the fact that he had completely bought into that and that it was harmful to him. He believed, he sort of convinced himself psychologically, that he couldn’t be happy because it would destroy his muse or what have you.”
Says Billy: “No, that’s a fallacy. I think the worst enemy of creativity is the lack of any emotion at all.”
“Hmmm…” I reply, intrigued by the response.
“So anything which is passionate, anything which is deeply felt,” he continues, “anything which is moving to the human spirit is something which will motivate creative expression. Whether it’s happy or whether it’s sad, I’ve written in both moods. And some things I’ve tried to write when I was feeling sort of in the middle.”
“What happens then?”
“Well, you know, look – there are always subconscious forces at work…there’s a lot of scarred psyches, and a lot of deeply buried emotions in everyone’s experience which you can call on. You know, you don’t have to be happy right at that moment or sad right at that moment to be able to recall what you were feeling like. And you don’t necessarily have to say ‘Well, gee, I feel sad, I think I’ll write a sad song.’ It doesn’t work, for me, that way. It’s not this immediacy of ‘Oh, I’m miserable so I’ll write a miserable piece of music.’ It motivates a person to do something. It’s a form of therapy, I suppose.”
“Hmm…that’s interesting,” I reply, and pause for a moment to take in what he’s just said. “Gearing this back towards mainstream college audiences, which is who you’re going to be speaking to, I think that most of us want to know what it’s really like to be Billy Joel. You know, I’m talking to you now, it’s just a person talking to another person, but there’s definitely – anytime somebody has the type of success in the industry that you’ve had there is a certain mythic quality, you can’t help it. And your concerts often conclude, for example, with huge numbers of people, tens of thousands sometimes, singing all the words to ‘Piano Man’ while you play the piano and – what does that feel like? I mean, what is that like emotionally for you?”
I think this question, more than any, is the one thing I really want to ask Billy Joel. What is it like to be him??? Imagine having the opportunity to ask this of someone you have admired since you were a kid and whom you are trying to emulate.
“Well, on one level in a way it’s a relief because I’m so tired and my voice is so strained that I’m glad to have the help singing those high notes, ‘cause they are high notes. So there’s one level. On another level, it’s very gratifying to know that all those people know all the words to that song. It’s like it becomes one big pub. Cause I enjoy a sing-along: people gather around the piano, and everybody sings. I do that at Christmas at my house, I have these big sing-alongs and, essentially it’s like a big sing-along and that creates a sense of community and that’s always nice, a sense of family. But on the other hand I have also a guarded – I don’t know but I think a healthy wariness about all those people doing the same thing. Once in a while I think, Jesus, is this what Adolf Hitler felt like in Nuremberg?”
“Yeah, that’s gotta be kinda scary,” I ponder aloud.
“It is scary and it’s healthy to be scared of it, and it’s healthy-”
“Anytime that many people,” I interject, “are all doing one thing it resounds of, you know-”
“Yeah, the Nuremburg Nazi party rallies,” Billy says matter-of-factly. “Yeah, you have to be aware of that, and you have to have a sense of humor about it, and you have to also be a little bit scared of it, and then you’ll be okay. The problem is when you start believing it, then you end up becoming, you know, Benito Mussolini or Adolf Hitler. And that was their problem.”
Wow, what an answer!
“Okay, after all of your success in the popular world, and you did mention your current work, your current projects, I was curious about what goals you have for your career in the future, and that includes – I mean, you have made long, rigorous concert tours a trademark, and I kind of get the feeling that that’s not gonna happen – and I also had read elsewhere that you planned on writing a Broadway musical, that Pete Townshend had spoken to you and made you consider that with some thought?”
“Well, I had always considered it. But I never had somebody try to encourage me as much as Pete Townshend. He said, ‘Look, Billy, if anybody could do it you could do it’ and that’s when I took it to heart, cause I’m a fan of Pete Townshend, but the problem is finding the right material, is finding the right book, because it’s very difficult to, you know, get a good book. It’s like actors who are looking for a good script. And I’d like to write something of my own time, of my life experience. I don’t want to write a period piece from the 18th century. I’d like to utilize the music and the modalities of my own generation. And the other thing is I have some concerns about the way they price tickets for Broadway shows. They’re priced for people who are older. You know, by the time you buy two Broadway show tickets, park your car and have dinner, you’re at close to a thousand dollars. And that cuts out an entire younger audience who I’ve always been very aware of wanting to keep in the audience. So, they’re gonna have to figure out a different way to price tickets before I commit at least two years of my life to slaving over a Broadway musical.”
I realize that the tape is about to be filled up any second now, meaning we’ve been talking for nearly thirty minutes already.
“Okay…hold on for just one second, I’m gonna flip this tape over,” I say.
But once I do, the micro-cassette starts rewinding automatically and I am totally flustered. I motion over to anyone nearby who might be able to help. These answering machines do not operate like standard cassette players in which all one needs to do is flip the tape over and resume recording on the other side.
“I’m having some issues with the tape recorder,” I announce. But what am I going to do, ask Billy to hold on indefinitely while I try to regain technical competence? I decide to press on, all the while frantically trying to get the machine to resume recording without erasing what I’ve got thus far.
“If you were to go back to school now,” I ask Billy, knowing full well that he technically never finished high school, “what would your major be?”
“Hmmm….my major….” Billy is clearly tickled by the question. I believe I have actually managed to stumble on to a question he has never been asked before, which is a great feeling! “My major, my major…” he says, seeming to momentarily embrace the fantasy of returning to school. “Well,” he says, “it probably should be law. I could use some accounting, too. Those are my weakest areas – law and finances.” He is no doubt referring to the notoriously bad business deals he has made in the past, and how much it has cost him to not be more aware of how his income was being handled. “But I would probably take some music courses – music theory, composition, improv…because I never had that, you know? I’d like to learn counterpoint and theory stuff to make it easier for myself when I compose.”
“Well, you’ve done pretty well considering…” I offer.
We delve into a discussion about the pros and cons of formal musical training. I point out that the Beatles had no such musical training, and that there might be a certain advantage to that kind of naiveté – that not knowing the “rules” to begin with may have afforded them the liberty of breaking them in ingenious ways.
“Yeah, but The Beatles had George Martin, and he knew all that stuff,” Billy points out, referring to the legendary producer often thought of as the “fifth Beatle” for his indelible contributions to their recorded work.
And suddenly I am in the midst of the most amazing part of this interview, though I am still unable to get the answering machine to resume recording. I’m really in a groove, so much so that this feels much more like a conversation than an interview at this point. Joel seems to be an advocate of the ‘you-can-never-learn-too-much’ school of thought. He seems to believe that whatever benefits there may be to musical ignorance, they are overshadowed by what one has to gain through formal study. Unfortunately, though, I’ve missed capturing this whole exchange on tape.
Knowing him to be an avid reader, I ask him what he has read of interest in the past few months and he mentions biographies of Napoleon and Abraham Lincoln, the letters of Mozart, and a book by Pete Hamill called Piecework.
When I ask him what current musical artists he likes he says that there are some good bands out there, but mentions only Pearl Jam by name. He also acknowledges Tori Amos (whom I have a ticket to see perform in Nashville the following month), but he tells me that he really has not listened to much popular music at all for years, that he listens almost exclusively to classical music.
“Where would you suggest those who have not been exposed to much classical music begin?” I prompt him.
He recommends Beethoven’s symphonies – numbers 3, 6, and 9 – and rattles off the names of Chopin, Debussy, Schubert, and Rachmaninoff, no doubt some of his own favorite composers. He speaks with obvious affection for the “Adagio for Strings” by Samuel Barber, which he tells me was used in the film Platoon and about which he says: “that’s the most gloriously depressing piece of music you’ll ever listen to.”
And finally, after what feels like an eternity but in reality was perhaps a ten-to-fifteen-minute lapse at the most, I’ve got my answering machine recording again.
“Hey, I just got the recording to work again, so for whatever reason it’s cooperating.”
“Well you know I’m gonna have to split soon,” Billy says with a chuckle, warning me lightheartedly, but warning me nonetheless.
“Okay, just a couple more questions if you don’t mind. Tell me a little bit about your relationship with Elton John,” I say, at this point more than comfortable in my role as interviewer. “You’ve toured with him and I understand that you were doing some studio work with him. Any projects on the horizon?”
“We may do another tour internationally,” Billy says. “We haven’t begun overseas and played. We pretty much just did the States. So it’s a possibility we may do that in the future. We wrote a song together, we haven’t recorded it. And we may figure out a way where we can do a simultaneous release. He’s on a different record company, you get two different labels and man it’s a pain in the ass, so maybe we can work something out about that. I liked working with him. He’s a real professional musician, he’s a good piano player. Very kind and warmhearted human being, very funny man, and a great show, it was a lot of fun. We both respect each other.”
“And the crowds loved it,” I say, master of the obvious.
“Yeah, we did, too. We had as good a time as the audience did, that’s how much fun we had.”
“Okay, just a couple more questions if you don’t mind,” I say, plunging ahead. “This one is actually inspired by a quote from ‘Allentown’ in which you sing ‘Every child had a pretty good shot to get at least as far as their old man got.’ How do you think the situation for today’s college-aged Americans compares to the baby boomers’ situation at the same age?
“Oh, well it’s totally changed,” Billy says with conviction. “Matter of fact, when I wrote that album [The Nylon Curtain] it was 1982, and I realized that the whole game had changed. The unemployed steel workers, the gas crisis – the way the whole economic structure of America was changing. You can’t do as well as your parents. You can’t assume automatically that you’re gonna do better than them.”
“Should you, though?” I respond.
“You’re lucky if you get anywhere near as well as they did.”
He continues: “The opportunities aren’t there, the financial growth isn’t the same. The endless expanse of the American horizon is diminished, and that started happening in the early ’80s. People don’t have the same expectations, nor should they, because the game’s changed and it’s different. When we were boomers, it was the big fat ’50s and we had nothing but prosperity to look forward to. But it even started to change in the early ’60s. When Kennedy was assassinated, it soured everything. That one act changed everyone’s perspective drastically. That paved the way for the Beatles. If you look at the time context, Kennedy was shot in November of ’63, and the Beatles hit America in February of ’64. And this country had the blues and rather than turning to another leader, rather than turning to the traditional expectations, we turned to four guys with long hair who came from England who played instruments and who seemed to be saying ‘Screw the establishment. Screw the whole thing. Let’s just rock and roll.’”
“Was that the moment when you knew that you wanted to make music your profession, when you saw that that could be done? Was that the instant-”
“Well I knew I always wanted to be involved with making music – I didn’t know exactly how. I knew I loved music, I loved playing the piano, I liked listening to music and I didn’t really think it was viable for me to be a rock and roller because prior to the Beatles all the rock and roll artists that I liked were black. The only guys I thought made any good music were, you know, Chuck Berry and Little Richard and James Brown, you know, all the soul singers. Here I was a little white kid from Levittown – how could I aspire to sound like those guys? And then the only white artists that they were shoving down our throats were the TV-generated guys like Fabian, Frankie Avalon, Bobby Rydell – and I couldn’t stand those guys.”
“What’s that?” he says, not to me, but in response to someone on his end of the line. He then replies to the other voice, “No, Elvis was great,” and then back to me, “Carolyn here was saying Elvis.”
He mentioned his girlfriend to me – by name, even! She’s apparently in the room with him. Still, I decide to adhere to my decision not to ask him any questions about his personal life.
“But Elvis went into the army,” he continues, “and that was the end of that, you never heard from him again.”
“Until the comeback, right? The comeback special?” I throw in.
“Well, he came back, you know how he came back?” Billy says, flaring up. “Doing those shit-ass Hollywood movies that they stuck him in – and they made him a joke!”
“But the comeback special, ’68, do you remember that?” I try again, though I wasn’t even born at that time.
“No, I didn’t see that. I was really too young for Elvis Presley, I missed that whole era.”
So did I!
“Can you hang on one second?” Billy asks politely, apparently receiving another call and putting me on hold.
“Hi, sorry,” he says when he returns.
Not wanting to outstay my welcome, I tell him when he returns, “You’ve been very generous with your time.” He truly has – I never imagined he’d talk to me for this long.
“What was the last question you had asked?” he says, clearly not in a hurry to leave the interview, to my surprise and delight.
“The last question I asked…” I ponder, not even remembering myself.
“About expectations…?” Billy prompts me, while trying to recall himself as if he had been in the middle of a thought when he had been interrupted.
“Oh oh,” I say, “yeah, regarding comparing young people now-“
“Oh, no, then it was ‘did I know then that’s when I was going to be a musician?’” Billy corrects me. He is obviously into this!
“Right, right…” I say.
“Yeah, I knew I was gonna be a musician since I was four, but I didn’t know what form it would take. Then I saw that there were all these white artists that TV and Hollywood was trying to promote on us who were awful – Pat Boone, and all that crap. And then I saw the Beatles. The Beatles redeemed rock and roll music. Really, the early stuff they were doing was R&B – they were just reintroducing us to our own music. A lot of that music had never been heard by a white audience because white radio stations wouldn’t play black music. So the Beatles came out and, cause they were white, all of a sudden – hey, it was okay to do that stuff. But that’s what made me realize that maybe it was possible – these were working class guys, they played their own instruments, they wrote their own songs, they grew their hair long – they didn’t look like Hollywood stars, they looked like you and me, and I thought ‘Well, why can’t I do that?’”
“And you certainly have,” I declare. “You have become such an institution (okay, I’m playing the fan now)…I know there’s a lot that you don’t see, a lot of the effect that you’ve had you don’t see, and I wish that you could because – I think of my high school years and hanging out in the music room and literally everybody going over to the piano trying to play ‘Angry Young Man’ better than the next guy or the last guy, you know-”
He chuckles at this and says, “I’m still trying to do it myself!”
“And, I mean, my father teaches at the high school that I attended, and so I grew up looking at the yearbooks from, you know, the past fifteen years or whatever. And every year, without fail, you were quoted in them and your quotes were meaningful to students starting from, you know, the mid-’70s and going all the way up to the present day. Actually, I used a quote from ‘Getting Closer’ [a song from Billy’s 1986 album, The Bridge] as my high school yearbook quote: ‘If I see it as experience, it hasn’t gone to waste’ – which was my way of rationalizing high school,” I say with a laugh.
Billy laughs at this comment, and it is an incredibly cool feeling to have made Billy Joel laugh!
“Yeah, me too!” he says.
“But really,” I say, “your impact is so significant, and I’ve been deeply touched by your music, and many people that I know that I grew up with and many people now in Nashville – fellow songwriters that I’ve met, you know – we all share that sort of, that bond that you have created with your music and that’s incredibly meaningful.” I’m not sure how well I am articulating this, but hopefully the sincerity is at least coming through. “I still don’t feel like I’ve communicated it to you properly and I really wish that you could feel that.”
“Well, you know, I’ve been told this by a number of people and I guess I understand that I’m supposed to be this big cheese, but see personally, I don’t feel it and I don’t even know if I want to really understand it, because that’s an awesome responsibility! I don’t know if I could handle it, to tell you the truth. I think, in some ways it’s better that musicians remain a little bit insular about their own success.”
“Egoistically, at least,” I say, as if I could possibly relate.
“Well, I was watching – what was that movie the other night? – Immortal Beloved, about Beethoven.”
“Right, I saw that,” I say.
“And, okay, Gary Oldman’s playing it over the top as usual” (I laugh) – “he loves playin’ over the top. But there was a scene in which Beethoven was seen as being such a huge influence on his time and that he was still alive and his time had come and gone and now he was perceived to be a has-been, over the hill, because another group of composers had come along and were starting to write in a different style-”
“The Romantic movement,” I chime in, as if to prove myself.
“And then of course he came and reclaimed it supposedly with the Ninth Symphony, but I don’t necessarily think that that’s how musicians should perceive themselves. I think we should just work in our little laboratories with our little musical chemicals and mix things and concoct different things and not be so aware of what we’re doing. I think once you start, it’s sort of like dissecting a living thing, that’s just my theory. But I do appreciate that I’ve had an impact on people’s lives, and I remember when I was looking at John Lennon or the people that I admired, thinking ‘My God, they’ve had such a profound impact on me, I wish they knew’ – maybe it’s good that I never met them. Maybe [he starts chuckling over his words] if I had the chance to meet Ludwig van Beethoven and said, ‘Man, I think you’re great!’ he would have turned around and said, ‘Who gives a shit!’ [we both laugh at this] and my heart would be broken. So who knows?”
“Maybe if I had the chance to meet Ludwig van Beethoven and said, ‘Man, I think you’re great!’ he would have turned around and said, ‘Who gives a shit!’ and my heart would be broken. So who knows?”
My friend Jody laughs and maintains a dumbfounded expression as he listens to the tape of my interview with our mutual hero. We are sitting in the dining room of his house. I had brought the answering machine over a little while earlier without telling him why, saying simply when he answered the door, “I have something I want you to hear.”
My voice emerges once again from the tape:
“Well I’m very much looking forward to seeing you in State College – you’re doing Wednesday night and Thursday night – and so far I’m going to be at the Wednesday night show, at least. And my last question would just be if, um – would you mind if I introduced myself to you personally after the show?”
“Not at all. You have to make a point of asking for the guy who is my road manager to be able to do that. His name is Max Loubiere.”
“Yeah, he’s the one that I called to get this confirmed and set up…”
“No way!!!!!!” shouts Jody, and I laugh heartily at his reaction and do a little victory dance as the tape continues:
“I’ve noticed that doing these college gigs that the security guys tend to be way over-enthusiastic about security.”
(Billy lets out a little laugh): “Everybody tends to be a little bit too tense, and I try to get everybody to relax. But Max is the guy who can make the backstage thing happen.”
“So I should just contact him?”
“Okay. Again, you’ve been incredibly generous. Thank you so much, and thank you for all the great music you’ve made, it’s enhanced my life more than I can even explain. And – what address should I send a copy of The Penn Stater to? I don’t know which issue…the magazine is published bi-monthly, and I don’t know when the article will appear. Is there an address that I should send it to?”
“Uh, let’s see,” (fumbling through some papers). “You can send it to my office, which is…called…if I can find the damn address, I just moved…”
He recites the address for me, and I repeat it back to him.
“And my bosses who have been so kind as to let me hold the interview here at work, would like to send you a copy of their M Street Directory, which is the publication – they do an annual radio directory.”
“So we’ll get that to you, too, okay?”
“Great,” (he sounds genuinely pleased).
“And thank you again so much, (I laugh here at my own astounding good fortune) and I look forward to seeing you on Wednesday.”
“OK, Eric, we’ll see you there.” (That’s Billy Joel, of BILLY JOEL fame, addressing me by name).
“OK, take care.”
The tape beeps once the conversation has ended.
“You have balls of steel,” says Jody.
It is a thrill to be able to share this incredible personal victory with someone who fully appreciates it and who is as much a fan as I am.
“You’ve got to get a picture with him,” Jody tells me before I leave.
Note: The quotes above attributed to Billy Joel were transcribed verbatim, with the exception of the portion of the interview during which I had technical difficulties with the recording equipment. That portion was recreated from memory, and some handwritten notes, to the best of my ability shortly after the interview was conducted.
The story continues in the next blog post. Stay tuned!