Billy Joel talks about fame, fortune and the future

The bestselling singer songwriter had 33 consecutive Top 40 hits, but hasn’t released an album since 2001, and feels no need to keep banging out the tunes

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 May, 2016, 10:01pm
UPDATED : Monday, 30 May, 2016, 12:03pm

Billy Joel hasn’t made a new album since River of Dreams topped the US charts in 1993, and he’s fine with that.

“You get to a point where you realise: ‘I’ve done the best I can. Why am I driving myself crazy?’,” Joel says. “As Clint Eastwood put it [in the 1973 movie Magnum Force]: ‘A man’s gotta know his limitations’.”

Joel’s only post-1993 album, 2001’s Fantasies & Delusions: Music for Solo Piano, was an all-instrumental collection with a clear stylistic debt to Beethoven, Chopin and other classical music icons. It was not a commercial success, and Joel seems fine with that, too.

“I never wanted to be an oldies act, but I suppose I am,” he says. “I never wanted to be a nostalgia act, but I suppose I am. But I listen to Beethoven, and that’s really old stuff. Is that nostalgia? To me, that music is as alive as it ever was.”

Even without any new albums or songs, Joel continues to be one of the biggest concert draws in the world. A pop-radio staple for decades, he scored 33 consecutive Top 40 hits, beginning with 1973’s autobiographical Piano Man. Since then, he has sold close to 150 million albums worldwide and won six Grammys, but fans hoping for a new album will probably keep waiting – in the words of his 1984 hit – for the longest time.

“I’d recorded 12 albums, and I was content, to an extent,” Joel says. “Then I got to a point where I thought, ‘OK, I’m not compelled to do this anymore’. I know a lot of people may not understand why. Elton John used to say to me, ‘Why don’t you make some new albums?’ And I said, ‘Why don’t you make less new albums?’”

In a recent interview, Joel reflects at length on his half-century music career and explains why he’s only an “incidental singer”.

Duke Ellington was once asked what inspired him to compose. He smiled and said, “Give me a deadline.” Since you have the luxury of not having deadlines, unless they’re self-imposed, what inspires you to write now?

Everything! (Laughs.) I don’t write songs anymore, although I do write music. And some of that music, I suppose, could be the music part of songs. I’m used to writing in song form – let’s put it that way – and probably, unconsciously, I still do write song-form music.

Meaning, music but not lyrics?

Yes. For me, nowadays, there is already an inherent lyric in the music on its own. I only listen to classical music; I don’t even listen to pop on the radio. I find myself listening to (classical) music and decoding what the composer was saying. I do that with Beethoven a lot. And, I suppose, I do it with my own music. I tend to write in sonata form.

Decoding in terms of what you’re hearing or historical knowledge of those composers and their work?

Yes, some of it may have some historical meaning in it. But when I listen to Beethoven, I hear a lot of revolutionary ideas and martial themes. Because it was very revolutionary; during Napoleonic times, they were overthrowing kings and monarchies.

When do you write? Do you have a regular regimen, or is it whenever the mood hits you?

It’s whenever I’m in the mood. It can be first thing in morning. I can have the music running through my head; I think I dream a lot of this stuff. As a matter of fact, I realised when I was writing songs that I was sometimes unsure if the melody I’d just written was original, or had I heard it before? And it troubled me. Then, I realised, it was occurring in my dreams. I could dream entire symphonies and not remember them when I woke up.

Almost all songwriters have to ask themselves: ‘Has this been done before? Am I taking something from somebody else, unconsciously?’ That happens with me a lot. I think it does help to have a deadline to be productive, whether it’s your own, self-imposed deadline, or the record company expecting what they call product. But there’s no particular reason for me to write, other than my own sense of, ‘OK, do something’.

What about keeping in practice simply to maintain your digital dexterity and technique on the piano? Hank Jones, the great jazz pianist, once said: “If you don’t practise for a day, you know it. If you don’t practise for a few days, your wife knows it. And if you don’t practise for a week, the whole world knows it.”

I think you’d get a different answer from a different pianist. If you’re a virtuoso, you tend to lose a step, in terms of your own dexterity, if you haven’t practised. I was never a virtuoso pianist. I recognised early on, as a kid – even when I was taking piano lessons – that I was not going to be one of those guys. I think a lot of the songs I wrote were due to my limitations more than my expertise. My theory is: the only thing original anyone ever does is screw up. You can learn all the dots (in a musical score), but you can only create something really unique due to your incompetence. That’s how you come up with new things; you stumble on to something.

No one, probably even not Frank Sinatra, grows up thinking: “I’m going to become an icon,” or “I’m going to become a part of the fabric of American culture.” You have done both, and have received many accolades. Do you feel comfortable being thought of as an icon, or would you not agree with that characterisation?

I don’t really think of myself as an icon. Maybe it’s more that what I’ve created has become this iconic thing. It’s funny – I never think of myself as a rock star. I don’t look like a rock star. I don’t dress like a rock star. But there you go; you hang around, stuff happens.

You’ve had enormous success. You also spent a number of years struggling to get your foot in the door. Given the benefit of hindsight, is success or failure a better creative impetus for you?

I liked the process of writing (songs); I always liked the feeling of having written. Writing was always a battle for me, but I loved when the battle was over. The only problem was that it was only a matter of time before postpartum depression kicked in! It’s a vicious cycle, the feeling of having been productive and then the wearing off of that feeling. It does take a toll on you. I don’t know if other writers go through this, but there must be something similar with people who have written.

Ultimately, how – and for what – would you like to be remembered, and not remembered?

How would I want to be remembered? For being a good dad, I guess.

And musically?

Well, I would hope the music would be able to continue in one form or another, whether through my own recordings or some variation thereof. I don’t know why, because I’m not going to be around to appreciate how much I’m appreciated. As I get older, I wrestle with these questions more and more. Part of it is: “Why should I care? I won’t be here.” On the other hand, there’s the ego – you want to be known for having done something. But these are all philosophical questions. And I’m not a philosopher.

Tribune News Service