7:35 p.m. July 14----
I saw that creepy black and white picture of Billy Joel that accompanied the fine Dan Barry story in Sunday’s New York Times. Joel looked like Harry Dean Stanton. It got me to thinking about my encounter with “The Piano Man” before a 1986 concert in Worcester, Mass.
People ask me about memorable interviews and there have been plenty: James Brown, Johnny Cash, Sammy Davis, Jr., Merle Haggard, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Jerry Lewis (every time) Curtis Mayfield and the list goes on.
But Joel disarmed me.
He was riding a bicycle backstage while rehearsing high notes. He was chain smoking Marlboro cigarettes. He asked me what I thought of his current album “The Bridge.” What did it matter what I thought? The album was already in Billboard’s Top 10.............
Between chatting about baseball and pop music I was able to calm him down enough to talk about confessional songwriting. My favorite Joel songs are his few personal tunes like "Summer Highland Falls." “The Bridge” was regarded as the most personal album of his career.
He was 37 years old and married to Christie Brinkley.
“Without naming names, I don’t necessarily buy that a confessional school of songwriting makes for more integrity,” he said. “It’s always ‘We’re seeing him progress as a person.’ I think its better to progress on a record as a musician. The better person you become away from the recording process, the better musician you will be.”
I still buy into that thought.
I wondered aloud how Joel was perceived as a master of construction and melody at the expense of real emotion and authentic rhythm (with exceptions like the Four Seasons inspired “Uptown Girl”.) It didn’t take long for Joel to go off.
“I was reading where Robert Christagu (critic of the Village Voice) dumped on ‘The Bridge,’ and the whole premise was that Billy Joel can’t be a true rock n’ roll artist because he has no allegiance to any style,” Joel said. “To me, that smacks of fascism. Like this guy is a watchdog of purity, of his image what rock n’ roll should be, and his job is to guard against any mongrelization. American music is a mongrelization! It’s based on Anglo-Saxon folk music, Appalachian country music, black gospel, blues, rhythm and blues, jazz, big band stuff. Actually, I’m kind of proud of my synthesis.”
Wait. There’s more.
He took a glance at a nearby television set where the Boston Red Sox were playing the New York Mets in the World Series. Joel raised his voice and continued, “I have no problem being accused of not having any particular style. I’ll be the first one to say I don’t. I don’t have a lot of faith in my own voice and my own voice bores me. I like screwing around with my throat; its something I’m capable of doing, and it lends to a better interpretation of a song. My imagination allows me to write in different styles, and to sing them, I feel I should sublimate the style to the composition.”
I asked Joel to explain the difference between a pop “artist’ and a pop “craftsman.”
"I think the artist is supposed to live in a certain type of exemplary existence according to the powers-that-be,” he answered. “A particular clique of critics I’ll call Mt. Olympus. And if the word comes down from Olympus this is acceptable, then the music this artist does is viewed in praiseworthy terms. Then you sometimes see critics trying to impress each other. Bruce (Springsteen) is very much loved by the criticism and I see the reviews where one (critic) is trying to top the other about how he’s (Bruce is) Abraham Lincoln. I’m thinking, wait a minute, ‘What about music?’
“I have no problem being called a craftsman,” he continued. “Because I work very hard at it. When you work hard enough at a craft, it becomes an art. I think time will tell, not what’s a fad today. Popular music is popular at a certain time, and if it transcends time, then it’s art.”
Joel went on for 90 minutes.
He told me that after breaking up with a girl friend at age 21 he tried to finish himself off by drinking a bottle of furniture polish. He stuck a finger in his mouth to emphasize his displeasure with Jann Wenner and a Rolling Stone magazine cover treatment of his life with Brinkley. He took a shot of Cognac to soothe a sore throat. Let's review: Cognac, cigarettes, riding a bicycle backstage and screaming.
This was like talking to Lemmy from Motorhead.
I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t get such a candid interview with any major star today. Artists have been scrubbed, marketed and American Idolized.
Honesty is such a lonely word.
Everyone is so untrue.