The long-awaited, all-access biography of a music legend
In Billy Joel, acclaimed music journalist Fred Schruers draws upon more than one hundred hours of exclusive interviews with Joel to present an unprecedented look at the life, career, and legacy of the pint-sized kid from Long Island who became a rock icon.
Exhibiting unparalleled intimate knowledge, Schruers chronicles Joel’s rise to the top of the charts, from his working-class origins in Levittown and early days spent in boxing rings and sweaty clubs to his monumental success in the seventies and eighties. He also explores Joel’s creative transformation in the nineties, his dream performance with Paul McCartney at Shea Stadium in 2008, and beyond.
Along the way, Schruers reveals the stories behind all the key events and relationships—including Joel’s high-profile marriages and legal battles—that defined his path to stardom and inspired his signature songs, such as “Piano Man,” “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,” “New York State of Mind,” and “She’s Always a Woman.” Throughout, he captures the spirit of a restless artist determined to break through by sharing, in his deeply personal lyrics, the dreams and heartbreaks of suburban American life.
Comprehensive, vibrantly written, and filled with Joel’s memories and reflections—as well as those of the family, friends, and band members who have formed his inner circle, including Christie Brinkley, Alexa Ray Joel, Jon Small, and Steve Cohen—this is the definitive account of a beloved rock star’s epic American journey.
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FRED SCHRUERS enjoyed a successful high-profile career as a writer at Rolling Stone, chronicling an impressive body of musicians and actors, including Fleetwood Mac, Bruce Springsteen, Jack Nicholson, Sheryl Crow, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and Chris Rock. His writing has also appeared in Premiere, Entertainment Weekly, Men’s Journal, GQ, the Los Angeles Times, and Columbia Journalism Review.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
It’s five o’clock on a Monday, and the regular crowd shuffles in . . . to the chilly, unpopulated great hall of Madison Square Garden, where a crew is still slapping down chairs on the big slabs of decking that cover the hockey rink.
Toting guitars, drumsticks, horns, and earpieces, Billy Joel’s band arrays itself for a sound check, and now up a metal staircase comes the man himself. You could say he’s shuffling as well; both hips were re- placed in mid-2010, and now, January 27, 2014, he’s fully mended—but not likely to be doing the backflips off the piano that, he’ll occasionally speculate, led to that operation.
As he perches on his compact stool, checking settings on the hybrid acoustic/synthesized piano he uses, the band looks up expectantly. He’s notoriously bored by sound checks, which means there’ll be plenty of japes about his age, certain band peccadillos, or the world situation, all delivered with ready wit. But at the same time, all hands had better be “on the one” when he delivers a casual instruction, because the message won’t come twice.
From time to time, as in an open-air-arena sound check in Perth in December 2008, he’ll get a wild hair and lead the band through pretty much an entire classic album. In that case, it was Disraeli Gears by Cream—at least until the constables put a stop to it after a volley of noise complaints from the neighborhood.
Billy, warmed by a plain black watch ap and a wool sports coat, plinks out a few exploratory notes as the others tune up around him. He gazes about—“I don’t hear the room as well I used to hear it.”
Tonight will be his forty-seventh show at what’s pretty much the most storied concert venue in the world. You get here just the way you get to Carnegie Hall—“Practice”—but it really helps if you sell tens of millions of albums. In his case the figure is 110 million or so, and that’s part of the reason he’s playing this inaugural gig to kick off an open- ended “residency,” a series of monthly Garden dates that will continue, as he said in a recent press conference, “as long as there’s demand.”
A blogger for Forbes computed that, based on rapid sellouts, the strength of the Joel catalog, and what demographers might call his enormous local and worldwide fan base, something approaching forty shows might match that demand.
No one’s expecting him to do that many, of course, but you never know.
Billy’s still eyeballing the arena’s distant reaches, somewhat obscured by new carpeted catwalks leading to bunker-like luxury suites. He’s wondering why the sound waves seem muted: “Either I’m going deaf or the room is different. Is there a big sponge up there?” He waits a beat, as the band, knowing his timing, remains at parade rest—“Ah, I guess it’s the hair in my ears.”
At sixty-four, he’s allowed to kvetch a bit. Three hours from now, a few songs into his set, when the packed house has already marched in place to the epic sweep of “Miami 2017,” bounced in rhythm (the Garden is on massive, pulsating springs) to “Pressure,” crooned along to the enchanting soliloquy that is “Summer, Highland Falls,” and ditty- bopped and doo-wopped to “The Longest Time,” he pauses: “Good evening, New York City . . .” A roar like a gut punch breaks over the stage. “I have no idea how long this is gonna go.”
The alert eyes, somehow made more magnetic by the bald pate above, swivel around the room as he takes a sip of water. The guys in the crowd give their dates a knowing look- You think it’s really water? “This year is my fiftieth year in show business.” A subtle resettling of his spine—as in, we’re practicing our trade here. Another beat. “What was I thinking?” Now he turns to peer at the image of his head and torso, many times life-size. “I didn’t think I was gonna end up looking like that in 1964.”
The big banks of speakers are putting out their crisp, almost subliminal exhalations as the crowd noise modulates down—the fans are thinking what fifty years means to Billy, and to them. They’re hoping to hear “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song),” “New York State of Mind,” and “River of Dreams,” which are all but a certainty, as well as “Piano Man,” which is a certainty, and the set list sites have hinted they’ll be sent out into the night after a four-song encore capped by a tub- thumping, horn-washed take of “Only the Good Die Young.”
There’s time enough for the key anthems, and time, too, for some “deep cuts” like “Where’s the Orchestra?” But first Billy’s got one more observation about the doo-wop moment: “It sounds better in the men’s room,” as he and his bandmates demonstrated, bouncing “The Longest Time” off dingy tiles in the song’s 1984 video. “We used to sneak out at night and sing it on the street corner—and people would throw shit at us!”
Well, clearly that was then. And tonight, when he’s sixty-four, they still need him, too, to borrow a phrase from a song. Mike DelGuidice, new utility player in the band, centerpiece of his own Joel tribute band called Big Shot, and maybe the number one fan in the room, will sum it up later in the bar where the band gathers. “He’s just the guy. That is the guy. He’s more loved than anyone on the planet, musically.” Mike has just come down from the hotel room he hurried to after the gig to take a family phone call. When he sat on the bed and started to think about having just played opening night alongside Billy in the Garden, he “wept like a baby for a good five minutes.”
That Billy’s even here in this sacramental spot, soon to be filled with eighteen thousand faithful fans, goes against the steepest of odds. If a harbormaster in Havana hadn’t let his father’s family disembark to find refuge from the Nazis; if his mom hadn’t found that piano teacher; if he hadn’t drilled into his own alienation to write his saga as that piano man; and if some label bosses hadn’t stuck by him after his first two albums tanked, he might be sitting down to the keys at a very different spot on the map.
There’s a particular moment in almost every one of his shows when, a song or two in, while listening to that odd sonic tumult of roaring approval, hollered song titles, and proprietary shout-outs of his first name, he leans left and forward on his piano stool and searches the faces of the crowd in his periphery. There’s usually a tentative grin, but there’s also a jigger of uncertainty—and therefore vulnerability—that stops short of neediness but is still somehow in touch with it. Tonight it will come be- fore “Summer, Highland Falls,” with its telling lyric: “And as we stand upon the ledges of our lives / With our respective similarities / It’s either sadness or euphoria.”
On a different day, in a different city, in what his intimates still think of as the bad, sad old days of 2009, he grew reflective on a hotel balcony: “Obviously I have plenty of regrets. Whenever I hurt somebody, whether it was inadvertently or rashly, I still regret that to this day. I’ve never wanted to ever hurt anybody, and those are regrets I’ll take with me to the grave. But I don’t think you’ve lived unless you have regrets. I don’t think you’ve had that experience without them, where you can say honestly, when you’re ready to kick, hey, I lived. Good Lord, man, what a life I’ve lived.
“I think I’m going to do that. That may take some of the sting out of dying—to say, I did it all.”
TOMORROW IS TODAY
In the late 1960s, as the British Invasion led to an expanding galaxy of stateside rock groups, Billy and his chronically unnameable band ended up being dropped from Mercury Records but played the Plainview, Long Island, nightclub My House frequently. The Island was as warm with fledgling bands. Billy had often watched My House’s resident band, the Hassles, who were relied upon, if hardly coddled, by club owner and sometime restaurateur Danny Mazur. Danny—recalled by Billy as “a typical Long Island club owner, kind of a tough, older Jewish guy, pinky ring, very heavyset, kind of gruff”—sometimes kept company with some beefy types Billy surmised were wise guys. Working alongside him—and as the Hassles’ manager—was his son Irwin. Though Irwin would later, via Danny’s connections, be briefly employed by industry legend Morris “Moishe” Levy (of whom Irwin freely says, “He was Jewish Mafia”), at this time he was helping Danny audition and book bands. He had returned to Long Island for that purpose from Philadelphia, where he was studying dentistry at University of Pennsylvania.
The Hassles were drawing big crowds at the time. “We could draw a thousand people a night to a place,” recalls drummer Jon Small, already a cover-band veteran when he formed the group. “We were very, very popular.” They had a keyboard player named Harry Weber, and Small was married to Harry’s sister Elizabeth and had a son by her, Sean, born in April 1967. Billy would never know Harry well—he recalls the infamously dissolute musician had a “lot of issues”—but of course he would come to know Elizabeth very well indeed.
Finally one night Harry and Jon had a serious set-to triggered by Harry’s deepening immersion in glue-sniffing, even onstage, where he’d catch half-hidden snorts from a poly bag while crouched on the low bench behind his keyboard. Harry finally exploded backstage after being rebuked one last time. As Small describes it: “He had his feet on my shoulders and was pulling my hair out. What it came down to was either him leaving or me leaving. And the other guys stuck with me.”
Harry, as part of a gaggle of Weber siblings who were raised in tony Syosset but lived a cursed history that most would associate with a less privileged lifestyle, would not land happily. A few years after being discharged from the band, he was found dead on a railroad track, the re- ported victim of an overdose.
In what Small smilingly calls “a very crafty” maneuver, he put an ad in the local paper in the spring of 1966 saying My House was seeking a second house band. “What they”—the Echoes, the key auditioning band that included Billy—“didn’t know was that I was sitting there looking to steal their keyboard player.” As Small sat in the otherwise empty club with Elizabeth, Hassles guitarist Richie McKenna, lead singer “Little John” Dizek, and Irwin, the Echoes—with Billy on Farfisa organ—performed a few songs. Small remembers, “I instantly loved this keyboard player. He wore a little bebop hat, and he actually got down on one knee and sang ‘Soul and Inspiration,’ the Righteous Brothers song.
“So I convinced the other guys that this is the guy, and I went to Billy and sat him in the room and said, ‘The reason you’re here is— how would you like to join the Hassles?’ And he looked at me and said, ‘Nope, not interested.’
“So I had to use another tactic. I knew these guys—nobody had any money. I had to bribe him is what it really came down to. I said, ‘So what is it going to take for you to get in the band?’ He said, ‘Look, I’m loyal to my band, I’ve been with these guys, grew up with these guys.’ I said,
‘Well, I have a Hammond B3 organ.’ That’s what everybody wanted.
‘You join the band, it’s yours.’
“It didn’t take more than a glimmer in his eye to think about it, and he said, ‘Okay, I’ll come in the band. But you have to take the bass player from my band, Howie Blauvelt.’ ”
Billy didn’t want to be responsible, as Weber had been, for playing the bass line on the Hammond’s bass pedals. “The Hassles were only a four-piece band,” says small. “But I thought, Okay, why not? We’ll just branch out; we’ll be a five-piece band. So Billy and Howie joined.”
The Hassles offered Billy $250 a week, which in 1967—when the minimum hourly wage was a little more than two dollars—was good money, especially given the added benefit of being drafted into a top local band. “You’re working fifty-two weeks a year if you want,” Mazur added to Jon Small’s pitch, “guaranteed.” For someone who had worked in an inking factory blacking typewriter ribbons; and had worked winter mornings on the wet, greasy deck of an oyster dredge; and had even written a few rock reviews for Changes magazine for the twenty-five- dollar fee they earned him, it all sounded quite satisfactory.
“Nobody was worried about having a real job then,” recalls Billy. “I was happy just to be a musician with enough money to buy some food and have my own place.”
As for that Hammond B3 Jon said they’d give Billy? They’d be de- ducting fifty dollars a month from his pay to cover the cost.
What his new band mates soon found out was that their new keyboardist—still singing backgrounds while the band worked the crowd with a raspy-voiced and marginally talented (but very Mick Jagger–like) front man, Little John—was interested in little else but the music. “What was important to Billy besides music was smoking cigarettes,” says Small. “He smoked cigarettes like a chimney, and I hated smoke—and he didn’t have a driver’s license. Billy didn’t even have a wallet. He was this funny guy. You could tell he was very smart, but the thing young guys craved were to have their first car—but he had no craving to have one. So I became the chauffeur.”
As Little John was slowly being edged out, Small and Billy bonded over music, cruising the Island clubs, drinking in the emerging local bands like the Pigeons, who would become...
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