Billy Joel has sold more records than The Stones, Bruce Springsteen, and Madonna—though the “rock star thing” is something he can “take off.” Joel started playing piano when he was about four or five years old, but he admits that he doesn't remember how to read sheet music anymore. He says it’d be like reading Chinese. That doesn't stop the third best-selling solo artist of all time in the U.S. from plunking out a few tunes with Alec.
Announcer: I’m Alec Baldwin and this is Here’s the Thing from WNYC Radio.
Billy Joel’s fans have gotten to know him quite well over the past four decades [music comes in]. From the open-hearted declarations of old-fashioned love, and “She’s Got a Way” and “Just The Way You Are,” to the hard-rocking, social commentaries “We Didn’t Start the Fire” and “Allentown.” [Music comes in]
If, like me, you grew up listening to Billy Joel’s music, you can chart phases of your life by each of his albums. Maybe that’s because Billy Joel’s songs are so passionately connected to who he was at the time he wrote them. And when you’re actually sitting in the same room as him, with a piano nearby, well, you can’t help yourself.
Alec Baldwin: Play me something. If you don’t mind. Because your fans would demand that. I just always remember you said that to me years ago, how predictable it was wherever you were that there was a piano people were always like, ‘Billy? Could you? Uh, do you mind? Just a couple of songs, for the holidays.'
Billy Joel: 'It’s his birthday, you know.'
Alec Baldwin: 'It’s Christmas, and we were wondering if you could play –'
Billy Joel: 'There it is, and it’s tuned. You just had it tuned. Just for you.'
Alec Baldwin: 'We’re such fans.'
Billy Joel: 'You don’t mind, right?'
Alec Baldwin: And that’s your life, right?
Billy Joel: Yeah.
Alec Baldwin: That’s your life.
Billy Joel: Yes. But, you know, it’s fun. You can’t have act-alongs – you’re an actor – you can’t act along, but you can have sing-alongs. I can always sit down at a party, play the piano, and everybody starts singing. I go to a pub in English [speaks quickly in English accent] ‘Ey, come on now Billy, give us a couple of songs, come on, there we go, yes uptown girl, uptown girl,’ and they all sit around, they sing, and everybody has a blast. It’s fun. It creates a community, instantly.
Announcer: Billy Joel is the third-best-selling solo artist of all time in the United States. He’s sold more records than The Stones, Bruce Springsteen, and Madonna. But he admits there’s still room for improvement.
Billy Joel: I know what good piano playing is and I’m not good. My left hand is lame. I am a two-fingered left-hand piano player.
Alec Baldwin: As opposed to?
Billy Joel: As opposed to somebody who knows what they’re doing with their left hand. I never practiced enough to use all my fingers on my left hand, so I just play octaves, bass notes. My right hand tries to compensate for my left hand being so gimpy, so I overplay on my right hand. My technique is horrible. I can’t read music. I never really got--
Alec Baldwin: You don’t read music?
Billy Joel: I used to but I don’t anymore. I forgot how.
Alec Baldwin: If I took a piece of music that you didn’t know, if I got a score and put it in front of you and I said, 'Play this—'
Billy Joel: It would be Chinese.
Alec Baldwin: It would be Chinese to you. How did that happen?
Billy Joel: It’s like a language. If you stop speaking it often enough, you can forget.
Alec Baldwin: When did you stop, and why?
Billy Joel: Remember in Dances With Wolves, she forgot how to speak English? That was me. [Unintelligible mimicking of character]
Alec Baldwin: You are Favors Right Hand, they call you.
Billy Joel: Favors Right Hand.
Alec Baldwin: Favors Right Hand. The tribe told you that, the music school at the reservation.
Billy Joel: Yes. I started taking lessons when I was about 4 or 5, and I went up until I was about 16, so it was almost 12 years of classical piano lessons. I loved it but, I just, when you become a teenager, everything changes. I didn’t want to read other people’s dots anymore. And I also realized early on, I’m not going to be a concert pianist. I don’t have the Rachmaninoff hands, the Horowitz hands. I had strong hands but short fingers.
Alec Baldwin: You had Johnny Friendly’s hands?
Billy Joel: Who’s Johnny Friendly?
Alec Baldwin: From On The Waterfront. You were a union boss doing the shape-up down at the dock in Hoboken.
Billy Joel: Yeah. 'It was my mother.'
Alec Baldwin: Right. 'You should’ve taken better care of me, Charlie.'
Billy Joel: 'You should’ve looked out for me, Charlie. Just a little bit.'
Alec Baldwin: 'A little bit.'
Billy Joel: 'So what do I get? A one-way ticket to Palookaville. I’m a bum, Charlie. Let’s face it. That’s what I am.'
Alec Baldwin: 'That’s what I am.' My favorite line is when Rod Steiger’s laying there and he says, 'Whatever you do, don’t leave him like this. I’m going to take it out on the skulls.' There’s six different consonants in that, 'Skulllzzz.' So you’re a kid, but was there an intimation in your household? [Cross talk]
Billy Joel: There was a piano.
Alec Baldwin: Right, classical music, right.
Billy Joel: Yeah. My father was a classically trained pianist. He grew up in Nuremberg, Germany, and he also went to school in Switzerland. His father was quite well off. They had a mail-order textile business, Joel Macht Fabrik, so he had to learn to play the piano. It was a very musical family. He could play Chopin. He could play all the great stuff. He should’ve become a musician. He became an engineer. He worked for G.E. and then he was in promotion, but he was never really happy because he didn’t become a musician.
We had an old upright piano in the house, a Lester piano, a real piece of junk, and I happened to inherit that thing. It ended up being a planter in the garden. My mom used it to grow honeysuckle. She sang. Her family were all singing – Gilbert & Sullivan, English music-hall people. Her family was English. So I grew up in a very musical home. I heard music all the time. My father was playing. My mother would sing. The radio was always on, listening to Milton Cross and the opera on Sunday. 'Leonora enters, wearing a white gown.'
So I used to bang on the piano. My mom got sick of hearing me bang and she dragged me down the street and I started taking lessons, and I took to it.
Alec Baldwin: You and the Lester and your mother and father – where is this? The Bronx?
Billy Joel: This is in Hicksville.
Alec Baldwin: Everybody was in Hicksville?
Billy Joel: We were in Hicksville. My family moved with me out of the Bronx when I was a baby, maybe a year old.
Alec Baldwin: So you basically grew up on the Island?
Billy Joel: I grew up on the Island, in the Levittown section of Hicksville. We had a Levitt house, Cape Code, on the quarter acre. Everybody’s house looked the same—started out looking the same. Now it doesn’t look anything like Levittown.
Alec Baldwin: Like my town. Sixteen years old, Hicksville, Long Island, Vietnam War going on. Very, very tumultuous times. And all of a sudden what do you decide you want to do?
Billy Joel: Well, I joined a band when I was 14. I was asked to be in a band.
Alec Baldwin: The Echoes?
Billy Joel: This was The Echoes, a garage band. They were all guitars, because there really were no keyboards that you could amplify. I played the piano; I never played the organ. They finally figured out how to amplify keyboards. I think the Dave Clark Five was the first band that had an organ you could her, a Vox organ, it was called.
[Alec and Billy sing along to “Bits and Pieces” and “Glad All Over.”]
Billy Joel: The most unglad-sounding song in the world.
Alec Baldwin: He was constipated. He felt that. So you amplified the keyboard.
Billy Joel: We got an organ and they decided I had the best voice in the band, which isn’t really saying much because nobody could sing all that well in the band. We couldn’t even harmonize. We were very bad singers, but they decided, 'You’ve got the best voice. You’ll sing the songs.' Ok.
Alec Baldwin: How did you feel about that?
Billy Joel: I felt a little funny about it, because I’m not a front man, where you stand with a mic, like Mick Jagger. I didn’t have the Mick Jagger moves. I had a keyboard. You’re kind of locked in. You can’t move around. You can’t carry a keyboard around with you unless you’re an accordion player, and that looks like Lawrence Welk. 'A one, and-a two.' So I stood at the piano or I sat at the piano, but then I realized, you know, that girl that I always had a crush on is actually looking at me. She’d never looked at me twice, all those years at school. We’re playing at the Holy Family Church, the church dance. I was about 15, 16. Virginia is looking at me. You know, “Come out, Virginia,” that Virginia. She’s looking at me and I’m like, 'Oh, my God, she’s looking at me.' And the band sounded great, I loved what I was doing, the crowd went 'Yay' when we finished every song, and at the end of the night the priest gave us each $15.00, which in 1965 was $1,500. That was it. The door locked behind me, this is what I’m gonna to do. I don’t want to go to Carnegie Hall anymore – but I end up going to Carnegie Hall anyway.
Alec Baldwin: What music were you performing? Covers of other people?
Billy Joel: Jukebox bands. We were playing early Beatles, Stones, Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs.
Alec Baldwin: And during that time, when you’re seeing Tommy James and The Shondells and all that music, who, were you saying to yourself, if at all, were you saying, 'That’s what I want to be. That’s who I really admire or look up,' or 'I want to have his career?'
Billy Joel: Well, I liked a lot of different kinds of music. I already came out of a classical background, and I really dug jazz when I was in my early teens: Dave Brubeck, Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum, Jimmy Smith, Bill Evans – I loved jazz. But I realized I ain’t gonna be one of those guys either.
Alec Baldwin: Why?
Billy Joel: Because I wasn’t a good enough pianist. I mean, these guys are as virtuostic, virtuistic—whatever—
Alec Baldwin: Virtuosic.
Billy Joel: Virtuosic as the classical—
Alec Baldwin: Virtuostic is a religion.
Billy Joel: Is it?
Alec Baldwin: Yeah. It’s a religion. I’m kidding. They’re good. They’re just good.
Billy Joel: They’re just really good. I mean, the top-of-the-line guys are the top of the line in classical and jazz. They could’ve gone either way. The top-of-the-line classical guys, had they decided to be jazz guys, could’ve been just as good as the top jazz guys, and vice a versa. I wasn’t good enough. I was good enough to play rock and roll, and pop. But what I really fell in love with, as a teenager, with girls and stuff, was first I liked soul music – James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, The Temptations.
Alec Baldwin: Marvin Gaye.
Billy Joel: Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Gladys Knight. I mean, I just loved soul.
Alec Baldwin: Did you cover that music as well?
Billy Joel: I tried to.
Alec Baldwin: They didn’t want that in Hicksville?
Billy Joel: Well, they were all white people.
Alec Baldwin: Yeah, exactly. Long Island white people.
Billy Joel: There wasn’t anybody but white people in my school. I think there were a couple of Jews, some Latinos. There was sprinklings, but everybody liked soul music, “Twist and Shout,” when everybody would do, 'Come on now, shout. Come on now.' And “Louie, Louie” – I think that was the Kingsmen. “What I Say,” Ray Charles. “See the girl all dressed in green?” You’d make up really dirty words to that. We came up with some really good stuff.
So, I loved that stuff, and then The Beatles came around, and there it was. Boom. Four working class guys from Liverpool, which is as close to Levittown, in England, I think, in sounding anyway. Okay, if four guys from Liverpool –
Alec Baldwin: I never thought of that. Levittown is our Liverpool.
Billy Joel: Yeah, Liverpool. And uh, it’s possible, it’s possible. They don’t look like Frankie Avalon. They don’t look like Bobbie Rydell. They look like four working class guys, from anywhere. They could be from Hicksville. They could be from Levittown. So I said, that’s possible. That’s what I want to do. I want to write my own songs. I want to play in my own band, do our own arrangements, and make our own way.
Alec Baldwin: When did that start?
Billy Joel: This is before The Echoes, before I joined the band. The Beatles came out—
Alec Baldwin: You were a kid.
Billy Joel: I was a kid. I was 13.
Alec Baldwin: And you started writing music?
Billy Joel: Yes. I started writing ersatz Beatles songs.
Alec Baldwin: Oh did you?
Billy Joel: 'Well, I climbed the highest mountain…'
Alec Baldwin: Yeah, 'I want to hold your purse.'
Billy Joel: Like that, yeah.
Alec Baldwin: 'I wanna hold your purse.'
Billy Joel: I’m trying to sound Liverpudlian.
Alec Baldwin: Liverpudlian.
Billy Joel: 'She don’t love me like before.' My own song. 'She don’t love me anymore. I believed all the lies she told me. I, I…,' you know, that kind of thing. I’m trying to sound like early Beatles, and it was fun. It was a lot of fun. But I was asked to join a band after The Beatles came out, and you’ve got to remember, November of ’63, John F. Kennedy is assassinated. The country goes into the dumps.
Even though we didn’t know that much about politics or government, he was our guy. He was the young, vigorous, progressive – he represented youth and vigor. And he was, boom, he was shot, taken away, so everybody just turned off, like a switch turned off. We became very cynical, depressed. The whole nation had the blues. In February of ’64, who comes out? The Beatles come to America. We took them in and we just embraced that. [Cross talk]
Alec Baldwin: Like oxygen.
Billy Joel: They walked into that space.
Alec Baldwin: Hopeful, funny.
Billy Joel: They were warm.
Alec Baldwin: Sexy. Everything.
Billy Joel: Everything. Everything that was taken away from us, great, let’s go have a party.
Alec Baldwin: Let’s party. So you start writing songs, and you’re saying ersatz Beatles song. What’s the first song you write that you can remember?
Billy Joel: It was called “My Journey’s End.” I can play it if you want me to.
Alec Baldwin: Let’s hear it.
[Billy plays and sings.]
Alec Baldwin: What’s the first song you wrote—what’s the first song which was one that you wrote, that you recorded? What’s the first song that—
Billy Joel: That was it.
Alec Baldwin: You recorded that, on what?
Billy Joel: I actually recorded that, with The Echoes, my first band. I wrote that song.
Alec Baldwin: You guys sold records?
Billy Joel: No. We didn’t sell one record—
Alec Baldwin: What’s the first song you wrote – don’t even tell me, just play it – the first song that you wrote that was on a record that you sold. Can you remember?
Billy Joel: Well, it was probably in The Hassles.
Alec Baldwin: The Hassles sold records?
Billy Joel: A few, on Long Island, probably. Maybe Jersey.
Alec Baldwin: On the turnpike.
Billy Joel: Overseas.
Alec Baldwin: At the Woodrow Wilson rest stop.
Billy Joel: Yes, I think it was the coffee Chock Full o’Nuts in Paramus, because we opened it. The Hassles played at the opening. Um, the first time we ever sold anything… See, I was signed, originally, with the Echoes to Mercury Records. We change the name to The Lost Souls, and we were The Lost Souls for a while, and we made a couple of records. Nothing ever happened. What was the other one.
[Billy plays and sings.]
Bill Joel: Almost like “Mr. Moonlight.”
Alec Baldwin: Yeah, that’s like The Beatles.
Billy Joel: And then we became The Lost Souls, and it turns out there was an English band called The Lost Souls, so we had to change our name. So the president of Mercury Records, brilliant guy, at the time, said, 'We’re going to give you a new name. The Commandos.' Vietnam was, uh, at the time. 'You’re going to be the Commandos.' We were like, 'Ugh. We hate that name.' Nobody likes—
Alec Baldwin: War.
Billy Joel: Yeah. Nobody likes that stuff. 'No, you’re going to be the Commandos and it’s going to be great. We’re going to get you outfits.' So that lasted about 15 minutes, and we got dumped off the label.
Alec Baldwin: So it’s Echoes, Hassles.
Billy Joel: Echoes, Lost Souls, and then Commandos.
Alec Baldwin: For a weekend.
Billy Joel: For a weekend.
Alec Baldwin: And you opened up one quick Chock Full o’Nuts.
Billy Joel: And then there was a band on Long Island, which was making a lot of local noise, called the Hassles. They asked me to join. The guys in my band – The Echoes, The Lost Souls – they were all going on to either the military or college. None of them were really serious going to be musicians, except the bass player. I said, 'All right, I’ll join The Hassles.' They wanted me to play organ. 'I’ll join The Hassles if I can bring my bass player with me,' because they didn’t have a bass player.
They said okay, so that became The Hassles. And then there was another guy, he had Mick Jagger moves. Little John, his names was. He was the front guy. Great hair. Good looking guy. Couldn’t sing to save his ass.
Alec Baldwin: It didn’t matter. He could wiggle it.
Billy Joel: He was gorgeous and women just went nuts. I’m in the back doing all the singing.
Alec Baldwin: Women were deaf.
Billy Joel: Well, but they had eyes.
Alec Baldwin: They could see.
Billy Joel: They could see the music.
Alec Baldwin: Video killed the radio star.
Billy Joel: Oh, absolutely. I’m glad I came up in an era where it wasn’t that prevalent. So then I was in The Hassles. Now, The Hassles were a blue-white soul band. There were a bunch of them. The Vagrants was another one. They used to play at the Action House all the time, in Long Island. We made two albums with United Artists and they both bombed out. But that’s the first time we started selling anything. “Every Step I Take” was the first song that I wrote that actually sold something.
[Billy plays and sings.]
Billy Joel: I don’t know. The chorus went –
[Billy plays and sings.]
Alec Baldwin: You sound like Popeye.
[Billy plays Popeye theme music.]
Alec Baldwin: I didn’t know you wrote that. That’s great.
Billy Joel: That’s how my father used to talk, like Popeye. So that was probably the first thing that sold. It was on the first Hassles album. I think we sold, I don’t know, a dozen copies, and I actually heard it on the radio once. But our big single was actually a cover of a Sam and Dave record, “You Got Me Hummin.”
[Billy plays and sings.]
Billy Joel: It was a big song by Sam and Dave. Everybody was covering soul records, and doing them psychedelic, or doing their own arrangements of them. That was the Hassles’ hit. The first album was horrible. The second album was really horrible. And then me and the drummer split off from The Hassles to form a power duo.
Alec Baldwin: Like Simon and Garfunkel.
Billy Joel: Yeah, sure. We were going to destroy the world with amplification. This was like a heavy metal thing. We heard Zeppelin. It blew our minds.
Alec Baldwin: Iron Butterfly.
[Billy and Alec sing excerpt from “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vita.”]
Billy Joel: It went on and on and on.
Alec Baldwin: Why were we listening to that?
Billy Joel: Because that’s what there was.
Alec Baldwin: 'In the Garden of Eden' – isn’t that what someone said? That was like a nonsense lyric. A friend of mine knows the guy that wrote that song. I think he was trying to say 'in the Garden of Eden.'
Billy Joel: You actually know the lyrics to it?
Alec Baldwin: To "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vita?"
Billy Joel: Yeah. That’s all I know. “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vita.”
Alec Baldwin: I don’t remember the rest of it. I remember he explained it to me once at a party in L.A. years ago, that he really meant 'in the Garden of Eden,' and then it became “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vita.” He made a gibberish version of it.
Billy Joel: So they’re bailout lyrics. Okay. I didn’t know that.
Alec Baldwin: So when you get to this point where you say a couple of albums with The Hassles, and then, when is it you? What happens?
Billy Joel: The bands got smaller and smaller and smaller. Attila became a two-man band.
Alec Baldwin: So when you and he went off, Attila was the two of you?
Billy Joel: Attila was just the two of us.
Alec Baldwin: And what did he play?
Billy Joel: He played drums. I played Hammond organ, wired directly through amplifiers.
Alec Baldwin: So we’re getting closer to Lawrence Welk now, the more we go. It’s getting closer. You’ve almost got that accordion.
Billy Joel: But it was louder. It was much louder. We got signed to Epic and we were on Epic for one album and it was a colossal failure. We played one gig. I think it was in Ungano’s, on the West Side in Manhattan, and people went fleeing from the place. We were so loud. You could see blood coming out of people’s ears. It was just horrible. Thank God it didn’t happen because I would’ve screamed myself right out of the business.
Alec Baldwin: So after you nearly kill a room full of people at Ungano’s, then what happens?
Billy Joel: Then we broke up and I decided I no longer want to be a rock and roll star. I got that out of my system. I was about 19 or 20. I want to write songs now. I’d like to explore a little bit of folk music.
Alec Baldwin: And what did you start to write?
Billy Joel: I started to write the songs that are on an album called Cold Spring Harbor.
Alec Baldwin: Give me an example of one of the earliest ones you remember writing.
[Billy plays and sings excerpt from “Everybody Loves You Now.”]
Billy Joel: It’s kind of Dylan-esque. I wanted to go down and play in the Village. Actually, I didn’t even want to play anymore.
Alec Baldwin: Just you.
Billy Joel: Just me.
Alec Baldwin: With you and a piano.
Billy Joel: Well, I got a band to play the stuff with me, but I’m picturing it on guitar.
[Billy plays and sings excerpt from “Everybody Loves You Now” with Dylan accent.]
Alec Baldwin: Did you send him that song to record?
Billy Joel: I wanted him to, but Bob writes his own stuff. He’s not going to do covers.
Alec Baldwin: He doesn’t buy songs from other people.
Billy Joel: No, he does not, and he does very well with his own writing. But I no longer wanted to be the guy on stage. I wanted to be the guy behind the scenes, kind of a Jimmy Webb kinda thing. This just happened to coincide with the era of the singer-songwriter. Harry Chapin, Jim Croce. James Taylor was huge at the time.
Alec Baldwin: Jackson Browne.
Billy Joel: Jackson Browne – all these singer-songwriters. Even Carole King, who was a great songwriter, became a singer-songwriter. So the advice I got was, well, if you want people to hear these songs, why don’t you make your own album? Okay. I got a record deal, and then I got traded to a record company on the West Coast called Family Records. It was a guy named Artie Ripp. Perfect name. I was like Pinocchio. I fell in with the 'Hi-diddly-dee, an actor’s life for me,' with those people. And I recorded an album in L.A., I lived in L.A. for a little while. They said, 'Okay, you made the album. Now that you’ve got an album, you need to promote it, you need to go on the road and play, and promote the album.' I said, 'Okay.' That’s a strange way to be a songwriter, but that’s what other people were doing. Other people would be interested in my material if I promoted it, promote the album, people would hear it. Well, the album was mastered at the wrong speed, so a song like this.
[Billy plays and sings excerpt from “She’s Got A Way.”]
Billy Joel: It got played like this.
[Billy plays and sings excerpt from “She’s Got A Way” in falsetto voice.]
Billy Joel: So if you hear that recording, I sound like the Chipmunks.
Alec Baldwin: Well, kind of.
Billy Joel: It was speeded up. Ah it’s terrible. The album never went anywhere. Nothing happened. And uh, I went on the road and promoted it. I never saw it in the stores. But that was when I was me. That was just Billy Joel.
Alec Baldwin: So when people buy that album now, that album has been re-released where it’s not at that speed?
Billy Joel: It’s been remastered but it’s still, there’s something wrong with it. It just doesn’t sound right. I would advise people, don’t buy it. If you can steal it, steal it.
Alec Baldwin: So Cold Spring Harbor is the first album. It’s you and how many band members?
Billy Joel: Guitar, bass, drums, and there were some violins that were put in by Artie Ripp. You know, he was trying to be Phil Spector. It got all glopped up. It was supposed to be more folk-y.
Alec Baldwin: You recorded that in L.A.?
Billy Joel: Recorded it in L.A.
Alec Baldwin: How long were you in L.A.?
Billy Joel: Three years.
Alec Baldwin: What was that like for you?
Billy Joel: Weird.
Alec Baldwin: Yeah. How?
Billy Joel: I went there and I stayed on Santa Monica Boulevard. There’s this dumpy little place called the Tropicana Motel, right there on Santa Monica Boulevard.
Alec Baldwin: With a Duke’s Coffee Shop.
Billy Joel: Duke’s Coffee Shop. They made the huge sandwiches for the poor musicians.
Alec Baldwin: I used to have breakfast at Duke’s. It was great.
Billy Joel: For a buck you could eat like a king. The place was a dump, but the postcards said “The Tropicana” and it had a palm tree on it, so I sent postcards to all my friends. 'I’ve made it. I’m in Hollywood. I’m at the Tropicana.'
Alec Baldwin: It’s all coming together. I’m having omelets on Santa Monica Boulevard for $1.00, and they’re playing my songs at Chipmunk speed. But it’s all going great.
Billy Joel: Yeah, if you’re from Long Island and you get a postcard with a palm tree on it, that says “The Tropicana,” it’s, 'Oh, my God, he’s made it.'
Alec Baldwin: You and I are from the same background.
Billy Joel: Yes.
Alec Baldwin: I mean, I’m from the South Shore of Long Island, and I can see the friends you grew up with are probably like mine. Where they probably get that postcard and they’re like, 'Joey, come here. I got a postcard from Billy. He’s at the Tropicana, here. Un-fuckin’ believable.'
Billy Joel: Right. Wow, he’s on the beach with girls, like The Beach Boys. He’s driving cars.
Alec Baldwin: When I would make movies, my friends would say, 'Lemme ask you a question. When you do a love scene with a broad in a movie, do you ever get excited, like yourself, you know what I mean? Was it weird to make love to a woman in front of all them people?'
Billy Joel: 'Can you pick who you make out with?'
Alec Baldwin: Yeah, they’re like, 'Do you enjoy that? Was it fun?'
Billy Joel: 'You meet any groupies out there?'
Alec Baldwin: Yeah, and I’m like, 'No, it’s not fun because 125 people staring at you while you’re doing it.' And they’re like, 'Oh, yeah. I forgot about that. I forgot.'
Billy Joel: We got those questions, 'What’s it like in a studio? Are there a lot of drugs and girls and stuff?' No, you’re actually in a factory and you’re surrounded by equipment. And they’re like, 'They don’t have big fish tanks full of cocaine? Chicks coming in with bikinis and stuff, from the beach.'
Alec Baldwin: 'Rubbing your neck and shoulders while you’re playing?'
Billy Joel: Yeah, that’s what it looks like in the movies. 'Did you meet any movie stars?' I’m a musician. How am I going to meet movie stars?
Alec Baldwin: And every night you’re having dinner with who, all the big stars, right, and a fish tank full of blow and chicks in bikinis, rubbing your shoulders, right? Every day and night.
Billy Joel: That’s what people think.
Alec Baldwin: Now, when you did Cold Spring Harbor there. Did you do the next album out there?
Billy Joel: I did two more albums out there.
Alec Baldwin: What did you do out there?
Billy Joel: Actually, I got a job after I did the Cold Spring Harbor album, I dropped out of sight. I had to get out of this horrible deal that I’d signed. I signed away everything – the copyrights, publishing, record royalties, everything. My first child. I gave it all away, and I said, “I’ve got to get out of this deal,” and I hid in L.A. and I worked in a piano bar under the name Bill Martin. This was down in the Wilshire district. It’s not a real bar town, L.A. Long Island has a pub on every corner. It’s a pub culture, every corner there’s a bar.
Alec Baldwin: So when people close their eyes and they think of “Piano Man,” I think of a guy leaning over a piano, and I think of a guy in a place on Long Island or in New York, but you recorded that out in Los Angeles.
Billy Joel: I recorded it in L.A., and that’s where I worked. Some people think I did it for years. I worked in this piano bar for six months. I needed to make some money. I made union scale. I got tips. I mostly played the major seven chords.
Alec Baldwin: And how does “Piano Man” start?
[Billy plays and sings excerpt from “Piano Man.”]
Billy Joel: That kind of thing. You know, a guy in the hotel lobby. They would request songs. I didn’t even know the song. 'Can you play –' what’s that Hoagy Carmichael song?
Alec Baldwin: “Stardust.”
Billy Joel: “Stardust.” And I would go, 'Sure.'
Billy Joel: 'Can you play “Misty?”' 'Sure.'
[Billy plays the same thing.]
Billy Joel: And everybody was drinking pretty heavy, because in an L.A. bar, these were all people who lost at the track. Losers, just drinking like fish, and I got free drinks. Oh my god.
Alec Baldwin: So then you do Piano Man. What’s the next album after that you do in L.A.?
Billy Joel: We did Piano Man in L.A. And there was an album—that wasn’t a hit album. People perceived that to be a hit. It was not a hit.
Alec Baldwin: Piano Man.
Billy Joel: Piano Man was not a hit record. It was a turntable hit. In other words, it didn’t sell through, but this is back in the early ‘70s. In those days they still had FM progressive radio. Disc jockeys could spend whatever they wanted.
Alec Baldwin: WLIR, Denis McNamara. Remember him? I was a kid at home, I was smoking you-know-what, leaning out the window so my mom didn’t know, and on the radio we’d hear, 'WLIR. This is Denis McNamara. Jackson Browne.' I listened to this guy. He was my childhood, Denis McNamara.
Billy Joel: We grew up with these disc jockeys at night. Allison Steele, the Nightbird, and Roscoe Zackalay.
Alec Baldwin: Vin Scelsa.
Billy Joel: Vin Scelsa. And my favorite guy was, 'Scott Muni, comin’ at ya. That little Spooky Tooth. And now, from England, Spooky Tooth. Scott Muni coming at you right now.' And it was great voices just coming out of the air, and they played whatever they wanted. They didn’t have program directors. They didn’t have consultants. And people would call in. If they got enough requests, they would play a track, so “Piano Man” got requested all the time. It was a 5-1/2-minute record. I mean, it’s not an AM hit. It’s too long, and it was in three-quarter time.
Billy Joel: Oom-pa-pa. It’s a waltz. And it’s not really lyrics. They’re limericks. 'John at the bar is a friend of mine. He gets me my drinks for free. He’s quick with the joke or to light up your smoke, but there’s someplace that he’d rather be.' It could be, 'There once was a girl from Nantucket.' So they’re limericks.
And if anybody had said this was going to be a hit record I’d tell them they’re out of their minds. But it became a turntable hit, so people perceived it to be a sell-through. It wasn’t. The album comes out, Streetlife Serenade. It’s the sophomore jinx. I did not have enough time to write new material after the Piano Man album came out. Piano Man made a lot of noise, got a lot of attention paid to it. The record company wanted another follow-up right away. Okay. 'New album, now.' But on the road, I haven’t had a chance to write. 'Nope, need it now.' I didn’t have any material, and you can hear it.
Alec Baldwin: So what do you do? What do you do when you’ve got nothing? What do you play?
Billy Joel: I had nothing. I was empty. I was running on empty.
Alec Baldwin: But there’s not nothing on the album. Where did that come from?
Billy Joel: Well I had one song that I thought was okay.
Alec Baldwin: Which was?
Billy Joel: “The Entertainer.” Which was that…another folk song.
[Billy plays excerpt from “The Entertainer.”]
Billy Joel: I wrote it on a guitar, actually. But that was it. That was probably the one song that I had finished, and boom, I’m in the studio and the clock is ticking. There are two instrumentals on that album – the “Root Beer Rag,” which is just a piano ragtime thing, and this ersatz, Western movie theme called the “The Mexican Connection,” because I was living with L.A. and I was fascinated with Westerns.
Billy Joel: There’s a song, actually, on the Piano Man album called “The Ballad of Billy the Kid,” which, historically, is completely inaccurate. I just used Western-sounding things. He wasn’t from Wheeling, West Virginia. He was actually from Brooklyn. A boy with a six-gun in his hand, and then he robbed his way from Utah to Oklahoma – he never got out of New Mexico.
Alec Baldwin: You’re ruining the song for me now. I don’t want to know how sausage is made.
Billy Joel: That’s ok, East and West—
Alec Baldwin: “The Ballad of Billy the Kid” is fine by me the way it is. Don’t screw it up for me. I don’t want facts.
Billy Joel: No, but I think it’s funny that it was just Western sounding things. “East and west of the Rio Grande.” Well, it can’t be east and west because the Rio Grande runs east and west.
Alec Baldwin: God damn it. I know which way the Rio Grande runs.
Billy Joel: 'And the crowd poured in to watch the hanging of Billy the Kid.' Well, Billy the Kid wasn’t hung. He was shot. Of course, we don’t know if he was hung.
Alec Baldwin: Okay. Now you win. Now I hate the song. I hate it. It’s a fraud. But what are the songs on Streetlife that were memorable?
Billy Joel: Nothing. “The Entertainer” is the only one. There was a song about a hooker I was in love with, and I wanted her to leave her profession and be with me but she made too much money and I couldn’t afford her. It was called “Roberta.” What else was on that album? “Souvenir,” a nice song.
[Billy plays and sings excerpt from “Souvenir.”]
Billy Joel: There’s only like another fifteen seconds of it. That was a nice song but it was this short. And other than that, there’s “The Mexican Connection,” “Root Beer Rag,” it was ok.
Alec Baldwin: You finished Streetlife when you were in L.A. Then what do you do?
Billy Joel: I finished Streetlife and it comes out and it dives right off the chart. The album after that was Turnstiles. I moved back to New York. I said, 'I’m going back to New York.' This was in 19—the mid ‘70s. New York was in the dumps. They were going to default.
Alec Baldwin: 'Ford to New York: Drop Dead.'
Billy Joel: 'Ford to New York: Drop Dead.' I saw that headline and people in L.A. were like, 'Ha, ha, ha. Screw New York. We can’t wait until New York goes down the dumps,' and I said, 'To hell with that. If New York’s going down the tubes, I’m going back. I want to be there for this.' And I’m picturing this apocalypse. I actually wrote a song called “Miami 2017,” thinking about the year 2017, when I’m an old man, telling my grandchildren, 'I was there. I saw the lights go out on Broadway.' It’s a science fiction song.
[Billy plays and sings excerpt from “Miami 2017.”]
Billy Joel: And I’m picturing I’m an old man, in 2017, and I’m living in Miami, which I’m closing in on now.
Alec Baldwin: You and me both.
Billy Joel: I’m kind of fulfilling my own prophecy here. And the other song, which is—
[Billy plays and sings excerpt from “New York State of Mind.”]
Billy Joel: Or we could do it like this. 'Tony, com on, take it.'
[Alec and Billy sing excerpt from “New York State of Mind” in Tony Bennett voice.]
Billy Joel: Yep, that’s it, and he recorded it. I was hoping other people would do that song. But I was back in New York, I was home again.
Alec Baldwin: Are you glad you were?
Billy Joel: I was thrilled.
Alec Baldwin: So leaving L.A. was just meant to be.
Billy Joel: I even wrote a song, “Say Goodbye to Hollywood.” Thanks, it’s been great, but goodbye. After three years it went sour on me. When I first moved out there, oh, the weather’s great, and all the chicks and the palm trees. Well, after three years, everybody’s full of crap here. 'I’m a producer.' 'Producer of what?' You know, we all produce gas. We produce something.
Alec Baldwin: But I found that for me, it was healthier for me to be in an environment where show business was one mountain peak in a range of mountains, meaning when you’re in New York, and I’d be at a party, and some kind of real tweedy-looking, Daniel Moynihan-looking type of guy would be at a party and say to me, 'And what do you do for a living, young man?' He’d say to me years ago. 'Well, I work in the movie business.' 'Have you made any films I might have seen?' He’d say. 'Olivia and I don’t go to the films very often.' And I thought, this is great. A guy I can talk to, who’s not going to have his hand down my pants, you know what I mean.
Billy Joel: Rub my neck and shoulders.
Alec Baldwin: Exactly.
Billy Joel: 'I’ve learned to dance with a hand in my pants.' That’s from “The Entertainer.”
Alec Baldwin: When you go back to New York, though, where do you go? The city?
Billy Joel: I moved to Highland Falls, which is right up the Hudson.
Alec Baldwin: Why?
Billy Joel: Because we weren’t ready to move lock, stock, and barrel back into the city.
Alec Baldwin: Who’s we?
Billy Joel: I was married at the time. My first. Ex One.
Alec Baldwin: Where is she from?
Billy Joel: From Syosset.
Alec Baldwin: So she went out there with you and came back?
Billy Joel: She went out there with me and came back with me. And this was— Turnstiles was recorded in New York. I produced it myself, which, in hindsight, was probably not a good idea, but I didn’t want people telling me what band to work with, how to do the songs. I wanted to do it my way.
Alec Baldwin: Are you glad you did?
Billy Joel: I was glad I did it at the time because I needed to use my own musicians. I didn’t want to use session men. I didn’t want to use studio players. I wanted my road band. It was a Long Island band and we were doing great on the road. We weren’t selling any records but the crowds were going crazy. We were blowing headliners off the stage. The Doobie Brothers, everywhere we played, The Beach Boys – we would get better applause than them.
Alec Baldwin: This was when Turnstiles came out?
Billy Joel: Yes.
Alec Baldwin: But Turnstiles sold records, didn’t it?
Billy Joel: No. Turnstiles didn’t sell anything.
Alec Baldwin: You’ve got to be kidding me.
Billy Joel: No hits. “New York State of Mind” is now perceived to be a hit, but it wasn’t a hit. “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” wasn’t a hit. None of the records were hits.
Alec Baldwin: I love all those songs.
Billy Joel: But you know them from FM radio. They were still playing those things on FM. Not until The Stranger, which was the next album, in ’77 –
Alec Baldwin: And off that comes how many hits?
Billy Joel: Four.
Alec Baldwin: Which were?
Billy Joel: “Just the Way You Are,” “Moving Out,” “Only the Good Die Young,” and “She’s Always a Woman.”
Alec Baldwin: “She’s Always a Woman” and “Just the Way You Are” are love songs.
Billy Joel: Well, “She’s Always a Woman” is a love song, or perceived as a love song.
Alec Baldwin: Well, I would say they’re very romantic songs.
Billy Joel: Yeah. I had romantic ballads before that, from Cold Spring Harbor. “She’s Got a Way.” Piano Man, 'If I only had the words to tell you, you’re my home.' And then Turnstiles, “Summer Highland Falls,” I know it’s about manic depression, but about a relationship. But I was writing ballads. “I’ve Loved These Days,” about a man and a woman, and then from The Stranger, “Just the Way You Are,” which is just a pure out-and-out love song; “She’s Always a Woman,” which is kind of a double-edged sword there. I had had ballads before that.
Alec Baldwin: But did you find that people started to buy the ballads, that those became the most popular songs? They often do.
Billy Joel: I had no idea there was such a big record. “Just the Way You Are” became this monster.
Alec Baldwin: Like The Beatles.
Billy Joel: Yeah.
Alec Baldwin: What’s after The Stranger?
Billy Joel: After The Stranger we started playing coliseums and arenas, the big, big rooms, and I went right back on the road again and I started writing again.
Alec Baldwin: You start writing for bigger rooms.
Billy Joel: Yes.
Alec Baldwin: You did.
Billy Joel: I was aware, now we’re playing the big places, and we’ve got to write bigger songs. I’ve got have bigger music, energy, because you can’t play to a coliseum with a handful of ballads. You’ve got to knock ‘em out. “Big Shot” was on that album. “Zanzibar,” “Stiletto.” It got bigger. It got rounder, fatter,
Alec Baldwin: Fuller.
Billy Joel: Fuller, faster, you know, more high-energy stuff.
Alec Baldwin: 'Harder, faster, deeper' as they say in the adult film industry.
Billy Joel: Yeah, that was it, pretty much. Went into the triple-X.
Alec Baldwin: So you started going triple-X, artistically.
Billy Joel: That won Album of the Year. The Stranger actually should have, but I was up against Saturday Night Fever, which nobody was going to touch with a ten-foot pole. Everybody even said that. The only reason you got 52nd Street was because we should have given it to The Stranger last year.
Alec Baldwin: This was your Color of Money.
Billy Joel: Yes, exactly.
Alec Baldwin: This is Paul Newman getting an Oscar.
Billy Joel: It’s all political. Well, you know how this works. What was after that? Glass Houses was 1980, and that was pure power pop.
Alec Baldwin: Is there ever one that you sit there and you really have to strain? I mean, you get it and you like it, you love it, and it does well. Is there a song that didn’t come easily to you, that you really had to work to crack it, so to speak?
Billy Joel: The whole Nylon Curtain album, which was 1982. The album before it, which was Glass Houses was just pure fun – playing with the band, got a good guitar player. We just had a blast making the record. The next album, I wanted to write my masterpiece, my Seargent Pepper, as it were. Instead of writing from the inside out, like starting with the seed of a song, we started with sounds and ideas and thoughts and studio techniques. We went from the outside in, so it was a whole different technique of creating recordings, and we really didn’t know what we had until almost the final mix. What is this thing? And we’re experimenting with stuff, and it took a year.
Alec Baldwin: Were you still producing?
Billy Joel: No, no.
Alec Baldwin: Who was producing?
Billy Joel: I had Phil Ramone, who started with The Stranger in 1977.
Alec Baldwin: When you have someone like Ramone – because again, I know nothing about your business except what I see and observe – what does someone like Ramone, what did he do for you? How did he help you?
Billy Joel: Well Phil Ramone has a background. When he was a kid he was a child prodigy on the violin. He was a violinist. He was from South Africa, actually, but he knew music. And now, he had years and years in the trenches as an engineer. He recorded JFK speeches. I think when you see the Marilyn Monroe thing at Madison Square Garden –
Alec Baldwin: 'Happy Birthday, Mr. President.'
Billy Joel: – that’s Phil Ramone. He was the engineer on those tapes. I mean, he’s done some amazing recordings, but he never got credit as a producer. So I’m saying, 'Who’s this guy, Phil Ramone?' I keep seeing Phil Ramone, Phil Ramone, Phil Ramone. Paul Simon used him as an engineer. I said, 'I want to work with this guy, because he looks like he knows what he’s doing. He knows how to get good sound. He knows how to deal with things sonic.' And when he came in, boom, we knew we had a professional guy. It was like working with another great musician. He knows how to play the studio like we know how to play our instruments. Everything changed. The band just rose to the occasion. We were having a blast.
Alec Baldwin: So like a great producer very often in films, like anywhere, any creative enterprise, I find that the people that are the most successful and talented producers are the ones who, although they may not be able to do it themselves, they know what you need to do. They know how to help you get to your highest level.
Billy Joel: They cut to what the synergy should be. They know what the dynamics should be in the studio.
Alec Baldwin: Does he come to you and go, 'Don’t do that?'
Billy Joel: Yes.
Alec Baldwin: And you listen to him.
Billy Joel: I would listen to him.
Alec Baldwin: You’d try it his way.
Billy Joel: We tried it his way. It was mutual respect. When we did “Just the Way You Are,” originally the drum was playing like a cha-cha [Billy plays] and we hated it. I hated the thing. I hate this song. I hate it. The drummer couldn’t figure out what to play. But Phil actually told him, said, 'Play a backwards samba.' [Billy plays.] And it worked. It was like a backwards samba. What are we doing? We didn’t know what we were doing, but Phil was right. I came in with the idea of playing “Only the Good Die Young” as a reggae. [Billy plays.] Liberty throws his sticks at me. He goes, 'Why are you doing this? The closest you’ve been to Jamaica is Queens. What are you doing?'
Alec Baldwin: It’s changing trains to go down to Seaford.
Billy Joel: Change at Jamaica.
Alec Baldwin: Change at Jamaica. It’s the train to Speonk.
Billy Joel: That’s it. He said, 'I’m not playing this. I’m not playing it. So what are we going to do?' So Phil came up with this shuffle against straight fours. [Billy plays.] And the guitars are going 'banana, banana, bap, bap, banana.' And it worked. It was like these two things jammed into each other, and Phil knows how to do that. When we’d get tired or we’d get discouraged, he’d say, 'Just stay. Stay a little longer. Try one more. A’right, take a break. Let’s have some Chinese. OK, go back in.' The post-Chinese food takes were always good. I don’t know why that was.
Alec Baldwin: That MSG, man. It gets right into the fingertips.
Billy Joel: It worked.
Alec Baldwin: Think of where Mozart would’ve been if they had MSG back then.
Billy Joel: Oh, wow. He did pretty good. Forty symphonies.
Alec Baldwin: He went as far as you could go without MSG, I think. And then you do Nylon Curtain. That’s ’82?
Billy Joel: In ’82 was The Nylon Curtain.
Alec Baldwin: And you said you wanted this to be your Seargent Pepper. What was it?
Billy Joel: It’s my favorite album, really.
Alec Baldwin: Why?
Billy Joel: Because I could hear all the work that went into it, all the textures, all the layers.
Alec Baldwin: What’s a song that you’re particularly fond of from that?
Billy Joel: Oh, geez. Every song on that album I like. “Surprises.”
[Billy plays and sings excerpt from “Surprises.”]
Billy Joel: No hits. “Allentown” was kind of a hit off that album.
Alec Baldwin: I remember that.
Billy Joel: Didn’t really sell a lot of records. “Pressure” was the big hit, I think. [Billy plays.] Tchaikovsky. What’s that one from Swan Lake? [Billy plays.]
Alec Baldwin: At least you’re ripping off the greats. Those Russians, man, go with Tchaikovsky.
Billy Joel: Watch out for the Germans, though.
Alec Baldwin: What did you do after Nylon Curtain?
Billy Joel: After The Nylon Curtain, because it was such an intensive labor, The Nylon Curtain, something very dense and very complex, I wanted to do something simple and dumb and happy, and I did An Innocent Man, which is really an homage to all the music of my teenage years – Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons with “Uptown Girl.”
Alec Baldwin: And that was a hit.
Billy Joel: It was a big hit. It was a joke.
[Billy plays and sings excerpt from “Uptown Girl” in Frankie Valli voice.]
Billy Joel: He had this impossibly high voice. [Billy sings and plays] And I realized something. Remember the song “Rag Doll”? [Billy sings and plays.] The verse was, 'I love you just the way you are.' I’m like, 'Uh oh. Is that where I heard that before? Just the way you are.' And then I was trying to do Little Anthony and the Imperials.
[Billy plays and sings excerpt from “This Night.”]
Billy Joel: You’ll recognize the chorus because it goes like this.
[Billy plays and sings chorus from “This Night.”]
Billy Joel: Which is the Pathetique by Beethoven.
[Billy plays excerpt from “Pathetique.”]
Billy Joel: I gave him credit on the back. L.V. Beethoven. So somebody’s going, 'Billy’s co-writing with somebody. L.V. Beethoven.' I said, 'It’s Beethoven, for crying out loud.' But that was a fun album. I met Christie. I had just gotten divorced from Ex One and here I am meeting Whitney Houston when she was a model, Elle MacPherson, I’m dating her, I’m dating Christie Brinkley. This is fantastic. I feel like I’m 16 years old again.
Alec Baldwin: It’s going well.
Billy Joel: It’s all going great, and I’m a rock star. I got a pad at the old St. Moritz on Central Park South, which I think is now the Ritz-Carlton.
Alec Baldwin: Which is now the Ritz Cartlon.
Billy Joel: But the elevator would open and there was my apartment. I was the only apartment on that floor. It was very impressive. So this music was me being a teenager all over again – falling in love, having romance and all that great stuff.
Alec Baldwin: So why’d you get married?
Billy Joel: I don’t know. I was in love. You’re asking me?
Alec Baldwin: I was gonna say, it’s funny because you think to yourself, 'Why get married?'
Billy Joel: It was all going so good.
Alec Baldwin: But not that getting married means bad, but is that a part of your makeup, which is married, family? Was marriage the right thing to do?
Billy Joel: I was madly in love.
Alec Baldwin: Yeah, when you’re really in love, you marry them.
Billy Joel: That’s it.
Alec Baldwin: That’s how I feel.
Billy Joel: But I still feel like I can be madly in love and not be married.
Alec Baldwin: Yes.
Billy Joel: I was married three times.
Alec Baldwin: When did you go to Russia?
Billy Joel: ’87.
Alec Baldwin: How did that happen?
Billy Joel: Well, we played in Cuba in 1979. They did this thing called the Havana Jam. Cubans came up here and we went to Havana. We played at the Karl Marx Theater in Havana. It looks like Bloomingdale’s, the script. The Karl Marx Theater. It looks like a department store. And everybody gets up on stage. There are other American artists – Stephen Stills, 'Viva la revolution. Viva Fidel;' Kris Kristofferson, 'Viva la revolution. Viva Fidel,' and he’s talking in Spanish. I get up on stage, I’m the last act. I say, 'Yo no habla Espanol' and I went into “Big Shot.” [Billy plays.] And the kids went, 'Aahh,' and stormed the stage. They didn’t want to hear Viva. We hear this crap all the time. We want to hear “Big Shot.” I said, 'We’ve got something going here. We’re being subversive with rock and roll.' This is what I like.
Alec Baldwin: And they loved you there?
Billy Joel: They loved it.
Alec Baldwin: How did that feel to you? What was the first place you played a big concert at? When you were a star, you’re a big music star? You’re one of the biggest music stars ever and you go to a foreign country and you realize music just transcends all of it.
Billy Joel: Germany. I think it was in Frankfurt.
Alec Baldwin: What year?
Billy Joel: ’77, ’78. We’d had a hit with The Stranger. I’d played in England but the English, they’re kind of fickle. They like you for about a month and then you’re yesterday’s papers. 'Oh, we like that Billy Joel.' Actually, I wasn’t big there until "Uptown Girl," but in Germany we had a couple of hits, and the Germans went berserk. They don’t have seats. You’re getting a standing ovation when you walk on the stage because they can’t sit down. This is great and it actually changes the energy in the room. They’re all standing, yelling, 'Billy! Billy!' and I’m thinking, I guess they don’t know what they did to my family. 'Yeah, Billy.' And I’m thinking, ‘So I’m thinking, this is how Adolph must have felt.’
Alec Baldwin: Yeah, when they love you they let you know it.
Billy Joel: It’s scary, like, okay, let’s go invade Poland. Come on. Let’s go. But there was a great, great audience. They’re tearing at your hands, like a Detroit heavy metal crowd. Ripping at my hands and tearing my clothes. This is great. That was the first time in a foreign country where I knew something was [crosstalk].
Alec Baldwin: The trip to Russia in ’87, was that your first time there?
Billy Joel: It was the first time they’d ever had a major act from the West, from America. People had gone there before but played with small P.A. systems in little private rooms. We played at the Lenin Stadium, the Olympic Stadium, and we brought a western P.A. system, the same P.A. system we’d use in Madison Square Garden. They’d never heard a P.A. system like that. The helicopters come in at the beginning of “Goodnight Saigon” and they’re looking around for the helicopters. And then the hard rock is hitting and the drums – they started going berserk. There were security guards going around, giving people sedatives because they thought they were having fits. The Cold War ended to me right then. This was still when Reagan was calling it 'The Evil Empire.' I’m thinking, we’re not going to have a war with these people. They can’t even get toilet paper right. We’re not going to fight with them. I don’t want to fight them. They love us. Everywhere I went, it was 'Viva America, long live America.' This is great. The Cold War ended so I was thrilled that that went the way it did.
Alec Baldwin: Let me ask you a question. You’re funny. You could’ve done that with your eyes closed. Everything it takes to be an actor you could’ve done, but you never wanted to do that, never.
Billy Joel: I never was comfortable in front of a camera.
Alec Baldwin: Really? Even though you had to perform in front of a camera for the last 30 years, basically.
Billy Joel: Yes. Make videos, which was torture for me.
Alec Baldwin: To a degree you comfortable in front of a camera so long as you were playing.
Billy Joel: Not even then. Not even then. I was aware of the camera. It was an invader. It was invasive to me. I became a musician because I never felt I was photogenic. I was never happy with how I looked. It’s about a microphone, not about a camera. I was very comfortable in the studio. I’m very comfortable far away on a stage, or an album cover. You could make it look however you want, and people would say, 'Oh, you’re shorter than I thought.' I said, 'Well, the album cover is only this big. How do you know?'
Whenever there was a camera it kind of destroyed what I was trying to create. It took away the imagination. I could look however I wanted – I could look like Cary Grant – but I saw it reduced to an image. I went, 'No, no, no. That’s not who I am. Don’t look at that guy,' and I realized I could’ve done that but I loved music so much, that’s the way I went. Some people can do both.
Alec Baldwin: Most don’t. Bowie didn’t do it, really. He tried. Sting didn’t do it. Jagger didn’t do it. The Beatles never did it, except that they played the Beatles.
Billy Joel: But then there’s some actors who were originally musicians and they now just basically act.
Alec Baldwin: I’ve always said this – acting is what you do when you have no musical ability. If I could do what you do, I would never do what I do.
Billy Joel: That’s what actors say. They all want to be musicians.
Alec Baldwin: I would never, ever, ever, ever waste five minutes of doing what I do if I could do what you do.
Billy Joel: That’s—a lot of actors say that. But you’re so good at what you do. No. If I could do what you do – if I could sing, if I could play, if I could write.
Alec Baldwin: A film or a television program, you have to make an appointment with that and watch that. You can listen to music when you’re jogging, while you’re at the gym, while you’re making love, while you’re having dinner, while you’re in the car. It can be the soundtrack to your life, all day long if you want it.
Billy Joel: In church.
Alec Baldwin: Anywhere. Music is everywhere and music is everything, and acting is, like I said, what you do when you have no musical talent. So you got divorced the second time and got remarried and divorced a third time.
Billy Joel: Right.
Alec Baldwin: And when you have these things happen – because I know these situations in my life have a big effect on my life – does it affect you? Do you write songs about that?
Billy Joel: No. I stopped writing songs about it when I got divorced the second time. That was in ’93. Actually, in ’94 the divorce happened. The album, River of Dreams came out and I realized, you know what? I’m spinning out the story of my life to all these stranger. I’m kind of sick and tired of everybody knowing my personal life and how I feel about this one and that one.
Alec Baldwin: You are? Did you resent that?
Billy Joel: I didn’t resent it. I just decided to clam up. I feel like I’ve given away pieces of myself. Maybe something I should’ve given to the relationship I gave to the work, and the work was so important. And it’s all-consuming. If you’re going to do it right, you have to jump in with both feet and do it 100 percent. Music will do that but it’s a very harsh mistress, music. You have to do it all the way, and maybe I didn’t do things I should’ve done, or maybe I didn’t take care of business the way I should’ve taken care of business, because of the music. So I stopped writing songs about my personal relationships, but I kept writing music. And after the third marriage didn’t work – I tried marriage, three times. I tried it three times. I never gave up on it. I just realized, I dunno, it just, it doesn’t work.
Alec Baldwin: People don’t appreciate how, it’s like – to have a relationship in this business that works, you’ve got be really lucky, man. It’s so much luck, you know. Because like you said, the career is the mistress, and you’re out there working. Like I would look at my ex-wife or ex-girlfriends and I’d think, what would the alternative be? You want me to have no options and no work and I’m staying home all the time?
Billy Joel: Yeah, but on the other hand, how much of you are they getting? If you’re in a part, if you take on the role, it doesn’t come off at 5:00 in the afternoon when most people leave their jobs. You have to be that character through the whole project. Now, when I’m writing, I’ve got to stay in harness. I’ve got to be that songwriter guy. I’m preoccupied – maybe I should change that to a B-flat, you know that chord back to that—I’m obsessed with it. I wonder how much of me they’re not getting because of that. I don’t know if you’re like that when you’re doing a part.
Alec Baldwin: I find that in film it’s different because in film you don’t really have a chance unless you work with a tremendously intense group of people. I’ve never gotten close to that in film. Film is always in pieces. You know, you’re in your room—
Billy Joel: It’s not linear.
Alec Baldwin: It’s not like a play. Now, when I’ve done plays, it’s different. When you do it well, you can sit back and light up a cigarette and you’re like, 'Well, well, well. We nailed that one. Just write it down in the books. There it is. We’ve done it again.' You really feel some satisfaction. Do you feel that way when you perform?
Billy Joel: When we perform we got that.
Alec Baldwin: When you do a show. Do you come offstage after a show and you sit there and go, 'Well, there it is.'
Billy Joel: When it was a good one.
Alec Baldwin: Ladies and gentlemen, Billy Joel and his ensemble.
Billy Joel: They’ll be talking about this for a while, for a few days.
Alec Baldwin: One for the annals.
Billy Joel: Yes, but we also know when we stunk. We come off the stage going, 'That sucked. We were terrible.'
Alec Baldwin: 'Please don’t remember that one.'
Billy Joel: Right. 'Why did they applaud?'
Alec Baldwin: Last Play at Shea – do you think you did well?
Billy Joel: Yeah, that was good. They were both good shows. The Last Double-Play at Shea, the two nights. Yes, that was exhilarating. It was a hometown crowd and it was exhilarating. We were onstage for three and a half hours, and I didn’t realize how hot it was. I was sweating. I’m watching the movie of me onstage. 'Somebody give that guy a towel. He’s like soaking. Yuk. He’s so wet and slimy. Wipe him off.' But we were having such a good time. We walked off, and for weeks after we’re kind of amping from it.
Alec Baldwin: New York loves you.
Billy Joel: I know, and I love New York. That’s why I live here. But I put away the recording part of my career and I put away, for the time being, performing.
Alec Baldwin: What’s that music?
Billy Joel: That’s my telephone. Do you hear it? It’s The Godfather.
Alec Baldwin: It’s the theme from The Godfather. That’s interesting. That’s perfect. The theme from The Godfather is your ringtone on your phone?
Billy Joel: Yes.
Alec Baldwin: That’s amazing. I’ve got to think about what my ringtone should be.
Billy Joel: The guys on the road call me 'The Godfather.' 'Why do you come to me. Buona sera.'
Alec Baldwin: 'Buona sera. What have I ever done for you to disrespect me this way. You never invite me to your house for coffee.' Do you appreciate who you are? People love you. They adore you. They love you and they love your talent. You are so talented. It makes me want to choke up how talented you are. Do you know you are?
Billy Joel: I know I have a talent for music. I don’t think I’m all that good. I think I have a good perspective on it. I can separate the star stuff from the musician stuff. The music is really important to me.
Alec Baldwin: They have to stay separate, don’t they?
Billy Joel: Well, one is a job and one is a life. The job thing, I can take off at 5:00 in the afternoon, the rock star thing. I go shopping, I cook my own food, I wash the dishes, I take out the garbage. I know who that guy is. And the music has nothing to do with money or career. It’s just part of me. It’s like love. Music, love, food, friendship, my daughter – all these great things.
Alec Baldwin: How’s your daughter doing?
Billy Joel: She’s great. But I know how to take the job hat off and just kind of be normal. I’ve learned how to do it. It took a long time to separate them out. I can be a musician and not be a rock star. I’m still trying to convince people I’m not a rock star. 'No. Yes you are. You are a rock star.' I’m like, 'Okay, fine.' But a lot of that has a job aspect to it.
I work very hard at writing because that’s my deepest love. I think that’s really where I belong. The rock star thing I’ve never really been comfortable with because I don’t think I look like a rock star. I didn’t really set out to be a rock star. I became a rock star serendipitously.
Alec Baldwin: You became a rock star in spite of yourself.
Billy Joel: In spite of myself, which is hysterical to me.
Alec Baldwin: As much as you tried to kill it. Don’t put that camera too close to me.
Billy Joel: Exactly. I don’t want to make a good video. Let me make a bad video because I just want to get out of here. I don’t want to be in a photo session. I hate taking pictures. I don’t want to go to this opening. I don’t want to go to that schmooze-fest. I just didn’t do any of that stuff. But I’m comfortable with it now.
Alec Baldwin: Billy Joel says he doesn’t look back on his life that much. Last year he decided not to publish his long-awaited memoir entitled The Book of Joel. He said, instead, quote, 'The best expression of my life and its ups and down has been, and remains, my music.'
What’s a song that you think to yourself, 'You know, I really still enjoy hearing that song?' It doesn’t have to be a hit. What’s one you just like that you haven’t played, that you really, really like.
Billy Joel: I’ve been doing master’s classes at colleges and I get to play all these obscure songs that I never played over the 30 or 40 years I’ve been playing. I played one the other night and I said, 'That’s a really good song.' There’s no rhyme. It’s not until the very end when the rhyme kicks in, but the lyrics works. It’s from The Nylon Curtain and it’s called “Where’s the Orchestra?”
[Billy plays and sings “Where’s the Orchestra?”]
Alec Baldwin: You’re the king.
Billy Joel: Thank you.
Alec Baldwin: No really, you’re the king, man.