Q&A: Turning 60, Billy Joel is "happy and contented"

NASHVILLE (Billboard) - It’s April in Manhattan but winter is lingering, a fact Billy Joel notices as he looks out the window of his West Village townhouse.

Singer Billy Joel performs during the Rainforest Foundation Benefit Concert in New York, May 8, 2008. REUTERS/Keith Bedford

Joel is mildly surprised. “Oh, my God, it’s snowing, look at this.”

Yet not much surprises Joel as he approaches his 60th birthday, taking a break from the massively successful Face 2 Face tour with Elton John.

He has sold millions of records, has set multiple box-office records on tour, has endured personal and professional highs and lows, and has secured his place in rock ‘n’ roll history. Those who know him best say Joel’s in a good place now, although that may not always have been the case.

“It’s a different Billy I’m seeing on this tour, a very happy and contented one,” John says. “He’s always been funny, always been razor-sharp, but this is a very happy and contented Billy, and I’m very happy that he’s found that space to be in.”

Joel turns 60 on Saturday (May 9), a milestone he plans to mark not with a “wing-ding masquerade ball, no over-the-top rock ‘n’ roll affair, just a big family dinner.” Joel seems, in a word, comfortable. He’s generous with his time, warm and witty in his recollections and seemingly at peace.

Billboard: Do you do any kind of assessment at this point of your life and career?

Billy Joel: I’m not a looking-back kind of person. What I’ve realized about turning 60 is I’m not just one age, I’m every age I’ve ever been. Sometimes I’m 11, sometimes 16, sometimes I’m 25, sometimes I’m 38, sometimes I’m 42, sometimes I’m in my 50s. I’m all over the place. And it comes in handy, especially in this line of work.

Billboard: Growing up in Hicksville, New York, was being a professional musician a dream of yours?

Joel: Oh, yeah, I knew when I was a little boy I was going to have some kind of career with music, because I’ve loved music as long as I can remember. I just didn’t know what form it would take. Hicksville is just a blue-collar area, working-class people. Most people after high school went into the service, some went on to college. Being a musician wasn’t really a viable option for people from that neck of the woods.

But, we were right next to New York City, so we got all that music coming out of New York. There were always great bands coming through, great music on the radio, always something exciting in New York City.

I knew when I played my first gig in 1964, the same year the Beatles came out. I hooked up with a band (the Echoes) and played at a church dance. I just had such a blast doing it. We were making this great noise, this girl I had a crush on actually looked at me. And then at the end of the night the priest gave us each $15. I guess in 1964 that was like $15,000 to a kid that age. So I said, “That’s it. That’s what I’m doing.” And there was never any question about it after that.

Billboard: What kind of music did you love growing up?

Joel: I liked all music. All my life I’ve loved rock ‘n’ roll, I’ve loved jazz, I’ve loved classical, I loved Broadway shows, blues, country, every kind of music I ever heard. And the Beatles kind of synthesized it for me when I saw these guys on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” You have to remember, the Beatles hit in America right after (President John F. Kennedy) was assassinated. JFK was killed in November of 1963, the Beatles came here in February of ‘64, and this country had the blues. Especially young people. They took the young guy away from us and it was back to the old-boy network.

And when the Beatles came, we all went nuts, because they were the alternative. I saw these four guys, working-class guys, from a town called Liverpool. What a name; that’s worse than Hicksville. They weren’t made in Hollywood, they weren’t pretty boys. I mean, girls thought they were cute, but they weren’t the typical Fabian types. They wrote their own songs, they played their own instruments, they were kind of like a little gang. And I said, “This is possible, this can be done.”

Billboard: Was there a healthy music scene on Long Island at the time?

Joel: There were a lot of garage bands. There were a lot of music clubs on Long Island, so there was a pretty healthy music scene, very competitive. There were bars and nightclubs, there were Sweet 16s, weddings, bar mitzvahs. This was the era of “goodfellas,” and they always had bands playing at their parties and stuff. We actually used to play for those people; we didn’t know they were connected. All we knew was they paid good and they always had booze in the house. I think they were part of the Gambino family. We were trying to make out with their daughters and stuff, not knowing we probably would have been killed had we been able to do that.

The big band in the New York area at that time was the Young Rascals -- they were like our Beatles. And then there was a pecking order. You had a band like the Vagrants; Leslie West from Mountain was in the Vagrants -- they were a great band. You had the Vanilla Fudge, who used to be called the Pigeons. There were the Rich Kids, the Illusion, the Hassles, which was the band I was in. It was a thriving music scene, lots of bands.

Billboard: Were the Hassles any good?

Joel: Uh, no. We weren’t bad. The Echoes were pretty much a cover band; we would do jukebox songs. We did all kinds of stuff: instrumentals by the Ventures -- “Apache,” “Wipeout,” “Let’s Go.” Then we would do Beatles songs, Dave Clark Five, Rolling Stones, Kinks, Zombies, Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs, Roy Orbison, R&B music -- anything that was popular, we’d play it in the Echoes. The Echoes became the Lost Souls about ‘65-‘66. Then I joined the Hassles in ‘67, in the Summer of Love.

Billboard: When did you start writing songs?

Joel: I was writing songs since I was a little kid. They were kind of like ersatz Beatles tunes, kind of Merseybeat British pop tunes. Then when I was in the Hassles I was writing stuff that was more R&B-influenced, more like soul music, like Sam & Dave songs, stuff like what the Rascals were doing, that was a big influence on me. I wrote all the stuff for (heavy metal duo) Attila, then I got the rock ‘n’ roll star stuff out of me. I just wanted to be a songwriter and have other people do my stuff.

So I compiled a demo of all these songs I had written, which eventually ended up becoming the “Cold Spring Harbor” album (in 1971). It was really not meant for me to be the singer or the recording artist. I just compiled these songs with hopes some other singer would do them. But the advice I got from the music industry was, “Make your own album.” ... So unwittingly I kind of got swept up in the whole singer-songwriter thing and became a recording artist and a singer. I was touring to promote this album I had done, which was supposed to be a demo tapes of songs. Kind of a backward way of becoming a pop star.

Billboard: Even as you went solo and pursued the singer-songwriter thing, you always seemed to have a band mentality.

Joel: I always thought of myself as part of a band. Knowing I was going to go out and play these songs to promote the album, I recognized (that) I didn’t want to be this stand-up crooner kind of guy, I wanted to be in a band, like I always had been. I think people have this mistaken story about me playing in piano bars all my life. I only did that for six months while I was trying to get out of a bad contract that I had signed. All of my life prior to that I’d been in rock ‘n’ roll bands, so for me it was quite natural to be in an ensemble. There are other singer-songwriters that have that same mentality -- (Bruce) Springsteen, for example. He’s a songwriter but he’s part of a band. We both came from kind of the same place -- New Jersey, Long Island, very similar kind of music scene going on.

Billboard: Any memorable stories from your first national tour, for “Cold Spring Harbor” in 1971?

Joel: We didn’t make any money, nobody got paid. We were touring around in one of these little camper trailer things, eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. And there were these two groupies that were following us around. We really weren’t sure who they were. This was when I was signed to Artie Ripp’s label (Family Productions). And as it turned out, these girls, their job was to follow the band around and bang the DJs so they’d play our records. They were two hookers. We thought they were groupies. But no, it was kind of a payola thing. It was quite a wake-up call to find out that’s what’s going on. That’s when I thought, “I’ve got to get out of this deal. This is really corrupt stuff.”

Billboard: It’s been a while since you went into the studio. Are you writing or planning on recording?

Joel: Well, I never stopped writing music. I’m just writing a different kind of music now. I’m writing instrumental music and thematic music. To what end, I really don’t know. It may end up being a movie score, some of it could be symphonic, it could end up being songs. I’m writing themes. I’m just not writing songs like I used to. I stopped writing songs back in the early ‘90s. I’m not really interested in songwriting these days, I’m interested in music writing. I’m much more comfortable with a more abstract form of writing. I like the idea of music speaking for itself.

I kind of rediscovered classical music. Back in the early ‘90s I was listening to the Beethoven symphonies and that had such incredible impact on me, recognizing that this music is just so evocative and so well-written and well-composed, so emotional and moving. I wanted to try and do that. Not that I could ever be Beethoven. But I was going to try and give it a shot.

Billboard: What do you take the most pride in: singer, songwriter, performer, musician?

Joel: The hardest part of the job is to write. That’s what it all comes down to as far as taking the most pride in, the composing of the music. And then the next thing would be as a piano player. I think being a good musician is very important. As a singer, I’ve never thought much of my own voice. I’m always trying to mess with my voice and sound different than I actually do because I don’t like my voice. I think a lot of singers are like that. Everybody wants to sound like Ray Charles.

And as a performer I take a great amount of professional pride in delivering a good performance. I still can’t believe I’m 60 years old this year and I’m still able to do this crazy-ass job. That’s a real honor. I thought there was a mandatory retirement: When you’re 40, get out.

Billboard: Do you see a time when you’ll quit?

Joel: I don’t think there will ever be a time when I stop being a musician. Possibly not being a performer, possibly not recording anymore, but I will always be a musician.