Billy Joel: He's Still Standing | The Penthouse Legacy Interview


A Spire of Lifestyle Aspiration
Billy Joel

Penthouse Retrospective

by Dennis Freeland

December, 1985

Billy Joel

Brinkley and Joel married last March and are awaiting the imminent arrival of their firstborn. At press time, they were still “playing the name game.” What of reports that the name “Ray Charles” was first on the list? Says Billy: “I don’t think she is going to go for that.”

This past summer, Billy Joel’s Greatests Hits Volumes I and II was released and two new songs, “You’re Only Human (Second Wind)” and “The Night Is Still Young,” were included. It quickly became Joel’s seventh consecutive Top 10 album.

Freelance journalist Dennis Freeland interviewed Joel at the Hit Factory recording studio in Manhattan, where he was putting the finishing touches on “You’re Only Human.” Freeland reports:

“I first interviewed Joel in 1975. Ten years later the only changes I could detect were that his hair was shorter, he was tan, and seemed a lot more relaxed, although he chain-smoked Marlboros throughout. It’s well-known that Joel dislikes interviews, and he was wary and distracted at first. Then his guard dropped and he became quite open. He’s self-effacing, wry, and very aware of the relationship between information and entertainment. He’s hypercritical of people, including himself, but he’s also very sensitive to criticism, especially that of a personal nature. So I wasn’t surprised when his last words to me were: ’I just don’t want a hatchet job on me this time.’”

Let’s start with the question everyone wants an answer to. What made you fall in love with Christie Brinkley?

Not because she’s the most beautiful woman in the world. If anything, I was trying not to fall in love at that point. We found each other without really meaning to.

At the time, I was living in a penthouse at the St. Moritz, dating models, really getting around. Women I never dreamed would be interested in me were pursuing me. And there were a lot of revolving doors. But Christie and I started out as friends, and the romantic attraction grew out of that. It just happened.

Both of you tried really hard to keep the wedding ceremony and reception as private as possible. What was your reaction to the press coverage of the wedding?

We stayed in the city that night and got up the next day to fly down to the Caribbean, so I missed most of it. I was a little peeved with the New York Post, because they snuck in a photographer. Then People magazine started calling everyone we knew, trying to get an interview. Somebody from Christie’s office called them and told them we weren’t going to give them a story. And they said they’d run a cover story anyway. So we decided we might as well have input into it. It was sort of like blackmail.

Now that your personal life is on an even keel and you’re waiting for your baby to be born, do you have a sense that your music will change? Perhaps because you aren’t suffering as much?

No, because there are still things in my work that aren’t always going to be goodness and charm Life is always going to throw enough rocks your way. Just because I’m happy now doesn’t mean I’m going to write about baking bread. But I do think it would be a good thing to have a certain number of songs reflect family situations. I don’t think it’s unhip, and a lot of people who grew up on rock ’n’ roll have families now. But it would definitely have to mean something; I wouldn’t put out a song that was just an empty exercise. Having a family will bring out new feelings, but I don’t know what they’ll be until I start to have them. That’s the story of my life. I do things on impulse, which is why I called my publishing company Impulsive Music. I’m not Machiavellian. I don’t really plan things out. Contrary to what “I’m supposed to be.”

You are a musician who has taken a lot of criticism from the press, and from music critics in particular. You’ve been called “facile” and “a panderer to public trends.” Any comments?

I thought out the “facile” comment once. What was wrong with “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens? It’s a great, lasting work. May not be as “heavy” as A Tale of Two Cities, but I would rather be remembered for “A Christmas Carol.” It reads like a charm.

Once you’re “big,” you’re considered establishment. Everything you do after that is suspect: “He’s had a taste of money, now the only thing that matters to him is making big bucks.” I keep reading that I’m this “Tin Pan Alley tunesmith who grinds out mindless pap.” That’s funny because that is the antithesis of what I do. I do it because I like it.

Do you think that the impressions you did onstage contributed to the critics’ refusal to take you seriously?

In the early days it was a necessity. I was opening for these rock bands, and when you’ve got 20,000 people yelling “Boogieee!” and you’re out there doing “Piano Man,” you better shift gears pretty quick. It was a shtick, no way around that. So there was a point where my substance was in question. I got pigeonholed right away, and that first impression lasts a long time. For example, a lot of critics didn’t like Glass Houses, and they said, “He can’t do a rock album he’s a balladeer!” I don’t have any preconceptions about myself. Each time I go in to record, I’m a brand-new kid again. I’m surprised when I get bad reviews-I put an album out because I think it’s good. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t believe in its quality.

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Articles about musicians that are mostly about the music they're best known for are very rewarding indeed.

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