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

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A Spire of Lifestyle Aspiration
Billy Joel

Penthouse Retrospective

by Dennis Freeland

December, 1985

Billy Joel

You’ve given up ripping up reviews onstage?

Yeah, that was not a wise move. You can’t criticize the press. You know, I have no problem with somebody not liking my music, but I do have problems with lies being told, and I have problems with insults, and I have problems with people questioning my motives and my integrity. I’ll always be pissed off about that.

Are there certain rock writers that you listen to?

There are. To be honest, I usually agree with most of them, when they are writing about other artists. I pick up a New York Times and I read Robert Palmer, who I know hates my guts, and I happen to agree with a lot of his opinions about others. Tim White has always been fair. I don’t even have anything personal against Dave Marsh, who has been one of my biggest detractors. I just think in my case he’s wrong. But this troubles me, because you start to wonder, Are they right about me, if I agree with them on other reviews? So these things haunt me.

In an interview, Paul Simon said he loved your music but wished it was more oblique.

I can’t be what other people wish me to be. Sure, I’ll take their criticism under advisement. Paul is brilliant. He has a great command of the language. As a wedding present he gave me the entire Oxford English Dictionary, which would take up this whole room. I said, “Are you trying to tell me something?” He said, “Yes.”

Hall and Oates take a lot of critical flak, but Daryl Hall made an excellent point when he said, “We’re in popular music. If you’re not popular, you’re irrelevant.”

How did the Billy Joel look come about?

I was searching for something distinctive to wear onstage. It was the time of sequins-and-glitter rock, and then there was the other side, the Grateful Dead Tshirt-you-haven’t-washed-in-five-weeks with-”Right-On”-painted-on-it school of dress.

I wanted to make a statement. I was trying to say that I respect the audience. I thought maybe I’ll wear a suit, but I looked like a businessman. So I put on jeans and sneakers-I love sneakers but kept the tie. I never meant to get locked into it. The band made fun of me a lot. “What’re you wearin’ a tie for? You’re in this business so you don’t have to wear a tie.”

Your latest hit single, “You’re Only Human,” was written especially for the Greatest Hits album. Can you talk about why this particular song means so much to you?

I wanted to write a song that said, “It’s okay to make mistakes, it’s okay to be human. You learn from your mistakes-they’re the only thing you can really call your own.” And I wouldn’t be saying this in the song if I hadn’t had a suicidal experience.

This was the time you swallowed Lemon Pledge?

No, that was the second time. The first time, I took a whole bunch of pills. I was around 21, I’d broken up with a woman, nothing was happening for me as a musician, all my friends were at school or over in Vietnam getting killed. I just thought, Who needs another failed musician? I know how it feels to be so low that you don’t think you can come out the other side, and I wanted to use that feeling to help others.

Were you hospitalized?

I woke up in the hospital and had my stomach pumped. They released me because they thought I was just another kid trying to get high. But that wasn’t it at all-I’ve never been a pill person.

There’s been a lot of publicity about kids offing themselves at a horrifying rate. Everyone gets a second wind around 25 or 26, when you realize that everyone fucks up. The song doesn’t dwell on suicide. It sort of implies that this guy has a problem, he’s down on himself. And I wanted to say it’s okay to make mistakes.

Are you able to work on assignment, like offers to do movie soundtracks?

Well, it has to be my deadline, my idea. I get screenplays all the time, good ones, but they are outlines: “This is where Mary walks home at night; this is where Mary’s song will go.” I can’t write like that. I could see a scenario written around my music-that could happen.

Yet you did write “Easy Money “ for the movie.

I did that more from Rodney Dangerfield’s persona than from the specific screenplay. When I think of Rodney, I think of rhythm and blues. He asked me personally if I’d do it and it seemed like a fun thing to do. Actually, the song did kick off what the style of the album would be, though I didn’t realize it at the time.

There were published reports that you were signed to a movie deal that involved acting.

I saw that, too-a buncha baloney! We got offers from movie companies for me to do soundtracks. But I’m not an actor. I have to do work in videos and I hate it.

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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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