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 hate making videos?

I just don’t enjoy the process at all, even though I know videos are becoming so important. As a new artist, you can’t break through without them. But I think it’s going to drive out a lot of established artists. What’s also a shame about it is that kids are not going to be able to hear music without having a visual image attached to it.

When I write a song, I feel I’ve created an atmosphere, painted a picture. When I get down to that final mix, and the record is mastered, it’s complete. I feel I’m defacing my own art to have to do a video on top of that. I strongly resent that.

As a matter of fact, I happen to think that television might end up killing rock ’n’ roll. Every channel has a video show and they’re all infatuated with rock, as if they just discovered it. Television is going to end up sanitizing rock ’n’ roll, making it like “Hollywood Squares.” I don’t trust television getting involved with rock-I never have and never will. To me, rock ’n’ roll is something that your mom yells at you to turn down.

Do you have problems with fans who like you too much and may even want to physically harm you?

There’s a certain type of person whose life has a void that only a hero can fill for them. I can relate to it. I’m not paranoid, I’m just careful. I’m more concerned for Christie than I am for myself. Our relationship has made me more cautious. For the most part, though, fans are harmless. They usually just want to have a piece of your time. I relate it to these professional autograph people, who just stand outside studios where they’re filming a soap opera. And they stand there all the time. They get an autograph from anyone they think may be famous. There’s a zombie like quality about them that I can’t relate to. It’s not pleasant. It’s not scary really, either. There are a lot of aspects to celebrity that I don’t really enjoy.

For example?

I’m a private person and I’ve experienced a loss of privacy. It’s not that I dislike people, but I want my own time. Say you’re in a restaurant and you don’t want to be interrupted. You can’t handle the situation like a normal person who’s been interrupted while eating. Because if you don’t handle the situation judiciously and you lose your cool, then you’re thought of as a snob.

And the other thing is that anything you do gets photographed and you’re considered part of this glamorous jet set. I saw pictures of Christie and me in the papers all the time, and even if we were only going to the movies it looked as though we were posing for these society columns. I’m not a jet-set person. I’m very sedate, with a big provincial streak.

Your songs obviously are very personal and have great meaning to you. Let’s throw out titles of some quintessential Joel songs and see how they evolved.

Joel: Great. Shoot.

“Goodnight Saigon.”

I wrote part of that around the same time as Cold Spring Harbor. I’d wanted to write a song about soldiers. I was urged by a lot of my friends who’d been to Vietnam to write a song about it. I said, “Hey, I’m gonna get killed by the critics. I wasn’t there. Who the hell am I to write this song?” Pretty much all the images that are in there are from my friends. The impetus to write the song started when I read the book A Rumor of War, by Philip Caputo. The guy in the story went in to fight all gung ho and became very disillusioned. And that’s what I wanted to write about – the soldier’s experiences, and hopefully, cumulatively, it would be an indictment of war in general. Dave Marsh said it “bordered on obscenity” because it “didn’t take a stand,” and he called it “a wrongheaded song.” I don’t feel I have to apologize for that song.

Then how do you feel about the Stallone movie Rambo and the Rambomania that’s followed its success?

What Dave Marsh said about “Goodnight Saigon” is what I felt about Rambo. I thought it was the worst piece of garbage I’d ever seen. The action scenes are very entertaining, but something scary happens to the audience. While Christie and I were sitting there, these guys sitting around us were yelling, “Kill, Rambo, kill,” every time he’d blow some people away. The reaction of the audience really disturbed me. And I think a lot of the feelings had to do with the timing, because we saw it just after the last hostage crisis.

How did your Vietnam vet friends feel about it?

They didn’t like it. They don’t like Stallone passing himself off as a representative of the Vietnam vet, especially since he was home making porn movies at the time. Now I don’t have anything against Stallone personally, but I found the movie very objectionable. That’s what upset me about the review of Greatest Hits in Rolling Stone-when they compared “Goodnight Saigon” to Rambo. Because that movie is against everything that I stand for.

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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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