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

“Christie Lee” is about your wife?

“Lee” is Christie’s middle name, but it’s not about her. I liked the sound of the name-it’s a great rock ’n’ roll name. Like “Stagger Lee.” I didn’t intend to use it on the album. It was just an exercise-fun to play. The band liked it, so we put it on the record.

“Everybody Has a Dream.”

That predates Cold Spring Harbor. I conceived it as a James Taylor-type song. It sounded sort of flat when I tried it out in the studio, so I decided not to use it. Then when we were doing the Stranger album, I wanted something with a Gospel feel, so I picked it up again. I always believed in that song.

“Room of Our Own.”

It was time for a banger. We wanted something with light sarcasm, but with dark references in it. It’s not specifically about me. It could partially be about my first marriage. I was saying, “It’s okay to have a room of your own-to be apart, to be separate.” It’s critical of the other person in the relationship, but the guy is also poking fun at himself, too.

With “Big Shot,” a lot of people thought you were being preachy.

People don’t realize that I don’t really take myself that seriously. My music, yes; myself, no. It’s a hangover song. I remember looking at myself in the mirror one morning, hung over, and saying to myself: “You had to be a big shot.”

The verse about the Halston dress was perceived as yet another put-down to women. Actually, “Halston dress” just sings great. That’s why I used it.

“Stiletto.”

That was a song about a bitch. It was called a misogynist song, but I actually knew a woman like that. I don’t care if it’s popular or not. The image of a woman wielding a knife just seemed more malevolent than a man. I know the knife has been perceived as castrating. Some people must’ve missed the point of that song. It’s not the woman who’s weird, it’s the guy in the song. He was a masochist.

“Rosalinda’s Eyes.”

That was a love letter that I think my father should’ve written to my mother. When I sang it, the title just had a nice feel to it. My mother’s name is Rosalind. From what I gather, my father wasn’t particularly romantic to my mother, so I made up a whole scenario.

Your mother must have been very moved.

No, I don’t think she got it She said, “That’s a nice song.”

“She’s Right on Time.”

I think it’s a really good song. The video ruined it. But the song – good chord construction, good vocal, good harmonies.

“Weekend Song.”

To this day I remember what it was like to work nine-to-five in a factory. It makes me thankful, no matter how much I bitch about the music business, that I’m not doing that. I have tremendous empathy for people who look forward to Friday night. I still get a little crazy on Friday night. I don’t think the song was that good. I tried.

“Until the Night.”

I was trying to do a song that would recreate the same feeling I had the first time I heard “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’.” I even sang a duet with myself at the end-with the high and low voices. A production num-bah. Textural song.

“My Life.”

I don’t think it’s a very good song. It hasn’t held up. It sounds a little wimpy to me now. We do it stronger in concert.

“Mexican Connection.”

We still play the tape before live shows. It became a signature thing, and it creates an atmosphere. It’s pleasant to listen to-an exercise in movie-music writing. Theme music from an imaginary western.

“C’etait Toi.”

Argh. Big mistake. I never should’ve let that go. I like the chord structure. The lyric is the biggest hunk of shit I ever wrote. [Speaking in sticky-sweet tones] “Here I am. in this smokey place, with my brandy eyes.” I want to puke when I hear that. I had a guy from the Alliance Francais teach me the lyrics in French. I sang it in France and I’ll never forget the audience going, “What zee hell is he talking about?” One of my few regrets.

“All for Leyna.”

I wanted to relive the angst of being 15, 16 when you go through all kinds of hell because of breaking up with a girl. I used Germanic, Wagnerian chords straight eights-this frantic minor key of the anguished teenaged love.

“You’re My Home.”

Oh, yes-from my Gordon Lightfoot period. I was trying to play the banjo with my piano. “Summer, Highland Falls” and “Travelin’ Prayer” are both like that. An attempt to write a folk song on a piano-which is very difficult. I wanted to write a wine-and-roses song. It was Valentine’s Day and I wanted to write [laughs] a Hallmark card’ That’s how it strikes me now. I get critical of the earlier, cornier stuff. At the time, I meant it.

Is “Vienna” about your father?

Yeah, I went to visit my father there and saw a lot of elderly people working. They weren’t put out on a porch to rock their old age away. What Vienna meant to me was a productive old age. There’s a reason to be old. You don’t have to do everything while you’re young. Having a goal is fine, as long as you know that personal happiness is something you have to pursue your whole life.

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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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