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

Do you write many songs on guitar?

No. Although some songs on Glass Houses were written on electric guitar. The words to songs on Nylon Curtain were written on guitar. But I haven’t done that with any of my recent work.

You’re self-taught?

Yes. I’m self-inflicted on guitar. I’m not very good. I can pound out a rhythm a little bit. Actually, now I’m using different keyboards.

You caught a lot of flak for “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me.”

Musically and lyrically I think it’s a really good song. There was a lot of controversy about it. Critics said I was poking fun at New Wave. … I love New Wave. I thought it gave the whole music business an enema, which it needed at that point. What the song was saying was “Wait a minute, this is not necessarily that new.” It reminded me of early sixties music: the simple chord patterns, the pounding beat, the sparse arrangements. It was just saying, “Don’t be bamboozled by the critics telling you that this is all new.” New Wave is just kids taking music back into their own hands again. “Next phase, New Wave, anyway, it’s still rock and roll to me.”

“Tell Her About It.”

Remember those girl groups? They would always sing [singing], “Listen, girl.” Diana Ross did it, Martha and the Vandellas, the Dixie Cups, they all had songs with the older girl giving the younger sister advice. I wanted to turn it around and do a “Listen, boy” song. It is a lesson I learned. If you want to keep a relationship, you’ve got to communicate. I didn’t want to get preachy, I wanted the song to be fun. So I set it in a Motown motif. Hmm, that’s a good name for a group. I didn’t think it was going to be a single. I said, “Taken out of context of the album, that song could sound like Tony Orlando and Dawn.” That’s why I’m always afraid when they put out a single.

Do you ever find yourself in a situation where you’d love to make a song longer, but you just don’t have the room? It must be really hard to have to edit yourself in that way.

I love to go on and elaborate and just write more sections to a piece of music, but you know you’ve got to remember that it’s going to be on the radio and there is only X amount of time. It’s painful to edit. On the other hand, I do admire efficiency.

Some recent examples where you had to cut and paste?

On “You’re Only Human,” we had to cut the sax solo for the single. We refer to that as cutting off parts of the body. For that song we had to chop off some fingers… and a couple of toes. But, you know, you can still function with some fingers and toes missing. On the other hand, on the edit of “The Night Is Still Young,” there’s a quiet part where there isn’t a lyric, just synthesizer. It’s actually where the song takes a breath, and to me it’s very necessary, but practically speaking, it’s not essential to it when it’s on the radio. So that to me was like cutting the lungs out of the song. It was a matter of that or cutting out the heart or maybe slicing the balls off. So I went with the lungs. It’s functioning now… on a respirator.

Who do you think is “the Billy Joel fan”?

They’re all individual thinkers. I’ve never really tried to analyze it. I don’t perceive people who listen to my music as one big mass. To me, they are all individuals. That’s why I was against this newsletter, The Root Beer Rag, at first. I don’t like the word fan, I think it dehumanizes people. So I said, “Instead of making a fan magazine, why don’t we just put out an information sheet, without any of this ’Hey, did you get the new Billy Joel doll?’

Wasn’t there some merchandising in there for a while?

There is merchandising stuff in there, that’s true. I fought it for a while but I figured that a lot of people are selling Billy Joel T-shirts, made out of garbage material, and they’re charging a lot of money. People assume that I’m getting the money anyway, even though I have nothing to do with it. So I’d rather that they buy a good T-shirt. Frankly, I don’t press it. Merchandising is a whole new part of the business that I don’t understand.

If it’s any consolation, you are the artist that bootleggers are afraid of. Have you managed to stop anyone?

I don’t know. You can put out one fire and another fire starts up somewhere else. Look what they’re doing with the “U.S.A. for Africa” merchandise. They’re bootlegging that stuff. That’s obscene. They’ll rip anybody off. Then they cry how they’re getting hurt by the big guy. Give me a break. They’re ripping people off. They’re thieves.

There are three unauthorized Billy Joel biographies.

There’s three? I only know about two.

Have you considered authorizing the real Billy Joel story?

No. I don’t want the world to know all about my personal life. I mean, to really do a book right, you have to dig up all kinds of things. Basically, I don’t feel I’ve lived long enough to have a book written about me. If you’re going to write a book about somebody, shouldn’t they have lived an entire life first? So that there’s a beginning and an end? This is a phase of life I’m in, it’s not a complete life. I have no intention of dying, although I’m sure some people think it would be a good career move.

Do you still consider Nylon Curtain your best work, or your favorite work?

I’m particularly proud of that album, but, on reflection, it may not be my best work. I think An Innocent Man was really good, but it came about so easily. I really didn’t sweat over it, the way I did with Nylon Curtain. Even though it was the most critically acclaimed work I’ve done, I think Glass Houses was just as good. I change my mind from week to week. You know, I still think the best work is yet to come.

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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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