On a July morning, Billy Joel watches through the window of the study at his Long Island estate as a helicopter takes flight. “My wife had to go into the city today,” he says as the Joel family chopper ascends. He smiles. “Life is funny, isn’t it?” It’s a week before the singer and erstwhile songwriter’s record-setting 100th concert at Madison Square Garden and Joel, dressed in a baseball cap, black T-shirt, plaid shorts, and sneakers, plops down on a leather couch. “Life makes sense. It didn’t always used to, but now, pushing 70 years old, it does,” he says. “Getting ripped off, going to rehab, getting divorced, making albums and stopping — everything happened for a reason, even the bad shit.” He sips coffee from a takeout cup. “I’ve got to say, things worked out.”
Your old pal Elton John is retiring from the road. So is Paul Simon. But your Madison Square Garden residency is booked indefinitely. Do you understand the impulse to say, “These are the last shows I’ll ever do”?
No. There have been times when I’ve felt these are my last shows; it’s time for me to get off the bleeding stage. Then I just thought, nah.
What’s made you change your mind?
I have the greatest job in the world. You get up there, you make a lot of noise, girls scream, and you get shitloads of money. Are you fucking kidding me? Now, I do have an idea for a farewell tour.
What is it?
The stage is a living-room set: couch, TV, coffee table, food. And there’s bulletproof glass between me and the audience. Then I come out and lay down on the couch. I grab the remote and start watching TV. The crowd after a couple minutes goes, “Fuck this,” and starts throwing shit at the glass.
And that’s the whole concert?
Yeah. I’ll have created a bond between me and the audience where I know they will never pay another nickel to see me again.
So if Billy Joel ever walks out on stage and picks up a remote control …
That’ll be it.
You’ve said you’ll do the Garden residency until demand slows down or you start playing at a level you’re not happy with. What clues would signal the latter?
If I can’t sing as well as I should. I’m already struggling. I wrote most of the songs that I’m doing when I was in my 20s and 30s and it ain’t easy to hit those notes in my 60s. We’ve dropped the keys of some songs already. Hopefully it’s not that noticeable. If I’m having a tough time hitting notes — I call it throwing junk pitches. Instead of having a fastball you throw off-speed. If I’ve got to throw too much junk, I’m going to consider stopping.
Will it be easy to walk away?
Yeah. It would be abhorrent to me to be up there faking it. It’s funny: Sometimes I don’t think we did a good show and I’ll read a great review and go, “Was this guy at the same show?” Then we’ll do a great show and I’ll read a bad review and it’s what are you talking about? But I know when I’m good or not.
There was a time when you thought your future might involve writing songs but not performing. Is it surprising that the opposite happened?
In retrospect there is an irony there. When I stopped writing songs — it was time. I couldn’t be as good as I wanted and that was driving me crazy. I was driving my loved ones crazy. I thought, this is ridiculous. So I stopped. But the performing, what else am I going to do? I talked to Bruce [Springsteen] about this. I talked to Sting and [Don] Henley: “Why are you still doing it?” They all had the same answer.
Which is what?
“That’s what I do.” But I made a lifetime out of it when I thought maybe I’d have a couple years, so I’m not complaining.
Those other guys still write songs. You don’t. What does that say about your relationship to making music compared to theirs?
Like I said, I couldn’t be as good as I wanted to be. I was always trying to feel like there was a real progression in my work, and eventually I realized I was only going to be X good. Because of that I knew I was going to beat myself up for not being better. So I stopped. That’s it.
Were your expectations for yourself realistic?
Well, I don’t know. But the business changed, too. Albums weren’t meaning what they used to mean in the marketplace. I grew up in the era where an album had to be substantial. It couldn’t be throwaway Christmas shit like Elvis used to do. Then the business changed. The last album I did, River of Dreams, was as good and maybe better than a lot of other albums that I had made, but it got no airplay.
What do you mean? “The River of Dreams” was a hit single.
Yeah, that one song was a hit, but nothing else on the album did anything.
Didn’t that album sell millions of copies?
The thing was, I put a lot of work into River of Dreams and it was as if the business had left me behind because there are substantial songs on that album that never went anywhere. So I said, “What’s the point of putting myself through writing and recording if it doesn’t mean what it’s supposed to mean out there in the world?”
So your motivation to write new music was about external validation?
You work so hard on your stuff and you want people to hear it. If it doesn’t get exposure — the nature of the album format is for that album to get disseminated and River of Dreams didn’t.
You’re crazy. How many more copies would River of Dreams have had to sell or singles would’ve needed to hit for you to keep going?
I don’t know. I just had higher expectations for it. Then the record company came in and said, “Okay, what’s your next album going to be?” And I went, “No, that’s it.”
You knew you were done 25 years ago?
I suppose inherently. The last song on River of Dreams is “Famous Last Words.” I’d realized that if a song wasn’t a hit single it didn’t matter, and I didn’t want to go in that direction. And look, it’s one thing if you own your recordings. I don’t. There was supposed to be a reversal of copyright back to me in 2013. Well, the record company dug in and got their battery of lawyers and we never got the stuff back. So I still don’t own my recordings. People wonder why there’ve been so many Billy Joel live albums and compilations. They’re not my idea. The record company owns all these recordings and can package them any way they want. As far as I’m concerned, I did 12 studio albums. The live crap and all these compilations — they don’t mean anything.
Songs in the Attic is a great live album, though.
Yeah, that’s one where I wanted it to be a certain thing and it was. And the first and second greatest-hits compilation — that was my idea. But after that it was all redundant crap.
So how much of your decision to stop recording was a fuck you to the music business?
I don’t know if any of it was that. Certain composers only have so much productivity in them. Mozart wrote more than 40 symphonies; Beethoven wrote 9. That difference doesn’t mean one guy was better than the other. And I always looked at the Beatles as a template. They did 12 studio albums. By the time I got to my 12th album, I didn’t think the quality trajectory was going to continue to go up. And I was more interested in other music.
The Scrimshaw Pieces?
Yeah, The Scrimshaw Pieces. It’s thematic, about the history of Long Island. It’s a work in progress.
My understanding is that you’ve been chipping away at that for 20 years. In your heart of hearts, do you think it’ll ever be heard publicly?
I’ve got to think it’s good enough. If I don’t, maybe it won’t. You know, there’s an album Columbia put out called My Lives, and it was unfinished stuff that never should have been heard. I didn’t want anything to do with it. I refer to that album as “Twigs and Stems and Seeds” — you’re not supposed to smoke that shit.
It makes sense that you don’t want cutting-room material being heard, but with your classical compositions, is part of your reluctance to put it out connected to anxiety about critics?
I’ve thought about that. It’s possible. Over my career I’ve been savaged pretty good and that leaves scar tissue, sure. Maybe I would have been more productive if I’d had an easier time with critics. When I released that album [Fantasies & Delusions] — the classical critics take you apart with a scalpel. It’s a very refined ripping of the skin and bleeding of the arteries. Those guys are nasty. But I feel like I’m over that now. The critics didn’t scare me off from releasing new material. I just don’t feel compelled to share what I’m doing with the world. It’s for me.
If you were to write songs again, could you sit down and immediately write at the level you were writing 25 years ago?
There is muscle memory to writing songs, but you invest a lot of your life into writing a song if you want to do it well, and if you don’t want make that investment you’re probably not going to do it well. There’ve been a couple of times over the years I said, “Could I write a song today?” Then I said, “Stop it.” You don’t write songs as an exercise. You do it for real.
Maybe I’m misreading, but it seems as if critics’ opinions linger with you. Why do you care? Doesn’t your success far outweigh any criticism?
Nowadays the internet means critics are superfluous — everyone can make up their own mind — but when I was starting out, what Rolling Stone or Creem or the New York Times rock critic said was a big deal. I would read a review and the critics would go, “His stuff is no good.” And I’m saying, “No, no, no, no. My stuff is good.” I thought they were missing it. There was a bad takedown of me a couple years ago. Some guy wrote something like “Why Billy Joel Is the Worst.” I’m reading this rant and I’m going, “This guy completely misinterpreted almost everything I wrote.”
And that bothered you?
It didn’t bother me. I remembered it because it was so over-the-top. Had I been younger and still recording it would have bothered me because it was so wrong. I know good music: You can’t tell me everything I do is bad. But some people just have that reaction to my stuff.
What is that visceral reaction about?
I chalk up a lot of it to my voice — I hear my voice and it annoys me. Or maybe it’s my persona or how I come off on TV or in interviews. I could probably come off obnoxious unless you’re from my neighborhood and know how we talk. But back in the ’70s, critics decided who was going to be in the good group and the bad group and I thought I got a bad shake.
Were there critics who you thought this person gets exactly what I’m trying to do?
There were a couple: Timothy White; Steve Morse, who wrote for the Boston Globe; Stephen Holden at the New York Times, too. He gave me a bad review once and I agreed with it. I think it was for the Streetlife Serenade album. I was completely bereft of new ideas at the time, but I wrote that album because I owed the record company new music. And Stephen Holden’s review said I had nothing to say. I go, “Busted. You got me.” The Bridge is another one where I understood the criticisms; my thing with Phil Ramone had gone a bit stale. The general consensus on that album was “That’s it for Billy Joel.” And I thought, maybe so. I was probably already thinking about retirement back then.
Do you Google yourself a lot?
Oh, no, God. It’s a good thing Google didn’t exist in 1978. That would’ve been painful.
On the subject of your persona: It’s interesting to read old pieces about you and see comparisons being made to Bruce Springsteen, often in terms of who was more “authentic.” That comparison is understandable but it can also seem like a category error or something. Did that comparison make sense to you?
I remember seeing that kind of review. But with the authentic thing, he [Springsteen] is a guitar player and the guitar is the definitive rock-and-roll instrument. A piano player is always suspect because only rich people are supposed to have pianos.
What about Little Richard, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis?
Exactly, but the piano is still perceived differently. If you took piano lessons, like I did, you must have been a rich kid. My mom struggled to make ends meet. She had to pay $10 a piano lesson, and back in the ’50s that’s a lot of money. But because I studied music I was suspect to critics. To them you’re supposed to be a diamond in the rough and polish yourself.
How much did actual musical differences, rather than persona differences, have to do with the way you and Springsteen were perceived? To take two albums from 1982: Doesn’t it make sense — rightly or wrongly — that the guy who recorded Nebraska might be heard as more “authentic” than the guy who recorded The Nylon Curtain?
That’s right. Use too many effects on your recording and it’s considered artifice; do something stripped-down and it’s considered “real.” But Bruce was also a wordsmith and critics are wordsmiths. So he had that going for him. I never resented the good press that Bruce got. He deserved it. I was just never about the words first. I wrote the music then the words. To me, the words — sometimes I don’t give a fuck.
I can’t figure out half the lyrics to Stones songs and it doesn’t matter — I like the music. Or Yes: What the fuck are they talking about?
Do you like Yes?
I do. I opened up for them in ’73 or ’74. I’d never heard of these guys and then I hung around to see them play and I was blown away. Fragile is great.
But Close to the Edge is the one.
That’s right. I was with Yes up to Tales From Topographic Oceans. Then they lost me.
What’s your best lyric?
Probably something on River of Dreams. I like that song “No Man’s Land.” [Sings.] “Raise up a multiplex and we will make a sacrifice.” This biblical imagery skewed by consumerism — I’m proud of that. There are some good lyrics in “All About Soul” too. I thought I made a quantum leap lyrically on that album.
Your process for writing lyrics was to decode what specific emotion or situation inspired the music and then write to that. Was it always easy to zero in on the lyrical themes?
Not always. I’ll give you an example: I couldn’t write “Allentown” for about three years. Originally it was called “Levittown.” [Sings.] “I’m living here in Levittown / and there really isn’t much around. The trees are green / the dirt is brown.”
Slightly less interesting.
Yeah. The song was not going anywhere. Then we played the Lehigh Valley and some kid said to me, “You’re gonna get big and you’re never gonna come back here.” And that pointed me in the right lyrical direction. That kid was right, by the way. To this day, I still feel bad about not playing the Lehigh Valley.
Nothing’s stopping you.
Except the expense.
Is what Springsteen is doing on Broadway something you’d consider?
I don’t want to work five nights a week like he does. And because of the kind of show he’s doing he can’t go off script. We play the Garden once a month and change our show all the time. If I feel like singing “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” I do it. If someone is in town and wants to come play with us, they can.
The other day I was watching footage of Axl Rose singing “Big Shot” with you at Dodger Stadium. What’s that guy like?
I met Axl a long time ago when he was real big with Guns N’ Roses. I was in L.A. and went to a club and Axl Rose was there — it turns out he’s a fan. So I’m sitting at a table with Axl and these women are coming up, leaning over so you could see every inch of cleavage, offering themselves to him. I’m looking at Axl like, Aren’t you interested in, you know, meeting these women? No, he just wanted to talk about “Captain Jack.”
Spontaneity aside, are you interested in playing to a theater-sized crowd?
I do miss playing small places, but I get that vibe when I do the master classes. And the other thing: Maybe if I had to play smaller places, it’d mean that’s how shitty I’d gotten. Also, nine people are in the band. To do smaller rooms I’d have to scale down, and I don’t want to fire anybody right now.
Did you ever see that documentary that had some of your old band members in it?
Hired Gun. I heard about it.
It seems like those guys are still miffed about how they were let go.
Liberty [DeVitto] is a bitter guy, and Russell [Javors] is entitled to his opinion. As it turns out, Russell got let go because he wasn’t playing anything. We isolated his guitar part and played it back and it was pluck, pluck. So what am I paying this guy for? And Liberty’s reasons [for why he no longer plays in Joel’s band] are wrong. He said it was financial. It had nothing to do with money. Absolutely nothing. I’m not going to tell my side of the story.
Because it would ruin Liberty’s life if I said what really happened and I don’t want to ruin his life.
An issue for them seemed to be that you personally didn’t call to let them know they weren’t in the band anymore. In retrospect, was that part of things handled too brusquely?
Maybe. With Doug [Stegmeyer], maybe. The problem was that there was an impossibility to communicate at one point. This was during the time I was making The Bridge. The communication got so bad. But the thing that I don’t get is, if Liberty was so upset about Doug not being there or Russell not being there, why’d he keep going with me? Because he kept getting paid. So what is he complaining about? I was loyal to him for 30 years; he got paid by me for 30 years. But the thing is, I’ve been working with a lot of the same road crew for more than 40 years. So I’ve been lucky with people.
I have one more Springsteen-related subject: He’s a guy who isn’t shy about talking politics in public, which is something you don’t really do. But I remember the show at the Garden after the Charlottesville riot when you wore a Star of David. How do you decide when you want to make your beliefs known? And when a guy like Springsteen speaks up, do you think he’s spitting in the wind?
Wearing the Star of David wasn’t about politics. To me, what happened in Charlottesville was like war. When Trump said there were good people on both sides — there are no good Nazis. There are no good Ku Klux Klan people. Don’t equivocate that shit. I think about my old man: Most of his family was murdered in Auschwitz. He was able to get out but then got drafted and went in the U.S. Army. He risked his life in Europe to defeat Nazism. A lot of men from his generation did the same thing. So when those guys see punks walking around with swastikas, how do they keep from taking a baseball bat and bashing those crypto-Nazis over the head? Those creeps are going to march through the streets of my country? Uh-uh. I was personally offended. That’s why I wore that yellow star. I had to do something, and I didn’t think speaking about it was going to be as impactful.
I know you read a lot of American history. Even if you only want to talk comparatively, how do you think the country is doing right now?
You can probably look at every generation and find terrible things were happening. But right now I can specifically look to our leader and blame it on him. We have a terrible president. We have a terrible administration. Politically, I’m not happy where our country is. These children are being ripped away from their parents and then the U.S. can’t find them? This is insane. This is the antithesis of America. I think we’ll look back in shame on what’s happening at the border right now. It’s like when they rounded up the Japanese and threw ‘em in camps during the war. It’s a disgrace.
So then addressing politics is a matter of the specific circumstance?
Whether it’s me or Bruce or anyone, the patriotic thing is to stand up for your beliefs. I mean, I’m doing a fundraiser for [Andrew] Cuomo. I get crap for that already, people saying I’m a Long Island libtard. I don’t know; it seems like everybody’s conservative nowadays. When I was a teenager, we were all protesting the war and now everybody is right wing. What happened?
Obviously there’s a real concern for the working class running through your songbook, but do you feel you understand that demographic the way you used to?
I think I do. I just think right now there are a lot of people who are misguided in their politics. It used to be that the working man would have been a socialist-leaning Roosevelt voter. Now Trump is where they look for relief, which I think is a mistake. But I’m not so absolutist that I think, My opinion is the correct opinion. Maybe I’m wrong about things. I’ve been very fortunate and don’t have to struggle financially, but I don’t understand the acrimony towards other people.
You’ve met Trump, right?
I was invited to his wedding [to Melania Trump]. This is when I was married to Katie, my third wife. She wanted to go. I thought it would be an interesting freak show. I don’t even know Trump.
Then why were you invited?
I have no idea. I guess he was just inviting A-listers. I was told that he used to come to our shows and hang out backstage but I never saw him. I don’t remember anything about the wedding. I just drank. I remember maybe talking to Chris Matthews.
Is drinking ever a problem anymore?
No. I used to drink too much — I guess it was a form of self-medicating. Drinking was one of the reasons I stopped writing songs. I would drink to try and ease the pain of not being as good as I wanted to be. I would even try Dutch courage: How am I going to write? Let me have a drink and fool myself into thinking I can write while I’m drunk. It was a vicious cycle, so I stopped. I didn’t want to be one of those authors like Hemingway who offs themselves because they drink too much.
Sorry to jump around: Do you have any awareness of contemporary pop stars?
I know some of them: Taylor Swift, Ed Sheeran. My wife listens to pop music on the radio and that’s the most exposure I have.
Do you like what you hear?
Sometimes. I like the Killers. They’re a good rock band. But I don’t listen to pop or rock and roll anymore.
Even classic rock?
I only listen to classical music.
So aside from performing it, does rock music have emotional value in your life?
Am I open to new stuff? I don’t seek it out. Let’s put it that way.
But the old stuff. Does it …
Have resonance? Yeah, I’ll take out a CD and play Cream or Hendrix or Zeppelin. I still get thrilled listening to the Beatles and the Stones.
What resonance does a song like “Piano Man,” which you’ve sung thousands of times, have for you?
It’s like a kid: Sometimes it pisses me off, but I always love it — I wrote the thing, you know? I do think “Piano Man” could’ve been better. There’s quirky things — people think, what a cheap rhyme: Davy in the Navy. I’m sorry: The guy’s name was Davy! There was actually Paul, in real estate, and the guy was writing a novel. I used the real peoples’ names in the song. I suppose it’s hard for some people to believe that.
Do you have songs you won’t sing?
There’s one I would never do, which is called “C’etait Toi.” There’s probably other ones, too. If I could make about a quarter of what I wrote disappear, I wouldn’t be unhappy. But we do pull out less familiar songs for the audience even if we know they might not go over. We do “The Great Wall of China” and the audience looks askance. “Laura” — we try it, and I think the harmonies sound good, and it just lays there for the crowd like a lox.
By the time this interview is published, you’ll have played your 100th show at the Garden. What does that number mean to you?
It’s beyond gobsmacking. And I think of all the shows I’ve done: Who was that guy always on the road? He was so ambitious. I only do two gigs a month now. I do a Garden show and I do a stadium and then I go home and sit around and look at all my trophies.
I was looking at your stuff on Spotify and was surprised to see that “Vienna” was in your top-five most-streamed songs. That song was never a hit. How’d it turn into such a favorite?
It took a good 15 to 20 years. I know it was in 13 Going on 30 with Jennifer Garner — that’s a movie that was popular with girls, and girls are who most of the enthusiasm for the song comes from. Beyond that, I’m not sure. It’s a coming-of-age song: “Slow down you crazy child.” So I guess it resonates with younger people. It’s a fun one to play.
Now that you’ve spent so many years looking at your catalogue as this complete body of work, how does it hold up?
It looks pretty good to me.
Even though at the end you were felt you were hitting the limits of your talent?
I never felt like I was as good as I wanted to be. My bar was Beethoven.
[Laughs.] I remember reading a quote from Neil Diamond where he said that he’d forgiven himself for not being Beethoven. I read that and went, “That’s my problem: I haven’t.” But I did the best I could. I don’t think I coasted. There are artists who continue to record because they feel like that’s what keeps them relevant. But if the quality of their work deteriorates it drags down the entire catalogue. Elton [John] would say to me, “Why don’t you put out more albums?” I would say, “Why don’t you put out less albums?” I didn’t want to come out and say, “You’re dragging down your legacy.”
I imagine every legacy artist approaches the new output question differently.
People feel compelled. Paul McCartney, to this day: “Gotta be relevant. Gotta be new. Gotta have a hit.” I stopped feeling like that a long time ago.
How often have you been approached about doing a new album?
It’s happened. Who’s the guy who produced those Johnny Cash records?
Yeah, he wanted to do something — bring me back to my roots. Whatever that meant. Didn’t appeal to me. And Clive Davis, when he was at Columbia, said, “Why don’t you cover the great classic-rock songs?” I think he meant [Barry] Manilow stuff but I said, “Okay, you mean Led Zeppelin?” He didn’t like that idea. “Kashmir” would’ve been pretty great to cover. That’s a gorgeous song.
No one ever asked you to do a standards album?
Rod Stewart has that covered pretty well. It’s been done. But yeah, from time to time there’s been suggestions: “Why don’t you do this? Why don’t you do that?” Fuck off.
I have an idea for you.
When you were still writing pop songs, were you competitive with other songwriters?
It never felt like a contest. It was more that I admired people. Someone like Randy Newman, for example, is fucking brilliant. That early Americana feel he used had an impact on me. Paul Simon, too, with the folk elements in his music. I was even motivated by James Brown. What’s that album, An Innocent Man? The first track, what is it?
That’s more Wilson Pickett, actually. I wanted to do a Wilson Pickett track. But it wasn’t about trying to best anyone. It was about trying to get their vibe. I’ve never had a style in particular, and it never bothered me. It bothered other people: He’s in a stylistic no-man’s land. Fine. That allows me to write any which way I want.
Which of your peers are underrated?
Randy Newman was underrated. Jeez, who else? Gordon Lightfoot.
What have you learned about leading a band over all these years?
The most important thing is giving the audience what they paid for. I keep getting, “He doesn’t challenge the audience enough.” Oh, they’re not challenged enough by paying 150 dollars for a ticket and wading through puke to find a seat? “No, they need more challenging.” I don’t buy that.
It amazes me that you keep coming back to criticisms. Can I just tell you: You’ve written a ton of great songs. A huge number of fans love what you do. Your place in the culture is secure. You don’t need to worry about any criticisms anymore.
I don’t worry about it.
Seems like it rankles.
But criticism was a motivator for me. It was like, “No, you’re wrong. I’m good!”
I know your dad wasn’t really around when you were growing up, but when he was, was he stingy with praise?
He was just dark. His life was troubled. If anybody was depressed, he was. And he died in a bad way — he was ill for a long time. He was probably unable to feel joy for his children.
Is it right that when you were a kid he told you “life is a cesspool”?
What’s the context in which someone says that to a child?
You got me. I don’t think hearing that colored my perspective but it did stick with me. I didn’t know what a cesspool was. I just knew it was scary. It’s sad — my old man got the shaft from life. His father was rich, and the Nazis took it all away. Then he had a kid who got rich and he couldn’t enjoy that either because he was too sick. My dad had tough times.
When you started making serious money, was there anything you bought that truly improved your life? Aside from a helicopter.
A grand piano. I only ever had an upright piano before I started making some money with The Stranger. Then I got a nine-foot grand Steinway. It was like, $40,000 or $50,000 — a lot of money but worth it. And there was a tax benefit because it was a work expense. Actually, being able to afford a good accountant is also a great luxury. I learned that the hard way.
Profiles of you — especially ones written over the last 10 or 20 years — often make you out to be this somewhat cynical, melancholy person.
A depressive, yeah. It makes for good copy. I’m not depressed. I’ve had times in my life where I was sad but I never stayed there.
You did write about being depressed a fair bit, though. I’m thinking of that line in “Summer, Highland Falls”: “It’s either sadness or euphoria.”
Maybe that’s how I felt that particular day. Some days I’m up, some days, I’m down.
So too much was made of the low days?
Yeah, but I get it: I know it’s easier to write about miserable shit than happy stuff. But if you talk to people who work with me, I think they’ll disagree with me being portrayed as a depressive. I’m not. I don’t carry grudges. I get on with my life. I’m a happy-go-lucky guy.
This interview has been edited and condensed from two conversations.
Photo: J. Kempin/Getty Images