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Interview:
The Piano Man Still Happy To Play Us A Song
 

By GARY GRAFF
Of the Oakland Press

» See more SOUND CHECK



He hasn't released an album since 1993 or, until this year, a single in just as long.

He freely acknowledges that he no longer feels "the compulsion to write songs in the pop form."

Because of that, Billy Joel says, "I do get asked from time to time, 'Why are you still doing this?' And then I realized, 'You know what? I'm still doing this [i]because I can![/i]"

He's not being glib, however.

"Honestly, I'm just shocked that I'm still able to do this. I'm gonna be 58 (on Wednesday). If someone would've told me, 'Yeah, you're still gonna be out there playing rock 'n' roll songs at 58, I would've said, 'You're outta your skull!'

"But here I am. I can still sing. I can still play the piano. People still want to come to the shows. It's...amazing."

Adding to that surprise is the fact that Joel is maintaining a kind of career that's unique in the pop world.

He certainly has the track record to continue filling arenas. Since debuting with "Cold Spring Harbor" in 1971, the Bronx-born, Long Island-raised Joel has sold more than 110 million albums, notched nearly three dozen Top 40 hits, has six Grammy Awards, two Tony Awards (for "Movin' Out," his collaboration with choreographer Twyla Tharp) and memberships in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

But though he's continued to tour and play his hits, Joel's last pop album was 1993's "River of Dreams" -- which finished with, appropriately, a track called "Famous Last Words." Now he works on what he calls "piano music," classical-leaning compositions that first surfaced on the 2001 album "Fantasies & Delusions."

This year, however, Joel caused a stir with a new song, "All My Life," that's being distributed via Internet music outlets. It's a mellow, Sinatra-style love song he wrote in 2005 as a first-anniversary gift to his third wife, culinary journalist Katie Lee, and recorded a year later as a second anniversary gift -- "Call me a cheapskate," he cracks.

But when executives at his label, Columbia Records, heard about the track -- which Joel had hoped Tony Bennett would record -- they pressured him to make it public.

"I said, 'You guys are crazy,' " Joel recalls. "I didn't think that there was any place a song like that could live on radio...unless it's Fossil Music or something.

"But they cooked up some kind of a campaign and released it. I still haven't heard it on the radio, and I don't know anybody who has. But according to what they're telling me, it's selling well as a single, even with no airplay."

In that sense, Joel notes, "I guess it's kind of going back to the early days of recording companies. If you think about it, Bing Crosby went into the studio and recorded 'White Christmas' and that was it. That's what they put out. They didn't necessarily have an album, but they marketed it as a recording, and it worked."

"All My Life" has not exactly opened the pop floodgates from Joel's piano, however.

"I don't feel compelled to write in song form anymore," he explains. "That isn't to say I may not go back to it; I suppose if I had the motivation to write a song, I'm not gonna stop myself from doing it.

"But, look, I still love rock 'n' roll. I still love pop music. I haven't divorced myself from the material I wrote before. That's why I'm out here on the road playing this stuff. I still believe in it.

And, Joel adds, he's particularly enjoying playing his own shows after several years of touring in tandem with fellow piano man Elton John. As enjoyable as that was, Joel notes that "it's pretty much a greatest hits tour by both artists. We weren't really able to play a lot of the album tracks.

"Now we can dip back into the album tracks and see what could live and what couldn't live."

Fans are still certainly getting their share of hits from Joel and his band. But he's also revived deep tracks such as "Zanzibar" and "Root Beer Rag." He's playing "The Entertainer" and "Everybody Loves You Now" for the first time since the '70s, "Captain Jack" on occasion, and "The Ballad of Billy the Kid." He's even performed the particularly obscure "Stop in Nevada" from 1974's "Piano Man" album.

And "She's Always a Woman," he reports, has turned into a crowd singalong.

"You're always trying to strike a balance," Joel explains, "between what the audience would like to hear, what we want to play and what actually balances out to make a good show. And it's kind of hard to strike that balance sometimes.

"I know people are walking out sometimes going, 'Why didn't he play 'Uptown Girl?' Why didn't he play 'Matter of Trust?'...I would not be happy just playing the hits. I need to play some of the things that people may not know just to remind myself that I've written more than Top 40 hits."

Nowadays, of course, he's not writing anything remotely like that. While Alexa Ray, his 21-year-old daughter with second wife Christie Brinkley, has taken up "the family business," Joel spends time at his Long Island home writing "thematic pieces that can be used for orchestra," whether as performance works or for movie soundtracks. But he says that he's "not even all that anxious to have them performed," that after a life spent selling his music in public he's now happy enough to make it in private.

"I guess these days I just think of myself as a composer," explains Joel, who's battle with alcohol abuse led to two rehab stints since 2002. "Right now all I'm interested in is just composing and writing music. That was always my main interest, really, composing music, since I was a little boy.

"If something happens with it, great. If something doesn't happen, that's fine. It's all pretty much for my own entertainment, I suppose."



Billy Joel performs at 8 p.m. Friday (May 4th) at the Palace, Lapeer Road at I-75, Auburn Hills. Tickets are $87.50 and $52. Call (248) 377-0100 or visit www.palacenet.com.



Web Site: www.palacenet.com

Send your thoughts and comments to Gary Graff

 



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