‘I’m still just another heavy hitter off the street’
Billy Joel was, by his own account, a “hood” in his tough Hicksville, L.I. suburb, a street gang member who used his fists rather than his lyrical skills to settle hassles. Though Billy slogged through all 12 grades, he played hookey so much he was denied a diploma. “I didn’t buy a class ring or yearbook,” he laughs, and last month he didn’t make it to his class’s 10th reunion. Joel had a better way that night to inform old cronies—or those not in jail—what he’s been up to. With a smash single, Just the Way You Are, and an album, The Stranger, in the Top Three, Billy spent the evening as guest artist on Saturday Night Live.
“I’m still just another heavy hitter off the street,” says the muscular 5’8″ Joel. “But I’ve matured to the point where I don’t kick over garbage cans.” What helps cool such macho hostilities (at age 28) is his fourth LP, which was not only his first to go platinum (one million) but is approaching twice that. “It’s gone much higher on the charts than I ever expected,” he says, adding, “but I can’t get hung up on it.”
Though his heavy-lidded toughness, shadowboxing routines onstage and sudden success inspire comparisons with Sylvester Stallone, Joel is, beneath the skin-deep Rocky swagger, more kin to McCartney in verse and melody and to Keith Jarrett or Elton John on the keyboards. So sweet and emotive is the Just the Way You Are hit that it played in the TV sound track during the famous loss-of-innocence scene on James at 16 last month.
Yet the nouveau star is playing rope-a-dope with his own prosperity. His main security is that, at home, someone does care—his manager, Elizabeth, who was once married to his drummer but in 1973 became Mrs. Joel. “She’s the family capitalist,” he explains. “She knows if I get my hands on bread, I’ll blow it. My management doesn’t know that I still have a credit card. If I can pay the bills, eat in nice restaurants twice a week and live in a nice place, that’s enough. Sure it’s easy for me to say now that I don’t give a sh** about money,” Billy concedes. “But I’ve been poor and happy too.”
The Joels live in a 35th-floor one-bedroom aerie with an awesome vantage on the 59th Street Bridge on Manhattan’s East Side, a fitting symbol of his 10-year ascent from his Levittown-area roots. The son of a Swiss-born GE engineer who split with Billy’s mother when he was young (and now is back in Geneva), Joel grew up dreaming about “being a big rock star.” During school his varying pickup combos eluded the body counts at local battles of the bands and ultimately he made the club circuit. He’d often play to 3 a.m., and when he could make it for school, with his “greaser-radical” long hair and red eyes “they thought I was a drug addict. It was just that I worked hard.”
Joel says he “draft-dodged” in the ’60s and was once picked up on suspicion of burglary, “which pissed me off because they didn’t get me all the other times.” His legit means of support, though, was playing piano in bars. In the early ’70s he relocated to L.A. and continued writing his gritty songs of street life and bittersweet love. The promising and deftly perceptive lyrics on his LPs Streetlife Serenade, Piano Man (also a hit single) and The Entertainer earned him cult following in scores of cities on his relentless road itinerary. But Joel couldn’t sustain chart success until—in the era of Light Up My Life and How Deep Is Your Love?—his current and uncharacteristically mellow ballad shot to the top. “People who think it’s me are misled,” he points out. “Live, we do harder rock’n’roll.”
Joel is now headed for his first tour of Europe and will cut a new LP by the summer. Billy waxes sardonic about suddenly approving pop music critics. “The funny thing is that I’ve been supporting myself and getting standing ovations for four years now,” he muses. “Now they’re saying I’ve made it. I thought I made it a long time ago.”