Singer-songwriter Billy Joel performs in concert at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore.

Credit: Photo by Owen Sweeney/Invision/AP, File

Piano Man Billy Joel On: Dropping Out Of School, The 'Physicality' Of Performance, And Playing Fenway

August 15, 2016

There’s probably only one New York Yankees fan in the world who receives a red carpet treatment from Red Sox Nation. That would be the 150-million record-selling, multi-award-winning, singer-songwriter-composer and icon Billy Joel. Joel will be playing Fenway Park this Thursday, he joined Jim Braude and Guest Host Jared Bowen for a preview on Boston Public Radio.

Jared: This is your third time at Fenway Park, the New York Guy at Fenway. What is it like to play that park?

Joel: I like ballparks like Fenway. I happen to like the older American ballparks, because they’re downtown, they’re not out in the sticks somewhere. They’re like an old wooden roller coaster. It’s just got something… there’s something about it that’s right. A major league team in a downtown part of a city is great, and Fenway is one of those places. It’s a legendary place. I like Boston, I mean, look. I’m a New Yorker, and I’m a baseball fan, and I was at the ‘78 playoff game, the Bucky Dent game at Fenway, and I almost got my head handed to me. Of course, I wearing a Yankees hat, which was pretty stupid… who knew Bucky Dent was going to turn into Superman? I mean, we didn’t really expect them to win, but they did. You guys broke the curse.

Jim: Did you play when you were a kid?

Joel: Yeah, I was in Little League.

Jim: Were you any good?

Joel: No. I was okay… I was okay.

Jim: Last year when you were on with Margery and me, you talked about one of the other reasons you liked Fenway. I think you said it was an intimate setting. I’m looking at your tour; Wembley, Wrigley, Safeco… you do these massive, massive places… is there a piece of you that would love to sneak into a club and play in front of 400 people, or is that just not who you are?

Joel: No, I’ve done that. I do that from time to time. I go places, I go to see bands, I sit in… I always had a fantasy of being a blues musician, where I can just play the Hammond organ and nobody knows who I am. I’ve done that a couple of times, just snuck in and played a Hammond B3, which I love to play. I like playing all kinds of rooms, I’m amazed that I’m doing so many ballparks, but in the summertime, that’s what you do.

Jim: Are you an Artist-in-Residence at Madison Square Garden? You’ve done what, 33 months in a row you’ve done something at MSG?

Joel: Yes, it’s three years now that we’ve done something once a month at Madison Square Garden.

Jim: How much overlap is there? It’s like âÂ…” of a million people. Do the same people keep coming back month after month? What’s the audience like?

Joel: I was wondering that too… I think there are some repeats. They were trying to figure out, there’s a certain amount of people who are going to be repeats, but I think a lot of people are out-of-towners, and most of the audience is visiting New York, and I guess it’s one of those things to do in New York, is go see Billy Joel at the Garden. They’re calling it a franchise… I didn’t know how long this was going to last. I thought okay, it’s going to peak, and then it’s going to taper off, and that’ll be the end of that, but they’re selling more tickets now than they were at the beginning, so it looks like we’ll be there next year as well.

Jim: Has anybody does this besides you, anywhere?

Joel: Not that I know of. I know other artists have booked a lot of gigs in certain venues, Michael Jackson was supposed to do 50 gigs in London, and Prince did a bunch of gigs at once venue, but I don’t think they did it as a monthly residence.

Jared: We have seen a lot of the work that you have done with students, I would imagine that must be very invigorating to have these kids who admire you, and then to see how they stretch their talents. I’m thinking of that viral video of the kid who got up there and played with you—what does that do for you?

Joel: When I was in school, I actually considered being a teacher. Unfortunately, I didn’t graduate high school, so there went my teaching career. But I always wanted to be able to share all the stuff I’ve learned over the years doing this crazy job. I have a lot of information stored away; how to do the job or how to avoid the same mistakes I made. I always thought, if I can help people, I’d like to do it. I remember writing a letter to the Beatles, a fan letter, ‘how did you write that song? How did you come up with this?’ and then I got this brochure for Beatles lipstick and Beatles pocketbooks— no, no, no, that’s not what I want, I wanted you guys to give me some advice. But I’ve got all this info, and I’d like to be able to share it. It is rewarding. As far as that kid who came up and played the piano, he happened to be stellar. He was really good, nobody expected that. I’ve been in situations where somebody wanted to come up and play, and they were terrible. That’s a little awkward… we used to have a gong on the stage, and after a minute, if they were bad, we’d hit the gong and just go, ‘okay, bye bye now!’ But once in awhile you come across a real talented kid.

Jared: On the one hand, you want to be encouraging, but on the other hand, you know the realities of the business, you know what it’s like, you don’t want to be encouraging them if maybe that’s not the best advice…

Jim: What are you talking about? If you get a gong from Billy Joel, you’ll be seeing a therapist for 50 years, Jesus.

Joel: Look, there’s nothing like being up on a stage and the audience letting you know whether they like you or not. That’s a great learning experience. If you go up there, and you’re not good, they’re going to let you know—especially on the East Coast. New York, Boston, Philly, Washington… they’ll boo you if you’re not good. But they’ll also applaud you if you are good. It’s a way of learning. We try to get good because we don’t like getting booed.

Jim: Speaking of the audience liking you, everything I’ve read about when you invited Tony Bennett up on the stage at the garden, I think it was a few days before this 90th birthday, the place went nuts. Tony Bennett is obviously an American treasure, and you’re not a kid anymore. Do you tell yourself there’s an expiration date for rock and roll, or do you just keep doing it until you don’t want to do it anymore?

Joel: I think it has a lot to do with your physicality. The Stones are still out there doing it, McCartney is out there, he’s still doing it. Neil Young is still doing it, Bob Dylan is still going… I always thought there was a finite number that you would hit and go, okay, time to stop! But obviously not for a lot of people. I think, if I get to a point where I physically don’t feel like I can do it well anymore, I’ll stop. I don’t want to be up there stinking like a cabbage, you know? I don’t look like I used to look. Sometimes I feel like I should apologize to the audience, ‘sorry you’re getting the old Billy Joel. You should have seen the young Billy Joel!’ I look up at the Jumbotron, and I see my dad. I look like my dad, and I didn’t want to look anything like my dad, and there he is.

Jim: Was your father a piano player too?

Joel: Oh yes, he took piano lessons as a kid. He grew up in Nuremberg, Germany, and he took lessons the old-fashioned European way, with a very strict teacher. He was quite a good pianist, but he didn’t go into that professionally. He worked for a large corporation as a businessman, but he was quite good.

Jim: If Donald Trump is sworn in in January, you’ll be playing the inauguration?

Joel: No. I won’t be anywhere near the place.

Jim: I understand you’re dedicating The Entertainer to him. What’s the message?

Joel: I am an entertainer, and I’m in the entertainment business, and in my opinion, Donald Trump’s political campaign has been very entertaining. Look at all the media coverage the guy is getting! Politically, do I think it holds water? But to a lot of people, I guess it does. I could have dedicated a couple of songs to him, You May Be Right, I May Be Crazy… Big Shot, that would work. I Go To Extremes… there are a bunch of songs.

Jim: You were at his wedding, right?

Joel: I got invited to his wedding, I don’t know why. I guess he used to come see my shows at the Garden. I got invited to his wedding, and I thought, what the hell, let’s go! I don’t remember much, because I think I drank too much, but I don’t really know him all that well.

Jared: You came of age around the same time as Carole King and James Taylor, and you’ve said that that’s part of why you were singing and doing the writing, because it was a time where if you wanted to have your art out there, that’s what you did. Is there a moment where you thought you would just be the songwriter, you didn’t necessarily see yourself as the performer?

Joel: Yeah, I mean, when I decided I was going to write songs, I didn’t think it was going to be for me. I thought I would be writing songs for other people. There were people who did things like that, Jimmy Webb was a songwriter who just wrote songs for other people. I thought, okay, I don’t look like a rock star, I’m not a matinee idol, I don’t know how much of a recording artist I am, so I’ll write songs. Then the advice I got from people in the business was, ‘well, if you want people to hear your songs, you should record them.’ So I recorded them. ‘Well, if you want people to hear the recordings, you should go out on tour and promote the album.’ So I go out on the road and promote the album. And then it turns into this.. Billy Joel, recording artist, performer… I thought, ah, this is a strange way to be a songwriter. But I’m not bitching about it, it’s a great job, and it turned out pretty good for me.

Jared: It must have happened much more organically and naturally for you, rather than just looking for stardom the way we see people do today, based on image or brand.

Joel: I didn’t have a whole lot of faith in my voice—I don’t think of myself as a singer, I’m a piano player. I didn’t really have a lot of faith in how I looked, I’ve never been a glamorous guy… but I don’t know, I just assumed I was better off being heard and not seen. I still feel like that sometimes, I think aw, man, you shouldn’t be seen, you should just be heard.

Jim: Does it ever get old, having 20,000—40,000 people screaming your name, singing along with every single word you’ve written?

Joel: No. It never gets old.

Jim: What does that feel like?

Joel: What’s running through my head, other than to remember the lyrics, is ‘this is such a great job!’ Did I pick a great job, or what? Who knew it was going to go to these lengths. Who knew it was going to last this long, who knew it would be successful? ...I’ve got the greatest job in the world. It is a job, and I don’t lose sight of that fact. That’s what I do, that’s my occupation, that’s my career. I don’t sit up there and think, ‘aren’t I great, aren’t I fantastic, isn’t this great?’ I mean, it is great, but I’m not thinking about me so much as the gig. Part of me is actually in the audience when this is going on. There’s a sense of community, I remember that from the Beatles days. I was a big Beatles fan when I was a kid, and we were all kind of on the same page, that whole generation was on the same page with the Beatles, we were following these guys. They were our guys. I liked that. I like kind of recreating that sense of community when we’re doing a concert. Everybody’s singing along… you never get over that, that never gets old.

Billy Joel plays Fenway Park on Thursday, August 18. To hear his full interview with Boston Public Radio, click on the audio link above.

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