Billy Joel returns to play in L.A., the city of his breakthrough single, ‘Piano Man’
Billy Joel says that if he had to do it over again, he’d un-write “at least 25%” of his songs.
“I’ve written some real stinkers I wish I could take back,” he says, starting with “When in Rome” (from 1989’s “Storm Front”) and “C’etait Toi” (from 1980’s “Glass Houses”). “I don’t even speak French,” he says of the latter, “so I don’t know what I was doing. Sometimes I’d get six or seven songs I thought were pretty damn good, then there’d be a couple of squeeze-outs at the end just to fill up the album.
“I realize now I shouldn’t have done that.”
Fortunately for Joel, the quality stuff has provided more than enough hits to power his career as one of music’s top touring acts over the three decades since he released his last pop album, “River of Dreams,” in 1993. This year — between shows at New York’s Madison Square Garden, where he’s held down a monthly residency since 2014 — Joel, 73, is playing stadiums with Stevie Nicks, an unlikely pairing given his reputation as a proudly uptight New Yorker and hers as a vibey purveyor of California cool.
Yet the run of concerts, which begins Friday night at Inglewood’s SoFi Stadium, is also an opportunity to remember that Joel’s career actually got going in Los Angeles, where he wrote his signature song, “Piano Man,” about his experiences entertaining the patrons of the now-defunct Executive Room near the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Western Avenue.
Joel, whose pop currency never quite seems to wane — see the TikTok craze over his late-’70s tune “Zanzibar,” or Olivia Rodrigo’s shout-out in her song “Deja Vu” — called from his home in Florida, where he lives for much of the year with his fourth wife, Alexis Roderick, and their two young daughters.
You moved to L.A. in 1972, after your debut album failed to make much noise. Were you excited or reluctant to come here?
I was excited. I’d never lived anywhere else other than Long Island, so I saw L.A. as this great romantic place. I was sort of in my own western. I got to live up in the Malibu hills for a while, and to me that was like being in “The Magnificent Seven.”
Then I moved to a rental house on Mulholland Drive in Hollywood — very scenic, right over the Hollywood Bowl. But everybody seemed to be in the same business I was in. If I wanted a guy to help fix my plumbing, he wasn’t really a plumber — he was an actor. And if an electrician came to my house, he was actually a writer. It got to be kind of confusing: Does anybody really do anything here? And this is when New York was having all this financial trouble, and it was gonna go down the tubes. There’s that famous headline: “Ford to New York: Drop Dead.” When I heard about that, I got my back up. I said, I’m going back home — this isn’t my place.
What was your repertoire at the Executive Room?
I didn’t really have a pat list. I just played whatever popped into my head at the time, depending on what I was drinking. I got free drinks and kind of lubricated myself throughout the night. It was probably a combination of Hoagy Carmichael, the Beatles and whatever big pop hit there was the time. “Me and Mrs. Jones.”
Did you take requests?
I did. I was working for tips. So was the woman I ended up marrying. Elizabeth [Weber] was a cocktail waitress in the bar. She’d work the room her way — the waitress practicing politics [from “Piano Man”] — and I’d work the room my way. We had to pay the rent.
What might you have played at the end of the night if you’d had too many?
Probably something patriotic. “The Star-Spangled Banner” or “Stars and Stripes Forever.”
I remember there was a fight in the bar, and to calm everybody down I played a patriotic song, so everybody stood up and saluted the flag and stopped the fight. I was a hero for a second.
What was your attitude toward L.A. after you left?
I was in some ways scornful, but I was also melancholy about leaving. I went from being an insignificant nobody to the Piano Man while I was there.
I still look back to my time in L.A. with a certain amount of romance, almost as if I was an exiled writer living in Paris or something.
How long have you known Stevie Nicks?
We met at a Fleetwood Mac gig in San Francisco probably 10 years ago. I just got to meet her backstage, but we’ve never worked together, even though we both kind of hit at the same time. So this’ll be a completely new thing for me. I’ll probably do one of her songs and she’ll probably do one of mine.
Which song of hers are you thinking about?
That’s up to her.
You ever feel lonely as a solo act compared to a band like Fleetwood Mac that has all these deep, interpersonal ties?
I did very much enjoy touring with Elton John. It was like I joined something. As a solo artist, it’s always me, me, me — gets kind of boring. But when I hooked up with Elton, I got to play his material, which was a hell of a lot of fun. I miss that.
What was your favorite Elton song to play?
Either “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” or “The Bitch Is Back.” Digging into somebody else’s inspiration is cool, especially when you’re playing the piano. Elton’s got a lot of gospel in his stuff — a lot of rhythmic piano, almost like rhythm guitar. Mine is more classical-based. But there’s not many piano players that people are aware of in rock ‘n’ roll. Randy Newman. Bruce Hornsby. Leon Russell. Dr. John. We kind of hang in the same group.
In 2018 you told the New York Times that you couldn’t see yourself playing Madison Square Garden in five years. Here we are, and you’re still doing the MSG gig as well as the tour with Stevie.
I know. It’s bizarre. At the end of every tour, I feel like that’s it for me: “OK, I’m done.” And then some time goes by and it’s like, “Let’s go out and play.”
When the time comes, would you consider a big farewell tour like the one Elton’s on?
That was brought up the other day. But I have a disdain for capitalizing on that: “Let me threaten that it’ll be the end, and then I’ll make a lot of money.” I’ve seen bands so many times announce their farewell tours and then they never go away. I’ve seen a couple of the Who farewells at this point.
Christine McVie’s passing last year was a grim reminder that a lot of folks from your generation of rock ‘n’ roll have reached a certain age. In the next 10 years …
There’s gonna be a lot of attrition. I had an idea for a tour [of mine]: The poster has illustrations of a bunch of dead insects, and the name of the tour is Dropping Like Flies. I say to my agent, “Look, go ahead and be as grim as you want.” We’re all aware of it.
One wonders if Fleetwood Mac will tour without Christine as we’ve seen Steely Dan do without Walter Becker and the Eagles without Glenn Frey. What’s your take on a band touring after a key member dies?
Depends who it is. I’d go see the Eagles even without Glenn because their material is so strong. They’ve been together so long, they’re a hard-working band.
What did you think of the Rolling Stones’ decision to go out without Charlie Watts?
The drummer they were using, Steve Jordan, he’s great. But I would have wanted to see Charlie, honestly. I mean, when Bill Wyman left, I sort of felt like that was it for the Stones. But they don’t stop. I think it’s an English thing.
You’re one of the few legacy acts that still tours but doesn’t put out new music. Has your experience seeing what audiences want to hear — which is to say, the old hits — proved that your decision to stop recording was the right one?
Well, I didn’t make that decision based on whether it was right or wrong. It just felt like it was time for me to stop writing songs. I didn’t have the same motivation anymore. You need inspiration to create good new music, and if you don’t have it, don’t bother. Get off the treadmill, for Christ’s sake.
What’s your barometer for judging whether a new song is good or bad?
You can always tell. But it also just got to a point where it was getting excruciating for me to write. The enjoyment went out of it. I just read an interesting quote by Hemingway. Someone asked him, “Why is it so easy for me to read your stuff?” And Hemingway said, “Because it was so g— hard for me to write.”
When you’re putting together a set list, do you ever think about how your songs — something like “Captain Jack,” which talks about “the junkies and the closet queens” — will be considered in the current cultural and political climate?
You mean are they woke? It crosses my mind. But “Captain Jack” has gotten real boring to me. The verse is just two chords over and over again, and it’s this dreary story of some suburban kid jacking off at home. My mind starts to wander during the song, so I don’t do it even though people want to hear it.
“Only the Good Die Young” is a tough sell.
It’s occurred to me recently that I’m trying to talk some poor innocent woman into losing her virginity because of my lust. It’s kind of a selfish song — like, who cares what happens to you? What about what I want? But on the other hand, it was of its time. This was written in the mid-’70s, and I was trying to seduce girls. Why bull— about it?
You lost something like 50 pounds during the pandemic, right?
Yeah. It wasn’t even conscious. I mean, I’m glad I lost the weight because I was getting pretty heavy there. But I’ve gained a fair amount of it back. I found what I lost — or it found me.
You drink these days?
I stopped a couple of years ago. It wasn’t a big AA kick. I just got to a point where I’d had enough. I didn’t enjoy being completely inebriated, and it probably created more problems in my life than I needed.
There’s no instinct to have a drink after a show?
I don’t need it now. I used to get offstage and be so wound up and adrenalized that I needed something to calm down to go to sleep. But I realized when you’re drinking yourself to sleep, you’re not really sleeping. You’re just passing out.
What do you do when you get offstage now?
I go to sleep. It takes all my strength these days just to get through a performance because it’s hard work. I leave it all on the stage.
Who in your life calls you Bill?
Everybody does. My wife calls me Bill, my friends call me Bill. That’s my name. Billy is a little kid’s name: “Mrs. Joel, can Billy come out and play?” That’s what it sounds like to me. But the problem with Bill Joel is there’s nothing to it. It’s like a doorbell.
Anyone call you William?
My wife does from time to time, and I know it’s a sign of trouble.
What do you do on a day when you don’t have a gig?
I wait around for the kids to come back from school. I love hanging out with my children. They’re 7 and 5 now, and they’re so much fun and so interesting to me. I get to be a stay-at-home dad. That’s how I enjoy my life these days.
When Olivia Rodrigo joined you at MSG last year, you said as you introduced her that your kids like her music. Are you interested in what they’re into?
Very much so. They like all the big artists like Olivia and Taylor Swift. But recently they’ve discovered the Beatles, and now they ask for us to put on the Beatles channel [on satellite radio]. It’s so much fun hearing those early Beatles tunes and watching my kids respond to them.
What do you think of Taylor Swift?
Very good, conscientious writer. She knows music, and she’s productive — she’s working her ass off. She gets some shots just because she’s so popular, which must be tough to deal with. But I have a great deal of respect for her and for other artists from that same age group. They’re attuned to the craft of songwriting. They’re harkening back to the Gershwins.
Last thing: You recently wrote a letter to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame urging the nominating committee to put the late Warren Zevon on this year’s ballot. He made the cut. You take any pride in that?
Well, he was my first vote.
If he gets in and the Rock Hall asks you, would you do the induction?
I’m working this year, but if I’m in the right place at the right time, I would do that.
Which of his songs would you perform if asked?
“Lawyers, Guns and Money.” Love that song.
Mikael Wood / Los Angeles Times / March 9, 2023
- Caption: PHOTO: BILLY JOEL will play SoFi Stadium on Friday with Stevie Nicks. He remembers L.A. “with a certain amount of romance.”
- PHOTOGRAPHER: Myrna Suarez
- PHOTO:1984: Billy Joel at home in Los Angeles. He wrote his hit song “Piano Man” based on life at a local bar.
- PHOTOGRAPHER: Richard E. Aaron Redferns
- PHOTO: 2022: A meeting of singer-songwriter generations as Olivia Rodrigo joins Joel at Madison Square Garden.
- PHOTOGRAPHER: Kevin Mazur Getty Images
- Credit: POP MUSIC CRITIC