10 Things We Learned From Billy Joel’s Vulture Interview
Vulture's wide-ranging new interview with Billy Joel includes the singer-songwriter's reason for not releasing an album of pop songs since 1993, his overall indifference to lyrics and how he wants to go out in a blaze of ignominy. It's a great interview and recommended reading. But if you don't have the time, we pulled 10 of our favorite moments from the story below.
He Has a Crazy Idea for His Final Concert
Even though he's not ready to stop performing just yet, Joel's farewell tour, unlike those launched by some of his contemporaries and friends, isn't going to be an emotional stroll through his back catalog as a reminder of how much his music has meant to fans. "The stage is a living-room set: couch, TV, coffee table, food," he said. "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. ... I’ll have created a bond between me and the audience where I know they will never pay another nickel to see me again."
Having Fewer Hits Played a Role in His Retirement From Songwriting
His last rock record, 1993's River of Dreams, topped the Billboard 200 and gave him a Top 5 single in the title track, but the indifference shown to the album's other singles -- "All About Soul" peaked at only No. 29 and "No Man's Land" didn't chart at all -- convinced him it was time to step aside. "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," he mused. "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?'"
He Hates All of These Compilations
Since River of Dreams, Joel's label has made money off of him by repackaging his catalog and live albums. That doesn't sit well with Joel, but there's nothing he can do about it. "They’re not my idea," he said. "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] 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."
He Might Never Finish ‘The Scrimshaw Pieces,’ and That’s Okay
For 20 years, Joel has been returning on and off to a song cycle about the history of his native Long Island called The Scrimshaw Pieces. But it may never see the light of day because of his standards. "I’ve got to think it’s good enough," he said. "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."
He Never Googles Himself
Joel often took a beating from the critics in his early days, and even though the established rock press has softened its attitude toward him -- witness his 1999 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame -- he's still a target for some holdouts. Joel said he has developed a thicker skin for such hatchet jobs, but admitted "it’s a good thing Google didn’t exist in 1978. That would’ve been painful."
Lyrics Don’t Mean Much
When composing a song, Joel said he's always started with the music first and figured out the lyrics based on the emotions it conjured. He even admitted that "sometimes I don’t give a fuck" about the words. "I can’t figure out half the lyrics to [Rolling] Stones songs and it doesn’t matter," he said. "I like the music. Or Yes: What the fuck are they talking about?"
He’s Not Following Bruce Springsteen to Broadway
For all of his roots in the Great American Songbook, as well as the success of his jukebox musical Movin' Out, don't look for Joel on the Great White Way, where his old friend Bruce Springsteen has a huge hit. "I don’t want to work five nights a week like he does," he said. "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 [Procol Harum's] 'A Whiter Shade of Pale,' I do it. If someone is in town and wants to come play with us, they can."
Axl Rose Is a Big Fan of "Captain Jack"
In 2017, Axl Rose joined Joel onstage at Dodger Stadium to sing "Big Shot" and AC/DC's "Highway to Hell," but it wasn't the first time the two had met. At the height of Guns N' Roses' fame, Joel said he was in a club with Rose. "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," he recalled. "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.'”
There’s a Reason He’s Stayed Silent on the Liberty DeVitto Controversy
In 2006, Joel fired drummer Liberty DeVitto, who had been with him since 1976's Turnstiles. DeVitto later sued Joel, claiming that his contributions to his recordings merited a co-songwriter credit. DeVitto has told his side of the story, notably in the 2017 documentary Hired Gun, but Joel hasn't spoken up "because it would ruin Liberty’s life if I said what really happened, and I don’t want to ruin his life." The closest he came to giving an explanation was to hint at "an impossibility to communicate at one point. This was during the time I was making [1986's] The Bridge. The communication got so bad. But the thing that I don’t get is, if Liberty was so upset about Doug [Stegmeyer, bassist] not being there or Russell [Javors, guitarist] 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."
He Wanted to Cover Led Zeppelin
Joel revealed that many people have tried to get him back into the studio over the years, including producer Rick Rubin and Joel's former label head, Clive Davis, who once asked him, "'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."