Those who know Billy Joel say he’s in a good place now, although that may not always have been the case.
“It’s a different Billy I’m seeing on this tour, a very happy and contented one,” says Elton John, whose Face 2 Face tour with Joel comes to Wrigley Field for shows tonight and Tuesday. “He’s always been funny, always been razor-sharp, but this is a very happy and contented Billy, and I’m very happy that he’s found that space to be in.”
John is a longtime admirer of Joel’s compositions, especially “Just the Way You Are.”
“It’s a standard people will be singing long after Billy and I are dead and buried,” John says. “He’s a proper songwriter in the old tradition of songwriting. And he writes about issues that are very close to his heart, like ‘Allentown,’ and that’s why I really admire him. If he believes in something, he’ll write about it.”
Joel grew up in New York’s Long Island suburbs and turned 60 in May.
Q.When did you start writing songs?
A. I was writing songs since I was a little kid. They were kind of like ersatz Beatles tunes, kind of Merseybeat British pop tunes. Then when I was in [the band] the Hassles I was writing stuff that was more R&B-influenced, more like soul music, like Sam & Dave songs, stuff like what the Rascals were doing, that was a big influence on me. I wrote all the stuff for Attila [a short-lived duo], then I got the rock ‘n’ roll star stuff out of me. I just wanted to be a songwriter and have other people do my stuff. But the advice I got from the music industry was, “Make your own album.” This is the beginning of the era of the singer-songwriter.
Q.It’s been a while since you went into the studio. Are you writing or planning on recording?
A. Well, I never stopped writing music. I’m just writing a different kind of music now. I’m writing instrumental music and thematic music. To what end, I really don’t know. It may end up being a movie score, some of it could be symphonic, it could end up being songs. I’m writing themes. I’m just not writing songs like I used to.
Q.When you wrote songs, did you write the music first?
A. Always. I think the one time I didn’t write the music first was “We Didn’t Start the Fire” and I think it shows, because it’s terrible musically. It’s like a mosquito buzzing around your head.
Q.What do you take the most pride in: singer, songwriter, performer, musician?
A. The hardest part of the job is to write. That’s what it all comes down to as far as taking the most pride in, the composing of the music. And then the next thing would be as a piano player. I think being a good musician is very important. As a singer, I’ve never thought much of my own voice.
And as a performer I take a great amount of professional pride in delivering a good performance. I still can’t believe I’m 60 years old this year and I’m still able to do this crazy-ass job. I thought there was a mandatory retirement: When you’re 40, get out.
Q.Dating to the ’70s, you always ended shows saying, “Don’t take any s—from anybody.” What does that say about you?
A. I don’t know, maybe I got a chip on my shoulder or something. That may be a Long Island thing, too, because people in the city always tend to look down on Long Island. We’re the country bumpkins. So you sort of have a defensive attitude. And sometimes that’s OK, it’s a motivator. It kind of keeps you going, keeps you edgy. “Don’t take any s— from anybody.” I still believe that.
Q.Do you see a time when you’ll quit?
A. I don’t think there will ever be a time when I stop being a musician. Possibly not being a performer, possibly not recording anymore, but I will always be a musician.