This Is Your Life, Billy Joel

Billy Joel helped say goodbye to Shea Stadium with two massive shows in 2008.
Billy Joel helped say goodbye to Shea Stadium with two massive shows in 2008.
Photo by Kevin Mazur/Crown Archetype

Billy Joel: The Definitive Biography By Fred Schruers Crown Archetype, 400 pp. $29.

Hardcore fans of the Piano Man (including this writer) were severely bummed in 2011 when he decided to pull the plug on his autobiography, The Book of Joel, less than two months before it was slated to appear in stores. While he had be the subject of a handful of books before, some of them clip jobs, this would have been the chance to hear one of rock's most popular and lasting entertainers to tell his own story in his own words.

But Joel had some deadline-nearing misgivings about what he wanted versus the desires of publisher HarperCollins.

"They said to Fred [Schruers, co-writer for The Book of Joel], 'We need more of the sex and the wives and the girlfriends and drinking and divorce and the depression,'" Joel told The New York Times. "I covered it all. But I didn't go into detail about my personal life."

"If they want to poke Fred with red-hot needles to get him to make up salacious details, go ahead, but I'm not going to do it," he added. "I'm not a psychoanalyst. I don't know why I drank so much."

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Thankfully, Billy later gave Fred the go-ahead to write a straight bio, using the 100 hours of interviews Joel had already done, and 100 additional hours with bandmates, friends, frenemies, relatives, ex-wives and lovers, and others. The resulting effort not only lives up to its subtitle, but has the strengths of both an autobiography and biography.

While the guitar is the de facto symbol of rock and roll, many of the earliest rockers were in fact key-pounders: Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Fats Domino and Ray Charles chief among them. Joel took heartily to the instrument as a youngster, with a love for both classical and rock music.

As his career evolves beyond dive bars and a stint as "Bill Martin" in a cocktail lounge (retold famously in "Piano Man") to massive stages in the U.S. and around the world, Schruers' text unwinds at an efficient clip through the decades, detailing musical and personal highs and lows.

The latter of which includes Joel having his first wife as manager, then hiring her brother after their divorce. Later, he would find that ex-brother-in-law had embezzled tens of millions of dollars from him.

The book also details his various romantic relationships, including "Uptown Girl"/second wife Christine Brinkley, and third (now ex-wife) Katie Lee Joel, who is 32 years his junior and barely older than daughter Alexa Ray. And then there are the struggles with alcohol and rehab; while Schruers doesn't neglect that part of Joel's life, he doesn't dig particularly deep either.

But there are plenty of tidbits of trivia and anecdotes, some familiar (but fleshed out) and some new.

Story continues on the next page.

 

Billy and the band originally wanted to leave the song "Just the Way You Are" off of The Stranger because they thought it too way too sappy for rock and rollers. That turned around when studio visitors and singers Linda Ronstadt and Phoebe Snow argued for its inclusion, a decision scores of wedding planners have no doubt applauded.

The love-it-or-hate-it genesis of history lesson "We Didn't Start the Fire," meanwhile, came from a conversation Joel had with Sean Lennon about generational differences. And eaders can also feast on details like the fact that for his half-hearted 1970 suicide attempt, Joel drank from a bottle of Old English Scratch Cover and not Lemon Pledge, as has been reported over the years.

But of course it is Joel's music that has made him one of the most beloved and enduring entertainers, despite the fact that he has only put out one original rock or pop song in more than two decades. A simple glance at the track list for The Essential Billy Joel is a reminder of just how many songs he's done that you know and love by heart.

He's still a huge draw on the concert stage, whether solo, with Elton John, or in his current extended residency at Madison Square Garden. And amazingly, Billy Joel has also seen a resurgence in popularity in recent years, beginning with a fiery set at the Hurricane Sandy 12.12.12 concert. It's fascinating to see what can happen to an artist's career if they survive long enough -- after decades of critical drubbing, suddenly it's cool to like Billy Joel.

While it could have benefited from a music nerd's need of more page count about the writing and recording of his albums, The Definitive Biography will likely end up as the most complete tome on the Bard of Long Island, with the most access to its subject.

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