Ahead of a long-awaited concert in Dublin next summer, the singer talks to Barry Egan about the impact of his father walking out when he was a child, anti-Semitism and his four wives.
Billy Joel rides his motorbike up the main street in Oyster Bay, Long Island and gets off at his vintage motorbike shop, where yours truly is waiting to meet the goatee’d superstar at the appointed hour. The 33-hit wonder — over 150 million albums sold, six Grammys, global super-stardom, unimaginable wealth — doesn’t so much as give a handshake as a handshake and hug. Legend has it that Billy and Bono got lost in Sag Harbor in the Hamptons not so long ago on one of his motorbikes. “So Bono was renting a house somewhere in North Haven. But it is a big area. So, I said, ‘I’ll take you home’. We were at the American hotel in the middle of Sag Harbor just shooting the breeze. I said, ‘I’ll take you home in this’,” Joel says pointing to the by now famous green Vespa in his bike shop.
“He puts on a helmet and jumps in the side-car, and we go to North Haven. So, I say, ‘Where’s the house?’ He says, ‘I don’t know’. I say, ‘Can you kind of describe how to get there?’ He says, ‘You can see the water and there’s a lot of trees.’ I say, ‘Everyone’s house on North Haven has that!’ So, we drove our way around and we’d stop and we’d see people walking. ‘Hi. Can you tell us where we might find the house that kind of looks like this?’ They would look at us,” Joel does the face of someone who has just seen two of the most famous rock stars in the world on a motorbike together looking for directions on a sandy back road. “We kept going. It took us about an hour, but we found Bono’s house in the end ...”
Billy’s house is on the opposite side of the bay. (He sold his other house to Jerry Seinfeld for $32m and his penthouse in Manhattan for $5m to Sting.) He says he thinks all the time about where he came from, 15 miles south of here in Hicksville, “in a tiny two-bedroom home”. He once took his daughter Alexa Ray Joel — by ex-wife, supermodel Christie Brinkley — to see the house he grew up in.
‘‘Daddy, you were poor,” she told him. To which, he replied: “We weren’t poor. We just didn’t have any money.’’
“Poor is when you are in debt and you are starving,” he explains now. “We were just threadbare.”
Billy and I are sitting at a desk in his vintage bike shop-cum museum. “That’s my wife,” Billy says introducing the heavily pregnant Alexis Roderick, whom he started dating in 2009 and got married to at his Oyster Bay mansion on July 4, 2015. She has just arrived with their two-year daughter Della Rose and a little dog, Jack. “We are due next month.”
So you want to go from not sleeping that much to never sleeping at all, I say to him.
“This one is pretty good,” he says, referring to Della Rose. “She sleeps through the night. I hope the next one will.” His doting wife offers him an apple, raspberries and cinnamon treat. I ask Alexis Roderick is her daughter into Peppa Pig and Paw Patrol. “Not really. She is out all day long. So, she is not really watching a lot of TV. I’m sure she will soon enough!”
Born William Martin Joel on May 9, 1949, Billy had two Jewish parents — Howard and Rosalind — but “had no religious upbringing in the Jewish religion. When I was a little boy everyone in my neighbourhood was pretty much Catholic — Irish, Polish or Italian. So everybody went to Mass on Sundays”.
When Billy was a little kid, he’d see his friends going to church right down the street from where he lived. He thought to himself, as he remembers, ‘‘If that’s where everyone is going, that’s where I’ll go. So I went to Mass for a couple of years. Not on a regular basis but whenever I saw my friends walking down the street, I’d go with them.”
Is it true that some girl said to him as a child that he would grow horns?
“She was Catholic. She lived across the street. I can’t remember what her name was. When I was a little older, she said to me: ‘You’re Jewish. That means you are going to grow horns’. I was maybe five or six.’’
I ask him how he felt hearing anti-Semitism from a little girl.
“For a couple of months, I kept feeling for them,” he says, meaning the horns he was supposed to grow because of his religion. Little Billy went and talked to his mother. ‘‘‘Mom? Am I going to have horns?’ ‘Why do you say that? ‘Well, the girl said that I am Jewish and I am going to have horns!’ ‘She doesn’t know what she’s talking about!’ That was the end of that.” Only it wasn’t. Then, the ever-curious Billy Joel went to a Protestant church when he was about 11 and, he recalls, “got baptised in The Church of Christ, which is an evangelical church. I went to that church for about a year or so”.
This is until one day, “the minister for some reason rolls a dollar bill and he says, ‘This is the flag of the Jews’. And I said: ‘Wait a minute. I’ve come full circle here. F**k this’. And I left. And I never went back.”
Billy had a similar experience of abrupt departures when he was eight years of age and his father Howard Joel left the family home in Long Island and returned to his native Europe, never to return. “They weren’t getting along. He was hardly ever around when I was really young,” he says. “He had business trips and he came back from one and they didn’t get on very well.
‘‘It wasn’t fun. My mom was lonely. So, when he came back that one time and it wasn’t working at all, he left. They decided to get divorced. Actually, my sister and I were kind of relieved because there wasn’t going to be any more fighting.”
Howard went back to Europe. “I never heard from him again,’’ Joel says, “until I went and found him in Europe when I was in my 20s”.
He says that his father had “had a rough life,” — meaning that he didn’t blame his father for leaving him, his sister and mother. “He was a Jewish kid in Germany in the 1930s. His father had a successful business, a textile factory. They lived right next to the parade ground where the Nuremberg Rallies were.
“So I can imagine my dad being a young kid,” he says. “I heard in my childhood, ‘You’re going to get horns’ — he probably got a lot worse than that. They had to leave, to flee the country, after Kristallnacht in 1938. They got to Switzerland. They made it to England. They got a boat. The boat wouldn’t take them to America, though. There was a quota. They couldn’t get in. They had to go to Cuba first. They lived in Cuba for a few years. Forever after that, he was always in love with Cuban women,” Billy says. “My mother’s family was from England.”
Billy grew up without a father. “My role model would have been my maternal grandfather,” he says. “He was a student of Bertrand Russell. My grandfather was the smartest man I ever knew.”
What would he think of what was happening in America now?
“Probably not a lot different than what was happening in America back then,” says Joel, who wore a yellow Star of David on his jacket for the encore of his show in August in New York in silent protest at the Trump-worshipping white nationalists and neo-Nazis who turned violent in Charlottesville. “There was a lot of bigotry. There still is. A lot of ignorance.”
I ask Joel is it true that once when he was driving by Donald Trump’s house in Florida on his motorbike, he gave the house the two fingers.
“I do that all the time,” he says casually. “It is probably on film somewhere. I’m sure they’ve got cameras all over the place. I’m not a fan. I think he’s got a pretty thin skin. I don’t think he is very happy in the job. I don’t know what he’s doing there. And neither does he.”
At Joel’s show the following night at Madison Square Garden for his monthly residency, it is clear that — whatever about Trump — he knows exactly what he is doing.
In front of 21,000 fans, Joel performed a rapturous show. It included Joel performing The Boxer and Late in the Evening with Paul Simon, followed by New York State of Mind with Miley Cyrus (gold lame slacks, stilettos and a 1970s Joel T-shirt) before the trio team up for You May Be Right.
Watching him perform, I was struck by a comment Joel made to me the previous night: that he doesn’t think he is a great songwriter. “I’m okay,” he said. “If I looked at all the songs I wrote, I probably approved of half to two-thirds of them.”
Joel once said he hasn’t forgiven himself for not being Beethoven. Has he finally forgiven himself after 150 million records sold? “No. But it is okay. That is my cross to bear. I listen to Beethoven all the time and it kills me in a good way. It moves me. It is so well written.”
You could say that for most of Billy Joel’s songs — from the aforesaid Allentown to She’s Always A Woman, to My Life, Movin’ Out, and We Didn’t Start The Fire, to New York State Of Mind, Tell Her About It, The River Of Dreams, and Only The Good Die Young.
He half-jokingly describes himself as “looking like the guy who makes the pizza”, and recalls how he wooed world-famous model Christie Brinkley at the piano of a hotel in St Barts in the early 1980s.
He sang The Girl from Ipanema to her (and Elle Macpherson, another ex of Joel’s) at the piano while a young Whitney Houston wanted to sing too.
He just-as-jokingly described himself as “kind of like” Henry VIII. Unlike the former King of England in the 16th century, King Bill of Oyster Bay has remained “friends” with his three ex-wives: Elizabeth Weber, 1973 to 1982 (she manages the career of Billy’s half-brother Alexander Joel, a classical conductor in Europe); Ms Brinkley, 1985 to 1994 (they have a grown-up daughter Alexa); and Katie Lee, 2004 to 2010. “I think that (being friends with your ex-wives) is a good thing.”
Joel had said earlier that his parents “both put each other through s***”, before they divorced. There was no one person to blame.”
Did he bring that philosophy to his marriages? There is no point in staying miserable for the sake of being married?
“No. Sometimes I stayed miserable much longer than I should have! Just to try to make it work. Because I don’t like to give up. But there comes a time when you’ve got to realise that this is not working, this is not good. And it is not somebody’s fault — it is just the way things are. You know? I don’t know what kind of philosophy that is. Why do people think they need something to blame? I don’t assign blame.”
Someone who Joel blamed initially but years later forgave was his one-time brother-in-law and former manager, Frank Weber; after litigation that in which Joel, according to New Yorker magazine, “ultimately received settlements that amounted to roughly £9m”.
It was better to forgive that to spend years being eaten up, I say.
“That will eat you up like cancer. I have done well out of life. You have to move on.”
I ask him what he does for fun? “I hang out with her,” he says pointing to baby Della Rose, “and watch her little wheels spin. And she’s a hoot. She’s a funny kid. She loves to laugh. I like to make her laugh.” He says he is looking forward to playing the Aviva Stadium in Dublin next summer. “She is coming with me. She has Irish roots.’’
“I have Irish in me,’’ Alexis Roderick says, “it is my grandmother’s father who is Irish. My mom’s maiden name is Bridges.”
He says a misconception about him is that he’s prone to depression. ‘‘Everybody is prone to depression! If it is bad enough, you get depressed. But I don’t live a depressed life.”
What does he watch on TV? “I watch the History Channel. What do we say,” he says, directing the question to his wife, “A day without Hitler is a day without sunshine?”
“We also watch The Crown!” Alexis Roderick adds.
“I like The Tudors!” Joel chips in. “Castle movies. I can’t watch the news any more. That makes me depressed.”
Somewhere Donald Trump is getting the two fingers from a certain Long Island superstar.