Billy Joel: The Definitive Biography by Fred Schruers

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’ve been listening to Billy Joel my whole life. And now I force my kids to listen to him when we’re in the car. It brings a smile to my face when I hear them walking through the house singing, “I a-a-am an innocent ma-a-a-an. Oh, yes I am…”.

My favourite has always been “Piano Man“. I’ve been belting out all the words to this one since I was little. It’s one of the very few songs that make me wish I had a karaoke machine. I think it’s safe to blame this on my parents.

So, when I saw that this book was coming out, I was a happy girl, even though I so rarely read biographies. Of course, the first thing I did was look at all the pictures. Especially the old ones with the fluffy hair. That’s the way he looked when I first ‘got to know’ him.

I think it’s important to point out here that I was never the kind of fan that had to know everything about him (I’m not like that with anyone). I just liked listening to his music. So, going into this book, the only things I knew about him were; his songs (but not the origins), that he used to be married to Christie Brinkley (because who doesn’t know that?), and that they have a daughter named Alexa.

Here are 25 more things I learned about Billy Joel: (I cut it down as much as I could, I really did.)

1. William Martin Joel was born in the Bronx in May, 1949, but grew up in Long Island.

2. Billy Joel’s family came from Nuremberg, where they operated a textile industry that they lost to the Nazis. They fled their homeland, and came to America.

3. I knew Billy (let’s just call him Billy) was a boxer, but I didn’t know that the reason he first took up boxing was because he was consistently teased on his way to piano lessons when he was a boy. The woman who taught piano also taught ballet.

4. Billy’s older sister, Judy, is actually his cousin whom they adopted when she was 2-years-old.

5. Patti-Lee Berridge, his first love, was his muse for Keeping the Faith“. (Yes, her hair is red.) Patti-Lee went on to become a chiropractor.

6. Billy attempted suicide as a result of the turmoil caused by the love triangle between himself, Jon Small (his friend and fellow musician), and Jon’s wife Elizabeth, who went on to become Billy’s first wife. His suicide note became “Tomorrow is Today“.

7. “She’s Got a Way“, “You’re My Home” and “She’s Always A Woman” were written for Elizabeth. Said about “You’re My Home“: “Corny but true; I was broke at the time, so I wrote this for my wife as a Valentine’s Day gift.”

8. “New York State of Mind was inspired by his move back to New York from LA, in 1975. “This is where I belong.”

9. Working as a piano bar crooner for 6 months led him to write “Piano Man“. (This is a more recent recording, performed live. Should be watched, but ignore the sweat.)

10. “Just the Way You Are” was written for Elizabeth’s birthday, but he didn’t want to put it on the album at first because he thought it was “too gushy”. Here’s a more recent recording.

I also don’t think a love song is effective unless there’s an element of anxiety in it, and an undercurrent of darkness. Love is not all glitter and wonderfulness and clouds and happiness forever…

11. Billy missed his 10th High School reunion to perform “Only the Good Die Young” on Saturday Night Live in February 1978.

12. Weird Al Yankovic sang a parody of “It’s Still Rock ‘n Roll To Me” as “It’s Still Billy Joel To Me”.

13. Billy was in a serious motorcycle accident in 1982 that did extensive damage to his hand.

14. “An Innocent Man” album was conceived as a tribute to Christie Brinkley. “I was feeling like a teenager again…”

15. Billy and Christie were both in the video for “Uptown Girl“, even though “Billy had, in fact, despised (and would continue to despise) every video he ever made”. (After watching all these videos, I’m relieved to hear it.)

16. Alexa Ray Joel (Ray for Ray Charles) was born December 29th, 1985.

Whatever your talent, whatever your career, your focus on everything shifts when you have a kid.

17. Billy has a half brother named Alexander Joel, who is a successful musical conductor in London, England.

18. “We Didn’t Start the Fire” came out of a conversation with Sean Lennon about all the troubles going on in the news and his belief that it is worse than it ever was. This song is Billy’s response to that. “Oh, man, we all thought that, too, when we were young…”. (My kids love this one.)

19. “What happened when I got to “The River of Dreams” was that I had begun to reaffirm an underlying faith in myself that I had lost.” (They love this one, too.)

20. “Lullabye (Goodnight, My Angel)” came about when Alexa asked him one night what happens when people die. The lullabye has elements of his mother’s lullabye to him.

21. Billy Joel was inducted, by Ray Charles, into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in March, 1999.

22. After marrying his third wife, Katie Lee, Billy checked himself into the Betty Ford for a month, hoping that it would help him gain some control over his alcohol consumption.

I felt as if the other people in the room were looking at me like, Well of course he’s an alcoholic – he’s a rock star. And I didn’t blame them. I was just another one of those people I used to make fun of. I always used to think, when I heard their stories, Oh my God, what a jerk. How can you blow a life like that?

23. In 2006, Billy wrote “All My Life for Katie Lee. I didn’t know this one until now.

24. Designing motorcycles is one of Billy’s passions.

25. For as long as his health allows, and as long as there is demand for it, Billy Joel will be playing once a month at Madison Square Gardens. Who wants to take me? I hope he can hold out until I can make it. It might be a while.

There is also a lot of content in the book about the music industry, people Billy worked with over the years, his financial struggles, the fall-out he had with his long time manager and the legal struggle that followed. But, for me, the best parts of the book were learning about his background and the origins of all his songs. Now that I know where they’re coming from, I can appreciate them a whole lot more. I would also be interested in hearing his classical album, Fantasies and Delusions.

Reading this book and writing this post has taken me on a happy trip down memory lane. I hope you had fun watching at least a couple of the videos from the links I provided. What are your favourite Billy Joel songs?

I’m going to leave you with a few quotes from Billy Joel, himself, that give us a sense of who he is:

I start with a melody, a chord pattern, and a rhythm, and then I try to decode what’s in the music. What is it saying? What was my motivation for writing it? What’s the emotion?

… basically, I write for myself – for my own amusement, and with the thought, What do I want to hear?

I think I’m a little bit of an iconoclast. When something becomes too politically correct, I want to go against the grain.

I’m supposed to be known for these love songs, these ballads, or these crooner type of tunes. And I suppose I should explore where does that shit come from– ‘An Innocent Man’, ‘She’s Got A Way’, ‘Just The Way You Are’, You’re My Home’, some of them frigging wimpoid. Well, where they come from is, I’ve been madly in love with women all my life.

You can have all the money in the world, you can have mansions, you can have properties, you can have yachts, you can have limousines, you can have motorcycles. Without the right girl, it doesn’t mean a goddamn thing.

… I don’t think you’ve lived unless you have regrets. I don’t think you’ve had that experience without them, where you can say honestly, when you’re ready to kick, hey, I lived. Good Lord, man, what a life I’ve lived.

If I don’t think I’m any good… I’m going to stop doing it. It has to be fun. You have to feel good about it.

… I am glad that the music I’ve created over the past four-plus decades is an important part of a lot of people’s lives. And I hope it lasts at least another four. I’m assuming some of my music will survive, either as I recorded it or in some other form. I don’t look to that as a consolation, though. For me, I see it as a justification for my having existed in the first place. You’ve created something, you’ve had an impact on your time. I don’t know why that is so important to me, but it is.

*Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest opinion.

15 thoughts on “Billy Joel: The Definitive Biography by Fred Schruers

  1. The Paperback Princess says:

    I don’t know anything about Billy Joel! I liked reading your list of things to know about Billy Joel. Sometimes I shy away from music bios because they can get a little technical with the music but this one sounds like it strikes a good balance. I didn’t know he still gives a show every month in NYC. That’s definitely bucket list worthy! I hope you get to go one day!

    • Naomi says:

      I rarely read bios of anyone! I guess that tells you how much I like him. 🙂 It took me longer to read than a novel, because that’s the way it is with me and non-fiction, but it definitely kept my interest. I hope I get to go, too, but I’m not holding my breath.

      • Naomi says:

        There was SO much information, but I got out of it what I wanted; a much deeper appreciation of his life and his music. Not that he was a saint or anything, but what I like about him is that he is so normal, so flawed, but also very talented. Like most people. 🙂

  2. Lynn says:

    i really like Billy Joel’s music, too, though I don’t listen to that type of music very often. (I typically prefer instrumental music, few lyrics…) really enjoyed your post! I totally understand about winnowing it down to only 25!! Thank you for sharing!

  3. My Book Strings says:

    I think my favorites are Only the Good Die Young and Piano Man. I like his songs because they are the kind of grown-up music that is safe to play for little kids. I especially like when they don’t get the words right and sing something adorably wrong instead. 🙂

    • Naomi says:

      Haha! Yes, my kids have done that a lot, too. And, you’re right, there aren’t too many shocking things in his music. When my kids are listening, I do still cringe at “making love to his tonic and gin”, because I’m afraid they’ll ask me what he’s saying. But they never have, and, come to think of it, I never did either.

  4. artourway says:

    I have been listening to him for the last month here. Greatest hits … Love Billy! May the peace and beauty of the season remain with you throughout this coming year. Got that from my first Christmas card, from one of my best, Girl Friends Naomi … c

  5. ebookclassics says:

    I love Billy Joel! My fave is “It’s Still Rock and Roll To Me” and I had no idea there was a Weird Al parody.

    • Naomi says:

      Yay! Someone else who loves him! When I decided to read this, I was very curious to find out how many others were out there. I was starting to think it was just me. 🙂 Some of his old videos are hilarious to watch!

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