Is Billy Joel Cool?

By Christopher John Campion
Fred Schruers Mark Hanauer

“Billy Joel”
Fred Schruers
Crown Archetype, $29

Well, is he? Ask yourself. We know he’s brilliant, his contribution to the great American pop songbook formidable, but that’s not what I’m asking. Is he cool? In 1980 the 14-year-old me attending Finley Junior High School in Huntington decided, rather rashly, that he wasn’t. I mean, right next to a Stones tongue and the Who boastfully displayed in Magic Marker on your blue canvas Mead notebook, did you have Billy Joel represented anywhere? My guess is you didn’t.

I chose Lou Reed for my regional rock ’n’ roll hero. The finalists were Lou and Blue Oyster Cult. I’m gonna go ahead and give Eddie Money an honorable mention here too. He had a certain cockeyed Bell’s palsy charm, but, truthfully, he was never in the running.

Lou was the guy who gave me “Island pride” as it pertained to rock ’n’ roll. After all, he was from not too far away in Freeport, had moved into the city and conquered the downtown avant-garde music/art scene, Warhol and all, and had gone global from there in uncompromising fashion, never once pandering to a pop audience. That is the definition of cool.

Both solo and with the Velvet Underground, Lou’s songs were a deft surveillance of fringe characters and rhapsodic odes to a life beyond picket fences on the “wild side,” which is where I wanted to be. The edgiest Billy Joel ever got was an FM radio tune called “Captain Jack,” a lyric that spoke to suburban teen boredom and referenced smoking weed and wanking — a startlingly irreverent turn within the verse, admittedly, but a little too close to my actual reality at the time.

As it is for a lot of people, rock ’n’ roll has always been an escapist game for me. I wanted my music served up by demigods like Ziggy Stardust, not some guy I might bump into while he’s buying a case of Bud Light at the deli. So I rejected Billy Joel and his music with no intention of ever seriously revisiting the idea of either of them.

But as the years wore on, and the cowardice of teen peer pressure and its resultant trappings wore off, my view of Billy Joel slowly changed. I’d find myself lingering under a supermarket speaker with a loaf of bread dangling from my hand listening to the rest of “Just the Way You Are,” or pegging the car radio when “You May Be Right” came on.

So without ever really being conscious of it I became somewhat of a Billy Joel appreciator, but still not fervent enough to buy an album or call myself a fan. Then came this assignment to read and review the new Fred Schruers book, “Billy Joel: The Definitive Biography,” and the damnedest thing happened. I realized I am a fan.

The book is culled from over a hundred hours’ worth of interviews with Billy himself and members of his inner circle, both past and present, among them his ex-wives’ club led by Christie Brinkley, band members such as Liberty DeVitto, the estranged drummer, roadies, close friends, bigwig record execs, producers, etc.

Interspersing these accounts into the story, Mr. Schruers takes the reader on a blow-by-blow of Billy’s extraordinary life, starting with his humble working-class origin in Hicks­ville/Levittown, Long Island (a hotly disputed border question as to which town he’s actually from), through his struggles and various screwings by way of the dirty game that was the 1970s music business, into his turbo-touring schedule and meteoric rise to rock stardom and subsequent stadium stages, in and out of his various marriages and relationships (some more lasting and potent than others, including a tryst with a 19-year-old Elle Macpherson), then more music business treachery in the early ’90s (this time orchestrated by his two-faced shyster manager, costing him millions), and finally touching down at the present moment of Billy’s doing his monthly residency at Madison Square Garden.

As an effective device within this, Mr. Schruers uses the lyrics to many of Mr. Joel’s popular songs as tent poles through his life and career, spilling them onto the page in verse form and providing back story as to what spawned them — ultimately deferring to Billy to explain his inspiration and process for writing and recording them. If you’re a Billy Joel fan, you’ll be slurping all that up with a spork, and if you’re not it still makes for nice seasoning to his story.

It became plainly obvious to me early on that Fred Schruers and Billy Joel are friends and that he’s a big fan of Mr. Joel’s work. My Spidey senses also tell me that’s why he got the gig in the first place. Billy obviously trusted that he wouldn’t stick a shiv in his back or dish on him in any way that might not be flattering, and he doesn’t.

In return for that loyalty he got his full authorization and participation in the book. He also provides Mr. Joel with a rebuttal platform for all his newsworthy mishaps, such as his questionable driving record, his reputed drinking exploits, his well-publicized contentiousness with his fellow ivory tickler and arena co-headliner Sir Elton John, and so on and so forth. For those who like salacious stories about celebrities and don’t really care if there’s any truth to them, this isn’t the book for you, but for my money I like getting the straight dope, and that’s what you get here.

The way this book reads, you get to hang out with Billy Joel for 350-plus pages as he recounts his life and times. He and his cohorts have plenty of authentic tales to tell to keep the balloon from hitting the ground (including one about doing “SNL” back in ’78 that I won’t give away here but just loved).

The way Mr. Schruers sets it up, it feels as if Billy’s talking right to you on the next barstool, and he makes for good company. He’s a really funny fuck, as it turns out, very self-deprecating, and not at all impressed with himself (and let’s face it, he easily could be). There are prime examples of this throughout the book, but one of my favorites is, when asked if “Only the Good Die Young” was anti-Catholic, he replied, “No, it’s pro-lust.”

Another quip of his I liked: He was giving an inspirational speech to an auditorium full of UConn students in 2012 and imparted to them, very simply, that there was no magic bullet for success and that it was merely the end product of hard work. He then tagged it by saying, “Look at me, do I look like a rock star? No, I look like a guy who makes pizza.”

The first thought I had when I finished “Billy Joel: The Definitive Biography” was that I gotta grab the missus and get our asses over to the Garden, pronto, while he’s still doing that gig. I think in the years to come it’ll be important that we all took in one of those shows. The way I see it, he’s the Piano Man, and there’s only one! We might not get another.

So I’ll return to the original question: Is Billy Joel cool? Shit, yeah, he’s cool. So is the book.

Christopher John Campion is the author of “Escape From Bellevue: A Dive Bar Odyssey,” published by Penguin-Gotham.

Billy Joel lives in Sag Harbor.

Not exactly an intimate setting: Billy Joel seen rocking Shea Stadium back before its 2009 demolition. Since January 2014 he’s had a monthly gig at Madison Square Garden. Kevin Mazur