Searching for the Piano Man: A Brief Early Interview with Billy Joel

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200px-The_Hassles
Billy Joel (far left) with the Hassles in the late 1960s.

Right after I heard Billy Joel’s Piano Man album for the first time, I phoned a representative of his record company. “Who is this guy?” I asked. “Is he available for interviews?” My contact at the Columbia label promised to get back to me.

Over the next few weeks, while waiting to hear about a possible interview, I kept listening to the LP. Its fine melodies and poignant, powerfully delivered lyrics impressed me more each time I played the record. And as my enthusiasm for the album’s contents increased, I became increasingly eager to discuss the songs with their composer. But Columbia didn’t get in touch and, when I recontacted the rep I’d spoken with earlier, he found a variety of ways to say, “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.”

I’d almost forgotten about the proposed interview when the Columbia publicity man did finally phone. If I could come to New York City right away, I was told, Billy would speak with me between shows during his engagement at Max’s Kansas City.

Having taken a three-hour bus ride into Manhattan, I called Max’s to confirm the arrangement and was informed that the show had been cancelled. Billy had tonsillitis, I learned, and an operation was imminent. I left town with an empty reel of tape.

A month passed and my hopes of an interview again diminished. First, Billy was “recovering”; then he was “hard to track down” or simply “unavailable at present”; finally, all I could get from Columbia was “if anything comes up, we’ll let you know.”

I was beginning to wonder whether Billy Joel even existed. Didn’t the name sound like a pseudonym? And hadn’t record companies been known to create saleable personas (e.g. the Archies) with the anonymous help of studio musicians?

As I began to ponder the possibilities, the Columbia publicist phoned to tell me that I could reach Billy on the following Tuesday at a certain Holiday Inn near Akron, Ohio. But when I placed the call, the hotel’s desk clerk insisted that nobody named “Joel” was registered.

Having carried my search this far, I decided to make one last call to Columbia; and when I did, the label’s New York publicist got California on another line while I hung on. Then people on both ends of the continent began speculating on the whereabouts of a piano man rumored to be on the road somewhere in the Midwest.

Their consensus was that if I immediately contacted another Holiday Inn on the outskirts of Akron, I might reach Billy just as he was coming or going. I wondered whether their suggestion might be just a tactic to keep me busy while they concocted a new disease for their alleged performer. But I had nothing to lose, so I dialed the number.

“Sorry,” said the man who answered the phone at this second hotel. “No Billy Joel here.” Then: “Wait a minute, is that a rock musician you wanted? Some people have come into the lobby . . .” Billy Joel, on the line after a moment, explained that he’d just arrived at the hotel, and he asked me to phone him back a bit later in his room.

While I waited, I rescanned his brief Columbia bio. I read that he’d once played with the Long Island band the Hassles, and that he and the group’s drummer later gigged and recorded as a duo. After they split up, Billy quit performing for a time; he tried factory work and rock journalism before beginning his career as a solo artist. He had since released two LPs, Cold Spring Harbor and the new Piano Man.

When Billy and I finally began our talk, I started probing for the feelings and experiences behind those bare facts. What, for instance, were his impressions of life on Long Island and his membership in the Hassles? “Umm, well, I’m from Hicksville,” he replied. “And, uh, the Hassles . . . just a typical Long Island band, you know.”

Silence.

Was he glad to have a hit single after so many years of working in relative obscurity? “Nah, I don’t care about singles. You know, it doesn’t mean much to hear you’ve got a song on the charts after you’ve been playing for 10 years. I just care about developing my music.”

In what way? “Oh, you know, just experimenting, taking it as far as I can.”

Another pause. I decided to try focusing on the music itself and posed a question about “Captain Jack,” a song on the new LP.

“That’s just a composite picture. Uh, you know, I don’t want to restrict it by talking about it.”

“Listen,” Billy added, after an awkward moment, “I wish I could be of more help. But you know, I just don’t talk all that much. I’m a pretty quiet person. Really, I think I’m kind of dull.”

:But your songs aren’t dull,” I countered. “Obviously you’ve got quite a few ideas in your head.”

“Well, yeah. Yeah, I guess I do. But I try to put them all into my songs.

 

 

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