July 20, 2024

LetsTalk: the Tragedy of Billy Joel and why he excused himself from the songwriting business 28 years ago

Billy Joel has been asked countless times why he doesn’t write songs anymore, and his stock answer has always been the same. “It was time.” “Songwriting is hard.” “My standards for myself were too high.” And being the criminally charming man he is, nobody I’ve ever seen has dared question him any further.

Then I came across this interview in Vulture from 2018. And as far as I can tell, it’s the only time someone has really pushed him for a proper answer. It’s super ballsy. But ultimately it makes me feel weirdly sad for a guy who packs out Madison Square Garden for a day job.

here was a time when you thought your future might involve writing songs but not performing. Is it surprising that the opposite happened?

In retrospect there is an irony there. When I stopped writing songs — it was time. I couldn’t be as good as I wanted and that was driving me crazy. I was driving my loved ones crazy. I thought, this is ridiculous. So I stopped. But the performing, what else am I going to do? I talked to Bruce [Springsteen] about this. I talked to Sting and [Don] Henley: “Why are you still doing it?” They all had the same answer.

Which is what?

“That’s what I do.” But I made a lifetime out of it when I thought maybe I’d have a couple years, so I’m not complaining.

Those other guys still write songs. You don’t. What does that say about your relationship to making music compared to theirs?

Like I said, I couldn’t be as good as I wanted to be. I was always trying to feel like there was a real progression in my work, and eventually I realized I was only going to be X good. Because of that I knew I was going to beat myself up for not being better. So I stopped. That’s it.

Were your expectations for yourself realistic?

Well, I don’t know. But the business changed, too. Albums weren’t meaning what they used to mean in the marketplace. I grew up in the era where an album had to be substantial. It couldn’t be throwaway Christmas shit like Elvis used to do. Then the business changed. The last album I did, River of Dreams, was as good and maybe better than a lot of other albums that I had made, but it got no airplay.

What do you mean? “The River of Dreams” was a hit single.Yeah, that one song was a hit, but nothing else on the album did anything.

Didn’t that album sell millions of copies?The thing was, I put a lot of work into River of Dreams and it was as if the business had left me behind because there are substantial songs on that album that never went anywhere. So I said, “What’s the point of putting myself through writing and recording if it doesn’t mean what it’s supposed to mean out there in the world?”

So your motivation to write new music was about external validation?

You work so hard on your stuff and you want people to hear it. If it doesn’t get exposure — the nature of the album format is for that album to get disseminated and River of Dreams didn’t.

You’re crazy. How many more copies would River of Dreams have had to sell or singles would’ve needed to hit for you to keep going?

I don’t know. I just had higher expectations for it. Then the record company came in and said, “Okay, what’s your next album going to be?” And I went, “No, that’s it.”

You knew you were done 25 years ago?

I suppose inherently. The last song on River of Dreams is “Famous Last Words.” I’d realized that if a song wasn’t a hit single it didn’t matter, and I didn’t want to go in that direction. And look, it’s one thing if you own your recordings. I don’t. There was supposed to be a reversal of copyright back to me in 2013. Well, the record company dug in and got their battery of lawyers and we never got the stuff back. So I still don’t own my recordings. People wonder why there’ve been so many Billy Joel live albums and compilations. They’re not my idea. The record company owns all these recordings and can package them any way they want. As far as I’m concerned, I did 12 studio albums. The live crap and all these compilations — they don’t mean anything.

Songs in the Attic is a great live album, though.

Yeah, that’s one where I wanted it to be a certain thing and it was. And the first and second greatest-hits compilation — that was my idea. But after that it was all redundant crap.

So how much of your decision to stop recording was a fuck you to the music business?

I don’t know if any of it was that. Certain composers only have so much productivity in them. Mozart wrote more than 40 symphonies; Beethoven wrote 9. That difference doesn’t mean one guy was better than the other. And I always looked at the Beatles as a template. They did 12 studio albums. By the time I got to my 12th album, I didn’t think the quality trajectory was going to continue to go up. And I was more interested in other music.

In case that didn’t sufficiently bum you out, here are the final lyrics to the final song on Billy Joel’s final album.

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