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Billy Joel

The Piano Man on his new tour with Elton and jamming with McCartney

Austin Scaggs Apr 20, 2009
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Despite the recession, the fifth edition of Billy Joel and Elton John’s Face2Face Tour (which kicked off on March 2) is selling strongly ”“ so much so that they’ve added dates to take the jaunt into August. “We haven’t toured together since 2003, and I’m excited,” says Joel from his winter home in Miami. “Getting together with Elton and playing with his band is like taking on another identity.” On May 9, Joel will celebrate his 60th birthday with a family-and-crew dinner in Chicago. “Sixty is a scary number, but I’m still doing this wacky job,” says Joel, who will release a DVD later this year chronicling his historic two-night stand at Shea Stadium last July. “I’m probably not going to stop playing until I think I suck.”

What’s up?

I’m good. We just did a gig in Vegas, and we did some stupid private gig in Palm Springs. They’re like doing bar mitzvahs. They’re not fun, because it’s not your audience. I feel like a slut when I do them.

A well-compensated slut.

Yeah, you get paid like a really good call girl. Walking offstage is like the walk of shame.

Moving on, what’s the difference between your dressing room and Elton’s?

Mine is like the back of a deli. Give me some water, a couple of sodas and a cold-cut platter, and I’m good. Elton’s looks like the glory that was Rome. He has flowers, and the room is draped with all kinds of materials. There are boys in togas, like centurions. And he’s got dozens of pairs of shoes and beautiful jackets and sunglasses ”“ it’s like shopping at Bal Harbour.

What Elton songs do you look forward to playing every night?

”˜The Bitch Is Back,’ ”˜Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me’ and ”˜Bennie and the Jets.’ They’re great piano songs, and you can beat the living crap out of the piano with those songs.

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Do you think you are a better piano player now than you were 10 or 20 years ago?

No, I think I was a better player when I was 12. I could play Beethoven, Mozart and Chopin. I was really studious about my lessons. I certainly play as hard as I ever did, but rock & roll tends to make you a little bit sloppy. Technique isn’t that important in rock & roll, truthfully.

You once told me that your true love is the Hammond B3 organ. So why don’t you play it more often?

That’s my favourite axe. The problem is schlepping around a B3.

C’mon! You’re not schlepping anything!

I could get people to do it, for sure. The problem is that it only works on certain kinds of music ”“ blues, jazz, some rock & roll. If there’s a band that’s got a Hammond, I’ll jam with them.

When was the last time you did that?

About a year ago, at a party at Jon Bon Jovi’s house. Paul McCartney, Bruce, Jimmy Buffett and Roger Waters were all there, and we all got up and played a Pink Floyd tune, ”˜Wish You Were Here,’ and ”˜I Saw Her Standing There’ and ”˜Long Tall Sally.’

At your Shea Stadium shows last July, McCartney was an 11th-hour surprise. How did you rope him in?

I reached out to Paul before the gigs, but he had a scheduling conflict. Then he called my cellphone the day of the second show: “Hi, this is Paul.” I was like, “Paul Reiser?” He said he’d love to come to the show, but his flight was getting in late, and he’d probably miss it. Two-thirds of the way through the set, someone tells me, “The eagle has landed.” Right before our last song, he walked onstage with his Höfner bass and said, “What do you want to do?” We did ”˜I Saw Her Standing There,’ and he sang ”˜Let It Be.’ I just sat at the piano like a lump on a log watching Paul McCartney play Shea Stadium. It was poetry.

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At the Shea show, you called the Beatles “the best band that ever was.” Who rounds out your top five?

The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC ”“ still an ass-kicking band, to this day ”“ and the Who. I’d say Jimi Hendrix and Cream, but they were only around for a few years. You have to have service time to be in the top five.

That night, after playing ”˜My Generation’ with Roger Daltrey, you smashed a guitar. Have you destroyed instruments before?

I used to break piano strings, because my left hand is like a club. The strings on the bass part of the piano are very thick, and I used to hit the keys so hard I’d snap them.

That sounds dangerous.

Yeah! A couple of times the strings popped and flew right by my head. They could have blinded me, so I started taping those strings. I once broke my thumb in a motorcycle accident ”“ I haven’t been able to break strings ever since. I miss it.

Your daughter Alexa has started her own music career. What’s it like to watch her onstage?

When I watch her, I worry about the sound systems and monitors, but once she starts, I just start laughing. She’s very good. She did a tour of the States where she played some Podunk towns, and she said the places were awful. I said, “Good! That’s how you learn.” She knows how to play the piano, but she stays away from it, because she doesn’t want to be called the Piano Girl ”“ which I understand.

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