University of Miami students were treated to a night of questions, answers and some music by the legendary Billy Joel on March 5. Joel interacted with students, using his green laser pointer to call on audience members to ask questions. He sang hits like “Piano Man” and some lesser known songs like “Vienna,” and even brought a few fans on stage to sing with him.
Less than 2,000 tickets were handed out, so many students weren’t able to attend the event. However, The Miami Hurricane and WVUM got the chance to speak with Joel and talk about his career, who “Uptown Girl” is really about and what advice he would give to students.
The Miami Hurricane: You’ve done these college visits before. What do you like about the student audiences?
Billy Joel: When I was starting out, I was very young and there was really no reference for me to research about how to do my job. I was kind of stumbling along and making it up as I went along and made a lot of mistakes because of that. I wanted to be able to help people making the same mistakes I made. I made every mistake you can make in the music business and survived to tell the tale. And I have all this information on how to do the job that I don’t really get asked about by media. It’s usually students or people who want a career in the entertainment business. It’s really about the work, technical aspects of the work and some personal observations about the industry in general, rather than about my personal life. It’s kind of a way of paying back. I used to want to be a teacher and this is my way of doing it.
WVUM: You famously said, “I’m not going to Colombia University, I’m going to Columbia Records,” right before you dropped out of high school. Do you have any regrets on dropping out of high school and not attending college and do you advise those kids who are going into the industry now not to drop out of high school or to do so?
TMH: Is there any advice you have in particular for music students or students who want to get into the industry? Things they should do, shouldn’t do?
BJ: Well there are a lot of things they shouldn’t do and there’s lots of things they should do. It helps to have a specifc question asked about those kinds of things. For instance, what should I look out for when I sign a contract? Should I have some kind of legal representation? I would always advise them yes.
One of the things you should do is to have a lawyer represent you when you sign anything. And then when you get successful, you need to hire another lawyer to watch the first lawyer. It’s amazing how crooked a lot of the business is. Everybody’s got horror stories, especially from the early days, the ’50s and ’60s when nobody was really represented by attorneys. And it’s a very incestuous business. There’s a lot of conflicts of interests. People need to be educated about what their rights are, what their ownership should be. When it comes to song writing and publishing, I don’t know if people even know the difference between song rights and publishing rights.
There’s also the question of ownership of recordings. I don’t know if most people are aware, very very few recording artist actually own their own recordings if they’re signed with a record company. The first things a record company does when you sign a contract with them is they take ownership of the recordings. So for the rest of an artist’s life he won’t own his own records, he won’t own is own recordings. Very very few artists have been able to buy back their ownership. I’m still trying to do it. I don’t own my own recordings. Which is why people see “The Greatest Hits,” “The Ultimate Billy Joel,” “The Essential Collection.” I don’t do that. I hate those things. The record company does that. They have the right to do that according to their contract. Especially since I haven’t given them anything new since 1993 except for the piano album which was not exactly a commercial blockbuster for them. It has nothing to do with me, but there’s nothing I can do about it besides suing them, but I don’t want to get involved in another lawsuit. I’ve had plenty of those.
WVUM: Your daughter recently went into the music industry. When she told you, what was the first piece of advice that came to mind that you gave her and you could give some other aspiring artists out there?
BJ: I told her to take on as much as she could. I think it’s important that an artist knows how to do the job. There’s a whole lot of emphasis put on the creative part of it and the image and being politically correct and all that, but I don’t think there’s enough emphasis on the craft of it. There’s a lot of people who don’t really know how to sing. They don’t really know how to play. They don’t really know how to write. But they have a hit record and then they’ve gotta go out and perform it and they don’t know the first thing about it. It takes a long time to figure out how to do it. I’ve said this many, many times, but I don’t really think I’m all that good. I’m asked what’s the reason for my longevity or success and I said, “Look, I just think I’m competent at the gig. I know how to write, I know how to sing, I know how to play. But I’m not that good, I’m just competent.” But if you’re around in an era of incompetence, that makes you appear to be extraordinary. I just know how to do the job. I always just thought, “Well that’s what you’re supposed to do, right?” But there’s a lot of people who don’t know how to do it, and that kind of gives me an edge. And I told my daughter to just work as much as she can. Take the work, go travel, play all the dives and whatever gigs you can take. I tell people to play Sweet 16s, play weddings, bat mitzvahs, take any jobs you can get. Just play, play, play. The more you do it, the better you get at it.
TMH: You have a house in Miami. What is it about the city that you like?
BJ: Well number one, I like that they keep showing a picture of what’s supposed to be my house and it ain’t my house. I think it belongs to Lil Wayne or somebody because I can see that house from where I am, and I see boats go by on the weekend and everybody’s pointing at that house. And I think they’re looking for me because I see pictures of it in the paper. And I just gotta laugh – the poor guy who’s living there must be wondering what the hell is going on. But I’m glad that they’re doing that, because I’d rather not have people knowing where I live. I like Miami. I like this part of the States. It was in my late 50s that I’d kind of had it with the winter in New York. I used to be a winter guy and all of a sudden I didn’t like it any more. I played Miami many times. I thought, “Why don’t I just scope around and get a place down there?” and I found one.
TMH: And of course there’s a song with Miami in the title, right?
BJ: Yeah, it was sort of a self-fufilling prophecy that was written about the year 2017 and we’re only five years away and here I am, getting old and having a place in Miami. I suppose I kind of boxed myself in here, didn’t I?
WVUM: Can we expect a big concert in 2017 in Miami?
BJ: I don’t know, I wouldn’t hold my breath. At that age? In 2017, I will be 67 or 68 years old. Oh yeah, that’ll be a fun concert. I’ll be up there changing my Depends. I don’t know. I was better when I was younger. This is probably why I’ve turned to teaching more and more as I’ve gotten older. There is an athleticism to performance and I’ve kind of taken myself out of the lineup a bit.
WVUM: Along with being a good pianist, you were a good boxer. Is there anything in common between the two?
BJ: Well, I don’t think I’m a very good pianist. Thank you for the compliment, but I don’t think I’m all that good. And I was even a worse boxer. I was OK, but the last fight I had I was a much better boxer scientifically than the guy I was boxing with. I was landing 10 punches for every punch he was landing but all it took was one punch from him to like knock me out. This guy had a head made of rubber. I’m dancing, I’m hitting, I’m counter-punching, I’m like all over the guy. One swing, bang, I was down on the floor, and I said, “OK, I guess there’s always somebody better.” And that’s when I decided that boxing wasn’t going to be a career. I broke my nose, which is why I have this misshapen face that I do.
TMH: In addition to boxing, I’ve heard you collect motorcycles. Is that true?
BJ: I like to ride them. I guess I am a collector – I’ve got close to 70 motorcycles. It’s kind of sick. I have a shop up in Oyster Bay in Long Island called 20th Century Cycles. I actually get them to ride. My friends come and we take a whole bunch of bikes. I like fixing them up and working on them and customizing them. I’m kind of like Jay Leno on a smaller scale, I suppose.
WVUM: More to the music industry. Nowadays, when there’s a lot of autotune, a lot more electronic songs and now there’s the introduction of YouTube and iTunes, what do you think would be the best way for new aritists to utilize these new things that weren’t in place before?
BJ: Well, if you’ve gotta use autotune, you suck to begin with. If you can’t sing in pitch, don’t sing. Just get out. I suppose there are some recording artists out there who do use it. That just ain’t right. That’s kind of like lip syncing. Which we all do in videos. I remember Milli Vanilli being crucified because it wasn’t them singing on the record and I always thought Milli Vanilli died for our sin. Because we all lip sync on the videos. You feel like an idiot moving your lips.
YouTube is a great vehicle for aritsts. Didn’t Justin Bieber get discovered on YouTube? Social networking is a great tool. I don’t really know how to utilize that. I suppose you have to be somewhat telegenic, which I am not. So thank God I came up when I did because all you saw of the artists was tha album cover. The videos hit in the ’80s, when I had already had a career as a recording artist before that happened. But I always thought it somewhat diminished the music I did because you had to be diminished by what you look like. One of the good things that I thought about being a recording artist was that people didn’t really need to know what you looked like – they just had to know what you sound like. I was never going to be a movie star.
The downloading is easy access, but it cuts out a lot of other music. People are cherry picking songs and it cuts out a lot of albums. But I suppose that people aren’t really making albums the way they used to anyway. I came up in the era of what they called the album artist when you had to write at least nine or 10 songs on an album and they all had to be pretty good. The Beatles really defined the state of the art of the album, which meant every track you listened to was good and intriguing and kept your attention. Nowadays it seems that people don’t have the attention span that they used to have. They wanna hear the instant gratification hit and then move on to another artist who’s just got another hit. It’s almost become greatest hits art at this point.
That’s my cranky-old-man opinion of things.
TMH: So when you play for these college audiences it’s obviously a very different generation than what you started playing for. Is it odd to see them knowing these songs? Do they receive the music differently than when you started?
BJ: I’m always flabbergasted that people who are of college age are familiar with material. Some of them probably heard it from their parents, some probably discovered it on their own. I don’t know how. It only gets played on classic hits and the majority of my material was not hits. Most of my material was albums cuts, but I think that’s what gave a lot of depth to my career. I had a lot of other music that was not top 40 commercial hits, most of it was not. People found those things on their own. I mean I appreciate it, I’m really greatful that a new generation of people know my stuff. It always surprises me. I always get a lot of questions about specific songs that were not hits that were on albunm tracks that somebody had to dig to find them. It’s surprising to me, it is.
WVUM: Speaking of parents, my mom is a huge fan texting in questions. The one she keeps asking is – she wants to know after following your career all her life was “Uptown Girl” written for Christie Brinkley?BJ: Well, it started out in plural. It was originally called “Uptown Girls.” When I started to write it, I had gotten divorced from my first marriage and I was starting to date these model type of women. I was flabbergasted that I could actually date these beautiful girls, but they wanted to go out with me. I was dating Elle Macpherson, I was dating other models. They were kinda passing me around. I was the guy du jour at the time. I was just in this kinda blissful state and I starting writing “Uptown Girls,” but then I narrowed it down to one girl because she became the one, which was Christie.
TMH: You’ve mentioned that “Vienna” and “Summer” are your favorite songs to perform. Are they still and is it for any particular reason?
BJ: Well, they’re not necessarily the top two favorite. They’re among my favorite songs to perform. I prefer to play obscure songs that don’t get played a lot because I’ve played the hits so often they’ve become old. You’ve gotta imagine how many times I’ve done “Piano Man” or “Just The Way You Are” or “My Life” or “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” and on and on. Those are songs that have all become big successes on their own. They’re kind of like the kids I had that went on to become doctors, lawyers and Indian chiefs. You know, they don’t need dad anymore, they’re off on their own, they have got their own nice houses, they don’t call, I don’t see them. I like the kids who need a little bit more help, they still need dad, which are usually the obscure songs like “Summer Highland Falls” or “Vienna” or “So It Goes.” They’re not heard that much, not seen that much. They haven’t worn out on me.WVUM: Speaking of ”Piano Man,” it was your first commercial hit and it was one of the songs that defined you. You’re known across the world as piano man. But that’s more defining your career. Is there anything on a personal level that “Piano Man” defines for you?BJ: Well, it was a weird song to be considered a hit record. Number one, it was never a big sell record- it wasn’t a top 10 record. I don’t know if it was even a top 40 record. This is back in the day when FM radio DJs could play whatever they wanted. It was free form radio and people would call and request and the jockeys would spin those recordings, and “Piano Man” was one of those. People perceive it to be a big hit but it wasn’t, it just got a lot of air play.
I mean I never sat down and said im gonna write a hit record because I don’t know what that is. I wrote a song, it’s in 6/8 time, waltz, I think the original recording was 5:20 long, which is very difficult to get played on top 20 radio. They don’t like to play anthing longer than three minutes. It’s about a guy working in a bar with all these losers around him, everybody’s drunk in the song, it’s kinda dreary and it goes on and on and the melody repeats itself over and over again and the words are actually less lyrics than they are limericks. You know “John at the bar is a friend of mine, he gets me my drinks for free, he’s quick with a joke and a light of your smoke but there’s some place that he’d rather be.” It’s kind of like “There once was a girl from Nantucket…” They’re limericks and if you tried to explain that this is gonna be a hit record to anybody they’d say you’re out of your skull.
No, it just doesn’t fit the box. So what I like about it is that it’s idiosyncratic as a single. There really wasn’t a lot of hit singles like that. I suppose I got tagged as piano man, I mean I do play guitar, badly. I play the organ and harmonica but I don’t mind. It got me my Steinway, you know?TMH: So you get asked about “Piano Man,” “We Didn’t Start the Fire” a lot, but is there any song that you don’t get asked about that has a good story behind it?BJ: Most of them. Like I said, the ones that people know are the hits that everyones heard many times on different formats, especially classic rock radio. Theres a story to every song, but most people haven’t heard my entire catalogue. I think just recently Columbia Records released a boxed set of all the albums for some insane amount of money like $295 or something, which nobody can afford these days. But they are in the original format. They’re not on a greatest hits compilation, not on a live album. It’s not the “Essential Billy’s Greatest Hits” junk. It’s the original album that all these songs are on and I prefer that format to anything because that’s how they were written and that’s how I meant them to be heard in the first place.
WVUM: Looking at the top 40 today and comparing the artists right now who are just coming out to your own, which are you most inspired by? Which of the rising stars do you really see going far?
BJ: I’m not all that familiar with who’s up and coming because I rarely listen to pop radio. I listen to classical radio or classical music. I’m not all that interested in pop music anymore. I mean the ones I’m interested in are already established like Adele or Lady Gaga. I think they’re really good artists. I’m not all that familiar with who’s new and up and coming. My daughter is. She educates me when we’re in the car. She won’t let me listen to classical.
TMH: This is a little far back but I have to ask. When you closed out Shea Stadium with Paul McCartney that was a huge deal, especially because they got Paul in last minute and The Beatles were the ones who opened the stadium years ago. What was the atmosphere like there at the momentous event?BJ: Paul is someone I’ve gotten to know over the years. He’s a good friend and I had asked him when we originally booked if he could come but he wasn’t able to make that date so I just assumed, “Well OK, it was nice of him to consider doing it.” Then we added another night because the tickets sold out so fast. And I didn’t know that he was even considering coming to the second night and I kinda forgot about it. On the way to the gig the second night I’m in my car and I get a call on my cell phone and it’s Paul. I hear this voice, “Hello Billy, it’s Paul.” Paul Reiser? Dr. Paul? “No, Paul McCartney. Look I’m flying over to New York tonight. I’m going to try and make the gig but I’m getting in too late and I’ve gotta go to customs and immigrations and drive down to JFK, so I don’t think I’m gonna make it but just wanted you to know just thinking of you.”
“That’s great, thanks man,” you know thinking that’s not gonna happen. Then I get a tap on the shoulder toward the end of the show that “the eagle has landed.” Now there were only about 20 minutes left in the show and I just didn’t see how it was possible. They actually cleared airspace to get his plane in earlier. Then instead of going through difficult customs, they just shoot him through, all these officials just breezing him through. And then there was a police escort, they threw him in the car. They got him from JFK on the north shore to Shea Stadium on the south shore in 11 minutes, which is unheard of. That’s like a Daytona 500. I had held off doing “Piano Man” as long as I could, and I look over my shoulder and there’s Paul McCartney tuning his Hofner base with a butter knife. He had just gotten off the plane, he came shambling up the stage and I said, “Oh my God, ladies and gentlemen, Sir Paul McCartney.” And people thought I had this all planned out but I didn’t, it was completely spontaneous. It was great, poetic justice. I had him do the last song. People thought I was being magnanimous because I gave him the last song. I said, “No, no, no. They opened the place, they should close it.”
WVUM: Going back to your role you want to take on right now as a teacher, I know you’ve received multiple honorary doctorates of music from many prestigious universities, and I believe you’re currently living in Miami. Can we expect you to possibly professor at the Frost School?
BJ: I don’t know, I haven’t been asked except by you. You mean a professor in residence? You know I’ve been asked my some schools to do a residency. I think the Brooklyn Academy asked me. I don’t know if I’ll be in any place long enough. I do like to teach and I do like to help people. If I thought it would do some good sure why not? Anything’s possible.
WVUM: What would be the course you’d want to teach?
BJ: I don’t know if there is a course theres a name for. It’s essentially a general entertainment business or songwriting or performing or recording technique or how to meet girls and influence people. I don’t know, there’s no one specific direction it goes in. I needed the information when I was starting out, how do you know what record to go with, how do you pick the songs to go on an album, how do you get your stuff put on the radio, you know all of those things.
TMH: You’ve talked a lot about things people getting in the industry need to know. Is there anything you could have learned had you gone to college and studied music like a lot of students are here?
BJ: I think I would have benefited greatly, I hate to say this, but by having some law education. I was very ignorant of rights and legal stuff. I was very naive when I signed deals. I didn’t know what I was entitled to – I didn’t know what I should retain the rights to, I didn’t know what rights I had given away. As a result of that I got hurt financially and it took me a long time to make up for those mistakes that I made. They were also bad career moves that I made. When I first started out to get a showcase concert in LA, there was a place called the Troubadour. It’s a famous club in LA. To get a gig at the Troubadour you have to sign a contract which stated you will not play any other gigs in Los Angeles until you’ve played four or five other other gigs at the Troubadour. So they kinda lock you up for a while. I don’t even know if it was ethical or legal but I signed the deal. Now that meant that I was growing in every other city, I was going from club to college to theater to arena. But in LA I couldn’t grow because I had to keep coming back and playing this little club. We couldn’t expand, we couldn’t progress, we couldn’t enlarge our audience. We had to play this little club and it put me behind the eight ball for five or six years in Los Angeles, and in the music industry five or six years is a lifetime. I shouldn’t have summoned those deals. I should have negotiated a better contract. Had I had a different manager or an attorney defending me I might have had some leverage but I didn’t, what did I know?
These are things that are important. We kind of buy into these myths, artists, that we need a manager because the manager knows better than anyone. But what you need is a lawyer and you need an accountant. It wasn’t about me making a lot of money I just didn’t want to get stolen from. And I wanted to know what was the best thing for me to protect my art and my music. I needed guidance in that area so that’s something I really encourage people to do if they’re going to have a career an entertainment. Either get a really good lawyer or study the law yourself and know what your rights are. Not because it’s about making a lot of money, but you need to protect what you create.
TMH: You’ve played at UM before, right?
BJ: One of the first places I played was at the university. When I first started in the ’70s we did an outdoor gig in Miami. We started the show and the PA system blew out so you couldn’t hear my voice. The band is playing and there I’m going start singing the song and bing, nothing happens. My heart sank. And then another gig I remember doing when I started playing down here, I opened up for the Beach Boys at the Convention Center, which is a horrible place to try to hear music. Even conventions probably sound bad at the convention center. But we played many times in Gusman Auditorium which I love. I still remember that place as being one of the nicest theaters I ever played and I kind of miss places like that because it was the perfect venue for my kind of music. I mean we grew into hockey arenas and stadiums and colosseums. And I mean yeah, we can do that but I do miss a theater like Gusman Hall and I hope someday maybe we can replicate that again.