Profiles of Billy Joel frequently paint him as a cynical depressive, but according to Joel himself he’s actually a “happy-go-lucky guy.” That quote comes from a new interview with the musician, published as part of Vulture’s “In Conversation” series. In honor of the singer’s record-setting 100th concert at Madison Square Garden, David Marchese chats with Joel about his life, his decision to stop writing new songs, and his political views. Joel is alternately sarcastic, self-deprecating, and delightfully frank. Asked why he’s resisted the urge to retire like some of his peers have, Joel notes, “I have the greatest job in the world. You get up there, you make a lot of noise, girls scream, and you get shitloads of money. Are you fucking kidding me?”
Marchese frequently steers the conversation towards Joel’s relationship with music critics, but it seems like Joel’s harshest critic is himself. At one point he observes, “I remember reading a quote from Neil Diamond where he said that he’d forgiven himself for not being Beethoven. I read that and went, ‘That’s my problem: I haven’t.’” In terms of the more serious aspects of the conversation, Joel discusses his frustrations at not owning the rights to his own catalogue, the public fallout he’s had with some of his old band members, and his relationship with his difficult father. When asked about his decision to wear a Star Of David to his Madison Square Garden concert following the Charlottesville, Virginia “Unite the Right” rally in 2017, Joel doesn’t equivocate as he explains:
To me, what happened in Charlottesville was like war. When Trump said there were good people on both sides—there are no good Nazis. There are no good Ku Klux Klan people. Don’t equivocate that shit. I think about my old man: Most of his family was murdered in Auschwitz. He was able to get out but then got drafted and went in the U.S. Army. He risked his life in Europe to defeat Nazism. A lot of men from his generation did the same thing. So when those guys see punks walking around with swastikas, how do they keep from taking a baseball bat and bashing those crypto-Nazis over the head? Those creeps are going to march through the streets of my country? Uh-uh. I was personally offended. That’s why I wore that yellow star. I had to do something, and I didn’t think speaking about it was going to be as impactful.
But there are plenty of lighter moments in the wide-ranging interview as well. Perhaps the funniest comes when Joel reveals his idea for a farewell tour, leading to this exchange:
The stage is a living-room set: couch, TV, coffee table, food. And there’s bulletproof glass between me and the audience. Then I come out and lay down on the couch. I grab the remote and start watching TV. The crowd after a couple minutes goes, “Fuck this,” and starts throwing shit at the glass.
And that’s the whole concert?
Yeah. I’ll have created a bond between me and the audience where I know they will never pay another nickel to see me again.
So if Billy Joel ever walks out on stage and picks up a remote control…
That’ll be it.
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