On a rain-washed summer afternoon in Oxford, England, Billy Joel walks into a room lined with wood paneling and leather-bound books to meet some student fans. Bald and stocky, with a salt-and-pepper goatee and a chewy New York growl, Joel calls to mind a veteran boxing promoter with the patter of a Catskills comedian. One admirer, posing for a photograph, tells him that she has been influenced by him. “Me too,” he replies, deadpan. “My whole life I’ve been influenced by me.”
Eight days from now, Joel will play to a very different crowd: nearly 58,000 fans at London’s Wembley Stadium. But today, he’s about to take questions from 450 students in the debating chamber of the Oxford Union, at the storied university where the list of former presidents includes three British prime ministers. Joel brings an earthier energy to the room: He tells stories, plays the occasional song to illustrate a point and cracks self-deprecating jokes, like a stand-up comic doing a routine based on the career of Billy Joel.
What makes a great cover of one of Joel’s songs? “The fact that I get paid for it.” How has the music industry changed since his recording heyday? “The fact that it’s gone.” Why won’t he write “We Didn’t Start the Fire” Part 2? “Because I don’t like Part 1 that much. And I’d have to write about Trump.” Even when a young woman on the balcony passes out, he doesn’t miss a beat. “This is a first,” he says. “I’ve never made a girl faint before.”
Joel has been doing these college “master classes” since the 1990s. They’re unpaid gigs -- he says he hasn’t had to do anything just for the money for a long time -- so he does them for kicks. “Because I’ve made every mistake you can make and survived somehow or other, and here I am at 70 and it’s bigger than it ever was,” he tells me prior to the Oxford session, sitting in a handsome study that doubles as his dressing room. “It’s crazy. I must know something, even if I’m not sure what it is.”
There are many things pertaining to his still-vital career that Joel claims not to know. He doesn’t get why his most beloved hits include a maudlin waltz (“Piano Man”), a Frankie Valli pastiche (“Uptown Girl”) and a boomer’s-eye history of the world with a melody he likens to “a mosquito buzzing around your head” (“We Didn’t Start the Fire”). A stranger to Spotify and social media (“Technology has completely gone haywire,” he tells the Union crowd), he’s not quite sure where his young fans come from. Most of all, he doesn’t know why, 26 years after his last album of new songs, the final act of his performing career is such a blockbuster. “What’s happening now is beyond my comprehension,” he says. “There’s an arc to things, and you’re supposed to go downhill. We’re going uphill.”
Since January 2014, Joel has played a monthly residency at Madison Square Garden that has torn up the rule book for what a legacy act can accomplish outside Las Vegas. By July 2015, he had surpassed his old touring partner Elton John’s lifetime record of 65 shows at the Garden. Three years later, he played his 100th show there, and he’s currently booked until Dec. 11, which will be the 71st date of the residency and his 117th overall at the Garden.
Simultaneously, he has become, for the first time in his career, a consistent stadium-filler: Later this year, he’ll play Denver; Boston; Arlington, Texas; and, on July 26, the first-ever rock concert at Baltimore’s Camden Yards ballpark. With career receipts of $896 million from 13.1 million tickets sold, Joel is the No. 13 grossing artist in the history of Billboard Boxscore, just ahead of Paul McCartney. (He’s also No. 9 on Billboard’s 2019 Moneymakers list.) For an artist who no longer records albums and experimented with retirement a decade ago, it’s not just unexpected, but unprecedented: an Indian summer with no end in sight.
“It’s a miracle,” says Joel. “My father was a better musician than me, and he couldn’t get anything going. Some of the people I admire, jazz guys, nobody really bought their records. Onstage [I’m thinking], ‘Are you fucking kidding me? When are they going to find me out? Women are screaming at me?’ ” He pulls a self-mocking face. “I know what I look like in the mirror.”
A week later, Joel is onstage at Wembley, apologizing to his audience. Sitting at the piano, he tells them, faux-sheepishly, “I don’t have anything new for you.”
A crowd spanning three generations cheers.
“It’s basically the same old shit...” he continues.
Joel grins and shrugs. “That’s what I think,” he replies. He knows this shtick always works.
Backstage earlier in the day, I ask Joel where he had thought he would be at 70. In person, he’s more reflective, wearing an Italian-American Club of Oyster Bay baseball cap and picking at a bowl of gummy candies. “I thought we’d be yesterday’s papers,” he says. “Which is what I’m playing, essentially. I didn’t want to be an oldies act, but I guess we are.”
Tonight’s show will become Joel’s biggest single-night concert yet. But a decade ago, he was prepared to give it all up. He abbreviated his Face to Face tour with John, had both hips replaced and sank into one of his periodic funks. “I was just tired,” he says. “Wasn’t having fun anymore. That’s not a good way to work. The audience can see it.” He told his band and crew that they should look for other gigs. Everyone believed him except for Dennis Arfa, Joel’s longtime booking agent, who started working with him shortly before his 1977 breakthrough album, The Stranger. (Joel does not work with a manager.)
“He has talked to me about not working since he was thirtysomething. That’s just his style,” says Arfa. “A lot of times, how you feel about your work is how you feel about yourself.” Still, Joel’s close team knew better than to try to persuade him to keep at it. “He’s not a person whose mind you’ll ever change,” says Mark Rivera, Joel’s saxophonist of 37 years.
“The advice I got from day one was, ‘Ah, man, you’re never going to make it. Forget it,’ ” says Joel. “Had I listened to that, I never would have done what I did. So what good is your advice? I know what I’m talking about.”
It took a hurricane to make him think twice. When Joel agreed to play 12-12-12, an all-star benefit concert at the Garden for victims of Hurricane Sandy, he was sandwiched on the lineup between Kanye West and Chris Martin. Joel thought his six-song set was merely OK, but the crowd and critics agreed that it was the surprise highlight. (The New Yorker noted that when Joel took the stage, “The mood relaxed, as if someone who really knew how to play a stadium was in charge.”) “New York State of Mind” and “Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)” sounded like the city’s break-glass-in-case-of-emergency anthems: first hits, then oldies, now standards.
“That was the kernel of this renaissance,” says Joel’s creative director, Steve Cohen, a member of the live operation’s decision-making core. “He went from being this ’80s pop singer, taken seriously only because of the magnitude of his success -- and then suddenly it was cool to be a Billy Joel fan.”
Joel’s success -- he has had 42 entries on the Billboard Hot 100, including 13 top 10 hits -- has certainly never been predicated on cool. He became famous as a mainstream guy with mainstream tastes and a talent for expressing everyday aspirations and (more often) disappointments, who looked very much like the characters in his songs who frequented neighborhood Italian restaurants or worked in Allentown, Pa., factories. “When people come and sing along, they think that they’re him because they’re not looking at a rock star,” says Cohen. For years, critics notoriously held that everyman appeal against him, and Joel -- who was self-conscious about his voice, his piano-playing and his appearance -- would rip up their bad reviews onstage.
“I was my own worst enemy,” he says. “I could get five good reviews, and the one bad review would drive me crazy: ‘Did you see what this guy said? That son of a bitch!” He laughs. “And the audience would be like, ‘Huh, OK. I guess somebody thinks you suck.’ I was kind of dopey.”
By 2012, though, he was well-adjusted enough to pay more attention to the people who didn’t care what The Village Voice had said about him in 1976. During his hiatus, Joel sought the counsel of hard-touring friends like Bruce Springsteen and Don Henley. “I was questioning a lot of things: ‘Why are you guys still doing this?’ And they would say, ‘This is what we do.’ And I said, ‘You know what? They’re right.’ I know how to do this. This is what I do. It takes a while to realize it.”
After 12-12-12, he was ready to seriously consider an idea Arfa first broached a few years earlier: a hometown residency at Madison Square Garden. A Vegas residency held no appeal (“I don’t even like Vegas”), but the Garden? “That’s my venue.” To start, Arfa announced just six shows, but the tickets kept selling, and the venue made Joel a franchise, like the Rangers and the Knicks. According to Arfa, only 20% of Joel’s box office is repeat business.
“Audiences make a pilgrimage to see Billy Joel,” says Darren Pfeffer, executive vp of MSG Live. “It has become more of an event than just a concert.” The presence of at least one high-profile fan at Wembley -- One Direction alum Niall Horan -- speaks to the way Joel and his songbook appeal to listeners who weren’t born when he last released a new studio album. But regardless of age, there’s an audience for whom Billy Joel at the Garden has become as essential a New York attraction as a Broadway show. Says Cohen: “Billy is kind of the hood ornament of New York.”
This has benefits beyond the financial. With just one Garden show a month and a handful of stadiums every summer, Joel can spend most of his time at his 26-acre manor on the North Shore of Long Island, where he mostly occupies himself with a motorcycle shop and a boat-building business. “It’s a pussycat tour,” says Joel. “Like semiretirement. We used to do five, six gigs a week. When you’re first starting out and you’re with your buddies going around the world, you’re like a teenage gang. Very exciting. After a couple of years, you’re Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman.”
In other words, the road-warrior schedule exacted a price. “This is my fourth marriage now. It’s not good for a relationship to be gone for that long,” he continues. “So I became a homey.” While we’re talking, Joel’s wife, Alexis Roderick, drops by, cradling their 1-year-old daughter, Remy. During soundcheck, their other daughter, Della, 3, climbs onto the grand piano and lies on her stomach, chin in her hands, while Joel looks her in the eye and sings “Don’t Ask Me Why.”
Joel spends most of the show seated at the keyboard: He steps forward to play guitar on a few numbers, but vaulting over the piano in his youth wrecked his hips. Yet he’s no less enthusiastic a performer. Slotting album tracks and cover versions between the tentpole hits helps him stay interested. Sometimes he’ll try out a personal favorite like “Laura” or “She’s Right on Time,” but if it doesn’t fly with the audience, “we just take it out and shoot it.” During the Wembley soundcheck, the band auditions Beatles songs to interpolate into “River of Dreams.” Joel quickly discards “Can’t Buy Me Love” (“It’s weird”), “She Loves You” (“Nah, I’m not buying it”) and “Twist and Shout” before settling on “I Feel Fine.”
“I like that one,” he says with a nod of satisfaction. “It’s good.”
Before addressing the Oxford Union, Joel wants to go outside and smoke a cigar. We sit down on a bench in a secluded garden, and he lights up a Hoyo de Monterrey. “It reminds me of my grandfather, just smelling a cigar,” he says.
Joel is in a reminiscent mood. He recalls his first show with a band, covering Beatles tunes at a Long Island church in 1965. “There was a girl I had a crush on who I was always too shy to talk to,” he says -- the girl he would later remember (with some poetic license) in “Only the Good Die Young.” “And I thought, ‘Oh, my God, Virginia is looking at me!’ And the kids are dancing and they’re clapping. And then the priest comes over and gives us each 15 bucks. It didn’t even occur to me: You get paid for this? That was the day I decided that’s what I’m going to do.” He marvels that he’s still “doing the same job I did when I was 15. How many people can say that at 70?”
He’s happy to wax nostalgic about his life as a performer. But he has never been terribly interested in recollecting his offstage life for the public. In 2011, he finished a memoir with writer Fred Schruers and submitted it to HarperCollins, but when the publisher asked him to ramp up the “scandalous stuff,” says Joel, he thought, “Fuck you,” and paid back the portion he had received of the $3 million advance. His songs provided the score to the successful Broadway show Movin’ Out, but he has rebuffed offers to turn his life story into a musical (it’s always called Piano Man) and has little appetite for a Rocketman-style biopic (which would also surely be called Piano Man).
“There are things in my life that could make a good movie,” he says. “He married this supermodel, then they had a kid, then they got divorced, then he crashed a car, then he went to rehab. That was like five minutes in my life. It wasn’t all sensational. I just hope they don’t get a short, fat, ugly guy to play me.”
One puzzle for any potential screenwriter would be why one of the most gifted songwriters of his generation completely lost the urge to create new material. Since River of Dreams in 1993, Joel has released just two songs and one album of classical piano pieces, the 2001 Fantasies & Delusions that “sold about five copies.” Columbia Records, which owns his masters, fills the gap with regular compilations and live albums, over which Joel has no control. “I could probably sue, but I don’t want to get involved in that shit,” he says. “If I can’t own it, I can’t own it.” But while Joel says he’ll still wake up with a tune in his head and plays the piano every day, he has lost the desire to write lyrics (always his least favorite part of songwriting) or find listeners. “I don’t feel the need to validate it with the public, or even to record it,” he says. “It’s all in here” -- he points to his head -- “and I hear it and go, ‘OK, that’s not bad. Next!’ ”
Everyone except Joel himself seems to find this strange. Contemporaries like John and younger admirers like P!nk have encouraged him to return to recording, but he refuses to bite. “I know some artists struggle with the idea of being relevant: ‘I have to come up with new stuff and have hit singles,’ ” he says. “I stopped buying that a long time ago.” He’s fond of noting that he has made 12 albums, like The Beatles, and has nothing left to prove. “I wrote some good stuff. I wrote some crap, too. But some of the good stuff is pretty damn good.”
At any rate, Joel’s performing life doesn’t seem likely to end anytime soon, though when it does, he thinks it will happen suddenly. “My theory is, one night I’m going to suck,” he explains. “I won’t be able to hit the notes, I’ll forget the words, I’ll forget the music. I love the job too much to not be good.”
There are two songs in Joel’s set, both written before he made it big, that now make for an illuminating contrast. “The Entertainer,” a Hot 100 top 40 hit from 1973, is basically an anxiety attack about becoming obsolete. “Vienna,” a track from The Stranger that was never a single but surprised him by becoming one of his most beloved (and most streamed) tunes, advises an ambitious young man to slow down and be patient because, says Joel now, “you got your whole life to live.” Turns out the guy in “Vienna” was right. The guy in “The Entertainer” was wrong.
“It’s ironic,” says Joel. “I was so pessimistic about it, and it all worked out anyway.”
Two for the Show
Dennis Arfa met Billy Joel in 1967, when Joel was playing in The Hassles; became his booking agent in 1976; and, roughly 10 years ago, suggested the idea for Joel’s Madison Square Garden residency. “He was always thinking, ‘What’s the next thing?’ ” says Joel of Arfa, who founded Artist Group International in 1986. (His roster there now includes Neil Young, Elvis Costello, Metallica and The Strokes.) Before Joel’s recent Wembley show, Arfa recalled how the residency, one of the crowning achievements of their partnership, came about.
How did the idea of the Madison Square Garden residency originate?
I had dinner with [then-Garden president] Jay Marciano in Turks and Caicos one night in ’09, ’10, and came up with the idea. We had played Shea Stadium [in Queens in 2008], which was a rock-god gig. How do you follow that? The antenna was always up about what to do next.
And how did Joel respond?
There were a couple of years when he was tentative. There was going to be a press conference. I remember Billy calls me up and says, “Are you sure this is the right thing to do?” He wasn’t really sure what he was walking into. Then he got excited about it.
Is he very hands-on now?
Billy has a lot of trust in his people. Basically, don’t fuck up. He’ll trust me and his confidants and experts in other areas and he’ll yield to us, but ultimately, it’s his call how he wants to be represented out there in the world.
It doesn’t seem to matter that he has stopped releasing new music. Why do you think that is?
I think a lot of older people who put out records are really doing it more for themselves -- the chances of it being successful, except within your own hemisphere, are slim to none. Nobody but the die-hards wants to hear the new stuff. The masses want to hear the hits.
Could any other artist do a residency like this?
I know other people have talked about it. But on this level? I think they recognize how unique what he’s accomplishing is. He can take a big room and make it very intimate. It’s just a magical combination that worked.
This article originally appeared in the July 20 issue of Billboard.