Billy Joel likes playing the feisty street punk, jiggling on the balls of his feet. On the inside sleeve of "The Stranger," he wears his boxing gloves around his neck like roses around a Derby winner, and his best songs reel with the forces of the body-blows he delivers to the piano. He talks about his songs "throwing a rock through a stained-glass window" or "sticking a pin in the myth of the entertainer."
"There's so much jive - the Kiss garbage, 'The Midnight Special' - done in the name of rock 'n' roll, which I think is sacrilege," he says, jamming the bill of his Yankees cap down over his eyebrows. "It's not some guys in makeup dressed up like a bunch of flags . . . it's gotta come from the heart, it should have some anger and some passion."
He has both, this Bronx-born survivor who, raised in the suburbs, has thrown the same piercing light on urban life that Bruce Springsteen, growing up in the artifical glow of an amusement resort, has thrown on the highways that feed the city. "I'm from Long Island and he's from New Jersey, so together we've about got it circled," he shrugs easily accepting the comparsion.
Joel's no-holds-barred stance, played off against his surprisingly gentle ballads, has made him, on the verge of his sixth album, one of the hottest acts in the country. "The Stranger" has sold 3.75 million units in the year since it was released, making it one of the four of five most successful albums in Columbia's history. His current tour of 46 cities in two and a half months will wind up with three nights in the 19,500 seat Madison Square Garden; the entire tour should gross well in excess of $5 million.
For 15 years he has swung his music up like a fist against the world. It drew him out of the borderline insolvency of his broken home and petty drugstore crime of his Hicksville, Long Island adolescene. He never received a high-school diploma; his late-night music jobs made it too hard to answer the 7 a.m. alarm. Shouldering his way toward a career, he survived taking odd jobs, painting houses, dredging oysters.
At 21, he took a nosedive into depression, checking himself in Meadowbrook Hospital in East Meadow, L.I. and three weeks later checking himself back out, appalled at the human devastation within. Through the years he absorbed the helter-skelter cultures of New York; of Alsatian descent, he is neither the Italian nor Jewish he is usually taken for. "Italian by assimilation," he calls it.
His first solo album, released in 1971, was freakily remixed too fast, lending him a squeaky near-soprano.In desperation, Joel went underground in a Los Angeles piano bar as "Billy Martin" (his middle name) until the record company was forced to renegotiate. His first Columbia album, "Piano Man," was released near the end of 1973, and fueled by the title cut based on his six months of the Executive Room, began to etch him a reputation as a stinging portraitist.
Everyone is fair game - the self-professed angry young man, the star (a recurring theme), the masochist, the materialist. His piano defines each character, when he lambasts the "Big Shot," the pounding chords have the weight of a paralyzing hangover. In "Stiletto," a woman's cruelty is neatly summed up by a "West Side Story" snapping of fingers that cuts deeper than the organ's whine.
On this tour, Joel plays for two and a half, sometimes three hours, get out drinking with the band after the show, beds down late and gets up whenever he has to catch a plane. He is a loyal Yankees fan, and stayed over an extra day in Boston to see a playoff game (he and his band in their Yankees caps, amidst a turbulent sea of Boston fans, were caught and interviewed by ABC television, but nobody on the TV crew recognized his name).
His willingness to tackle any subject - has landed him in hot water from time to time. "Only the Good Die Young," about a young man's attempt to convince his Catholic girlfriend t disregard the strictures of her upbringing, raised a storm of protest from Catholic organizations and was banned on a number of radio stations around the country.
Come out, Virginia, don't make me wait,
Catholic girls start much too late.
Sooner or later it comes down to fate -
I might as well be the one . . .
Only the good die young.
Joel, who told Columbia executives that they were "crazy" to release the song as a single, denies that the song is anti-Catholic.
"The point is not Catholicism, the point is just," he says, obviously tired of the subject but retaining a sense of humor. "When you're young and sexually crazed, you'll tell anybody anything. The image is of some kid throwing pebbles at his girlfriend's window: Don't listen to your parents, don't listen to your religious upbringing . . .
"Jewish guilt is a popular accepted subject - Philip Roth and those guys. Catholic guilt is something that's never discussed. Jewish guilt is very visceral, it's all guts - you know, kishkes . Catholic guilt is very gothic, all incense and bells and bats and mmmmmmm.
"If I had used Jewish phrases instead of Catholic, talked about yamulkes and other Semijic references, there would have been even more of an uproar . . . but I would have written it anyway."
There was some controversy about two earlier songs, "Captain Jack," which referred to drug use, and "The Entertainer." He shrugs these off, too.
"Captain Jack was a 'look-out-the-window' song I wanted to smack people in the face and say, 'Whatever you have to do to escape your own life by chemical means . . . is useless.' I didn't want it to be anti-drug song, because drugs can be fun." He says this natter-of-factly, although he often makes jokes about "space cadets."
Protests about "The Entertainer" he thinks originated within the music industry. "I was talking about the cold, hard business of records; 'If you wanna have a hit/you gotta make it fit.' The rock star as a god - I hate that.
"But people tend to try to make everything I write autobiographical. They thought, this guy had a hit with 'Piano Man,' moanin' about not makin' it, and now he's moanin' about having it made."
These are strong sentiments for popular radio, where every star becomes a symbol to thousands of inchoate fans. Joel is impressed by his position as spokesman. "Am I?" he says without inflection. "I never think about it."
"I write . . . mostly to entertain myself. I like amusing myself. Or I may write because I want to hear something on the radio . . . or play it. It's all for the performance; records to me are secondary."
Money - gross receipts sales figures - mean little to him. "It's a self-destructive tendency . . . because to carry around the kind of production company we have, and to play the band, you have to have capital." It's an example of what he calls his schizophrenia, the split between his day self and his night self, the urban and suburban existences. He touches on it in several songs, especially "The Stranger."
Well, we all fall in love
But we disregard the danger,
Though we share so many secrets,
There are some we never tell.
Why were you so surprised
That you never saw the stranger?
Did you ever let your lover see
The stranger in yourself?
Joel has two homes, one in Manhattan and one in Oyster Bay. The offices of his company, Home Run, are in the city. His wife, Elizabeth, is his manager, a situation that evolved abruptly a couple of years ago.
"I was with Caribou management, very West Coast" - he puts on a Hollywood drawl - "and we were not tuning into each other. Finally one night I said, semi-seriously, 'Why don't you manage it?' The next morning when I woke up, there was a new telephone in the house and a secretary . . . and people in my bathroom. That's why we call it Home Run, not because of baseball."
Elizabeth has turned out to be a powerful business force, untangling the skein of Joel's affair. After an eight-year struggle, Joel has regained the rights to his entire catalogue; one of the concessions they had to make was to allow his first company, Family Productions, to put their wolf logo on all his albums. It's a cheap end to the litigation, he admits, but it burns like the "mark of Cain."
Joel's new album, "52nd Street," which is due to released this week, will probably be one of the most successful, following on the heels of "The Stranger." It is an eclectic album filled with salutes and echoes and shorter on Joel's blade-glare realism. It is called "52nd Street" in honor of the line of jazz clubs that once lent that stretch the nickname "Swing Street"; there are more jazz riffs throughout the album and guest appearances by Freddie Hubbard and Mike Manieri.
What he calls his Righteous Brothers song, "Until the Night," is a perfect evocation of that era of blue-eyed soul. There is a touch of Elton John in "Honesty," a soupeon of Steely Dan in "Zanzibar." There are Motown stomps, Spanish maracas, Satchmo raps. It is all the more surprising since he has previously avoided "anthologizing" in his albums.
"I thought about doing an album called 'The Age of Jive' and taking a pot shot at everything," he admits. "But I'm no F. Scott Fitzgerald; I'm not gonna be the conscience of the Seventies."