Fred Schruers' new Billy Joel book had origins as ghostwritten memoirs, but was recrafted into a bio when the subject pulled out with cold feet. The result is something of a mess that resembles Joel's own career: There's some good stuff early on, then a whole lot of nothing, plenty of bombast and lots of applause.
To those of us who came of age on Long Island as THE STRANGER exploded, Billy Joel is something of a birthright. But there are things I didn't know. His family fled a successful business in Nuremberg with the rise of Nazism. Joel's father Howard, himself a gifted musician, was left conflicted and bitter following World War II and would return to Europe alone when his family was still young, leaving Billy to bring himself up, countering a geeky piano habit with boxing lessons. Supposedly telling his Mom he preferred to matriculate at Columbia Records over Columbia University, Joel dropped out of high school so as to pursue life with a procession of local bar bands including The Echoes, The Hassles and a ridiculous heavy-metal duo, Attila.
In one of many unusual and troubled relationships Joel would forge, he hooked up with and later married the then-wife of Jon Small, his housemate and drummer in the Hassles and Attila. In addition to becoming the muse of "Just the Way You Are" among many other songs Elizabeth Weber would take over managing Billy's career after a solo debut album, COLD SPRING HARBOR flopped.
With the support of influential Philly radio station WMMR (which also championed Springsteen) Billy (like Bruce), was signed to Columbia Records. He relocated to the singer-songwriter capital of California, worked in a piano bar, and honed a backlog of songs into the PIANO MAN album.
Joel's songs were frequently inspired by interpretations of actual events in his personal life, and Schruers' book spends an awful lot of time quoting lyrics as though to show it. Wife Elizabeth, who had big ambitions as Joel's manager, is the "waitress practicing politics" who succeeds Jon Troy, aka "John at the bar/ quick with a joke/light up your smoke" (Troy is also "Johnny" in the terrific "Say Goodbye to Hollywood"). This practice would continue throughout Joel's recording career, and tiring of revealing himself in such a way is about the only explanation offered -- or pursued -- for Joel's retirement from the pop game, now going strong at 20+ years.
Joel's career proceeded through a hasty, snotty PIANO MAN follow-up (STREETLIGHT SERENADE); rebounded behind the return to New York contemplated in TURNSTILES before hooking up with producer Phil Ramone for the careermaking STRANGER album of 1978. Stylistic and thematic experiments would continue as Joel moved from the jazz influence of 52nd STREET to the rock and new-wave GLASS HOUSES to the doo-wop, 50s pop and soul he explored in the Brinkley Era.
Unfortunately, Schruers devotes nearly half his book to examining Joel's largely uninteresting post-pop career. There's a complex legal tangle between the record label, Joel, his business manager and their lawyers (Lesson: After splitting with wife, don't trust financial affairs to her slimy brother). Then there's the divorces, affairs and re-marriages, the car accidents, the rehab stints, the homes on the East End and North Shore, various falling-outs with Elton John, his boats, his custom motorcycles. (Note to all rock stars and biographers: I don't care about your friggin' boats). The last 100 pages are practically unbearable with Schruers going so far as to quote school-newspaper reviews and blog posts in an attempt to flesh out a portrait of Joel as a crusty mensch with a gift for pop songs, forgiveness for his enemies, and weaknesses for his daughter, attractive women, and alcohol. We get that. The whole "Last Play at Shea" thing figures prominently as well: As previously noted, I found Billy's claiming the Shea musical legacy for himself to be personally distasteful, but that appears to have been a strategy by a remorseless road manager.
For all the hard work that went into Schruers' book, there was little insight into Joel that wasn't more efficiently and entertainingly executed in the New York Times Magazine article I linked to here a few years back. Let's hope the next swing breaks some windows.