Sunday 27 May 2018

Billy the kid roars back into town, aged 69

Billy Joel is closer to Bruce Springsteen than Elton John, writes Barry Egan ahead of the Long Island legend's arrival here

Billy Joel with his Royal Enfield Bullet 500 — and one of his pugs
Billy Joel with his Royal Enfield Bullet 500 — and one of his pugs

'Why do people think they need something to blame?'

This is going to sound slightly nutso. But, upon reflection, not really that nutso at all. Bear with me. When I watched Billy Joel perform Allentown at New York's Madison Square Garden last October, I was thinking how this had the feel - the ragged beauty - of a great Bruce Springsteen song.

And when blue-collar Billy from Long Island (like blue-collar Bruce from New Jersey) belted out this anthem, it doubtless resonated with a crowd that had just come through an economic recession: 'Well, we're living here in Allentown/ And they're closing all the factories down/Out in Bethlehem they're killing time/Filling out forms/Standing in line.'

Then when he blasts into Only The Good Die Young, Goodnight Saigon and Captain Jack, you could see why Billy joined The Boss and The E Street Band onstage for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 25th Anniversary Concert at the aforesaid Madison Square Garden in late 2009.

The Beethoven of the Bronx, Billy was on his trusty old piano - while the Bard of Middle America Springsteen was on his guitar. Together, they played Billy's You May Be Right, Only The Good Die Young, New York State of Mind before the two working class heroes of their generation took alternate verses on Bruce's homage to freedom, Born to Run.

In what will be his first time back in Ireland since he played here in 2013, Billy Joel plays the Aviva Stadium in Dublin on June 23.

This master of song-craft has certainly got the repertoire of great songs - timeless tunes that have propelled him through a roller-coaster career of over 33 hits (from Tell Her About It to Uptown Girl to It's Still Rock and Roll To Me, She's Always A Woman, Piano Man, My Life, The Entertainer and beyond) with over 150-million albums sold, to say nothing of the six Grammys and countless other awards that sit proudly on the mantelpiece of his mansion in Oyster Bay, as well as the millions of fans who have gone to see his concerts down through the years.

He remains Billy The Kid at 69 years of age. He also remains as witty and erudite a man as you are likely to meet.

Sitting at a desk in his vintage bike shop-cum museum on Audrey Avenue, Oyster Bay, New York, 24 hours before his show at the Garden, William Martin Joel - born on May 9, 1949 - jokingly describes himself as "looking like the guy who makes the pizza".

In the early 1980s, the pizza guy pursued, and won the heart of, international supermodel Christie Brinkley at the piano of a grand hotel in St Bart's. He played her As Time Goes By (a la Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca) while looking, by his own admission, more like "a bloated, puffy lobster. I had this incredible sunburn".

That day in Oyster Bay, Joel also joked to me that he was "kind of like" Henry VIII - though unlike the former king of England in the 16th Century, King Billy stayed "friends" with his three ex-wives.

"I think that [being friends with your ex-wives] is a good thing," Joel said, adding that his parents "both put each other through s**t", before they divorced. "There was no one person to blame."

I asked Billy, did he bring that philosophy to his own marriages? There is no point in staying miserable for the sake of being married?

"No," Billy answered, who is more Bruce Springsteen than Elton John musically. "Sometimes I stayed miserable much longer than I should have! Just to try to make it work. Because I don't like to give up.

"But there comes a time when you've got to realise that this is not working, this is not good. And it is not somebody's fault - it is just the way things are. You know?

"I don't know what kind of philosophy that is. Why do people think they need something to blame? I don't assign blame. Hitler was a f**k. I assign blame to him."

Billy Joel plays the Aviva Stadium on June 23. Tickets available from Ticketmaster outlets nationwide and ticketmaster.ie

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