At Vulture, Billy Joel talks to David Marchese about performing in his late 60s, why he stopped writing songs, the problems inherent in not owning your own recordings, and his opinion on the state of America today.
Those other guys still write songs. You don’t. What does that say about your relationship to making music compared to theirs?
Like I said, I couldn’t be as good as I wanted to be. I was always trying to feel like there was a real progression in my work, and eventually I realized I was only going to be X good. Because of that I knew I was going to beat myself up for not being better. So I stopped. That’s it.
You knew you were done 25 years ago?
I suppose inherently. The last song on River of Dreams is “Famous Last Words.” I’d realized that if a song wasn’t a hit single it didn’t matter, and I didn’t want to go in that direction. And look, it’s one thing if you own your recordings. I don’t. There was supposed to be a reversal of copyright back to me in 2013. Well, the record company dug in and got their battery of lawyers and we never got the stuff back. So I still don’t own my recordings. People wonder why there’ve been so many Billy Joel live albums and compilations. They’re not my idea. The record company owns all these recordings and can package them any way they want. As far as I’m concerned, I did 12 studio albums. The live crap and all these compilations — they don’t mean anything.
What resonance does a song like “Piano Man,” which you’ve sung thousands of times, have for you?
It’s like a kid: Sometimes it pisses me off, but I always love it — I wrote the thing, you know? I do think “Piano Man” could’ve been better. There’s quirky things — people think, what a cheap rhyme: Davy in the Navy. I’m sorry: The guy’s name was Davy! There was actually Paul, in real estate, and the guy was writing a novel. I used the real peoples’ names in the song. I suppose it’s hard for some people to believe that.