As this blogger was cruising around yesterday, his rolling jukebox (an iPod containing 1,553 songs plugged into the vehicle sound system) played a blast from the past. It was a theme song for US-quagmires past and present and it might make appropriate background music as you wade through today's post.
[x YouTube/BillyJoelVEVO Channel]
"Good Night Saigon" (1983)
By Billy Joel
If this is (fair & balanced) TMI (too much information) about the Piano Man, so be it.
[x New Yorker]
Thirty-Three Hit Wonder
By Nick Paumgarten
Tag Cloud of the following piece of writing
Billy Joel sat smoking a cigarillo on a patio overlooking Oyster Bay. He had chosen the seating area under a trellis in front of the house, his house, a brick Tudor colossus set on a rise on the southeastern tip of a peninsula called Centre Island, on Long Island’s North Shore. It was a brilliant cloudless September afternoon. Beethoven on Sonos, cicadas in the trees, pugs at his feet. Out on the water, an oyster dredge circled the seeding beds while baymen raked clams in the flats. Joel surveyed the rising tide. Sixty-five. Semi-retirement. Weeks of idleness, of puttering around his motorcycle shop and futzing with lobster boats, of books and dogs and meals, were about to give way to a microburst of work. His next concert, his first in more than a month, was scheduled to begin in five hours, at Madison Square Garden, and he appeared to be composing himself.
“Actually, I composed myself a long time ago,” he said. He told a joke that involved Mozart erasing something in a mausoleum; the punch line was “I’m decomposing.” He knocked off an ash. Whenever anyone asks him about his pre-show routine, he says, “I walk from the dressing room to the stage. That’s my routine.” Joel has a knack for delivering his own recycled quips and explanations as though they were fresh, a talent related, one would think, to that of singing well-worn hits with sincere-seeming gusto. He often says that the hardest part isn’t turning it on but turning it off: “One minute, I’m Mussolini, up onstage in front of twenty thousand screaming people. And then, a few minutes later, I’m just another schmuck stuck in traffic on the highway.” It’s true: the transition is abrupt, and it has bedevilled rock stars since the advent of the backbeat. But this schmuck is usually looking down on the highway from an altitude of a thousand feet. He commutes to and from his shows by helicopter.
Joel was wearing a black T-shirt tucked into black jeans, black Vans, and an Indian Motorcycle ball cap. The back of his head, where hair might be, was freshly shorn, and his features, which in dark or obscure moods can appear mottled and knotted, were at rest, projecting benevolent bemusement. To prepare for the flight, he’d put on a necklace of good-luck medallions—pendants of various saints. The atavism of Long Island is peculiar. Though Jewish, and an atheist, he had, as a boy in a predominantly Catholic part of Hicksville, attended Mass, and even tried confession. His mother took him and his sister to Protestant services at a local church; he was baptized there. Still, a girl across the street said he’d grow horns, and a neighborhood kid named Vinny told him, “Yo, Joel, you killed Jesus. I’m gonna beat your ass.” Vinny did, repeatedly. Joel took up boxing to defend himself. The nose still shows it.
There was a rumble in the distance. “That’s my guy,” Joel said. “He’s early.” A helicopter zipped in over the oystermen and landed down by the water, at the hem of a great sloping lawn, where Joel had converted the property’s tennis court to a helipad. He’d recently had to resurface it, after Hurricane Sandy. Joel often attempts to inoculate himself with self-mockery. “Oh, my helipad got flooded,” he says, with the lockjaw of Thurston Howell III.
He got up to go. He has the short, wide, halting gait of an old lineman—two fake hips. He called through the screen door leading to the kitchen: “A-Rod!” A-Rod was his girlfriend, Alexis Roderick, from Northport, a thirty-three-year-old former risk manager at Morgan Stanley. They met five years ago at a restaurant in Huntington, where they’d both gone with friends. He introduced himself, got her number, and, when he was done eating, called her on the phone from across the restaurant and asked if she would give him a ride home. “I always try to go out with North Shore girls,” he likes to say. “They usually have a car.” She drove him back to Centre Island. He asked her if she wanted to hear him play. She said no. He played anyway—Rachmaninoff, on the living-room grand, a move he got from “The Seven Year Itch.” She says, “It was like he couldn’t not be ‘Billy Joel’ at that moment.”
“I may have got a little fresh,” he recalls. She drove off that night, but months later they began seeing each other. She moved in with him, and he persuaded her to quit her job on Wall Street. Joel, who refers to his former wives as Ex 1, Ex 2, and Ex 3, says that he is in no hurry to be married again.
They got their stuff together in the kitchen. She had on a short light suède jacket and jeans. “Do you have your shots?” she asked. He retrieved a padded envelope with allergy medication and stuck it into a small black wheelie bag containing throat spray and some motorcycle magazines for his longtime lighting man and fellow-gearhead, Steve Cohen. Outside the kitchen, he tossed the bag in the back of a Polaris U.T.V. and drove down toward the helipad. “This doesn’t suck,” he said. Along the way, he passed Roderick, who was on foot. “Hey, chicky baby!” he called out, in his Vinny voice. The pilot, in uniform, took his bag and escorted them to the chopper, a sleek black Bell 430, twin engine. Within moments, it was soaring across the bay and over the wooded estates of Nassau County. Joel name-checked harbors, parkways, and golf courses, some of which he’d caddied at as a kid. To the south, Levittown, where he grew up. To the north, Kings Point and Sands Point, Fitzgerald’s models for West Egg and East Egg. “And now we’re over the great gray ash heaps,” Joel said, still on “Gatsby” and referring to the once blighted section of Queens. Cemeteries, row houses, projects: the copter tacked southwest over Brooklyn and aimed for Manhattan’s lower tip, towers sparkling in the late-afternoon sun. “This is the beginning of the psych-up for the show,” Joel said. “You see this and you tell yourself, ‘I gotta do a good one.’ ”
Since the beginning of the year, Joel had been playing the Garden once a month. This would be the ninth such show so far. All twelve had sold out well in advance, and the secondary market was tight. He intends to continue the residency, as they are calling it, for as long as both ticket demand and his level of performance remain strong. He’s not quite sure which he’d rather see fall off first.
The chopper turned up the Hudson, flying low, and eased down to the heliport, a few blocks west of the arena. “You know, if you type ‘Billy Joel’s house’ into Google maps, you get Madison Square Garden,” Joel said. The flight had taken sixteen minutes. An S.U.V. whisked him and Roderick and his tour director, Max Loubiere, crosstown and then up a ramp to the passageway behind the stage, where crew and band members were milling around. Sound check. “Back in the salt mines,” Joel said.
Steve Cohen, who has been Joel’s lighting designer since 1974 and his creative director since the mid-eighties, handed Joel his suggested set list. It doesn’t vary much from show to show, but there are always a few wild cards, and this time Cohen had inserted “Just the Way You Are,” the 1977 ballad that became Joel’s first big hit, propelling sales of the album “The Stranger,” and of Joel’s earlier albums as well, which up until then had languished. (Among those was “Piano Man,” the title track of which became, to his increasing weariness, his signature song; that album, Joel was told, initially earned only seven thousand dollars.) Joel hadn’t played “Just the Way You Are” in five years.
“The set’s a little M.O.R.,” Joel complained, meaning “middle of the road,” the soft-rock category now called Adult Contemporary. He made his way onto the stage and sat down at the piano and knocked out a little Beethoven, before the band members, most of whom have been with him for more than ten years, worked out the backup vocal harmonies to “My Life.” They vamped for a while on “Sledgehammer,” by Peter Gabriel, and ran through the end of “Movin’ Out,” to get the right level for the horns. And then Joel was doing “Just the Way You Are.” He’d written it for his first wife and manager, Elizabeth. When he told her, “This song is for you,” Donna Summer, standing nearby, said, “Does that come with the publishing?”
Before long, at the sound check, he began substituting bawdy lyrics: “I just want someone . . . to have sex with” and “Now you know I’m . . . full of shi-it.” “I couldn’t have loved you any better, unless . . . you grew some bigger tits.” Cohen walked by, shaking his head.
After a while, Joel stopped. “Should we really do that one? Really?”
“There won’t be a dry eye in the house,” the saxophonist Mark Rivera said.
Joel continued to argue against playing it. (He’d wanted to leave it off the album, too, but Linda Ronstadt and Phoebe Snow, dropping by the studio one day, told him he was nuts.) He usually won these arguments. At other sound checks, I’d seen him scrap such mainstays as “Angry Young Man” (the tempo was lagging, and the sentiment felt false) and “Captain Jack.” (“Dreary, dreary, dreary,” he said. “It just goes on and on. I’m sick of the thing. It didn’t age well. It’s been busted down to ‘Private Jack.’ ”) But this time Cohen and Brian Ruggles, Joel’s sound engineer since the early seventies, prevailed.
A few hours later, the arena was full, and he was back onstage with the band, delivering the familiar hits in full voice. He was all in. The cynicism surfaced only between numbers, such as when, after playing “The Entertainer,” he repeated, in a quizzical tone, the line “I won’t be here in another year / If I don’t stay on the charts” and then exclaimed, “Bullshit!” A roar greeted the opening notes of “Just the Way You Are,” and up in Section 106 I could see some women of a certain age singing along and dabbing their eyes. When the song was done, Joel turned to the audience and said, “And then we got divorced.”
Joel’s show hasn’t changed much over the years. Songs cycle in and out, and he and the band play many of them in a different key, to accommodate his aging vocal cords (he says that he prefers his late-career baritone to the tenor of his prime), but for the most part the big hits are always there, presented in the same arrangements and sonic array. The saxophone is the radiocarbon. Close your eyes and it’s 1982, which in many ways is exactly what his fans want. The delivery was tight and strong. Long ago, Joel grew tired of having to look out at the fat cats in the two front rows, the guys who’d bought the best seats and then sat there projecting a look of impatience and boredom that Joel characterizes, using his Vinny voice, as “Entertain me, Piano Man.” So Joel’s people stopped selling the two front rows and instead send the crew into the cheap seats before the show to hand out tickets to people of their choosing. That this usually results in a foreground that is both young and female may or may not be an unintended consequence, but Joel believes that it helps buck up the band.
To close out the set, he sprayed his throat, donned a harmonica rig, and launched into “Piano Man” without betraying any exasperation, only wonder, as thousands of people, many of them about half the song’s age, sang along. You could stand behind the stage and look out at the throngs, lit up by Cohen, and begin to understand why a man might rouse himself from hibernation and go through the motions again. “Gotta feed the elephant,” he likes to say. He means all the stakeholders in Joel, Inc., but the phrase also suggests his own desire for validation or love.
He closed out his customary five-song encore with “Only the Good Die Young.” It’s one of those songs that get the Garden arena, which is built on springs, to start bouncing. The bouncing had hardly ceased by the time Joel’s S.U.V. was gunning down the ramp and west toward the helipad, where the chopper waited. Ruggles and Cohen got aboard with Joel and Roderick. Someone had rescued a gigantic bag of popcorn from the dressing room; Joel liked to have it at home. The helicopter lifted off, tracked north over Central Park, and then out over Queens and LaGuardia. The metropolis alight. Joel leaned over to Cohen and said, “This is a great fucking job.”
Over Long Island Sound, Joel pointed out a mass. “That’s J. P. Morgan’s old island,” he said. “I rented a house there for a while, after I sold the house in East Hampton.” The helicopter cut south along the eastern shore of Centre Island. The helipad’s lights flashed on. As the passengers disembarked, Roderick quietly urged Ruggles, who was going through a divorce and living for the time being in one of Joel’s guesthouses, to take the popcorn.
Joel drove Roderick up the hill in the U.T.V. Soon, the helicopter was gone and all was quiet, except for the whir of katydids and a Beethoven violin concerto on the Sonos. Joel was back out under the trellis with a cigarillo. He’d given up cigarettes—he’d gone to see a hypnotist in Boston. Dock light from across the bay wobbled on the surface of the Sound. Less than a half hour before, he’d stood at the lip of a stage, sweaty and beaming, absorbing an arena’s adulation: Mussolini. Now just a schmuck. The commute had earned him more than a million bucks. He projected contentment and ease, and seemed in control of his appetites, as though he’d learned how to bank the endorphins and draw on the account as needed—rock stardom on time release. Roderick brought out a tray of cheese.
“Did you tell Brian to take my popcorn away?” he asked her. “Did you say, ‘Don’t give him the popcorn?’ ”
“I would never—”
“He’s been with me for fifty years,” Joel said.
“I didn’t tell him to take it away,” she said. “What I said was I didn’t want it to exist in the first place. It was really gross.”
“It’s not really gross,” Joel said. “I like the popcorn.”
They sat outside until almost 2 A.M. and then headed for bed.
People tend to assume, given the recent burst of reputational favor and vigor in performance, that Joel must be sober, that the narrative of redemption must rest on abstinence. But not everyone can be George Jones. Joel steers clear of spirits, he says, and just drinks wine, in moderation. “I think of it as a food group,” he told me. At one lunch, we each had a glass of Chianti. At another, we had a little sake. He ordered sashimi; he was hitting a steak house later with some friends. He likes to eat. “I’m with the Jack Nicholson school, that it’s this flat-belly shit that’s ruining America,” he said. “I don’t think there’s anything more pathetic than a man on a diet.”
He is sensitive about the alcohol thing. He cops to having had lots of problems in the past, drinking to excess, behaving like an ass. He chalks it up to Long Island, the culture of day’s end at the local pub. In the old touring days, the whole band boozed it up, and often they were the last ones standing in the hotel bar, Billy at the piano, crew gathered around with a few stragglers and girls, singing Sinatra and the Beatles: not exactly “Hammer of the Gods.” He claims not to have ever really got into drugs, though they certainly tried things, including heroin, on a 1981 swing through Amsterdam; in videos of concerts from the mid-eighties the clothes and the hair styles alone seem to scream “Cocaine!” You’ll hear Long Islanders tell old stories about the time they saw Joel at this or that Huntington bar, the man not looking his best. There were, in the past decade, a couple of interventions and a couple of stints in rehab, in 2002 and 2005. Still, he rejects the A.A. approach and favors the kind of self-moderation that A.A.’s devotees cluck at.
Elton John, who did a number of tours with Joel, told Rolling Stone in 2011, “Billy’s a conundrum. We’ve had so many cancelled tours because of illnesses and various other things, alcoholism.... He’s going to hate me for this, but every time he goes to rehab they’ve been light... When I went to rehab, I had to clean the floors. He goes to rehab where they have TVs. I love you, Billy, and this is tough love.”
“Elton is just being Elton,” Joel responded to Rolling Stone. But he was pissed. According to a biography of Joel by the Rolling Stone writer Fred Schruers—the book was originally intended as an as-told-to autobiography, but at the last minute Joel, increasingly uneasy about revealing so much of himself, pulled out and sent back his advance—Joel wrote Elton John an angry note: “What gives you the omnipotent moral certainty and authority to justify the public humiliation of anyone—especially of someone to whom you should, at the very least, consider according a modicum of honor?” He signed off, “We are done.”
Whether it’s denial or a hard-earned aversion to the intrusions of the celebrity-media complex and its twelve-step pieties, Joel greets most booze-related reports or questions with a flash of annoyance. He has protested that a trio of car accidents, in the early aughts, weren’t actually booze-related. It was dark, it was icy, he’d had eye surgery, the Citroën 2CV is a tricky little car. But it is true that these incidents coincided with a rough patch in his life—one of many over the years, the catalyst usually a breakup or a divorce. He takes it hard. His friends and collaborators give these periods a wide euphemistic berth. Schruers, in the biography, tells the story of an intervention led by friends in the summer of 2009, at the house on Centre Island. The friends brought along a trained counsellor, and Joel turned on him: “Now, who the fuck are you? Who the fuck do you think you are?”
We don’t often side with the intervenee, but there’s something to be said for defiance. As one of his biggest hits has it, “I don’t care what you say anymore, this is my life. Go ahead with your own life and leave me alone.” The song’s peppy electric piano—and its presence on the old cross-dressing sitcom “Bosom Buddies”—disguises a sentiment that is at the core of Joel’s outlook on his place in the world. When he plays “My Life” in concert, it can seem rote, but the anger at the heart of it, misplaced or not, gives it a pulse.
Joel has not released an album of new pop material since 1993. Since then, he has written and recorded just one song, “All My Life,” an ill-advised Sinatra-ish tribute to his then wife Katie Lee, which was released on People’s Web site on Valentine’s Day in 2007. He has been almost meticulously unproductive. He has rebuffed offers from various producers and executives (“the Resurrectionists,” Joel calls them) to record standards or old pop cuts, or even to rearrange his own stuff and present it anew. By all accounts, there is no shoebox full of lyrics or hard drive of latent hits. Instead, during that time, he gave the public a blur of concert tours, as well as a trove of appearances, at colleges and in concert halls, where, in a master-class setting, he talked with charm and intelligence about his life and work until it all hardened into shtick.
In those years, meanwhile, he has also occasionally been presented as a caricature of a has-been, a Dean Martin figurine, his frailties chronicled closely in the tabloids, with an uncertain combination of malice and love. Joel has an idea for a musical called “Good Career Move,” in which the record companies realize they can increase the value of their back catalogues by knocking off their artists, one by one. He hasn’t benefitted from a spectacular flameout (to say nothing of death), and instead has had to settle for muddling forward, as the world bends both away from and toward him.
Joel has often said he’s calling it quits. In 2010, two years after he closed down Shea Stadium with two sold-out shows, and a year after another fitful world tour with Elton John, he sent a letter to David Rosenthal, his band’s musical director and keyboardist, to share with the band. He likened himself to a professional ballplayer who couldn’t hack it anymore; he was taking himself off the field. The pain in his hips—he was born with dysplasia, and spent decades jumping off his piano every time he played “Only the Good Die Young”—had got to the point where he could hardly walk. “Turning sixty, the end of his marriage to Katie Lee, the hip pain: it was a combo platter of shit,” Cohen said. “It got really dark.” Cohen was accustomed to a certain ebb and flow in Joel’s enthusiasm for the game. Still, he said, “At the beginning of that break, I told everyone, ‘I think this is it.’ ”
But it wasn’t. At the Hurricane Sandy relief concert at the Garden, in December, 2012, he and the band went out, rusty, and delivered a muscular mini-set. Watching on TV, I realized that I hadn’t really thought much about Joel in years, yet here he was on a bill with the Stones, the Who, Bruce Springsteen, and Paul McCartney, and, on this occasion, anyway, and with respect, he was better than all of them.
Afterward, Joel felt that he might not be done after all. It was time to rouse the elephant. As it happens, in the cyclical nature of things, he, or perhaps his reputation, was entering a waxing phase, and suddenly he began to enjoy a popular revival and an upgrade from punch line to national treasure. So there he was last year at the Kennedy Center with a gaudy ribbon around his neck and, on his face, a stunned expression of embarrassment and pride (and his fellow-honoree Herbie Hancock, the piano man’s piano man, at his elbow) as a series of singers performed incongruous renditions of some of his hits. This summer, Joel sold out Fenway Park, Wrigley Field, Citizens Bank Park, in Philadelphia, and Nationals Park, in D.C., and, despite the sparse schedule (three shows a month), was the fourth-highest-grossing pop act of the season, behind One Direction, Jay Z and Beyoncé, and Justin Timberlake. Next month, he’ll be at the White House, as the winner of the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. The honors accrue. In July, he nabbed Newsday’s “That’s So Long Island” tournament, beating out bagels, Jones Beach, and Billy Crystal. All the while, he’s doing the Garden gigs, grossing two million-plus per and basking in the glow of nostalgic outings, date nights, and dads turning daughters on to the radio fodder of their youth—no one quite ready to wave Brenda and Eddie goodbye. In a way, Joel has become what Sinatra once was—in Cohen’s words, “the hood ornament for the greatest city on earth.”
“He won,” Cohen said. “He’s one of those guys who won.”
Billy Joel has never really been hip. He is widely loved but also, in many quarters, coldly dismissed. The critics got on him early. “Self-dramatizing kitsch” (Dave Marsh); “A force of nature and bad taste” (Robert Christgau). The contempt embedded in the lyrics of “Piano Man,” toward the patrons at the bar and the whole enterprise of entertaining people with music, soured many on him from the start. Joel wasn’t what the critics were looking for in the mid-seventies, when punk was knocking on the door. Their notions of authenticity, however flimsy, didn’t allow for his kind of poppy piano tristesse. One slam on him used to be that he was derivative, aping other voices or styles, or else mercenary, a soulless craftsman exploiting his technical and melodic agility to churn out insidious confections for the purpose of making money. These charges he has answered over and over. In the old days, he’d tear up reviews onstage. He used to call critics on the phone and scold them. (“You can’t know what I was thinking when I was writing that song.”) In his mind, he wasn’t trying to write hits. He just wrote songs that he hoped would sound good together on an album. The record company picked out the singles.
And it did a good job: he had thirty-three Top Forty hits. That’s an awful lot—about twice as many as Springsteen, the Eagles, or Fleetwood Mac. Some were schmalz, others were novelties, but a crate of them are songs that have embedded themselves in the great American jukebox and aren’t going away anytime soon. If you hate them, fine. A lot of people, even some rock snobs, love them still. I’m tired of “Piano Man,” too, but “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” gets me every time. “Summer, Highland Falls” is for real. As for derivative, Joel won’t deny it; he loved the Beatles, Ray Charles, Otis Redding, and Smokey Robinson, so why not try to sound like them? At his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, in 1999, he was introduced by Ray Charles. Joel said, “I know I’ve been referred to as derivative. Well, I’m damn guilty. I’m derivative as hell.” He said that if the Hall of Fame disqualified candidates on the basis of being derivative, “there wouldn’t be any white people here.”
In a Slate tirade a few years ago, “The Worst Pop Singer Ever,” Ron Rosenbaum wrote, “No career re-evaluations please! No false contrarian rehabilitations! He was terrible, he is terrible, he always will be terrible. Anodyne, sappy, superficial, derivative, fraudulently rebellious.... Billy Joel’s music elevates self-aggrandizing self-pity and contempt for others into its own new and awful genre: ‘Mock-Rock.’ ” He called Joel “the Andrew Wyeth of contemporary pop music.”
When I mentioned this to Joel, he said, “What’s wrong with Andrew Wyeth?”
Joel and his camp have the view that they have outlasted the haters. Pressed, he theorizes that maybe they didn’t like his voice. But he doesn’t like his own voice, either. He also doesn’t think he’s much of a piano player. Mediocre left hand.
Jon Landau was one of those critics, prior to becoming Springsteen’s manager, in 1977. “People, including myself, generally found him too glib and slick,” Landau told me. There was also a bias against hits. “As time has gone by, we’ve been proved wrong,” Landau said. “He’s one of the most musically astute composers of that era.” He said that when Springsteen joined Joel onstage for an Obama fund-raising concert, in 2008, and played a bunch of Joel’s songs with Joel’s band, he came off and told Landau, “Those songs—they’re built like the Rock of Gibraltar. Until you play them, you don’t realize how well they play.”
Springsteen had the band, the stage act, Clarence Clemons, a Svengali (Landau), and sex appeal. Joel was cute in his way, back in the day, but, as he said, “I look like the guy who makes pizza.” His default expression was a kind of petulant scowl. Onstage he could be enthralling, but he had the disadvantage of sitting at a piano. He often wore a jacket and tie—in earth tones. As for managers, Joel had some real doozies in the early days—including his first wife’s brother, who left him nearly broke—but in many respects he is one of rock’s great loners. He has gone most of his career without a reliable sounding board. He writes alone. What he has (now, at least) is a handful of loyal business associates, band members, and crew. Cohen told me, “Bruce had Landau, the guy saying, ‘Come see Kong.’ Billy never had a guy.”
Joel projected a kind of niggling self-consciousness. His rock-star gestures always came with a note of self-ridicule. He was and remains a great mimic, in homage or parody. He has at times been bombastic, but he’s as adept as any big rock star at taking the piss out of himself.
Springsteen, at least notionally, taps into the deep well of American blues, folk, and gospel, the dark muddy river, and came to prominence trafficking in the lyrical pose of Dylan. There were obscure images, sly references, misdirections. Joel is not that kind of artist. He states things very plainly, in the Tin Pan Alley tradition. The lyrics aren’t difficult.
Anyway, he is chiefly a melodist, in the McCartney vein (even though he sees himself as a Lennonite). Unlike most composers, he always starts with a tune and adds words later. Joel melodies make for tenacious earworms. Once you get “Movin’ Out” or “Zanzibar” on the brain, it can be hard to shake. This is not to assert that they are bad or good, only that they are catchy, which seems to be the characteristic most essential to making pop music popular.
Joel himself is a bit that way, as a pop-culture presence. He wormed his way in and won’t go away. One day, driving back with him to his house from lunch in Bayville, we were listening to the Deep Tracks station on Sirius. When we reached the house, he got out, and “Get It Right the First Time,” from “The Stranger,” came on. He’d only just told me that he considered the song the album’s weakest link and a reason for his ranking “The Stranger” below later albums. (His favorites: “The Nylon Curtain,” “River of Dreams.” Most fun to record: “Glass Houses.”) Still, it was poignant to hear the song’s jaunty, syncopated drum-and-flute intro as an accompaniment to the sight of Joel toddling along the lane to his mansion’s front door. Hours later, the song was still looping in my mind’s ear. When I mentioned it to Joel a few days later, he, too, got it stuck in his head.
For better or worse, my childhood had a lot of Billy Joel in it. When I was in fifth grade—late seventies, Manhattan—a friend who had five older brothers played “Captain Jack” for me, and it was the first time I’d heard about such things as junkies, closet queens, and masturbation. It was probably the allure of such wickedness that caused me, not long afterward, to choose, as my first-ever LP purchase, Joel’s new album, “52nd Street.” From this one, I learned about some other things, such as Halston, Elaine’s, Dom Pérignon, and the fact that one may snort cocaine from a spoon. All this came from “Big Shot”; I memorized, and can probably still recite, the lyrics. Fortunately, I’m old enough to have escaped the junior-high experience of being assigned “We Didn’t Start the Fire” in history class. (The record company sent the song to schools, along with a taped message from Joel titled “History Is a Living Thing.”)
Every summer, my parents rented a place on Lloyd Neck, on Long Island, facing Cold Spring Harbor and Oyster Bay. Across the water from the house was a hump of land called Cooper’s Bluff, a high point on the bay. At the top of it was a modern glass house, and I learned that it belonged to Billy Joel. Big shot was right. In 1980, he released the album “Glass Houses,” with a photograph of him on the porch of that house, in the act of throwing a stone. The songs on that record, which got heavy airplay that summer, still evoke the first feverish interactions of early adolescence.
The following summer, Joel moved to our side of the bay. He bought a brick waterfront house that had been the gatehouse to a Gilded Age mansion up the hill. (Our rental was the estate’s former boathouse: launch downstairs, captain’s quarters upstairs. The mansion itself was empty.) So now Joel was just a couple of hundred yards down the shore. We left him alone but did catch the occasional glimpse, as we puttered past in a Boston Whaler, of a short tan dude by the pool. His wife—soon-to-be Ex 1—stalked the shallow end in a black bikini. We envied his poolhouse jukebox and the Harley out front.
Joel got a divorce in 1982. That year, he came out with “The Nylon Curtain,” his bid for seriousness, which had a few cuts with a heavy presence on MTV, but I’d moved on, resolutely, to other music. Then Joel moved on, to “Uptown Girl” and Christie Brinkley.
Brinkley, having spent the seventies living in Paris, had known nothing of that decade’s Joel. She used to listen to the radio while waiting for her first husband, who was in the French military, to come home on weekend leave, and on her favorite station the traffic report had a whistled intro that she came to think of as the sound of Paris at night. She was floored, years later, to learn that the station had lifted his intro from “The Stranger.” “One day, I heard Billy do it, and I said, ‘Oh! You know that song from Paris?’ Joe—I call him Joe—he’s like, ‘Whaddaya mean, I wrote that song.’ ” (She called him Joe because he looked like a Joe to her. His friends call him Bill or B.J.) She also knew “New York State of Mind,” but assumed it was a Ray Charles song.
They’d met in a hotel bar on the island of St. Bart’s. He was fooling around on the piano, and Brinkley, along with the model Elle Macpherson and a nineteen-year-old Whitney Houston, gravitated to the little sunburned dynamo on the keys who was hamming it up for the girls. Brinkley sang the Portuguese lyrics of “The Girl from Ipanema.” Macpherson draped herself over the piano. Joel quietly thanked his mother for forcing him to take piano lessons. Houston said, “I’d like to sing,” but Joel, focussed on the supermodels, didn’t pay her much mind. Eventually, she persuaded him to play “Respect.” “She knocked it out of the park,” Brinkley recalled. Joel wound up dating Macpherson for a while, before he got together with Brinkley.
Eventually, Brinkley moved in with Joel at the gatehouse. We’d see her on the causeway in an open-air Jeep, blond hair blowing around. This was the summer of “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” of Brinkley luring Chevy Chase into the pool. One night, my brother and I, with a neighborhood friend, walked down the shore and knocked on Joel’s back entrance. He came to the door in a white bathrobe, hair tousled. We peered around him, but all we saw was a corridor lined with framed gold and platinum records. He was friendly. We told him we’d lost our dog. This wasn’t true. We described the dog, he promised to keep an eye out for it, and we left, feeling like idiots.
Joel and Brinkley were soon overrun with such invasions. Brinkley recalls that boaters regularly pulled up to the house, at the water’s edge. “Every morning, it was ‘Yo, Biiiiil-ly!’ ” she recalls. At high tide, cabin cruisers and fishing boats that had a tower helm were flush with their bedroom window. Joel and Brinkley sometimes had to tumble off the side of the bed and crawl beneath the window to get dressed. One day, they returned home to find a stranger in their kitchen, drinking a beer. He’d just tied up at the dock and walked in.
They began to look for a new place. They travelled the coast from Maine to the Chesapeake. The rock promoter Ron Delsener took them to see a property on Further Lane, in East Hampton, that had belonged to a real-life Judge Smails type who, Joel was told, had stipulated in his will that his estate not be sold to a Jew or an entertainer. “It was a win-win for me,” Joel said. It became their home; they raised their daughter, Alexa, there. In 2000, Joel sold the property to Jerry Seinfeld for thirty-two million dollars (a “win-win-win,” Joel said). He has a knack for blockbuster real-estate deals. He sold a duplex on Central Park West to Sting for five million dollars, in 1988 (“I was praying for a rock star to buy it,” Joel told me. “Someone who would ignore his accountant”), and a house on Martha’s Vineyard to Mickey Drexler. Earlier this month, he sold another house in the Hamptons, which he’d bought from Roy Scheider, for nineteen million. His people like to say he lives fairly lean, relative, anyway, to the likes of Elton John and Sting. He now has a house near Palm Beach, and another in the village of Sag Harbor, where Billy Joel sightings are as commonplace as Lyme disease. (A favorite is one I heard of him pulled over on a back road, lost, with Bono in the sidecar of Joel’s Vespa.)
He bought the house on Centre Island in 2002, from a former Goldman Sachs partner, who’d torn down the old mansion and replaced it with a near-replica. Joel has in turn spent several years more or less replacing that one, brick by brick. He liked the fact that Alan Jay Lerner once lived nearby. The only neighbor he got to know was John Barry, the composer who’d arranged* the James Bond theme.
As it happens, my parents had moved from the boathouse to Centre Island fifteen years earlier. The joke became that Joel was stalking us. The guy wouldn’t go away: his songs still on the radio, his motorcycle on the road, pipes roaring as my parents tried to get the grandkids to nap. I say “his motorcycle,” but we soon discovered that he has about a hundred of them. In the village of Oyster Bay he set up a storefront garage (open to the public on weekends), where he exhibits dozens of his customized vintage bikes, which he designed and had his mechanics build out. None are for sale. On Tuesday nights in summer, hot-rod and vintage-car enthusiasts from all over Long Island converge on Oyster Bay and park their rigs on the streets outside. Joel used to enjoy milling around, but people wouldn’t leave him alone, so now he sticks to the back.
Joel’s other great indulgence is boats. As a kid in school, he used to sketch hulls in his notebooks. He now designs and sells recreational versions of lobster boats, deriding modern powerboats as “penis extensions” and a neighbor’s shiny yacht as a “Clorox bottle.” In 2007, he designed and had built a fifty-seven-foot powerboat called the Vendetta, based on the old Gold Coast commuter boats of the twenties and thirties. It can go about fifty knots. It gets him to the Garden almost as quickly as the helicopter. He bought a kind of dwarf lobster boat for Roderick and called it Oyster Babe. He likes drawings, schemes, landscaping projects. “I’m in my Thomas Jefferson phase,” he told me.
When I first went to visit Joel at his Centre Island house, I found him in an immaculate motorcycle garage, attending to a new Moto Guzzi. I never saw him use the music room downstairs, a vast marble pavilion with pianos, organs, and horns. There’d been an indoor pool there, but he’d had it boarded over. He said, “Sometimes I walk around the house and make believe I don’t live here. ‘Wow, this must be a cool place to live.’ ”
The house had once been home to a woman named Rosalind Walter, a society dame who, during the Second World War, had elected to work in a factory making fighter planes. She’d been a model for Rosie the Riveter. When I relayed this information to Joel, who is a history nut and a Second World War buff, he replied, “I never imagined a blue-collar girl like Rosie would have lived in a place like this. Then again I never imagined me living in a place like this, either.”
When Joel was eighteen, he worked on an oyster dredge for a local shellfish company. To protect his hands, he wore gloves. “The guys, all these tough Portuguese and Italian fishermen, they really gave it to me,” he said. “ ‘Oh, the piano player’s gotta wear gloves. Little sissy.’ ” The dredge, then as now, often worked the plots just off Centre Island, and he remembers looking up at the mansion on the hill. “I used to curse the owner: ‘Fucking rich bastard, probably never worked a day in his life.’ ”
Though Joel was born in the Bronx, he was reared in Levittown, the postwar planned (and originally racially segregated) community, near Hicksville, on Long Island. His parents met while performing in a City College production of “The Pirates of Penzance.” His father, Howard (né Helmut) Joel, was from a prominent textile family in Nuremberg; they fled Germany in 1938, after their factory was confiscated by the Nazis. His mother’s family had immigrated from England in 1914 so that Joel’s grandfather, Philip Nyman, a pacifist, could avoid serving in the First World War. (He did later fight with the Republicans in Spain.) Nyman, a Brooklyn lefty and avowed atheist, was Joel’s intellectual hero.
When Joel was eight, Howard Joel left the family and returned to Europe, leaving his wife, Rosalind, to raise Billy and his older sister alone. (His father eventually started another family. Joel has a half brother, Alex, who is a well-known classical conductor in Vienna.) Rosalind managed to keep paying for Joel’s piano lessons. When she’d ask him to show her what he’d been learning, Joel, a shirker with skills, would improvise pieces that sounded like Beethoven and Mozart—his compositional beginnings, you might say. But it was the Beatles, on Ed Sullivan, that really ignited his curiosity about rock and roll—that and the older girls’ enthusiastic response to his Elvis-inspired hip-swivelling atop a cafeteria table. The way seemed clear. As a teen, he was busy enough working late nights as an organist, in bands and bars—and then sleeping those nights off—that he was denied a diploma from Hicksville High.
By 1967, he was in a band called the Hassles, which recorded a couple of albums and achieved some mid-Island renown. Two years later, he and one of his bandmates, Jon Small, went out on their own to form a heavy-metal duo called Attila. That was a dud (the album cover says it all: the two of them in chain mail, with long spaniel curls, posing in a meat locker), but Joel did eventually make off with Small’s wife, Elizabeth. In the interim, Joel was at loose ends. There was anguish, a halfhearted suicide attempt (furniture polish), a brief stay in a mental institution—all fodder for original songs. Joel had decided that he wanted to be a songwriter, with an eye on getting others to sing his stuff, but first he had to present the material himself, on vinyl and on the road. He signed a record deal with a producer named Artie Ripp, who recorded Joel’s first solo album, “Cold Spring Harbor,” which for some reason was mastered at too high a speed and therefore was a humiliation to Joel. Of greater and longer-lasting concern was the deal he’d signed, which basically gave Ripp the rights to everything, forevermore. To bide time and to get out from under that deal, Joel and Elizabeth moved to Los Angeles for a few years. That’s when he worked in a piano bar on Wilshire as Bill Martin (his middle name) and came up with “Piano Man.”
His lottery ticket, though, was “Captain Jack,” about a mope who escapes the drudgery of his life by shooting heroin. It was based on the junkies he’d seen while living in an apartment complex in the village of Oyster Bay, after he left the Hassles. In 1972, before recording it, Joel performed it live on WMMR, in Philadelphia, and the “jack-off song” soon became the station’s most requested cut. The local A. & R. guys from Columbia Records caught wind of this and alerted headquarters in New York. Clive Davis, the head of CBS Records, came to see Joel perform a couple of times and signed him to Columbia, which issued his second album, “Piano Man.”
The executives at Columbia eventually got him out of the deal with Ripp. Walter Yetnikoff, the volatile head of the company during the seventies and eighties, threatened Ripp with industry banishment and bodily harm. Yetnikoff bought back Joel’s publishing rights and gave them to him for his twenty-ninth birthday. Columbia stuck with Joel, though his next couple of albums failed to catch on. It was only when Joel and Elizabeth, by this time his manager, brought in Phil Ramone to produce “The Stranger” that they were able to capture in the studio what Joel and his live band, a bunch of Long Island guys he’d poached from a band called Topper, had been able to rev up on the road. And that’s when the money started rolling in—at least, in theory.
A couple of years before Joel’s divorce from Elizabeth, her brother Frank Weber took over as his manager. Brinkley claims that she was the one who first started questioning Joel about Weber. She wondered why Weber flew private while she and Joel flew commercial, and noted that he seemed to own a lot of houses and horses. Brinkley started investigating, she told me. “Everywhere we went, it seemed, someone would say, ‘Billy, we hear you just bought the house down the street.’ ” But Joel didn’t want to believe it. “He said, ‘I’ve known Frank longer than I’ve known you.’ Frank was a father figure he trusted.”
Joel and John Eastman, the entertainment lawyer, recall it differently. Eastman, whose suit on behalf of his brother-in-law Paul McCartney dissolved the Beatles partnership, was Phil Ramone’s attorney, and once, while reviewing Ramone’s accounts, he noticed that Weber seemed to be getting a greater share of the royalties than Joel. Eastman, who knew Joel socially from East Hampton, pointed this out to Joel, who decided to sue. Eastman took on Joel as a client. The defendants in the subsequent raft of lawsuits were Weber, Joel’s accountants, and his former lawyer, Allen Grubman, whose firm happened also to have represented some executives at the record company (at this point, Columbia was owned by Sony). Like most litigation, it got nasty and complicated. Eastman remembers renting an office in East Hampton and having Joel in every day, all day, for a month, to prepare for his deposition, to familiarize him with every document and fact. Betrayal, by the page. In the end, he nailed it. “They never laid a glove on him,” Eastman recalls. It may have been the performance of his career, in that it set him up to make his money back and become a rock-and-roll tycoon. Eventually, when Joel’s lawyers threatened a protracted battle, the suit was resolved out of court. (Grubman maintains that he paid nothing in the settlement.) Though most of the money was never recovered, Joel ultimately received settlements that amounted to roughly ten million dollars, and over time disentangled himself from onerous contracts and various investments, tax shelters, and partnerships that Weber had put him into.
Basically, Joel had to start over. The mandate was clear: Go forth and earn. He made two more albums, “Storm Front” (1989) and “River of Dreams” (1993), each a big commercial, if not quite critical, success: about eight million copies sold apiece. And then the river went dry. He hasn’t made another pop album since. (In 2001, there was an album of his classical piano pieces, performed by a professional pianist.) His marriage to Brinkley was falling apart. (“I’ve always adored him,” she told me. “I just couldn’t live with him anymore.”)
“I became a road warrior, basically,” Joel said. Tulsa, Phoenix, Perth. Sometimes with Elton John, sometimes without—that was another doomed marriage, of a sort. (Joel always refers to himself as “the junior partner.”) Girlfriends, another bride, another divorce. Accolades, car accidents, real-estate deals. He became more celebrity than artist, a goat for the tabloid maenads. When you don’t offer them anything new, you have nothing to hide behind.
His subsequent reconciliation with many of these people—he gave Weber free tickets to a show in Florida, is once again cordial with Allen Grubman, and told me that Ex 1, Elizabeth, has been managing the musical careers of his half brother’s two closest friends in Vienna—seems to arise out of a huge capacity for forgiveness as well as a vestigial guilelessness. “It’s mind-boggling to me,” Brinkley said. “It’s a credit to him, I guess.”
There have been two Billy Joels: the angry young man-cum-irrepressible tunesmith from the hitmaking days and the moody middle-aged millionaire Everyman of these later years. One created the songbook so that the other might live.
“We were sitting around talking about this the other night,” Cohen said. “When did he become that guy? One day, he’s the curly-haired dark-eyed brooding artist—although really he wasn’t ever that guy—and then suddenly he became my uncle. The transition was sort of a blur.”
Hours spent on YouTube, watching videos of concerts, interviews, and town-hall Q. & A.s with fans, suggest that it happened around the time Joel stopped writing and recording. He seems to have emerged from a period of divorce, prolonged litigation, record-company mishegoss, band discord, cloying celebrity, and studio fatigue to find himself, in his mid-forties, with nothing left to say and no desire to say it—an entertainer’s strain of shellshock.
“I’m not crazy about going into a recording studio and doing that kind of life again,” he told me one day. “Or taking on another project where there’s other people involved—arrangers and orchestrators and conductors and producers. I don’t want to deal with it. It’s a megillah. You have to have a certain amount of ambition to want to do all that. And I look back at the guy who was the recording artist, this Billy Joel guy, and I think, Who the fuck was that guy? He was very ambitious, very driven, and I don’t feel like that anymore.”
Joel maintains that there’s discipline in it. “Over the years, Elton would say, ‘Why don’t you make more albums?’ And I’d say, ‘Why don’t you make less?’ ”
He went on, “Some people think it’s because I’m lazy or I’m just being contrary. But, no, I think it’s just—I’ve had my say. If I put out an album now, it would probably sell pretty well, because of who I am, but that’s no reason to do it. I’d want it to be good. And I’ve seen artists on that treadmill, putting out albums year after year, and the albums get worse and worse, less and less interesting, and it’s, like, maybe you should stop.”
Brinkley joked to me that the divorce was the primary cause. “Let’s face it—I was a good muse.” In seriousness, she said, “He wanted to make sure he retained his dignity.”
I asked him if he was afraid of losing it—if he was afraid of what people might say. “There’s no fear,” he said. “I don’t feel like I have anything to prove anymore. What I do have at this point is a horror of celebrity.” For one thing, he said, “it’s easier to write more personal stuff when you’re not as well known.” Once he became famous, people read too much into his work. “You can’t create something that’s an independent entity, made out of whole cloth. They know who you’re in a relationship with, what your past is. They tend to draw their own conclusions. Your image becomes more powerful than the things you create.” He went on, “I was seeing it begin to happen when I was doing ‘River of Dreams.’ I had gone through this celebrity craziness with Christie, and the divorce. I felt like there was a proctoscope up my butt. Everybody interrogating, analyzing—everything I wrote was fraught with meanings—and I said, Wait a minute, I don’t want to rip myself open and let everyone see everything. It was no longer comfortable. Enough! I gave you enough!”
After his most recent Garden show, earlier this month, Joel postponed the helicopter trip home and headed with Roderick to a small birthday party for Sting. They’d been friends since the late seventies. They make a funny clique, these barons of rock’s second—or, really, third—wave, the ones who figured out how to make a living at it and hold on to the loot. These weren’t the progenitors—the British Invasion guys, to say nothing of their American forebears—but, rather, the first generation to have come of age in the album-format era. It seemed that most of them, at one time or another, lived within a span of twenty blocks on Central Park West—a long way from Memphis.
Leaving the Garden, Joel’s S.U.V. got caught behind a garbage truck (“So ‘Spinal Tap,’ ” he remarked), and a couple of young women waiting by the exit ramp clued in to the fact that he was aboard. They screamed his name, and Joel asked his girlfriend to roll the window down. One of the women, on seeing him, yelled, “Shut up!” (in the sense of “No way!”), and they rushed the car. Now others in the area noticed, and the S.U.V., still stuck, was soon besieged by dozens of fans brandishing smartphones and shouting congratulations. The S.U.V. inched forward, Black Hawk down, more and more people swarming. After a while, traffic began to break up and fans ran alongside, taking pictures, Joel bantering with them, and then suddenly they were gone, and he was another schmuck on Eighth Avenue. He and Roderick agreed that the fans had seemed really nice.
The party was at Marea, a restaurant on Central Park South: about two dozen people in a back room. The actor Paul Reiser, an old friend, met him outside and followed him in. Reiser had just finished a set of standup at a comedy club; Sting had come from the previews for his new musical. This was happy hour. After a while, a cake came out. The refrain “Happy birthday, dear... Sting” sounded faintly ridiculous; Reiser gave it extra emphasis.
Unmoved, Sting demanded that everyone sing it again, better this time, and in a higher key, and he led: “Happy birthday, dear . . . me!” Then Joel broke into “He Is an Englishman,” from “H.M.S. Pinafore.” The other guests went quiet and listened.
Late on a recent afternoon, I walked down the road to Joel’s place on Centre Island, bottle of red in hand. The gate to his driveway swung open, and I made my way along the blacktop. A storm had cleared, and the harbor gleamed. Autumn. Joel was in the kitchen, in a hooded sweatshirt and sweatpants, TV tuned to some History Channel program on the Second World War. Roderick was making treats for her horses. It was Yom Kippur, but Joel doesn’t observe. A friend, an Italian chef named Francesco, who had had two restaurants that recently closed, was coming soon to cook dinner for the two of them and Ruggles, Joel’s sound guy, who was staying down in the guesthouse again. Ruggles, from Syosset, met Joel in 1968 and has been with him longer than anyone.
Joel had done nothing all day and was mildly displeased to see the rain gone, as it had suited an idling mood. He had performed at the Garden again two nights before and was still recovering: the throat, the body, the energy drain. The day after the day after. Onstage, he uses a drummer’s stool, rather than a piano bench, so that he is more upright, to give his lungs room to expand, but this compromises his posture over the keys. He’d also whacked himself in the face with the microphone stand.
We went to talk in the library: McIntosh amps, bookshelves from floor to ceiling, a model of the Queen Mary, lit from within, on the mantel. We sat in big leather chairs. I pressed him again on the question of his old critics. But you could tell he was tired of talking about himself. Introspection’s not his bag, and after a half century of being poked and prodded he’d hit a wall. He’d tried to read the new biography, but could hardly go a page without putting it down. Who wants to hear it all again? “Lion in winter,” he said. We went outside so he could smoke a cigarillo. The sun was setting beyond the trees.
After a while, he led me into the living room, at the west end of the house. On the wall facing the fireplace was a giant triptych of the Last Supper (“It’s a roast!” Joel said) and beneath it a table spread with silver grails. Another table was cluttered with silver jugs and bowls, like trophies. Joel had decorated the place himself. The aesthetic, he said, was “Catholic martyrs and saints, grotesqueries.” There was a bust of Beethoven near the piano, and Joel put his baseball cap on its head and sat down on the bench. He was listing favorite songwriters of his generation but grasping for names. Now and then, one came to him. “Warren Zevon”—he played snippets of “Werewolves of London” and “Lawyers, Guns and Money.” I threw a few names out, dead guys (Nick Drake, Townes Van Zandt) and newer bands, too (Radiohead? Wilco?), and he really had no idea what I was talking about. He listened only to classical music these days. Dennis Arfa, Joel’s longtime booking agent, likes to say of a performer who is big enough to sell out an arena, “He’s in the box.” Joel’s box might be bigger than Arfa’s, but inclusion still requires hits of a certain calibre and vintage. “I love Gordon Lightfoot,” he said.
And then Joel began to play his own stuff, a collection of instrumental pieces he’d been working on for more than ten years, without notating or recording so much as a chord. “It’s all here,” he said, pointing to his head. He’d played these things for just a handful of friends: his half brother Alex, his old teacher Chuck Arnold, who’d recently come to visit. He’d told me on a few occasions that he wasn’t sure, or even concerned, about what they might amount to: “Some could be songs, some could be ideas for a soundtrack or something, some are more like hymns.”
He started in on what really did sound like a hymn, Anglican maybe. All that was missing was Isaac Watts. Like a middle-school chorister, Joel rushed through the rests, but the music, set to the dying of the light, still had heft. There was something incongruous about these progressions issuing from the thick fingers of a man in sweats. He played something else—“a Richard Rodgers kind of thing,” he said—and I found myself imagining a gruff vocal, along the lines of Tom Waits, but afterward he said he had in mind a touch of Nat King Cole. “But then it’d need words, and I don’t wanna.” He said he was not necessarily averse to the idea of someone else adding lyrics, but he seemed skeptical, after a lifetime of fruitless collaborations. “I need to get to know more poets,” he said. He mentioned Cream and Procol Harum, and recited the opening verses of “White Room” and “Whiter Shade of Pale.”
As he moved from one song to the next, he referred a couple of times to something called “The Scrimshaw Pieces,” and it emerged that he had already imagined all of these as a cycle of songs—“tone poems,” he called them. The playing, now and then halting as he tried to remember certain passages, was mostly prodigious and lush, evocative of familiar things. In between pieces, he began to explain that these were variations on a motif and that they were telling the story of the history of Long Island, from its pastoral beginnings to the arrival of the Europeans—“I’m imagining the prow of a ship, and a Puritan hymn”—and then the bustle of the nineteenth century. Farming, fishing, the railroad. “Getting busy on Long Island,” he said. “This one’s almost Coplandesque, with big open fifths.” We were a long way from Brenda and Eddie. He played intently as the room went dark.
Later, in the kitchen, over a glass of wine, Joel mentioned to Ruggles that he was starting to forget some of the stuff he’d been working on and that they had better get it down on tape. Ruggles was going in for back surgery in two days, but said that in a few weeks, when he was back on his feet, he could reconnect the recording rig in the music room, and they could get it down. “It’ll give me something to do,” Ruggles said. Francesco set out a plate of sautéed artichokes. Ω
[Nick Paumgarten has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 2005. From 2000 to 2005, he was the deputy editor of The Talk of the Town, to which he regularly contributes. He has also written features on subjects ranging from sports-talk radio to Internet dating to the World Economic Forum in Davos to a mountain climber attacked by Sherpas on Mount Everest. Before coming to the magazine, he was a reporter and senior editor at the New York Observer. Paumgarten received a BA from Princeton University.]
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