Backstage With...Billy Joel
But it did. Joel's album River of Dreams hit the charts at No. 1 in August and has sold more than 4.5 million copies. This fall he launched an 18-month world tour—including this trip on Nov. 15 to begin a run of three sold-out shows in the Midwest—that could be his most profitable ever. But if River has proved that Joel's music is ageless, the road has convinced him that he's aging. "Touring is a young man's job," he says. "I can't sing the same high notes I used to. I can't keep up the lifestyle. After each show. I pay a price."
As he deplanes at O'Hare, his biggest kvetch is vocal strain—caused by allergies, demanding gigs and the stress of endless depositions. (For years, Joel has been immersed in legal nightmares: he recently settled a fraud and conflict of interest suit against his ex-lawyer and expects to go to trial soon in a $90 million suit against a former manager he claims ripped him off.) Otherwise, Joel is upbeat and easygoing. He shuffles through the airport with his Everyman aura intact, and his approach-ability invites warm nods and handshakes from passersby. In fact, mellow, ponytailed security man Noel Rush is all the beef the benign rocker needs. Joel and entourage prefer vans to limos: "Limos get depressing. They make me feel I'm at a funeral, like I'm a mobster."
Joel's base in Chicago is a $600-a-night duplex penthouse suite at Le Meridien. Still, he has to ward off the lonely, dislocating symptoms of "hotelitis," as he calls the malaise of being on tour. "The road is a great equalizer," he says. "It's basically "willy Loman, traveling salesman. It makes me verklempt, a little nuts." What keeps him "sane, focused and grounded," he says, is his suitcase full of "touchstones": photos of his supermodel wife, Christie Brinkley, and his 7-year-old daughter, Alexa; boxes of Palmas cigars; and books ranging from David Halberstam's The Fifties to Advanced Coastal Navigation. "If I see books," says Joel, "I feel human."
A seasoned sailor, Joel often plays what he calls a "Zen-like mind game" to center himself. Using navigational charts, he plots an imaginary course for his 36-foot fishing boat from his home near East Hampton, N.Y., to a faraway East Coast port. "That takes me out to sea," he says, "and a couple miles offshore is like being in outer space. I get antsy not seeing big bodies of water. Lake Michigan will do—in a pinch. But I'm a saltwater guy."
During the tour, Joel is away five or six weeks for every two he spends at home but calls Christie and Alexa at least twice each day. (Occasionally they visit him with a tutor in tow.) "I love hearing Alexa's voice," he says. "Something about having a little girl is heartbreaking. It's a feeling I never had before. I don't want to miss her growing up—any of it."
Early the next day, Joel loads up on carbs, (to which he sometimes adds soup and salad). He prefers to hit the stage "hungry, a little angry, with an edge." Before heading to the gig, he banters with journalists at a hotel press conference. Q: "You're a trailblazer, a living legend. What's left for you that's exciting?" A: "There's a position my wife and I haven't tried...."
Out at the now-empty 16,700-seat Rosemont Horizon, Joel comes alive for the sound check. As he hops from a Steinway to synthesizers around the stage, he and his band jam through a blues number, two Beatles tunes, a couple of Joel songs and Chicago's hit "25 or 6 to 4."
The next two hours, until the start of the show, are, in Joel's words, "endless, agonizing." He paces backstage. He reads fan letters. He goes over the song selection with his crew. Atop the wardrobe trunk in his dressing room are the kind of pharmaceuticals only a fortysomething rocker could love: nasal spray, lozenges, mouthwash, rubbing alcohol, Advil and Tums. And there are no groupies in sight.
It's clear that Joel's idea of a good time has evolved since the '60s. "I was an outlaw starting out 25 years ago—searching for authenticity, for the heart of rock and roll," he says. "And we had our wild, crazy days. We trashed hotel rooms. Now we're old dogs. Sure, there are still groupies. But that thing of rock stars having guys pimp for them is pretty passé. Even if I was tempted to screw around I couldn't—everybody knows who I am. And I love my wife."
The buzz from the restive crowd grows louder in the darkened arena as Joel calmly noodles Beethoven's Ninth Symphony on a synthesizer in his dressing room. He doesn't need to medicate or meditate to get up for the show. But he does inhale a mix of oxygen and water from a small tank to hydrate his vocal cords. Joel makes his famous hooded eyes grow drowsier as he draws from his high-tech hookah—and then deadpans a perfect sultan lilt: "Bring on the dancing girls and the jooglers, please. And where is my djellaba?"
The real rush comes for Joel when he steps onstage and hears the roar as the band kicks into "A Matter of Trust." At that point, he has entered what he calls Billyworld—the mesmerizing "big noise" that rockets him into another dimension for 150 minutes. It's what rock has always been about for him. "There is no way to prepare for that energy, for that bloodcurdling scream," he says. "I'm probably going deaf from it, but it's truly electrifying. It's not an ego thing, like, 'Hey, aren't we superhuman?' It's more sexual. Somebody makes a lot of noise, indicating how much they enjoy what you're doing. You get revved up, you perform a little better—fingernails on the back, the whole nine yards. I'm a child of the '60s. But what I want the music to do—uplift, unite, create a bond—hasn't changed."
The withering pace builds through 20 songs to the "Piano Man" finale. Then Joel sprints, depleted, from the pandemonium of the arena to the silence of his van.
The next night, dining on steak at Morton's, Joel says this will be his last marathon tour. "I'm not deluded into thinking we're after the Holy Grail," he says. "The road isn't a religion. It's part of how I make my income. That itch to hit the road is gone. I like my life now. I used to be afraid of being in my 40s. Now I find out my 40s are pretty good. Of course, I'm rich and I'm married to Christie Brinkley. And that will tend to skew one's view of things."