Friday, 5 p.m., Memorial Day weekend is beginning, and much of Manhattan is heading out of town for the holiday. In the thick of rush hour, a man sits alone in front of a trendy Midtown restaurant, an empty wine glass on the table by his side. Spotting him, a fan stops to say hi. "You'd think someone like Billy Joel would have someone to have a drink with," the fan recalls. "He did not appear to be drunk, but he looked sad and lonely. When he left, we all heard him whistling 'New York State of Mind' as he was walking down the street. It looked as if he was wandering."
To his credit, Joel, 53, stopped wandering and got help. On June 17 he checked himself into Silver Hill Hospital in New Canaan, Conn., to treat a problem with substance abuse. Friends say the substance in question is probably alcohol. If fans were surprised by news of his rehab—at the clinic where Joan Kennedy, Mariah Carey
and Liza Minnelli were treated—associates weren't. "I'm not shocked," says Andrew Baker, a Sag Harbor, N.Y., music-store owner and friend who has known Joel for a decade. "There have been times when he likes to party."
Actually, it's more complicated than that, Joel told PEOPLE during his stay. A respiratory infection, he says, forced him to cut short a tour following a March 15 Madison Square Garden appearance with Elton John (he plans to restart it in the fall). That "made me very depressed," says Joel. "I've been touring for 30 years and have only had to cancel a handful of shows in my life, so I took this really hard. I then began what I ultimately realized was a prolonged period of overindulgence. I don't want to get more specific." He adds, "There wasn't any specific incident that triggered my decision. It was more of a gradual realization during the last couple of months. I became concerned enough to want to voluntarily seek help. My main concern right now is with my own well-being."
He had reason to worry. On June 12 Joel sharply turned his '99 Mercedes sedan on a winding road in East Hampton, N.Y., lost control and struck a post. His face was cut, and he refused medical attention, but, theorizes pal Baker, "the crash was the straw that broke the camel's back." A Breathalyzer test was not administered, says East Hampton police chief Todd Sarris, because "there was no evidence of alcohol."
Some—including a New York Times reviewer, who wrote that Joel "seemed to have ingested something quite a bit stronger than cough syrup"—suggested there was evidence of it at the March 15 show. At one point Joel began randomly calling out the names of famous American battles ("Midway!...Guadalcanal!"). Joel says the culprit was a prescription drug. "I did take medication under my doctor's supervision," he says. "The media speculated that I was on something stronger, and this is just not true. I had difficulty breathing and felt light-headed and disoriented, close to passing out."
But the Piano Man's woes aren't all health-related, according to some. Joel, a Long Island native from blue-collar Hicksville, N.Y., "has been lonely," says Kimberly Goff, a socially connected Hamptonite who runs an art gallery. "He has a great relationship with [ex-wife] Christie Brinkley, but she is happy with Peter Cook," her husband. On June 4 Joel's most recent girlfriend, Inside Edition reporter Trish Bergin, 31, married a lawyer, Randi Weichbrodt. Four days earlier during a Today appearance, Joel lamented that the one thing he hasn't yet achieved is to "have a long-term successful relationship with a woman." Another longtime ex-love, artist Carolyn Beegan, has, says Goff, "been seen all over town with a yachtsman. It has to be hard." Bartenders in the Hamptons often spot Joel dining solo. "It's difficult for him to know if women like him for him," says Goff, "or because he is Billy Joel."
One young woman whose love he can count on is Alexa Ray, his 16-year-old daughter with Brinkley. "I told my daughter that I recognized I was having a problem," Joel says. "And my gift to her for Father's Day was going to be cleaning up my act."
Rebecca Paley in East Hampton and Rachel Felder and Debbie Seaman
in New York City