verybody, deep down, who is an artist has got to wonder, "What if they find out?" I mean, you think you're good at certain things, but the fact that people listen to you time and time again makes you wonder. Once in a while I try to intellectualize, which is a dumb thing to do if you're onstage.
I'll say something like, "What the hell are they all doing out there?" Of course, if people sense that you don't know what you're doing up there, they'll eat you up. I think an audience expects to be sort of led, or swept away. They have to believe you. It's not a matter of selling them, but you have to have such a strong belief in what you're doing at that moment. That is part of what show business is, what being an entertainer is all about. Entertaining is believing you are doing so much that you can cast a spell, for lack of a better word. With me, it gets to the point that when I get off the stage, sometimes I go, "Who the hell was that? What was that that just went on? What happened?" It's almost like a trance. People tell me that I've done things on stage that I don't even remember.
Part of the armor is confidence. I think of myself as a real sensitive and vulnerable person, like a bad review could destroy me. But onstage, that's my job, my gig. This is what I'm going to do, and I better do it right because if I stink, they are going to remember. I don't get nervous. I get psyched. It's an adrenaline flow. The mouth gets a little dry, and you go, "OK, here you go." I grab onto the piano because it's my shield, my crutch, and I do it.
When I was nineteen or twenty, I said, "I don't want to be a rock'n'roll star anymore." I had been in bands for years, and to get up onstage to want to be a star, you have to have a tremendous self-centered thing. You have to shut out a lot of things in your life. You have to give up a lot of your social life. You have to concentrate on your art. Music has to be your mistress. So I said at nineteen or twenty, "I have had it with trying to be a rock'n'roll star. I just want to be a songwriter."
So I wrote a lot of songs and people in the music business said, "Well, OK, if you want people to hear your songs, maybe you should record them." OK, I got a record deal in the era of the singer-songwriter, on Michael Lang's label. Then I got switched to Artie Ripp's label, like a baseball trade, and I ended up on Family Records. All right, I made the record and then they told me, "Now you have to go out on the road and promote it."
I'm on the road six months and I'm thinking, "This is a kind of weird way to be a songwriter." It ended up that I became Billy Joel, rock star, which was not what I intended. Don't get me wrong, it's great. But I didn't realize what I'd signed away. The guy who was managing me at the time was in cahoots with the company that signed me, so he became a part of the company. For six months I didn't get any money, nobody in the band got any money. We didn't have any food, and the company would say, "Get some white bread and peanut butter and just eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches."
I said, "Something isn't right here. I got to get out of these bad contracts, these deals." That is when I went out to Los Angeles and sort of disappeared. Got a job working in a piano bar. Because of the song "Piano Man," people think I was working in that bar for years, but I only did it for six months. It was a way to pay the rent. It was a way for me to be anonymous in L.A.
Then I got a music business lawyer, I got a guy who was a manager, and fortunately Clive Davis at Columbia had seen me at some music festival, and so Columbia initiated a signing. The old company still gets a piece of me, but I came to grips with it. I used to get mad, but I honored an agreement, however dishonorable it was. I lived with it and got on with my life. It was either negotiate a compromise or don't do anything. See, somebody wins if you stay bitter. If it eats you up, if you stay angry, if you change and become hateful, they win. I made more money than I ever expected to make. And besides, all those deals are just about over. The next record I make I am free and clear.
I think I've dreamed all the songs I've written. I don't dream regular dreams. I dream stories. When people tell me they had a strange dream last night, they were riding down a street, and blah, blah, blah, I don't relate to that. I dream in abstractions, in colors. I dream music and shapes and paintings and sculptures. I have awakened at four-thirty in the morning with a whole symphony in my head. I say to myself, "This is so good I don't even have to get up now. I'll remember it when I wake up later." And then later when I wake up, it's gone. And then weeks, maybe months, maybe years later it reoccurs to me that the song I have just written is from some old dream.
I was in the middle of a meeting with someone, and "Just the Way You Are" popped out of my head. I said, "I gotta go home right now and write this song." I just stopped the meeting. That's how all my songs get written. It's another dimension. I hate to speak in cosmic ways. Other people say they have to get in the mood, do their yoga, and maybe that works for them. I am unable to do that. I can never go to the song computer. When I'm dry, I'm dry. I understand Stevie Wonder writes a song a day. This guy keeps in shape, like it's a musical workout. I tried that once. It was very, very frustrating. Writing for me is like going through a pregnancy and labor and a painful birth. Here comes this kid. And like with kids, some songs I like the way they age, and with other songs I don't.
More than anything, I like when other people do my songs. That was my original intention, to be a songwriter. I've gotten criticism over the years for not being enough of a stylist. I change my voice a lot. Like sometimes I sing like Ray Charles. In my early days I was trying to sing like the Beatles. The criticism about that never bothered me because, as a songwriter, I am always trying to fit my vocal limitations into what the song should be. I don't think of myself as a song stylist. Sometimes I try to sing like a black man.
I don't think I'm much of a singer. I always wanted to sing like Ray Charles or Sam Cooke or Wilson Pickett. I am a white kid from Levittown, but I always wanted to do that. There are some white guys who have had great careers singing like black men. Steve Winwood, Joe Cocker. When I sing like that, I feel good but it's not my real voice. Maybe it's becoming my real voice because I used to sing in a pure kind of Irish tenor like Paul McCartney.
But I know who I am, I know where I came from, and I know what I look like when I get up in the morning. It's ironic. When my name is mentioned and people yell and scream, I know I gotta give my all. I don't hold anything back. I just don't think of myself as a rock star. When I'm walking down the street, it's just me. People say, "Look, there's Billy Joel," I am snapped back to, "Oh, yeah, rock star." It's funny to me, but I don't make light of it. I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings, 'cause if I saw Paul McCartney walking down the street and I went up to him and he made light of it, I would be heartbroken.
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