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The Billy Joel Book – The Lefsetz Letter

Billy Joel: The Definitive Biography by Fred Schruers

It really was different.

It bugs me that people claim otherwise, the youngsters who were not around and the oldsters hanging on by a thread.

First and foremost, as Malcolm Gladwell said in “Outliers,” timing is everything. Jason Flom's father may have been blackballed because he was Jewish, but he found an opportunity in a Jewish law firm doing hostile takeovers, something that didn't exist previously. So, you've got to be bright, you've got to be ready, but timing is everything.

And the truth is when Billy Joel took piano lessons, he could not foresee the advent of the Beatles, he could not foresee music driving the youthquake and the culture. But when it did, he was ready. He started off as the piano player in the band, and ended up the lead singer too. You've got to make the most of your opportunities.

And opportunities came his way. But they never worked out. It's kind of like tech today, where failure is a badge of honor because you learn something. The Hassles, Attila, they proved what Billy did not want to do. And unlike his compatriots Billy stayed at it. That's right, most people give up. Not only are they frustrated, life gets in the way. They want a new car, a house and a family. Billy didn't even know how to drive. He was about music and girls only.

And music could keep you alive. You could play six nights a week, honing your chops without realizing it.

And then there was the deal with Artie Ripp.

The book makes the point that the two worst deals Billy made were what ensured his success.

Yes, Billy had to pay Artie Ripp seemingly forever, but no one else believed in him, no one else was giving him a chance. And it was the initial album and the resulting tour that gave him traction.

And Howard Kaufman gives credit to Billy's wife Elizabeth. She fought harder as his manager, she believed.

So as you sit at home trying to get it right, know that if you insist on winning every time you're probably holding yourself back.

And there was the switch to Phil Ramone as producer, and Walter Yetnikoff believed in Billy and got back his publishing, but the truth is Billy had the music in him. Still does.

It's very different from today. When people are focusing on money from day one. When they want to expand their brand. The music is enough, it will get you through, if you believe in it, if you trust in it, if you're good at it.

And despite all the naysayers, at this late date Billy Joel even gets respect. Last long enough and the flavor of the moment disappears and only the great remain, and Billy Joel is great.

And this is the book that was supposed to be the autobiography. And, unfortunately, some of the deepest questions remain unanswered. We hear some of the Artie Ripp story, find out that Mike Lang was the link between the two, but just when the story should slow down it speeds up. Billy's tale is not unknown. If you're reading this book it's because you want to know more. And you learn tidbits, but you still want more depth.

But what struck me most was I could not put it down.

I was going through a stack of books, scanning them, getting them out of the way. But I got hooked by this and spent hours reveling in the way it once was. When the album mattered, not because it made more money but because it made a statement, and the public wanted to hear it.


My favorite album is “Songs From The Attic,” wherein Billy re-records all his old songs the way he wants to hear them. I'm not sure I ever heard the original from “Cold Spring Harbor,” I was a latecomer to Billy's oeuvre. But the original is astounding, because it's intimate and heartfelt.

You dropped the needle on stuff like this and you owned it, it spoke to you. And it still speaks to me today.

“She comes to me when I'm feelin' down
Inspires me without a sound
She touches me and I get turned around”

Artists are sensitive. We're insecure. We need to be lifted up, dusted off and encouraged.


This is on “Piano Man,” but the definitive take is on “Songs In The Attic.” Never a hit, it's as important to Billy's canon as the songs that charted.

“From a town known as Oyster Bay, Long Island
Rode a boy with a six-pack in his hand”

We all come from somewhere. Usually unhip, where we were an outcast. We migrated to the city to find like-minded people, to reinvent ourselves, to make it.

Billy's a product of the suburbs. He wanted to GET OUT!


“Streetlife serenader
Never sang on stages
Needs no orchestration
Melody comes easy”

Not everybody makes it. We all know naturals without the gumption, without the breaks. And when we listen to them, we're reminded of what we thought would once be.

Billy decries the “Streetlife Serenader” album, says it was rushed, sounds wrong and doesn't deliver, he wouldn't even let it get released in Australia, for fear of hurting his momentum. But if you ever listened to a Broadway cast album, if you believe music doesn't have to be hard-edged, but can be smooth and soothing…the sound of “Streetlife Serenader” will entrance you.


Another song whose definitive version is on “Songs In The Attic.”
There was a real house, a real location that inspired this song.
And for artists, who feel more than we do and translate for us…
It's always either sadness or euphoria, they're not even-keeled.


“But I'm taking a Greyhound>
On the Hudson River Line
I'm in a New York state of mind”

He was. On a Greyhound. Returning from the west coast, to reside on the Hudson in a house Elizabeth rented. He landed at the airport and got on the bus, back before everybody had a black car waiting, never mind a private jet delivering them, and on the ride up… Billy was inspired. He didn't know he was composing the definitive statement, but when he got to his new house he went to the piano and immediately wrote this. A track that marinated for decades before it found its rightful place as the anthem of New York in the wake of 9/11.


Inspired by the famous newspaper headline, Ford telling New York City to drop dead, it's written from the perspective of years hence, from a Jew in Miami, telling those who were not there what happened.

And one great thing in the book is learning of the Joel factory in Nuremberg. The family had money, the Nazis took the business, at least Billy's grandfather escaped, ultimately going to Cuba and then America. We're all immigrants. Our desire to make something of ourselves makes our country great.


“Don't go changin'…”

Sappy. Even Billy thought so. But it's this standard that made his career. He didn't even want to put it on the album, Linda Ronstadt had to tell him it was a hit. Write one song this good and you can live forever. Write more…


“A bottle of red, a bottle of white
It all depends on your appetite
I'll meet you any time you want
In our Italian restaurant”

Back when they had Chianti bottles hanging from the ceiling, before foodie culture told hold and everywhere there were Italians there were red- checked tablecloth joints where we met and drank and told our stories. That's what's great about the east coast, the dialogue, the stories. Doesn't matter who you are and what you've done so much as how well you tell it!

And the best of us told their stories in song.

We were addicted to not only the radio, but our records. They were our truth.

But that was back in 1975, when Brenda and Eddie were still in their prime, right after their divorce, before they gained weight, got sick and had their dreams dashed.

No one believed like we baby boomers. We thought we controlled the world. Still do, even if it's untrue.

And the integral element wasn't our smartphones, but our music.

Our social network was radio. We went to the gig to convene with our brethren.

And you wonder why we go in droves to see our heroes perform their hits.

Because they're our songs.

And Billy wrote a whole hell of a lot of 'em.

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