Friday, October 31, 2014

Billy Joel:The Definitive Biography by Fred Schruers - Book Review

Billy Joel by Fred Schruers (Random House, October 2014, 400 Pages, $29.00/11.99) is the right book written at the right time by the right person. Fred Schruers, a deeply experienced writer/editor at Premier Magazine, Rolling Stone, and other entertainment publications and now with Crown Publishing, has been given unfettered access to Billy Joel, his former wives and girl friends, members of his band, and archives as wide ranging as the pages of the tabloid press and the archives of the Holocaust Museum. From this he has fashioned a well-written and thoughtful biography of one of the icons of pop music whose songs are a part of the musical DNA of millions of fans, and whose life has been widely, critically, and often superficially examined in the serious and tabloid press. Using hundreds of hours of interviews with Joel himself, his family and associates, Schruers has produced a piece of celebrity biography that examines the man for his genius and his faults. Billy Joel, now age sixty-five and still performing at a back breaking pace, has wisely provided the insight without especially limiting the analysis for this biography that treats the man and his music in detail and with deep respect while never shying away from the flaws which have made Joel and world renowned singer/songwriter as well as a tabloid personality. For those interested in Joel himself, rock and roll music, or the music business, Billy Joel is highly readable and informative.

I must admit that while I have long loved much of Billy Joel's work, even considered myself a fan, I've had a superficial picture of the man himself. My impressions: Long Island, Christie Brinkley, frequent meltdowns, mammoth tours, and a wealth of songs written over a long period of time, were at best superficial. I almost put the book down after several chapters of feeling mired in Long Island's rock scene during the early and mid-sixties, when Joel dropped out of high school, formed, joined and left several bands, and became a locally popular rock singer while experimenting to discover his voice. The names were unfamiliar to me, and I almost quit. Then, as Joel begins to emerge, so did my interest, and the book took on a life of its own, as I moved through it with joy and enthusiasm. The book is sparsely illustrated and contains, insofar as I can see from the galley I read, no index or list of sources, although credit is freely given within the text. I supplemented my reading by using three resources: Spotify to listen to Joel's recorded work, especially the live concerts, Wikipedia for additional details about individuals mentioned in the book, especially those from the recording industry, and Google Images to allow me better to visualize the people, although I really needed no help when it came to Christie Brinkley. All three of these resources were enormously useful to me, as a casual fan, but would probably prove unnecessary for one more knowledgeable than I.

Billy Joel as a Young Rocker

The biography generally maintains a chronological view of Billy Joel, presenting a detailed account of how the Joel family, prosperous Jews from Germany escaped the holocaust, arriving in Cuba and then immigrating, penniless, to New York City. Billy's father, Howard, was a classical pianist, who soon deserted the family and eventually returned to Vienna. Joel was born in the Bronx in 1949, and his mother Rosalind soon moved to Hicksville, Long Island, in the heart of what emerged under the generic name of Levittown. Billy early studied classical piano, but in the musically overheated environment was attracted to rock and roll, and never left. While never finishing high school, Joel emerges as a voracious reader with a leftward lean, and a student of classical as well as contemporary music. From his early teen years, he asserts he wanted nothing more than to be a musician. Joel performed with several bands to increasing notice, and signed several early contracts in which he gave away most of the rights to his own compositions, an error which took him many years and millions of dollars to extract himself from. The cost of his early misplaced trust in shady characters in the recording industry probably is responsible for keeping Joel on the road much more intensely than he otherwise would have been, however, it's as a performer of his own highly autobiographical and emotive songs in concert and on recordings that his reputation stands. These people and errors are carefully discussed and analyzed in the book.

Despite the fact that Joel entrusted his career to many people whose efforts were not in his best interests, he emerges as a person who prefers to approach to world from a position of trust and relative lack of anger at those whose greed no doubt damaged his career from financial, personal, and artistic perspectives. As he catalogs in his hundreds of songs, his life has been a search for love and acceptance which has involved him with some of the most beautiful and fascinating women in the world, each of whom manages to leave a scar while, remarkably, still remaining in a friendly relationship with Joel. The costs of these relationships is fully cataloged without the scatological details the tabloid press is constantly seeking. Joel himself emerges, in his off-stage self, as pretty much a homebody who wants to have fulfilling relationships with beautiful women, but whose continuing life on the road always interferes with this ideal. Similarly, he surrounds himself with large and elaborate homes, cars, and boats around the world, only to discover that while he enjoys the perquisites of being a “rock star,” they don't bring him the internal happiness he seeks. The place where he seems most fully alive is on the stage performing before huge crowds in stadiums and arenas, although there are moments when a classroom audience or a lecture seems to give him as much satisfaction. Often the grind of the road, the boredom and the over-indulgence that goes with that life, hurts him emotionally and physically.

Fred Schruers

Fred Schruers has enjoyed a successful high-profile career as a writer at Rolling Stone, chronicling an impressive body of musicians and actors, including Fleetwood Mac, Bruce Springsteen, Jack Nicholson, Sheryl Crow, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and Chris Rock. His writing has also appeared in Premiere, Entertainment Weekly, Men’s Journal, GQ, the Los Angeles Times, and Columbia Journalism Review. Billy Joel appears to be his first full-length book.

Billy Joel - 2014
Rick Diamond - Getty Images

Billy Joel by Fred Schruers (Random House, October 2014, 400 Pages, $29.00/11.99) is an intriguing portrait of the man in full. Music, romance, love, marriage seem to form the cornerstones of Billy Joel's life. When they fail, he becomes distraught. He says, you “need to know who you are, before you can look for who's next.” His life, career, and music have been defined by Levittown, an absent father, the baby boomer generation, a search for love and beauty, which seem to be two different, but often complementary ideals. During his life he has earned and spent hundreds of millions of dollars and sold over 140,000,000 records, making him one of the most successful of all rock artists. While Billy Joel has not written songs since 1993, he continues to write music, often in a classical vein, to present lectures and workshops on college campuses, and to perform incessantly around the world. In this very readable biography, he emerges as an interesting and thoughtful man who seems to have come out the other side with his life and many of his relationships intact, even when it isn't always happy. Billy Joel was provided to me by the publisher through Edelweiss as an electronic galley, which I read on my Kindle app. Highly recommended!