“Billy Joel: The Biography” is a fabulous piece of work — I’m just not sure I am happy to have read it.
We Jews are always so thrilled to learn that brilliant, talented people are one of us. We take great pride it in as if it is a reflection of us as a community. And therein lies the rub.
But let’s start at the beginning.
Karl and Meta Joel, a middle class Jewish couple, lived in Nuremberg in Bavaria, in the southeast area of Germany. Karl was a talented businessman and, on learning of the success of mail order catalogs in the United States, decided to launch a European operation in 1928.
The Joels’ only child, Helmuth (Howard) Julius Joel, was 12 in 1935 and remembers the Hitler Youth and the SS training on weekends in a forest next to their home. They were terrified. In 1938, the government forced Karl Joel to sell his business for pfennig on the deutschmark. More pressing than selling their livelihood, however, was getting out of Germany. Faked passports in hand, they fled to Switzerland. In the process of escaping Germany, they were swindled out of a large share of what was supposed to have come to them.
The Joels ultimately ended up in New York via England and Cuba. Helmuth, then 19, became the family’s primary breadwinner until he joined the army. Helmuth, now Howard, was with the American troops who liberated the Dachau concentration camp at the end of April 1945.
Howard came back from the war and married Rosalind Hyman, who came from a family of cultured English Jews. On May 9, 1949 Rosalind gave birth to William Martin Joel; shortly afterward the family moved to Levittown, Long Island.
Although Jewish by birth, Billy admits that he is Jewish by heritage and that his family was never observant. “My parents were both from Jewish families. I was not brought up Jewish in any religious way.
“My circumcision was as Jewish as they got,” he notes.
Like many families who survived the Holocaust, the Joels tried to bury their Jewishness and assimilate quickly into American society. Indeed, it almost seems as if Billy absorbed more from the Italian Catholic culture of his neighbors than from his exposure to Judaism.
Growing up with his father’s obsession with music and the ability to read and play classical piano, Billy began a love affair with the richness of music at an early age that has held steady for his lifetime.
By age 3, Joel was able to pick out Mozart on the piano. Recognizing his talent, Joel’s mother bundled him off to a piano teacher in nearby Hicksville, where he quickly absorbed classical music and improvisation. By 6, Billy was composing music and writing lyrics. He was hooked and never looked back.
Howard, however, was finished —both with his marriage and with America. In the mid-1950s he moved to Switzerland. This abandonment haunted Billy for years to come.
From these formative years, Billy emerged as a brilliantly talented, rough-hewn gem. Knowing exactly what he wanted from life, he had little time for distractions like finishing high school. It was all about the music. He joined a few rock bands and made slow inroads into the business. But it wasn’t until Billy began promoting himself that his career took off.
This biography of Billy Joel is superb in the way it traverses his life and loves and of the growth of the music industry from the 1960s to the present. Each chapter covers the development of Billy’s music and what was happening musically in the country at the time — the influences, the stars and, of course, the drugs.
But the biggest challenge in Billy’s life is himself.
What emerges from this book is a story about a man who is enormously talented but sabotages himself at every step. He seems to feel that, had he been better or more talented, that his father would not have left. He also seems to be living out some sort of self-fulfilling prophecy of not being good enough.
On the other hand, the guy could just be an egomaniacal putz.
Apart from running off with his friend’s wife, kidnapping their child (the friend had sole custody), having numerous extra-maritial affairs and compulsively abusing drugs, he has also taken advantage of his musicians, who helped make him the megastar he is, in the worst possible way.
Stars also tend to give their backup musicians contracts so that, as the band grows in fame and fortune, so do the individual members. Not Billy Joel.
The most he has paid his musicians is double the minimum scale required by the union. He pays them for concert tour time and studio time, but nothing in between. He gives them bonuses from time to time based on the volume of records sold, but that comes from whimsy rather than a desire to protect his musicians. They don’t leave because none of them have been willing to give up being in the Billy Joel spotlight.
If this isn’t bad enough, he also decides on a whim when he no longer wants a musician on a new album or tour. They find out that they are no longer a member of his back-up band is when they read it in the press.
I have to admit that after reading this book, my adoration of Billy Joel’s music has taken a hit. It is hard to separate the music from the man.
He is not totally awful, of course. He is an adoring father and generous to causes. He has raised millions of dollars for Charity Begins at Home, which he helped found.
One finds oneself wishing Joel had grown more as a person, had been more generous to himself and others. In other words, that he had known what it is to be a mensch.
This book is a musical adventure. Just be careful of the aftertaste.
“Billy Joel: The Biography” by Mark Bego (386 pages, Thunder’s Mouth Press, $25.95).