- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 24, 2001

Billy Joel is proud of his worldwide record sales, which topped the 100 million mark in 1999, placing him alongside the Beatles. But he is concerned that many of his fans know him best for the 33 Top-40 singles he has scored since he first hit the U.S. charts in 1974 with the autobiographical "Piano Man."

"I'm not everybody's cup of tea, and I totally understand," he says. "If I defined Billy Joel only by his Top-40 singles, I wouldn't like me, either."

Come again?

"I don't want to be defined by that body of work," he says. "I always thought a lot of my best work was on the albums. And, fortunately, I started off in an era where they played album cuts [on radio], and an artist built a career based on albums, not singles. I guess the new crop of musicians have it much harder."

Mr. Joel may indeed be a man out of time. Being au courant in this era of synthetic teen-pop is of no concern, however, to this five-time Grammy winner, who is on a monthlong North American tour with Elton John.

Mr. Joel says he actually finds it liberating that his artistic persona has grown increasingly less clear since his most recent album of all-new material, 1993's "River of Dreams." Tellingly, the last song on that album is titled "Famous Last Words."

"I don't know who I am," Mr. Joel, 51, says from his New York home, "and I kind of like that. Because I assume, at this age, that you're kind of stuck in who you are. And one of the great things about being this age and, of course, having a lot of bucks is that I'm open to anything.

"I can be whoever I want to be. I don't even have to be the other guy I used to be. If, 10 years ago, somebody would have told me that, today, I'd be in the boat-building business, that I'd be playing classical piano, be single and dating and that I was going to sell my [Long Island] house to Jerry Seinfeld [for $37 million], I would've laughed."

Mr. Joel chuckles heartily.

"So a lot of funny things happened, and I'm kind of enjoying them all. As far as asking, 'who am I?' I don't know," he says.

"Am I a man in the midst of a middle-age crisis? I don't think so.

"Am I an aged rock star? Yeah, I suppose so.

"I haven't done the 'rock star' thing in eight years, and that's a couple of careers now. After eight years, you're officially out. But I am doing a tour with Elton, so I guess that means I have one foot in."

Another chuckle.

"Does that mean I have the other foot in the grave? I don't know, but it doesn't mean I'm still Billy Joel."

That he is touring at all comes as a happy surprise to many of his fans because Mr. Joel announced several years ago that his days of lengthy concert treks were over.

He's not the retiring type, though, even if he is content to limit himself mostly to sporadic private shows for wealthy corporations.

"They offer you an absurd amount of money to play a short set," Mr. Joel says. His sole public performance in 1999, a New Year's Eve gig at New York City's Madison Square Garden, earned $4.5 million and yielded the recent album "2000 Millennium Concert."

"I never said I was going to retire," he says. "I said that I'm never going to do long tours again. This tour with Elton is a sissy tour. Four weeks? That's not a tour that's not even a rehearsal and we may do it again. But it's certainly not a marathon tour; my band used to do from nine months up to two years, and I won't do that again."

Mr. Joel and Mr. John are opening their shows with several duets. All 13,100 seats for opening night in San Diego sold out in 55 minutes, even though the top tickets cost more than $200, plus service charges.

"I'd rather keep the prices down," Mr. Joel says. "I kept my tickets down to $45 until this tour. Now the $45 tickets are the nosebleed seats. But it's Elton, too, and I can't tell Elton what to charge. So it's what do you call it? two for the price of two?"

Mr. Joel recalls how, in the early 1970s, he used to be called "the American Elton John," a comparison inspired more by the fact that both were piano-playing singer-songwriters than by their actual styles. He sings Mr. John's praises.

"Elton is a very funny man, very self-deprecating," Mr. Joel says. "He's hysterical, actually, and has a heart the size of Texas. He's fun to work with, and such a good musician. It's often overlooked how good he is because of all the excesses and tabloid stuff.

"When we play together, it comes down to: He's a piano player, I'm a piano player, and we duel. I'm hoping we get more of that on this tour and kick each others' shows in the [bottom]."

Both performers are in their 50s, though that has not prevented Mr. John from maintaining a steady touring and recording schedule.

The passing of time, however, is beginning to affect their ability to perform, as Mr. Joel readily acknowledges.

"Rock has a certain physicality. Both Elton and I have dropped the keys of certain songs, because we can't sing them like we did in our 20s. If you have to drop the key too many halftones, or a couple of whole tones, it's time to think about getting off the playing field. That's why I won't do long tours anymore. I can do short, four-week, guerrilla tours. But longer than that, I can't."

Mr. Joel pauses to ponder the future of his career and his aging fan base.

"When does a rock star become a parody and laughable?" he asks. "When he becomes an imitation of his former self, when he becomes a Las Vegas lounge crooner, someone who doesn't believe in what he's doing anymore."

Mr. Joel's performing days may be dwindling, but not his passion for music. The music that gets him fired up now is not pop or rock, however, but classical.

Mr. Joel has been hard at work honing various compositions for solo piano and a chamber-size ensemble. If all goes according to plan, an album will be released later this year. Mr. Joel will be credited solely as a composer.


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