Music Article

The Many Lives of Billy Joel

With a fresh boxed set in stores, the singer looks back over a turbulent career and ponders his future

Somewhere in Billy Joel's palatial waterfront Long Island home, a telephone is ringing.

Sunk deep in a plush leather chair in his book-laden den, Joel chuckles mischievously. ''Why, people are trying to get a hold of me,'' he says. Making no move to answer the phone, he stage-whispers with a nyah-nyah-nyah cadence: ''Ha ha ha. I'm IN-COM-MU-NI-CA-DO!''

Of all the advantages to being a very wealthy, semiretired rock star, the freedom to blithely ignore the outside world's entreaties must be the sweetest. It's now been 12 years since Joel stopped chasing after hit records. ''It's always hard to say goodbye/But now it's time to put this book away,'' he sang on ''Famous Last Words,'' the final song on his 1993 album, River of Dreams. He hasn't released another pop CD since.

True, in the past few years Joel, 56, has toured with Elton John and recorded a classical album (2001's Fantasies & Delusions). But he professes to have zero interest in reentering the pop-music wars. ''I've always admired guys who walked away at the top of their game,'' he says. ''DiMaggio did it. I've had my time in the sun.'' To the fans and record execs clamoring for a new album, he has a blunt message: ''You can't squeeze blood from a stone.''

Maybe not, but a canny record company can always squeeze a few dozen rarities, outtakes, live tracks, and demos from an erstwhile workhorse like Joel (who has sold more than 100 million albums worldwide and has been awarded six Grammys). On Nov. 22, Sony will release My Lives, a career-spanning four-CD/one-DVD boxed set that's the closest thing to a ''new'' Billy Joel album we'll see anytime soon.

''My Lives is the right title for this thing, 'cause I feel like I've had a series of lives,'' says Joel. In his 40-year career, he has indeed inhabited numerous personae: garage-rocking punk, superstar slinger of gooey ballads, classical gasser, angry young man, innocent man, falling-down drunk, Mr. Christie Brinkley, doting father of a daughter, Alexa Ray, now 19. He says his latest incarnation — former rock star living in quiet repose with his third wife, 24-year-old cable-television personality Katie Lee, whom he married on Oct. 2, 2004 — suits him best of all. ''I'm content,'' he says. ''Content to the point where I'm not feeling like it's necessary for me to prove anything.''

Joel grew up about 15 minutes away from his Gatsby-esque mansion, in the working-class town of Hicksville, N.Y. Back then, he never dreamed he would one day live on a 15-acre estate, complete with a tennis court he has never used and, he claims, so many rooms he has yet to see them all. ''When I was a kid, I used to ride my bike up here with my friends and just look through the gates at the end of these drives and go, 'Wow! These rich bastards living behind these wrought-iron gates...' I didn't like rich people.'' He laughs. ''And now I am one.''

If not for music, Joel could easily have ended up like many ''Lawn Guyland'' kids of his generation: a civil servant, a career military man, a burnout. He studied classical piano as a child, but once the Beatles conquered America, he caught a serious case of the rockin' pneumonia. In 1965, while still a teen, he dove into the vibrant Long Island rock scene, pounding keyboards and singing in a series of scruffy bands like the Lost Souls and the Hassles. The late '60s was a great time to be a fan as well. Joel recalls how he and Hassles drummer Jon Small once conned their way into a sold-out Jimi Hendrix show at the now-defunct Singer Bowl in Queens. ''I did a pretty good English accent,'' he says, ''and we bulls----ed the people who worked for the promoter, like, 'Jimi's waiting for us, we've got to set up his amps.''' The ruse worked: ''We were told to sit on the stage and make sure the amps didn't fall over. Jon and I were on this revolving stage and I was waving to friends in the audience: 'Yeah — it's me!''' Joel even worked for a time as a rock critic, filing concert reviews for long-gone publications like Go and Changes for ''25 bucks a pop...pretty good!'' But he quit after he panned an Al Kooper show and found he ''didn't have the stomach for it. To this day, I want to apologize [to Kooper].''

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