On a July morning, Billy Joel watches through the window of the study at his Long Island estate as a helicopter takes flight. “My wife had to go into the city today,” he says as the Joel family chopper ascends. He smiles. “Life is funny, isn’t it?” It’s a week before the singer and erstwhile songwriter’s record-setting 100th concert at Madison Square Garden and Joel, dressed in a baseball cap, black T-shirt, plaid shorts, and sneakers, plops down on a leather couch. “Life makes sense. It didn’t always used to, but now, pushing 70 years old, it does,” he says. “Getting ripped off, going to rehab, getting divorced, making albums and stopping — everything happened for a reason, even the bad shit.” He sips coffee from a takeout cup. “I’ve got to say, things worked out.”
Your old pal Elton John is retiring from the road. So is Paul Simon. But your Madison Square Garden residency is booked indefinitely. Do you understand the impulse to say, “These are the last shows I’ll ever do”?
No. There have been times when I’ve felt these are my last shows; it’s time for me to get off the bleeding stage. Then I just thought, nah.
What’s made you change your mind?
I have the greatest job in the world. You get up there, you make a lot of noise, girls scream, and you get shitloads of money. Are you fucking kidding me? Now, I do have an idea for a farewell tour.
What is it?
The stage is a living-room set: couch, TV, coffee table, food. And there’s bulletproof glass between me and the audience. Then I come out and lay down on the couch. I grab the remote and start watching TV. The crowd after a couple minutes goes, “Fuck this,” and starts throwing shit at the glass.
And that’s the whole concert?
Yeah. I’ll have created a bond between me and the audience where I know they will never pay another nickel to see me again.
So if Billy Joel ever walks out on stage and picks up a remote control …
That’ll be it.
You’ve said you’ll do the Garden residency until demand slows down or you start playing at a level you’re not happy with. What clues would signal the latter?
If I can’t sing as well as I should. I’m already struggling. I wrote most of the songs that I’m doing when I was in my 20s and 30s and it ain’t easy to hit those notes in my 60s. We’ve dropped the keys of some songs already. Hopefully it’s not that noticeable. If I’m having a tough time hitting notes — I call it throwing junk pitches. Instead of having a fastball you throw off-speed. If I’ve got to throw too much junk, I’m going to consider stopping.
Will it be easy to walk away?
Yeah. It would be abhorrent to me to be up there faking it. It’s funny: Sometimes I don’t think we did a good show and I’ll read a great review and go, “Was this guy at the same show?” Then we’ll do a great show and I’ll read a bad review and it’s what are you talking about? But I know when I’m good or not.
There was a time when you thought your future might involve writing songs but not performing. Is it surprising that the opposite happened?
In retrospect there is an irony there. When I stopped writing songs — it was time. I couldn’t be as good as I wanted and that was driving me crazy. I was driving my loved ones crazy. I thought, this is ridiculous. So I stopped. But the performing, what else am I going to do? I talked to Bruce [Springsteen] about this. I talked to Sting and [Don] Henley: “Why are you still doing it?” They all had the same answer.
Which is what?
“That’s what I do.” But I made a lifetime out of it when I thought maybe I’d have a couple years, so I’m not complaining.
Those other guys still write songs. You don’t. What does that say about your relationship to making music compared to theirs?
Like I said, I couldn’t be as good as I wanted to be. I was always trying to feel like there was a real progression in my work, and eventually I realized I was only going to be X good. Because of that I knew I was going to beat myself up for not being better. So I stopped. That’s it.