Billy Joel's ''River of Dreams'' -- Inside the artist's 15th album

By Linda Sanders
Updated September 10, 1993 at 04:00 AM EDT

”Christie’s the one who’s good at this — she just flashes that Christie smile,” says Billy Joel, doing a fair imitation of his wife’s million-dollar cover-girl grin. Joel is waiting to be photographed in the overdecorated and under-air-conditioned ballroom of New York City’s St. Regis hotel. ”I coulda been a contendah!” he mumbles hoarsely into the camera, a Brando imitation that’s enhanced by his peculiarly 1950s physique: not muscle-bound exactly, but square, with the concrete gut and belligerent posture of a pre-exercise-revolution Jack La Lanne. He strides over to the piano and bangs out a little Fats Waller, a little Gershwin, a little Rossini while riffing cheerfully on topics close to his heart. Dealing with lawyers: ”Like being in one of those Hieronymus Bosch paintings, you know, where they’re driving thorns through people’s heads?” His own looks: ”I have a half brother — he’s got the Joel bug-eyes too.” The heat: ”I can’t take it. All the sheets are on Christie’s side in the morning.”

Joel suddenly squats down and scuttles across the room, his fingers brushing the floor: ”Look, I’m one of those newsboys!” It takes a second for the full twistedness of the allusion to sink in: He’s imitating the legless newsboys from ’30s gangster movies, pushing himself with his hands along the pavement on his little dolly. Nobody mistakes the gag for anything but a self-deprecating take on his own lack of height. But when everybody laughs, Joel looks self-conscious, perhaps realizing that humor can take on a different slant in print. ”That was bad,” he says, still smiling but getting back to the business of picture taking. ”That was really bad.”

At the age of 44, on the eve of the release of River of Dreams, his 15th album, Joel has apparently learned not to depend on the kindness of strangers.

And the contents of the album, which hit the charts at No. 1 in its first week, show that it hasn’t been an easy lesson. His first release since the triple-platinum Storm Front four years ago, River of Dreams opens with a surprisingly bitter set of songs: ”The Great Wall of China,” a seething number about the betrayal of trust, and ”No Man’s Land,” a hard-rocking screed about the vacuous wasteland of American suburbia. The fury gives way eventually to the healing powers of love and family, most notably the title track and ”Lullabye (Goodnight, My Angel),” written for his daughter, Alexa Ray, 7. But for anybody who thinks of Billy Joel strictly as the hit machine who wrote ”Just the Way You Are,” ”It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me,” ”Tell Her About It,” and eight other top 10 singles over the past 20 years, there’s bound to be a little credibility problem here. What could possibly have brought Billy Joel — self-made man out of Levittown, Long Island, multiple Grammy-award winner, zillion-selling recording artist, and husband of gorgeous supermodel Christie Brinkley — to the fit of bitterness that opens the album?

”Disappointments…anger…disillusionments,” he says slowly, ”a loss of faith…a breakdown in confidence…betrayal. And a certain amount of depression over all those things.”

Since most people know about the problems Billy Joel has been having for the past four years, or think they do, he is asked the dread question: Is it The Lawsuit?

He squirms a little, then shrugs. ”I don’t know if it’s just the lawsuit,” he says. ”That may have been a catalyst, but it’s not the essence, what it is that’s causing all this rage. I think it was basically the crushing realization that there are some people who are broken, corrupt beyond redemption.”

The Lawsuit. It began four years ago as a financial dispute and ballooned into a legal battle royal encompassing some of the recording industry’s most powerful players. First, Joel fired his manager of nine years, Frank Weber — who is also the brother of his first wife, Elizabeth Weber, and the godfather of his daughter, Alexa. Joel then sued Weber for a whopping $90 million, charging fraud and misappropriation of funds. Although a judge has awarded him $3 million in the suit so far, Weber declared bankruptcy before Joel could see much of it. Then Weber sued both Joel, for libel (the case was dismissed), and Brinkley, claiming she persuaded her husband to fire him (also dismissed). On top of all that, Joel is now suing his former accountants (for fraud, breach of contract, and negligence, which they deny).

But there’s much more. Last September, Joel also sued his lawyer, Allen Grubman, who happens to be one of the most powerful attorneys in the record business; he represents Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Michael Bolton, and Madonna, among others. Joel says Grubman paid kickbacks to Weber to keep Joel as a client; he also alleges that at the time Grubman was negotiating Joel’s contract with CBS, he was representing CBS as well (depositions are currently being taken). Grubman’s own lawyer, Bertram Fields, characterizes the charges as ”a nonsense suit.”

And finally, a new suit for $10 million was brought just three weeks ago by an aspiring Long Island songwriter who claims Joel managed to create not one but three songs — ”River of Dreams,” ”No Man’s Land,” and ”We Didn’t Start the Fire” — out of a single tune called ”Nowhere Land,” which he sent to Joel seven years ago. Calling the suit ”absurd,” Joel issued a statement saying ”This is another example of why true, struggling songwriters can’t get anybody, including me, to listen to their songs.”

Many people would be disinclined to care about a multimillionaire losing a few of his millions, but Joel has said more than once that he has had some rocky times financially and has had to spend years touring when he would rather be home with his family, watching his daughter grow up. ”I’m not gonna pretend I tour just to bask in the adulation of an audience. I have Christie, who loves me,” says Joel, who will begin a year-plus-long tour for River of Dreams this month. ”I do like to play music, that hasn’t changed. But why do you go out on the road? To earn a living.”

Yet even if some or all of his charges against Weber and the rest should prove true, one has to wonder how a person as intelligent as Joel could be so, well, dumb about business. This isn’t the first or second time he has been burned — there’s a history of it. In 1971 he signed his first contract with manager Artie Ripp, who ended up owning a serious piece of him for 15 years — long after the two stopped working together; it has been estimated that it cost Joel millions to break that agreement. After Ripp, Joel’s first wife, Elizabeth, managed him; she took fully half his assets with her when they divorced in 1983. And who does he get to manage him next? Elizabeth’s brother, Frank. What, one has to wonder, was he thinking?

”Look,” says Joel evenly, ”artists are insecure about their business acumen. We think we’re stupid. We buy into this mythology, like boxers do.” He starts reeling and slurring his speech like a punch-drunk prizefighter. ”’If I wanna gedda shot at the title, I gotta gedda manager!’ And for the most part we’re not good at this.”

But come on. Even forgetting for a moment that there are artists out there who make your average Mafia loan shark look like Mother Teresa, is this really Billy Joel talking, casting himself in the role of victimized innocent? The cocky lower-middle-class kid who took up boxing as a teenager, the guy who used to excoriate critics from the stage, the guy who just last year got arrested with Long Island fishermen while protesting state regulations on striped bass fishing that he believes are threatening their livelihood, the guy whose signature sign-off at concerts is ”Don’t take any shit from anyone”? That Billy Joel?

The same. But where money was concerned, he did play the victim for a long time; he insists those days are now past. ”I’ve gotten wiser,” he says stonily. ”If artists actually start to demand what is due them, the record industry will collapse like a house of cards.” His voice turns acid. ”Look at these rock & roll awards shows. These old guys come up there, and what do they get? Tchotchkes! And some of them, their lives are ruined, they don’t even have a decent suit to wear! And they walk away, humble and grateful when they were ripped off from day one!”

You don’t have to be an armchair analyst to ferret out the root of Joel’s spitefulness toward the powers that be — he’ll readily tell you that it started when his father, Howard, an engineer and classically trained pianist, left his mother, Rosalind, a homemaker, in 1957, when Billy was 8.

”My mom could not get a decent job,” says Joel. ”She worked as a secretary, a bookkeeper. She took all kinds of menial work. Was underpaid, pushed around, and pretty much destroyed by the way the system worked. And that always infuriated me because I was brought up by my mother and older sister [Judy]. I’m not saying we were poor, but we just got by. I’m sure the house looks just as shitty as it ever did.”

Yet life in Levittown, a far-from-luxurious housing development in the larger town of Hicksville, wasn’t all bad. The man who can turn to ice at the mention of lawsuits suddenly tears up discussing his hometown, stabbed by the memory of how the old Hicksville was killed when they built the Mid-Island Plaza shopping center and the ”No Man’s Land” he has come to despise. ”My identity is very much that of an Islander. I’m proud of it, and I insist that people know I’m from Long Island,” says Joel, who continues to live there, in an oceanfront estate one hour from where he grew up.

Perhaps the person to understand this allegiance best is Bill Zampino, a composer-arranger who has been Joel’s best friend since they were 4 years old. The two played in the same grammar-school band (”Billy played the French horn,” laughs Zampino) and later formed rock bands together in high school. ”We used to ride our bikes over to Cold Spring Harbor to watch the boats,” says Zampino, who now tools around with Joel in the fishing boat the singer designed. ”The thing I love about Billy is he’s not a snoot at all. His favorite thing still is to poke around the boatyard and just start talking to people, you know, ‘Hi, how are ya. What’s goin’ on?”’

It’s not a picture that would surprise his fans, for his image as a regular guy who articulates the sentiments of regular folks has survived not only the critics who’ve been calling him slick or shallow for 20 years, it has survived even Joel’s own notoriously bad temper, which peaked with an onstage tantrum during his groundbreaking tour of the former Soviet Union in 1987. ”I still have a temper,” Joel admits, barely controlling a smile. ”I just don’t get as crazy about unimportant things as I used to. I get mad about injustice. I don’t get mad at the phone company. This whole combative, feisty, angry-guy thing, I think, is somewhat erroneous in terms of how I am day-to-day.”

If so, that has a lot to do with his 1985 marriage to Brinkley. He credits her with getting him to write this latest, most cathartic of records (”She kept saying, ‘Write what you feel! Write what you feel!”’), and she also provided the cover art, a playful acrylic painting that features her sleeping husband surrounded by images that correspond to various songs on the album.

Brinkley, who was an art student in Paris before becoming a model, says Joel had been after her for a long time to do more painting. ”He’s constantly saying to me, ‘You’ve got the talent,”’ she says. ”’You’ve got to just paint, paint, paint!’ There’s not a wall in this house that he hasn’t asked me to do a mural on.” She says she got the idea for the album cover very quickly once she’d heard all its songs. ”I interpreted River of Dreams to mean stream of consciousness, so I immediately visualized this river flowing through his mind. And the album has a flow to it. It starts with the anger and the disillusionment and it flows along through different emotions until it comes out into an ocean, more expansive.”

And the boat up at the top of the cover?

”It’s his boat. I put it in there as sort of a cheap trick. If I had his boat in there, which he adores, it would give me an edge over the other artists I was competing with for the job.” She laughs. ”But also, the boat is up there in that lofty, idealistic spot. His highest dream is to be at sea and at peace.”

For a few moments after the interview has ended, it seems that Billy Joel might manage a little peace even without running away to sea. Strolling down Fifth Avenue, he is suddenly free to talk about anything he pleases, maybe for the first time in days; it turns out he’d spent most of the last week in a room full of lawyers, giving a deposition. He chatters amiably about a Peter Matthiessen book on the baymen of Long Island. He paraphrases a favorite Flaubert quote: ”Be mundane and commonplace in your life so you can be insane for your art.” He is just touching on the elegance of Ira Gershwin’s lyrics when a voice suddenly interrupts.

”Hi, Billy! Uh, Billy, can we have a picture, Billy?”

Joel turns to face an expensively dressed upper-management-type couple with a camera. He smiles and says hello, but keeps walking.

The couple keeps pace with him, not quite touching him but dogging his heels with rude aggressiveness. The woman starts blathering about Christie this and Christie that and the baby this and — Joel finally whirls around and yells, ”The baby is 7 years old!” Undeterred, the couple composes their shot. He stands there, lets them take his picture, then walks away.

”Nobody told me about any of this,” Billy Joel says half to himself, the animation of a few minutes before drained from his face. ”I wish somebody had.”