Today is music legend Billy Joel’s 64th birthday. Enjoy an excerpt from Hank Bordowitz’s book, Billy Joel: The Life and Times of an Angry Young Man.
Billy was the first artist to perform, in 1990, to back-to-back, standing-room-only audiences at 54,000-seat Yankee Stadium. In 1992, he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and in 1999 into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 1994, he received the Billboard Century Award, and he’s been awarded doctorates in humane letters. Billy’s popularity helped power the series of “Face to Face” tours with Elton John into some of the most successful live events of all time, setting attendance records around the world. Despite not having written a song in more than a decade and having turned his compositional talents to the composed classical music arena, he remains one of the few acts that can practically guarantee a sellout on the touring circuit.
If this weren’t enough, a Broadway show, Movin’ Out, featuring Billy’s songs and Twyla Tharp’s choreography to tell a story in the best tradition of ballet, has been running for nearly three years as of this writing, and has spawned a touring company, allowing Billy to have his music tour while he stays home in the Hamptons.
That said, anyone who has followed his career and his very public (much to his chagrin) private life doesn’t need to be Freud to figure out that Billy Joel has, as modern parlance would have it, issues. He has spent most of his career at war with the media in general and music critics in particular. Early in his career, he was not entirely wrong to rail. Critics didn’t “get” the musically mercurial Billy. “Critics have accused Joel of trying to have it all ways,” Time Magazine writer Tony Schwartz noted as Billy started flirting with stardom in the late ’70s, “but it’s precisely his capacity to blend old-fashioned melodies, literate lyrics and a rock ’n’ roll spirit that makes him special.”
Billy Joel: The Life and Times of an Angry Young Man is a look at the superstar’s entire career, including his troubled youth as a gang member; the controversy surrounding his first hit, “Captain Jack”; his legal problems; his storied marriage with Christie Brinkley; and his continued artistic frustration. “The Beatles did ‘Michelle’ and ‘Yesterday,’” he has said. “They also did ‘Revolution’ and ‘Helter Skelter’ and they weren’t pegged as balladeers. But because I had hit singles that were ballads, I became known as a balladeer. I’ve always resented it.”
The other night I went to see Billy Joel at the University of Miami’s convocation center. He had graciously offered to do a Q&A about the music business. Tickets were limited and the 1,200 seats offered were filled. On stage were two baby grands with a big gong hanging between them. When Mr. Joel came out he was informal—in speech and in attire. He wore a UM baseball cap and sweats. Without much preamble he said he was here because when he started out there was no one he could go to to ask questions about the business. He had written a long letter to The Beatles, his idols, and in return had gotten a brochure for Beatles memorabilia. He wanted to do better. And he did.
During the two-hour session, he was informative, energetic, self-effacing, and very funny. He also played and sang magnificently. The most striking thing about him, though, was the humility he demonstrated about his career and talent. He described himself as merely “competent.” The students in the hall knew the words to every song he sang. So did I, and I was forty years older than most of the audience. Many of Mr. Joel’s songs provide the background score to my life. But in his mind, he’s just competent. Mozart and Beethoven—they were the real deal. He studied them and borrowed their structural ideas. He hammered his songs together hoping that we wouldn’t see and hear the musical nuts and bolts he lifted from his betters to hold his songs together. Just competent, indeed.
The Actor as Storyteller is intended for serious beginning actors. It opens with an overview, explaining the differences between theater and its hybrid mediums, the part an actor plays in each of those mediums. It moves on to the acting craft itself, with a special emphasis on analysis and choice-making, introducing the concept of the actor as storyteller, then presents the specific tools an actor works with. Next, it details the process an actor can use to prepare for scene work and rehearsals, complete with a working plan for using the tools discussed. The book concludes with a discussion of mental preparation, suggestions for auditioning, a process for rehearsing a play, and an overview of the realities of show business.