Review: Billy Joel: The Biography

Billy Joel has never been cool. A surrogate Elton John, Bruce Springsteen- lite, he lacks the cuddly flamboyance of the former, the gritty appeal of the latter and the critical respect of either - you will never see his albums, even multimillion-selling ones like 52nd Street, in those Greatest Ever lists.

Despite an attempt in the late '70s to present Joel as a sort of street-tough piano man, the quintessential pugnacious New Yorker, many still consider him to be the epitome of bland sophistry.

And yet he elicits strong negative opinions. Author Mark Bego quotes a typically hostile review from the New York Times of a Joel show from 1980, when he was approaching his commercial peak: "He [Joel] has won a huge following by making emptiness seem substantial and Holiday Inn lounge schlock sound special. He's the sort of popular artist who makes elitism seem not just defensible but necessary."

Bego's substantial biography reads in many ways like a defence of Joel, the musician's disquiet at the lack of regard from the journalistic fraternity running like a leitmotif throughout the 400 pages. This is a weighty tome based on exhaustive research and interviews with everyone but the man himself. Unlike many showbiz biographers, Bego doesn't use Joel's absence as an opportunity to denigrate him behind his back.

On the other hand, Bego doesn't flinch from reporting his subject's flaws and foibles: much of the story is taken up with addressing the grievances, emotional and financial, of Joel's former backing musicians, and although this does shed light on Billy Joel as disloyal boss, ultimately it proves distracting and imbalanced towards people of whom we have never heard. No matter how proficient they were as players, they were just that: anonymous sessioneers. They weren't the E Street Band.

Better at anecdotes than he is at analysis, Bego may not convince you of Joel's worth as an artist, but he does go some way towards explaining why he was so driven to become one in the first place.

His grandfather was a German-Jewish businessman persecuted by the Nazis, his own upbringing in suburban New York barely Jewish ("My circumcision was as Jewish as we got," he is reported as saying), impoverished and unhappy, made all the more so when his father, tormented by his wartime experiences in Dachau, left the family and returned to Europe, where he met Billy's mother, Rosalind Hyman from London.

Joel's tale is simple: working-class boy seeks riches, which explains the umpteen boats, fast cars and motorbikes; abandoned child seeks approbation and love, which explains the sensitivity towards nasty music reviewers and his penchant for high-profile model partners, notably Christie Brinkley, the "uptown girl" immortalised in the 1983 global smash hit of that title.

None of this explains his now notorious "suicide" attempt as a struggling musician in 1970: having split up with his first girlfriend, dejected, demoralised and depressed, the 21-year-old starving wannabe performer tried to OD, not on heroin, not on barbiturates, but on Pledge. Yes, he tried to "polish himself off", literally, with a furniture-cleaning liquid. Not very cool.

Paul Lester's book, Damaged Gods: The Gang of Four Story, is published by Omnibus next month

    Last updated: 3:17pm, February 18 2011