The long-awaited, all-access biography of a music legend
In Billy Joel, acclaimed music journalist Fred Schruers draws upon more than one hundred hours of exclusive interviews with Joel to present an unprecedented look at the life, career, and legacy of the pint-sized kid from Long Island who became a rock icon.
Exhibiting unparalleled intimate knowledge, Schruers chronicles Joel’s rise to the top of the charts, from his working-class origins in Levittown and early days spent in boxing rings and sweaty clubs to his monumental success in the seventies and eighties. He also explores Joel’s creative transformation in the nineties, his dream performance with Paul McCartney at Shea Stadium in 2008, and beyond.
Along the way, Schruers reveals the stories behind all the key events and relationships—including Joel’s high-profile marriages and legal battles—that defined his path to stardom and inspired his signature songs, such as “Piano Man,” “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,” “New York State of Mind,” and “She’s Always a Woman.” Throughout, he captures the spirit of a restless artist determined to break through by sharing, in his deeply personal lyrics, the dreams and heartbreaks of suburban American life.
Comprehensive, vibrantly written, and filled with Joel’s memories and reflections—as well as those of the family, friends, and band members who have formed his inner circle, including Christie Brinkley, Alexa Ray Joel, Jon Small, and Steve Cohen—this is the definitive account of a beloved rock star’s epic American journey.
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About the Author
FRED SCHRUERS enjoyed a successful high-profile career as a writer at Rolling Stone, chronicling an impressive body of musicians and actors, including Fleetwood Mac, Bruce Springsteen, Jack Nicholson, Sheryl Crow, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and Chris Rock. His writing has also appeared in Premiere, Entertainment Weekly, Men’s Journal, GQ, the Los Angeles Times, and Columbia Journalism Review.
Read an Excerpt
It’s five o’clock on a Monday, and the regular crowd shuffles in . . . to the chilly, unpopulated great hall of Madison Square Garden, where a crew is still slapping down chairs on the big slabs of decking that cover the hockey rink.
Toting guitars, drumsticks, horns, and earpieces, Billy Joel’s band arrays itself for a sound check, and now up a metal staircase comes the man himself. You could say he’s shuffling as well; both hips were re- placed in mid-2010, and now, January 27, 2014, he’s fully mended—but not likely to be doing the backflips off the piano that, he’ll occasionally speculate, led to that operation.
As he perches on his compact stool, checking settings on the hybrid acoustic/synthesized piano he uses, the band looks up expectantly. He’s notoriously bored by sound checks, which means there’ll be plenty of japes about his age, certain band peccadillos, or the world situation, all delivered with ready wit. But at the same time, all hands had better be “on the one” when he delivers a casual instruction, because the message won’t come twice.
From time to time, as in an open-air-arena sound check in Perth in December 2008, he’ll get a wild hair and lead the band through pretty much an entire classic album. In that case, it was Disraeli Gears by Cream—at least until the constables put a stop to it after a volley of noise complaints from the neighborhood.
Billy, warmed by a plain black watch ap and a wool sports coat, plinks out a few exploratory notes as the others tune up around him. He gazes about—“I don’t hear the room as well I used to hear it.”
Tonight will be his forty-seventh show at what’s pretty much the most storied concert venue in the world. You get here just the way you get to Carnegie Hall—“Practice”—but it really helps if you sell tens of millions of albums. In his case the figure is 110 million or so, and that’s part of the reason he’s playing this inaugural gig to kick off an open- ended “residency,” a series of monthly Garden dates that will continue, as he said in a recent press conference, “as long as there’s demand.”
A blogger for Forbes computed that, based on rapid sellouts, the strength of the Joel catalog, and what demographers might call his enormous local and worldwide fan base, something approaching forty shows might match that demand.
No one’s expecting him to do that many, of course, but you never know.
Billy’s still eyeballing the arena’s distant reaches, somewhat obscured by new carpeted catwalks leading to bunker-like luxury suites. He’s wondering why the sound waves seem muted: “Either I’m going deaf or the room is different. Is there a big sponge up there?” He waits a beat, as the band, knowing his timing, remains at parade rest—“Ah, I guess it’s the hair in my ears.”
At sixty-four, he’s allowed to kvetch a bit. Three hours from now, a few songs into his set, when the packed house has already marched in place to the epic sweep of “Miami 2017,” bounced in rhythm (the Garden is on massive, pulsating springs) to “Pressure,” crooned along to the enchanting soliloquy that is “Summer, Highland Falls,” and ditty- bopped and doo-wopped to “The Longest Time,” he pauses: “Good evening, New York City . . .” A roar like a gut punch breaks over the stage. “I have no idea how long this is gonna go.”
The alert eyes, somehow made more magnetic by the bald pate above, swivel around the room as he takes a sip of water. The guys in the crowd give their dates a knowing look- You think it’s really water? “This year is my fiftieth year in show business.” A subtle resettling of his spine—as in, we’re practicing our trade here. Another beat. “What was I thinking?” Now he turns to peer at the image of his head and torso, many times life-size. “I didn’t think I was gonna end up looking like that in 1964.”
The big banks of speakers are putting out their crisp, almost subliminal exhalations as the crowd noise modulates down—the fans are thinking what fifty years means to Billy, and to them. They’re hoping to hear “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song),” “New York State of Mind,” and “River of Dreams,” which are all but a certainty, as well as “Piano Man,” which is a certainty, and the set list sites have hinted they’ll be sent out into the night after a four-song encore capped by a tub- thumping, horn-washed take of “Only the Good Die Young.”
There’s time enough for the key anthems, and time, too, for some “deep cuts” like “Where’s the Orchestra?” But first Billy’s got one more observation about the doo-wop moment: “It sounds better in the men’s room,” as he and his bandmates demonstrated, bouncing “The Longest Time” off dingy tiles in the song’s 1984 video. “We used to sneak out at night and sing it on the street corner—and people would throw shit at us!”
Well, clearly that was then. And tonight, when he’s sixty-four, they still need him, too, to borrow a phrase from a song. Mike DelGuidice, new utility player in the band, centerpiece of his own Joel tribute band called Big Shot, and maybe the number one fan in the room, will sum it up later in the bar where the band gathers. “He’s just the guy. That is the guy. He’s more loved than anyone on the planet, musically.” Mike has just come down from the hotel room he hurried to after the gig to take a family phone call. When he sat on the bed and started to think about having just played opening night alongside Billy in the Garden, he “wept like a baby for a good five minutes.”
That Billy’s even here in this sacramental spot, soon to be filled with eighteen thousand faithful fans, goes against the steepest of odds. If a harbormaster in Havana hadn’t let his father’s family disembark to find refuge from the Nazis; if his mom hadn’t found that piano teacher; if he hadn’t drilled into his own alienation to write his saga as that piano man; and if some label bosses hadn’t stuck by him after his first two albums tanked, he might be sitting down to the keys at a very different spot on the map.
There’s a particular moment in almost every one of his shows when, a song or two in, while listening to that odd sonic tumult of roaring approval, hollered song titles, and proprietary shout-outs of his first name, he leans left and forward on his piano stool and searches the faces of the crowd in his periphery. There’s usually a tentative grin, but there’s also a jigger of uncertainty—and therefore vulnerability—that stops short of neediness but is still somehow in touch with it. Tonight it will come be- fore “Summer, Highland Falls,” with its telling lyric: “And as we stand upon the ledges of our lives / With our respective similarities / It’s either sadness or euphoria.”
On a different day, in a different city, in what his intimates still think of as the bad, sad old days of 2009, he grew reflective on a hotel balcony: “Obviously I have plenty of regrets. Whenever I hurt somebody, whether it was inadvertently or rashly, I still regret that to this day. I’ve never wanted to ever hurt anybody, and those are regrets I’ll take with me to the grave. But I don’t think you’ve lived unless you have regrets. I don’t think you’ve had that experience without them, where you can say honestly, when you’re ready to kick, hey, I lived. Good Lord, man, what a life I’ve lived.
“I think I’m going to do that. That may take some of the sting out of dying—to say, I did it all.”
TOMORROW IS TODAY
In the late 1960s, as the British Invasion led to an expanding galaxy of stateside rock groups, Billy and his chronically unnameable band ended up being dropped from Mercury Records but played the Plainview, Long Island, nightclub My House frequently. The Island was as warm with fledgling bands. Billy had often watched My House’s resident band, the Hassles, who were relied upon, if hardly coddled, by club owner and sometime restaurateur Danny Mazur. Danny—recalled by Billy as “a typical Long Island club owner, kind of a tough, older Jewish guy, pinky ring, very heavyset, kind of gruff”—sometimes kept company with some beefy types Billy surmised were wise guys. Working alongside him—and as the Hassles’ manager—was his son Irwin. Though Irwin would later, via Danny’s connections, be briefly employed by industry legend Morris “Moishe” Levy (of whom Irwin freely says, “He was Jewish Mafia”), at this time he was helping Danny audition and book bands. He had returned to Long Island for that purpose from Philadelphia, where he was studying dentistry at University of Pennsylvania.
The Hassles were drawing big crowds at the time. “We could draw a thousand people a night to a place,” recalls drummer Jon Small, already a cover-band veteran when he formed the group. “We were very, very popular.” They had a keyboard player named Harry Weber, and Small was married to Harry’s sister Elizabeth and had a son by her, Sean, born in April 1967. Billy would never know Harry well—he recalls the infamously dissolute musician had a “lot of issues”—but of course he would come to know Elizabeth very well indeed.
Finally one night Harry and Jon had a serious set-to triggered by Harry’s deepening immersion in glue-sniffing, even onstage, where he’d catch half-hidden snorts from a poly bag while crouched on the low bench behind his keyboard. Harry finally exploded backstage after being rebuked one last time. As Small describes it: “He had his feet on my shoulders and was pulling my hair out. What it came down to was either him leaving or me leaving. And the other guys stuck with me.”
Harry, as part of a gaggle of Weber siblings who were raised in tony Syosset but lived a cursed history that most would associate with a less privileged lifestyle, would not land happily. A few years after being discharged from the band, he was found dead on a railroad track, the re- ported victim of an overdose.
In what Small smilingly calls “a very crafty” maneuver, he put an ad in the local paper in the spring of 1966 saying My House was seeking a second house band. “What they”—the Echoes, the key auditioning band that included Billy—“didn’t know was that I was sitting there looking to steal their keyboard player.” As Small sat in the otherwise empty club with Elizabeth, Hassles guitarist Richie McKenna, lead singer “Little John” Dizek, and Irwin, the Echoes—with Billy on Farfisa organ—performed a few songs. Small remembers, “I instantly loved this keyboard player. He wore a little bebop hat, and he actually got down on one knee and sang ‘Soul and Inspiration,’ the Righteous Brothers song.
“So I convinced the other guys that this is the guy, and I went to Billy and sat him in the room and said, ‘The reason you’re here is— how would you like to join the Hassles?’ And he looked at me and said, ‘Nope, not interested.’
“So I had to use another tactic. I knew these guys—nobody had any money. I had to bribe him is what it really came down to. I said, ‘So what is it going to take for you to get in the band?’ He said, ‘Look, I’m loyal to my band, I’ve been with these guys, grew up with these guys.’ I said,
‘Well, I have a Hammond B3 organ.’ That’s what everybody wanted.
‘You join the band, it’s yours.’
“It didn’t take more than a glimmer in his eye to think about it, and he said, ‘Okay, I’ll come in the band. But you have to take the bass player from my band, Howie Blauvelt.’ ”
Billy didn’t want to be responsible, as Weber had been, for playing the bass line on the Hammond’s bass pedals. “The Hassles were only a four-piece band,” says small. “But I thought, Okay, why not? We’ll just branch out; we’ll be a five-piece band. So Billy and Howie joined.”
The Hassles offered Billy $250 a week, which in 1967—when the minimum hourly wage was a little more than two dollars—was good money, especially given the added benefit of being drafted into a top local band. “You’re working fifty-two weeks a year if you want,” Mazur added to Jon Small’s pitch, “guaranteed.” For someone who had worked in an inking factory blacking typewriter ribbons; and had worked winter mornings on the wet, greasy deck of an oyster dredge; and had even written a few rock reviews for Changes magazine for the twenty-five- dollar fee they earned him, it all sounded quite satisfactory.
“Nobody was worried about having a real job then,” recalls Billy. “I was happy just to be a musician with enough money to buy some food and have my own place.”
As for that Hammond B3 Jon said they’d give Billy? They’d be de- ducting fifty dollars a month from his pay to cover the cost.
What his new band mates soon found out was that their new keyboardist—still singing backgrounds while the band worked the crowd with a raspy-voiced and marginally talented (but very Mick Jagger–like) front man, Little John—was interested in little else but the music. “What was important to Billy besides music was smoking cigarettes,” says Small. “He smoked cigarettes like a chimney, and I hated smoke—and he didn’t have a driver’s license. Billy didn’t even have a wallet. He was this funny guy. You could tell he was very smart, but the thing young guys craved were to have their first car—but he had no craving to have one. So I became the chauffeur.”
As Little John was slowly being edged out, Small and Billy bonded over music, cruising the Island clubs, drinking in the emerging local bands like the Pigeons, who would become Vanilla Fudge, and the Vagrants featuring Leslie West, later of Mountain—both signed to the Atco label. The slate of local groups included the Good Rats, the Illusion, and the Rich Kids. But to Billy, the defining band of that moment was the Young Rascals, led by organ virtuoso Felix Cavaliere: “Any- body that played covers in bars for a living had to know their Rascals. They were out of northern New Jersey, but they were cool with the Long Island fans, as well as great musicians in that hybrid genre that was known as ‘blue-eyed soul.’ ”
There were forays into Manhattan and, conveniently close, the borough of Queens: “I’ll never forget sneaking into the Jimi Hendrix gig at the Singer Bowl, which is now the Louis Armstrong Stadium,” Billy says. “We did the same at Randall’s Island Stadium,” now Carl Icahn Stadium.
Jon Small remembers regularly teaming with Billy—who used his gift for mimicry to sound British—to sneak into Carnegie Hall shows for the likes of Led Zeppelin and Jethro Tull, until they were exposed and all but literally booted out of the hall by notoriously thuggy British manager (and Sharon Osbourne’s dad) Don Arden. When the Beatles played Shea Stadium in August 1965, the Hassles even had the delirious notion of jumping onstage as an uninvited warm-up act. With manager Irwin Mazur’s connivance, they gave one of the Hassles’ roadies a dark suit and a skipper’s cap belonging to Irwin’s dad, Danny, and arrived in Danny’s Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham. Promoter Sid Bernstein sniffed out the ruse—though the band lore insists he was leaning toward al- lowing it until Beatles manager Brian Epstein vetoed them for not having the needed membership in the musicians’ union—but the scheme got them as far as privileged seats in the dugout. (Of course in 2008, Paul McCartney would jump onto Billy’s stage there by invitation, as recorded in the Last Play at Shea film.)
During 1965 and 1966 the Hassles honed their live chops via steady gigging at My House and, during the summer of 1966, a series of dates at a Hampton’s club called the Eye. “We played all summer long,” re- called Blauvelt in an interview for the Great East Coast Bands website two decades later. “We used to play five sets a night. That got the band really tight.” Some two years of steady live work led to recording sessions in May 1967.
Billy considers the two albums he made with the Hassles unmemorable other than their role as part of his education in the music business. The Hassles were signed by United Artists, which had been formed as a label to put out sound tracks for the film side of the company and ended up with a few notable acts, including Traffic. In fact, the Hassles’ self- titled 1967 debut had a cover of “Coloured Rain,” which Stevie Win- wood and his bandmates in Traffic had sent to UA as a demo track and would soon record, but which label mates the Hassles were also given a crack at. The lyrics were full of adolescent yearning: “Yesterday I was a young boy, searchin’ for my way / not knowing what I wanted, living life from day to day.”
“Stevie was an early hero,” says Billy, “a multi-instrumentalist especially good on the Hammond organ, and about a decade later I persuaded him to be a guest player on my  album The Bridge.” Billy had his own Hammond sound, much in evidence in a Hassles love song collected on the 2005 My Lives box set, called “Every Step I Take (Every Move I Make),” a brew of Rascals and Zombies influences. (The similarly titled and musically kindred Police song quite innocently resembled it—and was the best-selling single of 1983.) The two producers of that first Hassles album, Tony Michaels and Vinny Gorman, took two-thirds of the copyright and publishing credits for the songs Billy had written—his first taste of larceny in the music business.
Billy and the band also recorded one of their live favorites, Sam and Dave’s “You Got Me Hummin,’ ” which labored its way to number 112 on the Billboard “Bubbling Under the Hot 100” singles chart (and reached number 71 in Record World). It was an energetic stab at blue-eyed soul and the original’s gospel-rooted, highly improvisational Stax studio sound, but in Billy’s words, “it wasn’t going to make Sam or Dave quit the business.”
ON OCTOBER 28, 1967, about eight months after the first single had hit and as the band was completing their debut album, the leading Long Island daily Newsday published staffer Harvey Aronson’s “Look What Grew on Our Lawns,” a three-page celebration—leavened with some wry asides about suburbia—of the Hassles and their homegrown success. Occupying much of the opening spread was a sprawling group shot of the band clutching their instruments in front of the Dizek family’s Syosset home. Framed in the foreground were the impatiently squinting Danny and Irwin Mazur, who sported suits and ties. Arrayed behind were friends and family, all on “the neatly clipped lawn in front of a split level.” Text and photo worked the same conceit, as summed up in a pull quote—“The Hassles are all heart and all suburban. And they stand for the universality of rock ’n’ roll”—and further text: “A group of sprouts native to Long Island has blossomed into one of the area’s hottest rock ’n’ roll combos, feeding on fees of $1,000 a night. With a little more care—and a hit record or two—the Hassles could begin to resemble a high-rising money tree.”
Portrayed as working twenty-hour days roaming between the Island and Manhattan clubs (including Steve Paul’s the Scene, where Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix actually once got on stage together with the Young Rascals), and even needing a police escort from an unnamed Queens venue, the group was said to have sold ten thousand copies of “You Got Me Hummin’ ” in the first week in such cities as New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Providence, and Pittsburgh. The single is de- scribed as “a glorious mélange of wham-bam-boom with lots of moans and a sensational scream,” though whether Aronson was aware of the Sam & Dave original seems dubious. The writer notes that “Irwin talks in terms of The Hassles’ grossing $250,000 this year,” but today Irwin recalls that he had to stretch his own finances to provide $30,000 (presumably less Billy’s fifty dollars per week for the B3) to buy the band’s equipment.
The piece recounts the band’s reaction to hearing their song on the radio. “I was in the back of the truck,” says Richie (“a phlegmatic kid who gets animated when he talks about the record”), “. . . It’s the best feeling there is to ride in a car and hear the record on the radio. Every- body started screaming and banging on the walls. . . . We almost hit another car.”
The band member whom the article calls “Billy Joe” and equips with an erroneous added name (which dogged him for years), “William Martin Joseph Joel,” is correctly depicted as age eighteen and from Hicksville. He’s described as lead singer (though Dizek is cited as “front man” and, per Irwin, “the group’s sex symbol”) as well as piano and organ player, and as the groups “most learned musician . . . He likes Beethoven and Rachmaninoff, but they don’t pay off for longhairs anymore.”
In a sentiment he would echo throughout his career, Billy advised the reporter that “playing rock ’n’ roll isn’t hard; getting new ideas is the hard thing.” Most of the current rock songs, he conceded, would be unsung and unremembered a generation hence, unlike—and apparently these are Billy’s examples—“White Christmas” and “I’m in the Mood for Love.” The point that “we squares should try to grasp,” wrote Aronson, teeing Billy up for some hipster jargon, is that (Billy declared) “our music is all part of the today scene—we’re not trying to add any- thing to posterity.”
Things would work out a little differently, but who could have said so then?
As Irwin and Danny estimated for the piece, since they’d auditioned the Hassles in August 1966, Long Island had come to boast more than four hundred “discotheques” (a term that embraced rock clubs as well as dance venues) and one thousand groups. Despite the long odds, the Mazurs had sold My House in July 1967, annexed the first album’s producers (Michaels, twenty-six, and Gorman, twenty-one) as part of Mazur Enterprises, and added two road managers. A UA spokesman said of the Hassles, “We’re going all out with them. We’re giving them a lot of promotion; we’re getting them as many TV shows as possible.”
In fact, their breakout hit, “You Got Me Hummin’,” would be squandered as a commercial point of entry. Irwin told Aronson that he wanted to send the boys to drama school and “make them bigger than the Monkees.” And yet he almost seemed to foresee problems with the dysfunction that was built into the band—front man Little John had the moves, but Billy, hidden behind his Hammond, had the voice. Irwin knew, he said, that “it has to happen with a record—if not this one, the next one.” The article included a round of parents’ musings. “I always knew he would be in show business,” said Billy’s mom. “He sang before he could talk.”
Finally, Aronson describes their appearance on The Clay Cole Show, a dance show starring the local rock-on-TV bellwether—who’d once hosted a pairing of the Beatles and Stones—that typically featured lip- synching bands and a cast of regular dancers à la Dick Clark’s national counterpart, American Bandstand. Cole would quit in January 1968, simply walking away from a scene that he—a self-described “black-tie, tuxedo guy . . . adrift . . . in ‘the quicksand of psychedelic acid rock’ ”— felt alienated from. Virtually all the shows are lost to pop history, erased so the tape could be reused. With “Billy Joe sporting an Indian shawl” and Little John in a paisley print shirt, the Hassles may have spooked Cole with what Aronson called the “flying hair and the flying hips, and the big-beat stridence that makes young people of today jump, scream, and spend money.” Aronson concluded with “Make it? Why not? And just think—it all happened right here on our lawns.”
Perhaps the article was a jinx in its own right. In any event, the Hassles’ slide into obscurity—or at best, to getting the occasional nod as one of Billy’s early bands—was already quietly awaiting.
THE BAND’S SECOND album, Hour of the Wolf, was made with an underground legend named Thomas Jefferson Kaye, who had disputably claimed to have produced Question Mark and the Mysterians’ 1966 classic “96 Tears,” and who later worked with Steely Dan. As much as Billy would be a fan of the latter group, the eccentric Kaye was probably not the best producer for the Hassles.
Billy and the band set up the sessions in the old Skitch Henderson studio in New York and spent months recording. Some of the bunch was smoking hash, but Jon and Billy abstained. “The drug-addled process went on endlessly,” Billy recalls, and Small remembers being aggravated when an inebriated Judy Garland, apparently an acquaintance of Kaye’s, sat slumped on the sofa in the control room batting out mumbled queries. “Everybody was tripping,” Billy would recall, “and we spent six months in this crazy little studio until we got so psychedelic we didn’t know what we were doing anymore.” Despite it all, the musicianship was capable and generally a cut above the lyrics of the title track (cowritten by Billy and Little John):
Has come alive within a creature
With the eyes of burning fire
There is a tingling in your brain
You want to run but you remain
It is the hour of the wolf.
The title song shared a title (and, by coincidence, a theme of dawning madness) with the Ingmar Bergman movie of a year earlier, and amid its grandiose twelve minutes, featured wolf noises from the band.
Ultimately the Hassles’ Hour of the Wolf, with an acid-expressionistic cover centered on a wolf’s skull in lurid colors, was released in January 1969 and disappeared immediately.
Around that point, John Dizek decided he’d had enough. Years later, for the liner notes to a reissue of the band’s work, he groused that the Mazurs were out for their own interests: “They used us to support them- selves . . . [and] kept us at My House during the most crucial time. . . . We should have been touring to support our album.”
Billy took over lead vocals. Also left in the band were the untamed Howie Blauvelt and guitar player Richie McKenna, always viewed by Billy as difficult. Howie had been a steady friend of Billy’s for years, from their early days in Hicksville and the Parkway Green gang through their shared discoveries of rock music’s magic. However, Billy eventually grew apart from him, largely due to Howie’s experiments with different intoxicants. (Unexceptionally, if unluckily for the era, Blauvelt had been arrested in January 1966 at age nineteen, charged with pos- session of marijuana as a felony with eight other minors, in a pot bust at a Hicksville motel; the disposition of the case is unknown.) Another bad sign came when Howie fell off the stage one night, mid performance. Given the kinds of clubs they were playing, where there was barely room for a couple of small risers onstage, it was hazardous enough up there without being in an altered state.
So Jon and Billy inevitably became a clique of two and would simply leave the Hassles and their only too appropriate moniker behind. (Howie would go on to brief notoriety in the local band Ram Jam, and died in 1993.) To them, the group’s 1960s soul-pop had begun to pale be- side a new influence like Led Zeppelin. “We wanted to be a heavy band and decided we were going to get heavy. Somehow.” At that moment in rock, heavy signified intense, stoney, even psychedelic workouts— though soon enough, heavy would be connected with metal and turn away from its blues-influenced roots toward faster, head-banging, Judas Priest–style fare. In any event, Billy—unlike, say, John Lennon—had never actually taken acid.
It was during this apprenticeship that Billy had a couple one-off gigs that gave him a minor stake in the pop ethos that preceded the hippie 1960s. One was a session gig playing keyboards behind Chubby Checker, he of “The Twist” (a monumental 1960 remake of the Hank Ballard original) and other dance hits in a string that petered out around 1965. Also around then Billy went to a Long Island studio to assist minor legend Shadow Morton in producing some tracks. Whether Billy is heard on the demo or the master recording for producers Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry’s “Walking in the Sand” has been discussed in certain obscure pop history circles for years. Billy to this day can’t swear if he is or isn’t in the mix on that great anthem of teenage love and loss.
After a few more desultory gigs, Jon and Billy split from the Hassles and began their quest for musical heft—in the basement of Jon’s parents’ wallpaper store in Syosset. They were encouraged when they quickly snared a sponsorship deal with an outfit called Plush Amplifiers, whose amp cases were lined in rolled and tucked black vinyl padding but, more crucially, were capable of shoving out torrents of noise. By trial and error—Jon took some painful voltage while holding stripped wire from the organ to contacts on an amplifier—the duo figured out how to wire Billy’s gear for a maximum raunch-rock noise, and it produced an ear- splitting, distorted sound. Now they felt, Billy recalls, “unstoppable.”
“Although I missed Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock—I went up for one day, realized I didn’t really care for mud, rain, or acid, and hitchhiked home—he was the nexus of what was becoming the fuzz and feedback era,” Billy says. “I got a wah-wah pedal so I could wow-wow-ee-ow like Jimi, and added a distortion pedal, which I figured would double the mangled noise we already were making. Then we just pinned the volume to the wall.”
The year was 1969, and rock’s insurgent energy was still shrouded under such radio hits as Tommy Roe’s “Dizzy” and the Archies’ “Sugar Sugar” (though Billy’s role models, Rod Argent’s Zombies, had a hit with “Time of the Season” and the Brits made a raucous statement with the Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women” and the Beatles’ “Get Back”).
Billy wrote a bunch of heavy metal songs, which were somewhat indecipherable onstage or on tape, and Irwin Mazur, who continued to manage him and Jon post-Hassles, thought the result was “the worst crap I ever heard in my life, but I got them a deal with Epic Records”— with a fifty-thousand-dollar advance. Some of that money went toward investing in some real rock “threads”: goofy Carnaby Street–style out- fits they bought at an East Village store called Granny Takes a Trip.
Soon afterward Billy and Jon set out to make their self-titled album for Epic under the moniker Attila. The name, which Billy chose, was in tribute to Jack Palance, who had slashed Romans and smooched a princess as Attila the Hun in Douglas Sirk’s 1954 Sign of the Pagan.
“If you’re going to assault the rock world and crush it under ten Marshall amps, wouldn’t Attila the Hun, who plundered Italy and Gaul and slaughtered quite a few innocents along the way, work as a role model?” thought Billy. “I was nineteen, and at that age, if you’re loving your heavy metal, it’s all about thrash, kill, metal, slash, burn, pillage, repeat.” Unfortunately, the art director at Epic took this inspiration a bit too literally and set up an album cover photo shoot in a meat locker, with Billy and Jon in fur-and-breastplate barbarian getups and surrounded by giant, marbled carcasses of beef.
It was a moment in Billy’s career when absurdity ruled. A video from the era—a snippet of it appears in the documentary The Last Play at Shea—shows Jon and Billy on the famous Cyclone roller coaster at Coney Island. Back then, the park had a little person from one of the nearby freak shows zapping people with a cattle prod when they got off the ride, which seemed to suit the outré tendencies of the Attila album as it marched to oblivion. For most of the songs on the record, Billy deployed a small keyboard beside his left hand that could supply the bass line, and with his right hand he played his chords and leads— screaming the lyrics at the top of his lungs. Jon played drums feverishly all the way though every song. Ultimately, Billy was relieved that the band wasn’t a success, realizing that he would have had to scream like that every night for years: “I was trying to sing like Robert Plant, and I was no Robert Plant.”
Inevitably, they didn’t sell many albums and got dropped by their label quickly. Jon didn’t recall much tsuris about it. “Irwin was making all the deals; we were just the dopey musicians in the basement of my parents’ wallpaper store.”
After all these years, Jon and Billy are still in agreement that Attila “sucked.” As Jon admits, “We sucked in the studio, and in the six or so gigs we ever played live. But the bond that grew between us as we were going through the low points probably equipped us for a friendship that would stand the test of time.”
Time was far from the only test the friendship would see. The signal challenge for the comradeship would see the two men sharing an ex- wife, Harry Weber’s sister Elizabeth. Jon and Elizabeth had married abruptly not long into their relationship, shortly before Billy joined the Hassles, when she became pregnant with their son Sean. (Sean can be seen, at age nine, on the cover of 1976’s Turnstiles, at Billy’s elbow amid various crowded-in extras.)
The history of the love triangle emerges straightforwardly, in the present day, from the two male principals. In fact, the two men, insiders say, still compare notes on their shared ex—did you have to go through this too? But at the time when the partners were changed, and in several tumultuous years afterward, the relationship would be wrenchingly emotional.
Jon remembers one crucial twist. “This is the part where it gets a little squirrely for me,” he says. “We were a bunch of hippies. That’s what we really were. And [in 1970] we moved into one house together, in Dix Hills. It was all stone and cement, so we’d end up naming it the Rock House. And it was me, Elizabeth, and Billy.” Prior to that, the trio had been living in the Fairhaven Apartments near Billy’s old street in Hicksville—Jon and Elizabeth in one apartment, with Billy across the hall.
At the same time, Jon ranged about Long Island’s clubs seeking out gigs, while Billy worked occasional odd jobs. Says Jon: “What happened is real simple—he just fell in love with my wife. That’s it. And when I found out, our friendship was over.” In fact, the bond between Billy and Jon would ultimately survive. But Billy’s fascination with Elizabeth was inescapable, partly based on her indefinability: “She was—different. She wasn’t like a lot of the other girls I knew at that time who had taken home ec and cooking classes. She was a very bright woman, and she wasn’t afraid to show how smart she was. I sup- pose that made her kind of exotic. Intelligent and not afraid to speak her mind, but could also be seductive. Almost like a European type— not a typical American girl.”
The situation reached its breaking point one day when Billy and Jon were doing one of the rare gigs they played as Attila—two shows, both sold out, at a club in Amityville. “So we played the first set,” remembers Jon, and “and we went over great.
“Billy never perspired, but when I’d go in the dressing room, I’d be soaking wet. I used to use an Electrolux vacuum cleaner to blow-dry my hair, because there were no blow dryers back then. So I had this big vacuum cleaner going, holding it up. I’m looking out the window, and there are Elizabeth and Billy talking.
“The next thing I see is that Billy’s getting in the car with her and leaving. But we still have another show to do. I get dressed as fast as I can, jump in my car, and I know they’re going back to the Rock House . . . and there they were.”
Whether Jon’s anger was purely a late wave of jealousy and resentment, or partly derived from his band mate skipping out on a gig Jon had set up, he reacted blindly: “Billy was sitting playing piano, Elizabeth was there, and her sister was there.
“I walked in, I was in a rage. I threw her younger sister, Josephine, through the screen door; she went right through the screen and broke the glass. And then Elizabeth ran out, and I punched Billy.”
Billy describes the turn of events as unexpected: “I remember that I was turning toward Jon—and I got hit. There was blood coming out of my nose. I was just kind of startled, even though I had been punched many times when I used to box. This was just a punch I hadn’t seen coming. But let’s face it, I deserved it.”
Before that night, Billy believed that Elizabeth had already talked to Jon about them; in his mind, the long-alienated married couple were already separated—at least emotionally—and headed for a clean break. Making matters worse, the two men hadn’t discussed the couple’s is- sues—or the budding romance between Elizabeth and Billy that was becoming obvious from body language, muted exchanges, and not- quite-stolen glances. Billy attributes the silence to a typically male mix of sensitivity and yet also not wanting to overly share. (Long Island guys with a foot still in the working class simply don’t share on most subjects deeper than the Mets.)
“Up until that moment when Jon clocked me, I don’t remember feeling particularly guilty, because I thought it was all out in the open, what was going on,” says Billy. “But Jon didn’t know [the whole truth] about Elizabeth and me. When I realized that Jon didn’t know, I was filled with crippling guilt.”
After that scene and the realization that he’d been deeply deceiving Jon, Billy felt like everything was crumbling at once. Attila had been a failure. He didn’t have any bank account to speak of. And now he felt that he was causing his best friend’s divorce. Then, to top it all off, rather than divorcing Jon to be with Billy, Elizabeth disappeared. “That’s when I started feeling suicidal,” says Billy.
“Billy called me up at one in the morning—he’s got to talk to me. And I meet him at the Jericho Diner,” recalls Irwin Mazur. “He tells me he’s having an affair with Elizabeth. And he doesn’t know what to do.”
For a few months leading up to the blowup, Billy had been keeping a small apartment in the Fairhaven—where he slept under an American flag—even as Jon anchored the Rock House and Elizabeth increasingly spent time in the Weber family home in Syosset. But with Elizabeth absenting herself from both men for a time and Jon in a kind of exile, Billy was adrift, lacking the money for rent, without a car or license, and occasionally crashing at Irwin Mazur’s home.
“So Billy’s staying in our apartment one night,” Irwin says, “and I get up in the morning, and I go in the dining room, and there’s a loose-leaf page Billy left there with what are obviously lyrics to a song. And I read it, and the title of the song is ‘Tomorrow Is Today.’ I think his state of mind would be pretty well summed up in his song. It was a suicide note.”
I’ve been livin’ for the moment
But I just can’t have my way
And I’m afraid to go to sleep
’Cause tomorrow is today . . .
I don’t care to know the hour
’Cause it’s passing anyway
I don’t have to see tomorrow
’Cause I saw it yesterday . . .
Oh, my, I’m goin’ to the river
Gonna take a ride and the Lord will deliver me
Make my bed, now I’m gonna lie in it
If you don’t come, I’m sure gonna die in it
Too late, too much givin’
I’ve seen a lot of life and I’m damn sick of livin’ it
I keep hopin’ that you will pass my way.
“It was 1970. I’d reached the age of twenty-one and still had no money,” says Billy. “I had no place to live. I was out of the Rock House, crashing at my mom’s place again, which is abject failure, when you have to go back to your parents’ house. To avoid that, I’d been roaming about like a homeless person—crashing on friends’ couches, sometimes in a car I’d find unlocked, in the warmth of a Laundromat, back and forth in the subways in Queens, even in the woods.”
Jon Small remembers one day—as communication between himself and Billy slowly resumed, with Elizabeth’s reclusiveness easing the state of détente—saying to Billy, “ ‘Come on, we’re going to go out and go hang out at the bar, bring some girls or whatever, we’ll figure it out.’ And he was just lying there, couldn’t even talk. And he said to me, ‘I think I’m going to commit suicide or something.’ And I said to him, ‘Well, go ahead. Go ahead. Kill yourself. Get it over with. Because this is not doing you any good.’ So I left him there and I went out. And when I came back, he was on the floor.”
“I was still feeling so down,” Billy says. “A well-intentioned friend of mine had gotten me some pills—Nembutal—to try to help me to cope with this terrible guilt and anxiety I was having. I was at my mom’s house in Hicksville, and I thought to myself, Well, I’ve got these pills, I might as well take them.”
The way Billy’s sister, Judy, tells the story, Billy called up Jon to apologize for the transgressions that, despite the seeming reconciliation, still left him feeling remorseful, and Jon came and found Billy passed out. Jon and Billy’s mother called the ambulance, and Billy was taken to the hospital. “The next thing I remember, I woke up in the hospital and learned that they had pumped my stomach,” says Billy. “I thought to myself, oh, great, I couldn’t even do this right. It was just another failure.” Billy was released, but he’d be back in a hospital within a few weeks.
“I was still having all these feelings of guilt and despair and hopelessness, and in the closet at home I saw there were two bottles that bore a skull and crossbones warning,” remembers Billy. “The bleach didn’t look too palatable. So I drank the Old English Scratch Cover [Not, as often has been cited, Lemon Pledge].
“After I drank it, I remember sitting in a chair waiting to die. I thought, I’ll sit in this chair, and I’ll die here. I ended up sitting there, polishing my mother’s furniture by farting a lot. Judy’s husband, Frank Molinari, got the job of taking me off to the hospital. Even as we were traveling there, I was saying to myself, this is stupid. This is ridiculous. I need help. I was coherent enough to check myself in to an observation ward at what was then called Meadowbrook Hospital.”
Billy would remain in the hospital three weeks. He later remembered the hospital as being just like the one in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest: “You go to the nurses’ station, they give you your little cup of pills, and they look at your chart. I remember going up to the nurses at the station and saying, ‘Hey, I’m okay. They’re crazy. But I’m okay.’ And the nurses would just look at me, with my long hair and moustache looking like Louis the Fourteenth, and say, ‘Yes, Mr. Joel. Here are your pills.’
“I just couldn’t wait to get out of there. We all slept in one big com- munity room, on cots, right next to one another. The next guy over would be moaning all night, and another guy would be screaming. It was like Bedlam, a very scary place.” At the end of three weeks, after Billy had talked to a battery of doctors and they were satisfied that they could release him, Billy was free to leave.
“I walked out. I remember this, because they had an electric door with bars on it, and it made a big noise—schlank!—like a prison door. And I remember walking down Carmen Avenue, where the Nassau County Jail was, right down the street, and thinking, Don’t look back. I hitched a ride to my mom’s house.”
Billy’s time in the hospital proved to be a lesson in reality and a life- long guard against self-pity: “To be in that observation ward with all those profoundly disturbed patients—I realized that my situation was nothing compared to that of the others.
“For the most part, the people I was locked up with were never going to be able to overcome their problems, whereas mine were all self-made. I can fix this, I thought. All things considered, it was probably one of the best things I’ve ever done, because I learned not to get so hung up on self-pity that I couldn’t think straight. I’d like to think I shed the rock star skin at that point.”
Irwin Mazur confronted Billy sometime after he was released from the hospital: “I asked him, ‘What the hell did you do?’ and Billy says, ‘I drank furniture polish.’ And he says, ‘Listen, I can’t take this music business anymore.’ I said, ‘Have you been writing songs?’ And Billy says, ‘Yeah, I have.’ And there was ‘She’s got a Way’ and ‘Why Judy Why’ and ‘Everybody Loves You Now.’ He played me those. So he says,
‘Listen, I’m ready.’ ”
Billy was determined to get one of his songs covered soon, ideally by an artist he admired, or he’d find some alternative path through life, some other means of self-support. “Look,” he warned Irwin, “I’m going to go to the Midwest. I’ll be a bartender. I’ve had enough of this. If it doesn’t happen soon, I’m not hanging on anymore.”