“Billy Joel: The Definitive Biography” by Fred Schruers is an obvious read for diehard Billy Joel fans. The painstakingly researched biography details Joel’s persona and describes the inspiration behind his music - from heartbreak, to career troubles, to the Cold War.
It was originally meant to be an autobiography, with Schruers ghost writing, but just before publication Joel announced he wasn’t interested. So the project became a biography created from hundreds of hours of interviews with family, friends, band members and the musician himself.
You might be surprised to hear the book begins in Nazi Germany. The author doesn’t arrive at Joel’s birth until page 20 - it begins with the Joels’s complicated history as a Jewish family during Hitler’s rise to power. His ancestor’s story is quite remarkable, and it served as an interesting introduction to his early life.
Overall though, I have to admit I found the details of Joel’s early life tedious. I didn’t recognize many names and felt bogged down by the tedium of his pre-fame struggles. But that feeling didn’t last for long.
For instance, while playing with the band “The Hassles” in 1965, they schemed to be the uninvited opening act to the Beatles at Shea Stadium. Not shockingly, the band didn’t end up warming up for the Beatles that day. But in a twist of fate, Paul McCartney performed with Joel at the last concert in Shea Stadium in 2008, where Billy was the headliner. The story of that concert was one of the most compelling in the book, so I don’t want to spoil it for you here.
You hear about his good times, like when he dropped out of high school and declared, “I’m not going to go to Columbia University, I’m going to Columbia Records.” You also hear about his many low times, like when he attempted suicide by drinking furniture polish.
Once we reach the 70’s, you’re reminded how many iconic songs Joel has. “The Entertainer” was a response to his record label cutting the original 6-minute version of “Piano Man” to a radio-friendly 3 minutes.
I learned a lot of new things about his music - like the line in “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,” “Things are okay with me these days” was written as “Things are okay in Oyster Bay,” a nod to his hometown. And the inspiration behind “Angry Young Man” is revealed to be Billy’s Vietnam vet/tour manager, Bob Romaine.
The book traveled through so many important times - Joel’s concert tour in Russia during the Cold War, his importance in New York after 9/11, and playing that last concert at Shea Stadium with Paul McCartney.
This book is probably overkill for the casual fan. But budding rock historians and true Billy Joel fanatics will enjoy delving deeper into his life. Most readers will dust off his greatest hits album and have a new appreciation for his music. Especially since Joel is quoted as saying, “The best expression of my life, and it’s up and downs, has been and remains my music.”
"Billy Joel: The Definitive Biography" is published by Crown Archetype. Reviewer Erin Cassidy Hendrick is an associate producer at WPSU-FM and a Billy Joel fan.