Billy Joel opens up about writing music, his career, who inspires him

Billy Joel announced this month he'll begin playing monthly concerts at New York's Madison Square Garden, starting in January.

Joel is among this year's Kennedy Center honorees. He recently talked with Charlie Rose about his award, his career and what brought him back from darker times.

 

 Rose asked, "If I had within the sound of my voice 100,000 of the most intense Billy Joel fans, what would they most want to hear you play?"

Joel said, "They'd probably want to hear 'Piano Man'."

The song Joel wrote while playing in a Los Angeles lounge has become a stadium-sized American anthem.

 

 

He was recently praised by the president and celebrated as a Kennedy Center honoree. President Obama said, "For an artist whose songs are sung around the world, his music is uniquely American, and for that we honor Billy Joel."

Rose said, "Just give me a sense, a boy from Long Island, sitting there with the president, first lady and some other artists who you have to admire."

"I found it hard to believe I was in that lineup," Joel said. "And sitting in the president's box, in the nation's capital, and not doing anything, but watching other people perform my stuff. It was a little overwhelming.  What's the Yiddish word? Verklempt."

Raised in a working class neighborhood on New York's Long Island, Joel took to the piano at an early age, but preferred making up his own melodies as opposed to playing the classics.

"I got tired of readin' Mozart and Chopin and all that stuff," Joel said. "I said, 'Let me write my own stuff.' So I started writing music. And then later on in life, I started writing words to the music. And it's the backwards way of writing because traditional songwriting is you take words or a poem and you set it to music. I actually write music and I set words to that. Melody and chords are first."

Asked if he hears it in his head, Joel said, "Yes. Sometimes I dream it, and I wake up with music in my head and I can't get rid of it. 'Just the Way You Are' started out - I was in a meeting with an attorney and an accountant. And all of the sudden this thing came in my head."

Joel continued, "I had dreamt it and it reoccurred. And I'm running down the street, trying to get to my house to get to the piano. 'How do I remember this? 'Don't do crazy. Don't be lazy.' You know any dopey words to hold on to the melody. And I knew that wasn't gonna be the final lyric." 

"Just the Way You Are" became Joel's first top 10 single -- a milestone not achieved until his fifth solo album. 

"I put out something like four albums on Columbia Records before I had a successful hit album," Joel said. "I don't think people can do that anymore. I don't think a record company would stay with an artist that long."

Thankfully, Columbia stuck with him because the hits kept coming. Joel's next eight studio albums all reached the top 10 -- four making it to No. 1.

"CBS This Morning" met up during rehearsals for his New Year's Eve show in New York, where he shared a lifetime of songs.

"When we were in the UK they wanted to hear 'Uptown Girl.' That was a big hit there," Joel said. "It was Princess Diana's theme song...'Uptown Girl'. I don't normally do it in other places because it shreds my throat. I'm trying to sing like Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons…And it just knocks…it kills me…"

It's hard to believe he hasn't recorded a Rock 'n' Roll record in 20 years.

Rose remarked, "If someone said, 'Billy, just try it again. Just think about writing more popular songs' --"

Joel said, "I've said, 'I just am not there. You know, I'm -- I'm very comfortable writing music'."

"But you could if you wanted to?" Rose asked.

Joel said, "I probably could if I wanted."

Rose said, "I don't think you lose that talent, do you?"

"Well, the thing is, you have to want to," Joel said. "A lot of people think, you know -- you're lazy if you're not writing songs, or there's some horrible neurotic underlying reason for not writing songs. It's not that at all.  I just don't want to. I never stopped writing. I just stopped writing songs."

Rose said, "So composer might be first even before songwriter?"

Joel replied, "Yes."

Rose said, "Because that's where you started; with the music."

 "That's where it all starts," Joel said. "Even before there's a song, there's music."

His first instrumental album, Fantasies and Delusions was released in 2001 -- a year that brought the artist a new freedom, but also great despair. 

"After 9/11, I was in the dumps," Joel said. "And I felt just stunned by the inhumanity of it. And I went into a deep depression. And I was down for a long, long time."

He said it lasted about 10 years. "I had the blues," Joel said.  

Through his music, he helped heal a city wounded by the events of September 11, and again in the wake of Superstorm Sandy.

"We can't be first responders, but I've said we can be second responders," Joel said. "And it's a good thing to be able to do."

Joel said his own decade-long depression finally ended after hearing the story of the young Pakistani girl named Malala Yousafzai.

"She was so brave," Joel said. "Defied the Taliban…She wanted to go to school. A little girl. And she was shot in the head. And she came right back and said, 'I'm gonna continue doing what it was doing.' And I said, 'That's an inspiration.' That lifted me out of it, really. She did."

Rose asked, "And when you're on stage is that the happiest moment?"

"When we're on stage and its cooking and the band is rocking and the audience is having a great time, that's fun," Joel said. "That's a lot of fun. It's a moment. You can't put it in a bottle."

Rose asked, "Have you come to the point where here you are, 64 -- that you can say, 'Well done.  Well done'?"

Joel said he doesn't do that, adding: "I don't rest on my laurels."

Rose said, "But it's not resting on your laurels. But you know you have -- you've hit it outta the park a lot."

"Yeah, but there's always the next day," Joel said. "And what's next?"

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