Review: Fred Schruers’ ‘Billy Joel’

Billy Joel: The Definitive Biography. Fred Schruers. Crown. 400 pages. $29.
Billy Joel: The Definitive Biography. Fred Schruers. Crown. 400 pages. $29.

Billy Joel tantalized fans a few years ago with a promised memoir, but at the last minute, the rock legend canceled the book.

Now comes a consolation prize. Veteran rock journalist Fred Schruers, Joel’s co-writer on the dropped project, has taken hundreds of hours of interviews with the singer-songwriter, along with extensive additional reporting, and crafted a full biography. The title promises the definitive story, and Schruers largely delivers — although mostly as Joel would want the story told, it appears.

The timing is fitting. Joel is clearly enjoying a revival. In the last year or so, he has been feted at the Kennedy Center as an American icon, launched a successful if sporadic tour, and created a popular concert series at Madison Square Garden.

Schruers clearly realizes he has gold in his interviews with Joel, his friends, paramours and confidants. Few of the 400 pages pass without a quote from Joel.

The tale is thorough. Joel’s paternal grandfather was hounded out of Germany during the Holocaust, stripped of his successful business and forced to seek a new life overseas. That sets up much of the singer’s life: His roots in New York, the persistent bouts of melancholy in his personality and his music, and the influence of his mother and her British Jewish family.

The remaining details will be familiar to Joel’s fans, and Schruers unspools them in a straightforward and readable style. Joel’s father left a young Billy, mother Rosalind and older sister Judy to largely fend for themselves in the Long Island town of Hicksville. Joel earned a self-sufficiency and toughness that carried him through dark periods.

There was never much doubt what he would do with his life. His parents’ roots in musical theater left him steeped in the piano. By his early teens, he was in a band, playing the British invasion rock, psychedelic music and black rhythm and blues that heavily influenced him. He cockily told his mother that he was going to Columbia Records, not Columbia University — and within a few years, he was proved right.

As a solo artist, he was a promising talent who quickly fell into a sketchy business arrangement. His first album, Cold Spring Harbor, imploded thanks to a production error. Joel and his wife, Elizabeth, hid in California, where he played piano bars and lived the story that would become Piano Man, his signature tune and nickname.

Joel benefited from coming of age just as rock was moving away from the 45 single to the long-play album, a format that allowed singer-songwriters such as Bruce Springsteen — a frequent point of comparison in the book — to flourish.

It took a few years for Joel to find his stride, but a string of hit albums, starting with The Stranger in 1977, made him one of the top-selling artists of all time. Schruers fleshes out the work that each album required, delivering insights on individual songs that will surprise even the most studied Joel fan.

Schruers could have done more to explore the curious collapse of Joel’s songwriting career. After his final studio album, River of Dreams in 1993, Joel decided to wall off romantic matters from his writing, the author notes. But the book never mentions Joel’s failure to delve into other areas — are there no new songs in aging, addiction or the political views that Springsteen so often mines? Joel says the 9/11 attacks made him despondent for almost a decade; how did an artist not tap that?

Without new artistic ground to cover, the last third of the book drags through the ups and downs of Joel’s touring career and his troubles with alcohol, car wrecks and younger women.

The reader is left to wonder about how many of the women, band members and business associates who clashed with Joel feel about his interpretation of events. Some are quoted at length but don’t add much. And some asides go unexplained — Joel is twice labeled an avowed atheist, but his arrival at that remains a mystery.

But these are quibbles. Schruers has given us the most complete look at Joel’s life and career to date.

Ryan J. Rusak reviewed this book for The Dallas Morning News.