Though top-heavy on the business side, this look at pop idol Billy Joel pulls together many aspects of his life, even if they fail to cohere fully.
With Joel, people come down on one side or the other: he’s a schlock crooner, banal, surrounded by musical hacks, all smoke and mirrors; he’s a piano prodigy, full of bittersweet melodies and wry surprises, who can command a waltz as easily as a torch song, do pop, jazz or swing. Indisputably, he has gotten himself a fair amount of publicity, mostly bad. So he looks like just the stuff for a revealing biography, but the problem is that he won’t cooperate with such a venture. Thus, long-time music journalist Bordowitz (Bad Moon Rising, 1998) is forced to cull his (rather guarded) material from magazines, books and interviews with some of Joel’s associates; his close friends won’t talk about him to strangers. There’s none of the immediacy of hearing from Joel himself, getting the benefit of his hindsight or hearing his take on what it’s like to have “A Matter of Trust” work its way from thin air to the recording studio. Though all the sensational stuff is there—booze, drugs and sex—readers will get some conflicting information on the last one. We read that “Billy. . . seemed to be enjoying the sex and drugs and rock and roll, and increasingly the sex was not with Elizabeth,” she being his first wife. Then, after their divorce, we hear about Joel’s “long-stunted rock and roll libido.” Joel’s business and legal wrangles are largely public record, and that’s where Bordowitz spends considerable time. He also provides a linear history of the artist’s songwriting and performances—and comments he made about both—but, again, the goods are all secondhand. There’s a palpable veil between Bordowitz’s writing and the acts themselves.
A tidy synthesis, but not so insightful that it can succeed without the horse’s mouth. (30 b&w photos)