The book that millions of fans have pined for…sort of.
Many of singer-songwriter Joel’s most enduring tunes—“Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,” “Only the Good Die Young” and “New York State of Mind,” to name only a few—feel quite autobiographical, and it could be argued that his musical and cultural resonance stems in part from the fact that he’s led a representative American life. Raised in the ’hood by immigrant parents, he fought tooth and nail to achieve professional success, found (then lost) a trophy wife, lost (then found) his happiness and mental health. Since he hasn’t seen fit to write a memoir, this full-blown Joel-ography will fill a gap. The prolific Bego, author of books about Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson and Cher, among others, wears his love for Joel’s music on his sleeve, and his in-depth analysis of virtually every song in the musician’s canon is enthusiastic, if a bit repetitive. Unfortunately, the story is told primarily via secondhand source material and gossipy interviews with past and present bandmates; drummer Liberty DeVitto is especially bitter about some of Joel’s less-than-professional business dealings. Another negative is Bego’s jokey prose, which falls particularly short of the mark in a snotty, dismissive line about the musician’s 1970 suicide attempt. In a season of doorstop-sized rock bios (Nirvana, Joe Strummer, Iggy Pop), this falls somewhere in the middle in terms of quality: It’s readable and well-researched, but lacks depth and new information. A ten-year-old Behind the Music profile, which had the advantage of a lengthy interview with Joel himself, told fans more about what makes the man tick in one hour than they will learn here in 400-plus pages.
Plenty of factoids and musical insight about our Piano Man, but at the end of this catty biography, Billy Joel is still The Stranger.