Billy Joel: afloat on a river of dreams


Philadelphia -- People dream all sorts of things. There are folks whose dreams are more fantastic than any movie, and others whose life asleep is as mundane as a day at the office. Some people dream their hopes. Some people dream their anxieties. Some people simply dream about sex.

Billy Joel dreams music.

"I dream music all the time," he says. "I've dreamt symphonies. And I know when I wake up that I just dreamt this complete piece of music -- but I can't remember what it is."

As he speaks, Joel is two weeks into his current tour, and temporarily headquartered in the Presidential Suite of the Rittenhouse Hotel in Philadelphia. It looks pretty much like what you'd expect an older rock star's suite to look like (Joel, with his black jeans, blue T-shirt, and graying beard, seems well past the entertaining-groupies-and-smashing-TVs stage).

There's no sign of his wife, model Christie Brinkley, or their daughter, Alexa Ray -- both are at home in Long Island -- but it's clear enough that Joel has settled in. He has a grand piano in the room, along with a stereo, a roll-top desk, and a dining room table cluttered with tea cups. David Halberstam's "The '50s" sits on the coffee table before him, next to an open copy of National Fisherman. But angler chat isn't on the agenda at the moment; instead, the topic of conversation is songwriting.

Or, more specifically, song-remembering.

"I'll be sitting there, coming up with nothing, and suddenly something will pop out that's fully realized," he says. "And I'll wonder, 'How the heck could this be happening? Didn't this happen before?' And I realize, 'Yes, you dreamt it, and it's reoccurring to you now.' "

Joel isn't the only pop star who has had songs sail in across the astral plane; Michael Jackson and Sting have also mentioned dreaming new material. And there are definite advantages to the unconscious creative process.

"There's no editor when you're sleeping," he points out. "There's no limitations, no governor. And that's good. When I'm conscious and I'm writing, I'm trying to be very efficient, very skillful. And forget it." He waves his hand dismissively. "All that stuff should go out the window. I'm tapping into pure emotion when I'm dreaming."

Trouble is, a lot of what he dreams remains inaccessible, lost in the realm of Morpheus. "How do you get into the filing cabinet?" he asks. "I've tried writing it down in the middle of the night. But when I read it in the morning, it looks like, 'bloo goo gack.' I've tried taping. But it won't make any sense the next day. There will be no relation to chords, there's no relation to where the beat is, where the beginning of the measure is, what the emotion was. There's no context."

Still, every now and then something will come through with enough power that it eventually finds its context.

" 'River of Dreams' came from that," he says, referring to the title tune from his latest album. "I woke up singing, 'In the middle of the night, I go walking in my sleep . . .'

"My wife goes, 'What's that?'

"I said, 'I don't know.'

"She said, 'What does it mean?' "

Joel didn't know that either, but even so, there was something reassuring and familiar about the melody. "It sounds like a spiritual, almost -- a gospel song about the river, and I've got to cross to the other side. I didn't know what I was talking about, so I just wrote it down. And it wouldn't go away.

"When they don't go away, you have to find out what they mean."

Up to a point, anyway. But at 44, Joel has resigned himself to the fact that there are some things about himself and his life that he'll never completely figure out.

"I don't always know why I'm doing what I'm doing, and in a way maybe I shouldn't," he says. "If I knew too much about what it was I'm doing, I might become a little too self-analytical, and that might cut it off. I might say, 'Well, that's not what I wanted to do.' "

Funny thing is, Joel's albums are never what he wanted to do at the beginning of the process. "See, I always have these great intentions that have nothing to do with the way the album comes out," he says.

"When I start out, I'm going to make the ultimate bar band album. That's what I always want to do. I gather the musicians together, and we start playing a lot of spare, Spartan rock and roll type of songs.

"I'm writing while this is going on. And what we play will kick off one song, and then that song will kick off another song. As this process goes along, it has nothing to do with my bar band concept. Once I start writing, I become sort of a prisoner of the writing process.

"I still haven't made my ultimate bar band album," he says with a laugh, "and I may never get to do it."

The phone rings, and Joel rises. "Let me get this," he says, and heads across the room. Apparently the call has something to do with the movies, because Joel is going on about how much he doesn't want to be in one. "I'm in pain in front of a camera," he

says. "Why don't you get Christie? At least she's photogenic."

Finally, the call ends, and Joel returns to his seat. "That was Peter Guber from Sony Pictures," he says. "He wanted to talk about some kind of an acting role. I don't know why they would want me to do that."

Perhaps because you're famous, and people like you?

"I know," he says. "But what, music isn't enough?"

It is for Joel. If it were up to him, he wouldn't even bother making videos to help promote his albums. "I resent them," he says. "I understand their purpose. Years ago, before there was MTV, they were called promotion clips, and that's really what they still are. And that's OK, because people want to see what musicians look like.

"But it became the tail wagging the dog," he complains. "There are certain radio stations that won't play you unless you're on the MTV play list. Isn't that kind of backwards?

"So I don't like doing them. I'm fortunate that I think I've worked with some good directors, who are sensitive to what the nature of the material was. But nobody now asks me to emote. I tell them, 'Don't ask me to sell a song for you, because I'm not going to do it. Don't ask me to wave my hands around.'

"Although in 'Uptown Girl' I actually did wave my hands around. And every time I see that video, I think, 'Why didn't you just say no?' "

Still, he does have a soft spot for that one, nonetheless. "Ah, it was great to see Christie Brinkley," he says, unabashedly smitten. Brinkley entered his life as the uptown girl of the video, and has continued to play a part in his music and creative life. She's unquestionably the blonde in the song "Blonde Over Blue," and that's her painting on the cover of the album.

He's irked by the way the media treat her as just an ornamental presence in his life. "We always make these lists of rock stars and models. Obviously I had to marry a model because I'm a rock star," he says, rolling his eyes. "Those kinds of things are kind of silly."

But he doesn't let it get to him the way it might have in the past. In fact, there's a lot Joel keeps from getting under his skin these days. Could it be that the man who was once rock's angriest young pianist is beginning to mellow?

Maybe. But not entirely.

"It may be being the age that I am," he says. "Being middle-aged, either you grow up and you learn to deal with things -- and there is some kind of a peace with that -- or you continue to bang your head against a wall. I still get angry. But I don't get angry about nickel-and-dime things, where everything used to rile me up."

Take, for example, his reputation for raging over bad reviews. "I kind of brought that on myself," he says. "Looking back at what has gone on with me critically in my career, I realize most of the reviews were good. It was me who was the one directing everybody's attention to a bad review. 'Hey, look at this. Did you see what this guy said?' And in the meantime, 80 percent of these other people had written nice things, and I never said anything. So a lot of it was my own stupidity.

"I've gotten to an age where I figure everybody's entitled to their opinion. And there are times when I look back and I say, 'They may have been right about that. Maybe it could have been better.' "

He mentions his 1986 album, "The Bridge."

"I just kind of let things go," he says of the recording. "I wasn't happy with some of the material, and there was all this pressure: 'Get it out, get it out, get it out.'

"Had I taken a little more time on it, maybe went to some different people and gone at it a different way, it might have been a different record. There are some songs that I like on it. But I abrogated my responsibility on that album, and I never felt good about that."

Still, all that is water under the -- well, you know. What he did or didn't do in a recording studio seven years ago is beside the point; right now, nothing matters more to Joel than what he does each night on stage.

"This is the essence of what I really do," he says. "Not recording, not writing. I started out as a performer, and everything spun out of that -- being a piano player, and being in bands. This is what it gets back to.

"And I still like to play. I love when a bunch of musicians somehow spontaneously coordinate, and this thing happens onstage with stuff that you wrote. It's a nice feeling. A lot of the other aspects of the tour are a drag -- there's no two ways about it. But playing is fun. It's still fun."


You can hear excerpts from Billy Joel's "River of Dreams" on Sundail, The Sun's telephone information service.

You will need a touch-tone phone. Call (410) 783-1800, or from Anne Arundel County, (410) 268-7736. After the greeting, punch in 6145.


When: Monday, Tuesday, and Nov. 4 at 8 P.M. each evening

Where: USAIR Arena, Landover

Tickets: $28.50 (Nov. 4 only; Oct, 18 and 19 are sold out)

Call: (410) 792-7490 for information, (41) 481-7328 for tickets

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