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Billy Joel tells NBC's Katie Couric about his Broadway success and his personal lows.
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updated 12/9/2003 4:01:13 PM ET 2003-12-09T21:01:13

Billy Joel says he wants to set the record straight. It’s part of a new chapter in his life — part two, you might say, of a great American success story. It’s not that Billy Joel’s been away, exactly. He still tours, but he stopped writing songs a decade ago. But now a Broadway musical based on his songs is a smash hit. Along with that new success has come new controversy— and hard questions— about his private life, and his drinking. He answers the questions in this exclusive interview with NBC’s Katie Couric.

His songs scored the soundtrack for an entire generation. For three decades, his lyrics have spoken for lovers & loners, friends and veterans. They call him the piano man.

Michael Cavanaugh sings, “There’s a place in the world for the angry young man with his working class ties and his radical plans.”

But wait a minute. Who’s this guy singing? It’s a scene from the hit Broadway musical, “Movin’ Out,” a shimmering stage celebration of Billy Joel songs.

Michael Cavanaugh: “My favorite songs. I grew up listening to Billy’s music since the third grade. I used to camp out in the snow for his tickets, you know?”

This isn’t your grandmother’s Broadway musical. “Movin’ Out” is a story told completely through dance — with Joel’s lyrics providing the narrative, and the choreography, the dialogue.

Billy Joel: “To watch what they do, it’s not — and I don’t want to say just dance because as difficult as dance is, it’s acting dancing. And dancing it but acting and dancing — I don’t even know how to describe it. What do you call this?”

The critics have called it exhilarating, thrilling, and above all, original.

Katie Couric: “Why did this appeal to you, Billy?”

Billy Joel: “Just the fact it was unorthodox. It was untried. It was different. It was risky. It was daring. It was crazy. It was ludicrous. I said, ‘This is fantastic. What a great idea.’”

The idea was the brainchild of a flower child. Renowned choreographer Twyla Tharp wanted to tell the story about young Americans, ravaged by the war in Vietnam, set on the suburban shores of western Long Island. Luckily for her, this islander had already written it. We first heard about Brenda and Eddie in 1977, in the Billy Joel classic, “Scenes From an Italian restaurant.”

Twyla Tharp: “I said, I want to do a narrative. He said, ‘What’s the story?’ I said, ‘I don’t know but to begin with, Did Brenda and Eddie talk to each other 20 years later?’ He said, ‘I don’t know.’ I said, ‘Well let’s find out.’”

Meet the king and the queen of the prom — embodied in the near-perfect bodies of dancers John Selya and Elizabeth Parkinson.

Katie Couric: “You must be in the shape of your lives. Are you, you two? I mean, do you have any body fat? Because it was really kind of ticking me off, when I was watching you. Because I was like — their bodies are so beautiful. And I mean that in a totally appreciative, non-sexual way.”

John Selya: “Oh, shoot.”

Katie Couric: “OK, maybe in your case, a sexual way.”

Selya and Parkinson are only two of four dancers who’ve received Tony nominations for, ironically, best actor.

Twyla Tharp: “These guys, as an experiment, are the first of a breed. No dancer has ever carried a show for this length of time at this kind of peak.”

Billy Joel: “But people would think being in this kind of shape would make my life easier. But no, it’s not. I get accosted on the street, because of the wonderful condition that I’m in. It happens constantly. And I can’t finish a meal.”

A LIFE IN SONGS

The show features 26 songs that span the length of Joel’s career. For these classically trained dancers, it’s not that much of a stretch.

Elizabeth Parkinson: “You can really feel the groove and get into it. You don’t have to familiarize yourself with the music. You already know it. So that was wonderful.”

Twyla Tharp: “There was one song that I put on. And John just— this look came on. He said, ‘You just saw it. It was like, “Holy shit. I get to dance to Angry Young Man, yes.’”

John Selya: “I was expecting a mosh pit, though.”

But hovering above the stage and the dancers, it’s still rock-n-roll to them. Michael Cavanaugh is this show’s piano man, leading a ten piece band through two long sets of Billy’s best.

Billy Joel: “These are good musicians. These guys got chops. There’s when you hear a song, say, “Moving Out” — here’s four time. But you’ve got that. There’s eights. There’s 16ths in it. There’s so much math involved.”

In his career, Joel’s had 33 top 40 hits and sold more than 75 million albums — so you do the math. But he says he’s glad Twyla Tharp chose songs that would help sell the story. And not just the best selling tracks.

Billy Joel: “There’s a moment in the second act when Brenda is reconciling with Tony. She enters the stage in complete silence and makes these movements with her body. And then it breaks into a piece called Dublinesque without words. And I get choked up. I get the chokey thing every time that happens.”

Katie Couric: “You get the chokey thing?”

Billy Joel: “I call it the chokey thing.”

Michael Cavanaugh: “Rock and rollers aren’t supposed to get the chokey thing.”

Billy Joel: “Nah, nah. We don’t — hey.”

But with the euphoria of 10 Tony nominations has come the sadness of two tragedies.

The cast was devastated when John Selya’s understudy, William Marrie, was killed in a motorcycle accident last November. But they discovered, first hand, the healing power of Movin’ Out’s music after another ensemble member, Mark Arvin, fell into a coma after complications from surgery.

Katie Couric: “I understand that the doctors had pretty much given up on him.”

Elizabeth Parkinson: “They had. It was interesting. His partner and his mother played music for him from Movin’ Out. And they really felt like they saw a reaction in him. And gone over roles with him, next to him in his bed. They’ve played all the music that he’s danced to. And they’re getting a lot of response.”

Katie Couric: “Is he out of a coma now?”

Elizabeth Parkinson: “Yes. He is out of the coma. He is taking very small steps, to regain control of his body. He has a long way to go. But he’s doing well. We’re all praying for him.”

And for Joel, the experience of watching his enter life flash before his eyes on the Broadway stage feels like coming full circle. It’s really not about movin’ out. It’s about movin’ on.

Katie Couric: “Billy, for you, I would think it would be very gratifying to watch a show like this, and to listen, basically, to your life’s work. You must feel great, after you see this and think, “Yes.”

Billy Joel: “I do. It’s very moving for me, because I’ve always referred to my songs, or the music that I’ve written, as my children, I feel like. And these songs grew up. And they’ve gone on to live in a theater, on Broadway. These kids — I’m very proud of them. And, ‘Hey, those are my kids. Look at what my kids are doing now.’ They’re dancing, and audiences are cheering them. And they’re being sung. You know, by somebody that’s not me. Those are my kids. They have their own life. They don’t need their old man any more. And I like that.”

LIFE ON THE WATER

Katie Couric: “I wore my Thirston Howell III for you.”

Billy Joel: “Is this your yacht outfit?”

Katie Couric: “It is. Hello Lovey. Let’s go shall we?”

Billy Joel: “OK my dear.”

It wasn’t quite a three hour tour. Nor was this an uncharted desert isle.

Billy Joel: “See that farm house? I almost bought that.”

But my skipper was brave and sure.

Billy Joel: “Let’s kick some butt here.”

Katie Couric: “I was going to say, put the pedal to the metal dude.”

Granted, he was just looking to plug his Long Island runabout boat-building company, but hey, that’s show biz.

Billy Joel: “This is tough huh? Hard turn.”

Billy Joel has always been a man of extremes. He went from prize fighter to piano man, with one brief stop in between.

Billy Joel: “I worked on an oyster boat in Oyster Bay — on a dredge, an oyster dredge.”

Katie Couric: “Was that fun at all?”

Billy Joel: “It was hard work. It’s gave me such an appreciation for how hard those guys work in the middle of the winter. And your hands are cracked and bleeding. And it’s freezing and these old guys — making fun of me: ‘Ah, there comes the piano player. He’s going to be moaning and groaning about his hands. What’s the matter, your hands hurt piano player?’ And then I met one of the guys years later and he goes, ‘I remember you. You were that piano player always bitching about his hands.’ I said, ‘That’s right.’ He goes, ‘Well what happened? How’d things end up?’ I said, ‘Ah, pretty good.’”

The rock-n-roll hall of famer’s raked in six Grammy’s, 14 platinum selling albums, and he’s the number three best-selling solo artist of all time, behind Garth Brooks and Elvis. Lately, though, you get the feeling Billy Joel is over himself.

Billy Joel: “Let’s look at it this way. If I’d been in a band for the length of my career, I would have broken up with me by now ... would have hated each other’s guts.”

PERILS OF FAME

Joel has neither written, nor recorded, a pop song in a decade. Back then, some said he had it all — fame, fortune and family. But it didn’t last. He divorced uptown girl Christie Brinkley and later vowed he was giving up pop songwriting forever.

Katie Couric: “You haven’t really written one since you broke up with Christie, right?”

Billy Joel: “The last song I wrote was on the last album of original material that I wrote, called ‘River of Dreams.’ And the last song was, ‘Famous Last Words.’ I was tired of writing songs. And I said, ‘I’m just tired of talking about me, me, me, my, my, my, and my friends.’ I get bored with it.”

So aside from one classical CD, called “Fantasies and Delusions”, Joel’s spent much of the last few years on the road with another pop music icon, Sir Elton John.

For the sixth time in nine years, the piano man and the rocket man have synched up their Steinways, continuing what has become the most successful and longest running concert pairing in pop music history.

Billy Joel: “When I get together with Elton, I get to sing his songs. He sings my songs. We sing both our songs together. It’s something different. I like him. He’s a good guy.”

He’s got to like the pay day. Last year, Billy Joel and Elton John’s “Face to Face” tour was a top five concert attraction, grossing more than $65 million.

Katie Couric: “Do you still enjoy performing your old stuff?”

Billy Joel: “Some of it.”

Katie Couric: “Really?”

Billy Joel: “Not all of it. Some songs — I kind of go on automatic pilot, yes. ‘Just The Way You Are.’ I’ve done a lot. Sometimes I’m hungry, because I can’t have dinner before a show. You can’t eat before a show.So I’m starving. And you’re a little bit bugged, because you’re hungry. So you should go on a little hungry, little angry. You know, it’s good. It’s good for the show.”

Katie Couric: “Why can’t you eat before a show?”

Billy Joel: “Well, you don’t want to be digesting while you’re trying to sing, number one. Number two, it slows you down. So I’m hungry. And sometimes during a song like “Just the Way You Are,” my mind will wander. And I’ll think, ‘I wonder what’s on the room service menu in the hotel.’

‘Don’t go changing to try and please me. Never let me down before.’ (Maybe a — I don’t know, a burger?)

‘Don’t imagine you’re too familiar.’ (No, it’ll be cold and congealed by the time it gets to the room.)

‘If I don’t see you anymore.’ (And the fries will be flat and dried out.)

‘Could not leave you in times of trouble.’

Katie Couric: “Maybe a Caesar salad?”

Billy Joel: “Maybe a club sandwich. You know, because it’s toasted, and the bread won’t wilt. Yeah, a club.”

Katie Couric: “I’ll never be able to listen to that song quite the same way.”

Billy Joel: “I’m sorry, but it happens.”

On the flip side, Joel says he still enjoys singing the B-sides like “Angry Young Man” or Summer Highland Falls.”

Katie Couric: “So what are you experiencing more of these days? Sadness or euphoria? Didn’t you like how I slipped that in?”

Billy Joel: “Yes, that was good.”

Katie Couric: “Thank you.”

Billy Joel: “But I can’t quote myself. Sadness or euphoria — I think I still experience both. I don’t stay in either one for too long. But I have, you know, great joy and I have sadness, too.”

But after he cancelled a series of concerts last year, then checked himself into rehab for alcohol abuse, some wondered if Joel’s state of mind was more fragile than he was letting on.

Katie Couric: “You find it slightly perturbing that everybody comes up to you and says, ‘Are you OK?’”

Billy Joel: “Yes, I get that a lot.”

Katie Couric: “Yeah, and you don’t like it.”

Billy Joel: “You all right? You OK? And after you hear it a couple of dozen times a day it starts to get on your nerves. Yes, I’m OK. I’m all right. I’m fine. Do I look like I’m not all right? So it can nudge you after a while.”

TWO CAR ACCIDENTS IN ONE YEAR

But there’s another reason people are asking. Since last June, Joel has had two serious car accidents near his home in the Hamptons. Though police didn’t give Joel a sobriety test in either instance, speculation was rampant the accidents were alcohol related.

Billy Joel: “In my whole life, I’ve only had two car accidents. They happened to happen within the space of one year. Neither one of them was related to the other one. And there was no, you know, illegal reason for those accidents. People have car accidents. Unfortunately, when they took me out of the car, in the last accident, the car had been squinched up against a tree. I had had sinus surgery the week before. So my eyes were all black and blue. The airbag had inflated and it — I have a little cut on my scalp. Now when you cut your scalp, you bleed like Niagara falls. So they looked in the window and they saw this guy with big black and blue face and blood running down — ‘Oh, we gotta peel the car open.’ So they used this thing, the jaws of life, and they literally peeled the car open like a can of anchovies. That’s the photo that they showed in the paper. ‘This was Billy Joel’s accident, which is not at all what happened.’”

Katie Couric: “As you know, there’s been a lot of speculation you were drinking. Do you have a drinking problem?”

Billy Joel: “I can abuse alcohol, if the demons get me, I’ll go on a bender. It’s happened to me before. That’s why I went into rehab. I was on a binge. I was on a bender. And I said this is stupid. I gotta stop. And I went and I did stop. And I’ve learned to recognize what those signs are. Everybody can abuse alcohol. Every — anybody can drink too much. But I’ve cooled that out.”

Katie Couric: “But would you consider yourself an alcoholic?

Billy Joel: “No. I’m an alcohol abuser. I mean alcoholic is— you can’t live without the stuff and it’s toxic to you. If you drink too much, no matter who you are, whether you’re an alcoholic or not, you’re going to do harm to yourself.”

Or to someone else. The more recent accident took place just hours after he’d been driving with his 17-year-old daughter Alexa — prompting ex-wife Christie Brinkley to snap photographs of Joel’s impounded Mercedes Benz and then, issue a strong statement.

Christie Brinkley’s statement: “The seat Alexa was sitting in, only hours before the latest crash, was completely decimated. I’m worried about Billy, but like any mother would be, I’m alarmed and concerned about my child’s safety by this frightening pattern of events.”

Billy Joel: “Well—”

Katie Couric: “Now have you all talked about this?”

Billy Joel: “Yeah, we have.”

Katie Couric: “Can you understand her concern?”

Billy Joel: “Well sure. We talked about it. And I said, number one, it wasn’t the seat Alexa was sitting in, she was sitting in a different seat. I’d been driving my daughter that afternoon. There was no alcohol involved with that. I would never put my daughter in any kind of danger like that. Or myself. And that’s really the truth of the matter. There was no alcohol involved with that accident. There was— the people I was with were having drinks at dinner. Somebody did send over drinks. I didn’t happen to have any that night. It was not an alcohol related accident.”

Katie Couric: “You had absolutely nothing to drink that night?”

Billy Joel: “Somebody sent over a glass of champagne and I might have taken a sip just to say thank you, but that was it.”

Katie Couric: “Does she feel comfortable again with you driving your daughter?

Billy Joel: “Well, as far as I know. But you’re going to have to ask Christie.”

In a statement to Dateline, Christie Brinkley responded, “I hope that Billy will honor his promise to use a professional driver when he’s with Alexa. It eases my concern for the safety and well being of both of them.”

Katie Couric: “Do you think your life would be easier, though, Billy, if you just didn’t drink at all? In other words, if you have a predilection toward abusing alcohol, when you get sort of sad or depressed or for whatever reason.”

Billy Joel: “That’s when it’s time to stop. You have to be aware of what drives you to excess, what drives you to an overindulgence in anything. I’ve given up hard liquor. I will, from time to time, have a glass of wine with dinner. That’s not problematic. It’s when I know that I’m going into a tailspin or a depression, that’s when you’ve got to stop the drinking.”

Katie Couric: “And you feel like you can do that?”

Billy Joel: “Yep.”

Joel says he’s through touring for a while, hoping to remain closer to home and closer to his daughter.

Katie Couric: ” It’s hard to believe that she’s going to be going to college soon, right?

Billy Joel: “That’s right. She’ll be 18 at the end of this year.

It turns out, Alexa’s following in her father’s footsteps. She’ll be attending the summer music program at the prestigious Berkley School of Music.

Billy Joel: “She’s a great pianist. She’s better than I am, technically. And I don’t look at it as following in my footsteps. She’s going to walk her own footsteps. She doesn’t really want to live in my shadow.”

Katie Couric: “It’s really important to you to be a good father, isn’t it?”

Billy Joel: “It’s the most important thing in my life.”

Billy Joel hopes one day he’ll get married again and have more children. Now at age 54, he doesn’t rule out writing one more pop album down the road. As this former oyster raker once sung, sometimes a fantasy is all you need.

Billy Joel: “I’ve had ‘The Career.’ What I would like for the next ten years is to have ‘The Life.’ Because I’ve had an amazing career. It’s been wonderful, fantastic, beyond my wildest expectations. Now I want the life — a life.”

Katie Couric: “And what is in a life to you?”

Billy Joel: “A relationship with someone, a family, a home. You know, all those normal things that are not part and parcel of being a rock star or celebrity or show biz or any of that stuff. It’s time for me to start living my life at this late date.”

Katie Couric: “You can almost taste it.”

Billy Joel: “It’s right there. It’s just right there.”

After three decades of enormous success, it may seem a bit odd to say he needs to get a life. But Billy Joel says he’s working on it. And he does have a new girlfriend, but so far no wedding on the horizon.

© 2013 MSNBC Interactive

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