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From the S&S archives: Billy Joel: Melody in Bronx cheers

Billy Joel, during an interview (top photo) and onstage at Tokyo's Budokan Hall in April, 1981.

CHET KING / ©STARS AND STRIPES

By DENNIS STEELE | STARS AND STRIPES STAFF WRITER Published: April 21, 1981

TOKYO — Million-seller songsmith Billy Joel thrusts his tongue between his lips and sounds a raspberry at some of the things that have happened during his career.

"Pluughtt! "

That's his opinion of "Cold Spring Harbor," his first album. "Pluughtt! "

That's his reaction to Rolling Stone magazine having selected his tune "It's Still Rock 'n' Roll to Me" as the worst rock song of 1980.

With a little encouragement, he might also have served up a "pluughtt" for the press which, he said, painted him as a fool when writing about his testimony last month in the Sam Goody Co. counterfeit tape trial in New York.

Several Goody employees were charged with selling millions of dollars worth of illegally taped copies of contemporary record albums.

One wire service account of his testimony said, "Joel could not tell whether a cassette recording of 'The Stranger' by him was real or counterfeit."

"THEY (THE PRESS) made it seem like I couldn't tell the difference between a bootleg copy and a real one," Joel groused. "They never played it (a tape) in court. They just showed me a copy.

"Just by looking at it I couldn't tell the difference. That never came out in the papers. They just said I couldn't tell the difference."

Joel, also was irked by the way the press reported a request by the judge that he stop chewing gum during his testimony.

"They made it sound like I swaggered in, chewing a huge wad of gum," said. "There was one piece of gum in my mouth.

"And the judge didn't say, 'Take the gum out of your mouth.' He said, 'I don't think you want to talk to the jury with gum in your mouth.' So I said OK and stuck it in my pocket

"And did you see the courtroom pictures they drew of me? I looked like David Berkowitz (New York's Son of Sam killer)."

JOEL, IN JAPAN for some concerts, said he didn't want to testify in the :New York trial. in the first place.

"I was called as a witness for the prosecution and I asked, 'Well, what if I don't appear?' They said, 'We'll subpoena you.' I had to go on tour. I didn't want the tour to be canceled, so I had to go (to court).

"The thing I wanted to bring out during the trial is that when you buy a counterfeit, you don't know what kind of quality you're getting," Joel added. "For the same price you pay for the real thing, you can get a piece of garbage. The consumer is getting ripped off and nobody was speaking for the consumer.

"I was trying to do that at the trial and (the press) turned my testimony into, 'Well, he doesn't know about royalties or how much money he's making' — which I don't.

"BUT I DO KNOW that we spend months in the studio trying to get a certain sound. Then a guy can come along, make a lousy copy and sell it for the same price."

Recently, the Goody Co. was found guilty of three counts of copyright infringement and two counts of interstate shipment of illegal merchandise. A corporation vice president was found guilty of one count of interstate shipment of illegal merchandise and one count of copyright infringement.

Though he's never before been involved in a trial like the Goody case, Joel is no stranger to legal hassles. Legal bickering forced him underground at one point in his career.

In 1973, after "Cold Spring Harbor," but before he became well-known, Joel withdrew to the relative obscurity of a Los Angeles piano bar and assumed the cover name Bill Martin.

"I had signed some bad contracts and I wanted to get out of them," he said. "I figured the best way to get out was to hide out until these people realized they weren't going to get anything out of me.

"I GOT A JOB in a piano bar while the lawyers were working on the case. The (record) company (with whom. he had contracted) didn't know where I was."

The contract difficulties were with Family Productions, which produced "Cold Spring Harbor," an album that is currently out of circulation.

Joel added that he didn't win the contract battle to his satisfaction. "They still own a piece of the record," he said.

But, from his "Bill Martin" experience came the songs for "Piano Man," the album that started him up the charts.

The climb brought him three platinum albums.

Joel is a piano purist, shying away from synthesizers.

"I try to get as much expression out of the acoustic piano as I can, and leave the technology to the people who really care about it," he said.

He began piano lessons at age 4 in his Long Island hometown under "Miss Francis."

"Miss Francis also taught ballet and I used to be embarrassed walking down the street to piano lessons, because the kids would ask, 'Are you going to take ballet?' " Joel said.

JOEL CALLS his style of music "jock" — a combination of jazz and rock. The term also embodies his longtime interest in sports.

The hands that now bang out million-dollar songs scored hits of another kind — in the boxing ring — when Joel was 19.

Now he confines his sports activity to softball, though he's an avid baseball and soccer fan.

He plays for the New York Crabs, a celebrity softball team. The team is undefeated, Joel boasted.

Universally respected as a musician and lyricist, Joel has occasionally been knocked for the quality of his singing voice.

"The song is more important than the singer," he said.

To create new material, he said, "You have to sit down and play, and play and play. A lot of times you don't come up with anything, and (then) — boom — everything starts clicking. It just happens."

For Billy Joel, it happens frequently.



CHET KING / ©STARS AND STRIPES