Reviewed by Steven H Silver
William Joel was born in the Bronx on May 9, 1949. As a youngster, he began playing piano, beginning a lifetime in music. The British Invasion of the early 1960s introduced him to the possibilities of rock and roll. After serving his apprenticeship in a variety of bands with names like “The Hassles” and “Attila,” Joel found success as a singer/songwriter, Billy Joel. Hank Bordowitz tracks Joel’s life and career in his new biography, Billy Joel: The Life and Times of an Angry Young Man.
Bordowitz makes it clear that Joel did not provide approval, or any help, with this biography. Nevertheless, Bordowitz was able to conduct interviews with numerous people who knew Billy Joel and have worked with him over the years. Many of these people were in positions which should have given them axes to grind against Joel. Nevertheless, for the most part, these interview subjects, or at least Bordowitz's interpretation of their comments, tend to reflect favorably on Joel.
Unfortunately, many of the interviews Bordowitz conducted and quotes at length are not well integrated into the overall text. The interviews, while they don’t necessarily ramble, tend not to retain a focus on the point Bordowitz is making at any given juncture in the book. This rambling nature may not make for the smoothest prose, but by quoting extensively from the interviews, Bordowitz provides more information about Joel than his supporting text would indicate.
Bordowitz indicates that Joel's sense of loyalty is lacking. This may, however, because he doesn't explain part of the reason Joel does some of the things he did. At the same time, Bordowitz indicates that many of Joel's friends, such as former bandmate Jon Small and Joel remained friends, despite Joel's affair with Small's wife, Elizabeth, who became Joel's own first wife.There are references, veiled and otherwise, throughout the book about drug use backstage, but very little ties the use directly to Joel. Bordowitz does quote extensively from Bruce Gentile, a long-time friend of Joel's, who refers to the drugs and there is a strong indication that it was one of the causes of Joel’s break up with second wife Christy Brinkley, but in writing about Joel’s vices, Bordowitz focuses on his drinking habits.
Billy Joel doesn't just look at Joel's life, but also at his career. Bordowitz discusses the reception of all of Joel's albums, from the earliest one with "The Hassles" to his most recent "Greatest Hits" solo album. In addition, the genesis of numerous songs is discussed and provides more insight into Joel's life and character than many of the more biographical sections of the book.
While Billy Joel: The Life and Times of an Angry Young Man may be the first book length biography of Billy Joel, it is by no means definitive, providing only some glimpses at Joel and not fully exploring some of the questions that are raised by some of the apparent contradictions in Joel's life. At the same time, Bordowitz does not attempt to whitewash Joel's life with the result that the singer comes out looking like an artistic person who doesn't always live an exemplary life.
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