Billy Joel on Beethoven, the Beatles, Mozart, and creativity
I grew up listening to Billy Joel. I still enjoy playing the wonderful opening to his “New York State of Mind” during my private practice time at the piano. I have also become deeply involved in studying and writing about the nature and cultivation of artistic creativity over the past decade and a half. And I’m someone whose creative output as a writer has been subject to titanic periods of silence and “block” — which I only experienced as such if I insist on punishing myself and my muse/daimon/genius by insisting that we should, in fact, be writing and producing.
So in light of all this, it was a pleasure to read a new and extensive interview with Joel in The New York Times and find him offering some very interesting observations about the creative act, including thoughts on the striking differences among rates of creative output by different authors and composers, ranging from extremely prolific to extremely minimal, and about what it’s like to be one of those artists whose work emerges not smoothly but through enormous struggle that’s evident in the tenor of the finished work. He also talks about deliberately seizing artistic freedom for oneself, even if it means abandoning directions you’ve previous established and that people have come to expect from you. And this is a man, remember, who rose to the apex of fame as a pop-rock star and then mostly left it all behind to focus on composing classical and other types of music.
ANDREW GOLDMAN: [Y]ou’ve written almost no pop songs since your last album, 1993’s “River of Dreams.” Why did you stop?
BILLY JOEL: I never stopped writing music. I’m still writing music — piano pieces, orchestral music, dramatic pieces — but they could become songs. Some of them are like hymns that I just don’t have words for, but I might.
A.G.: Do you miss writing popular music?
A.G.: Why not? Is it too much effort?
B.J.: No, no, no, it’s not because of the effort. I got tired of it. I got bored with it. I wanted something more abstract, I wanted to write something other than the three-minute pop tune even though that’s an art form unto itself. Gershwin was incredible, Cole Porter was incredible, Richard Rodgers, great stuff, Hoagy Carmichael and John Lennon, the three-minute symphony. For me, it was a box. I want to get out of the box. I never liked being put in a box.
A.G.: Nice box to be in.
B.J.: Very nice box to be in for a while, but then it becomes like a coffin.
A.G.: You’ve always thought of yourself as a rocker, so if I went back to 1968 and told you that songs like “Just the Way You Are” would be standards now, would you be excited?
B.J.: Yeah, sure, I’d be excited, absolutely. When the Beatles did “Yesterday,” I remember the first time I heard it. I said, “That’s a classic, that is going to be around forever.” O.K., it’s a ballad. So what? The Beatles wrote ballads; they also did rock ’n’ roll. That’s the kind of mold I put myself into. I’m not going to just stick to one kind of music, I’m going to do all kinds of music. I like it all.
A.G.: A critic once wrote that you’re “naturally inclined to write big melodies like McCartney” but that you idolize John Lennon. Do you agree?
B.J.: I idolized both of them equally. I didn’t really delineate who was writing the lyrics and who was writing the melody. I assumed it was a collaboration. When Paul would get too sweet, John would kind of sour it down, and when Paul was at a loss for a lyric, John would throw something in offhand that was sardonic. I loved the combination of the both of them.
A.G.: Do you think there’s a finite number of great songs in any one person?
B.J.: Everybody is different. Some writers can write reams of great books and then J. D. Salinger wrote just a few. Beethoven wrote nine symphonies. They were all phenomenal. Mozart wrote some 40 symphonies, and they were all phenomenal. That doesn’t mean Beethoven was a lesser writer, it’s just some guys are capable of more productivity, some guys take more time. Mozart pisses me off because he’s like a naturally gifted athlete, you listen to Mozart and you go: “Of course. It all came easy to him.” Beethoven you hear the struggle in it. Look at his manuscripts, and there’s reams of scratched-out music that he hated. He stops and he starts. I love that about Beethoven, his humanity shows in his music. Mozart was almost inhuman, unhuman.
A.G.: Is songwriting hard for you?
B.J.: Yeah, I relate to Beethoven. I write backward — I write the music first and then I write the words. Most people write the words first and then they write the music. Keith Richards was explaining his method of songwriting. He calls it “vowel movement.” They come up with a riff, and it’s like sounds, and whatever sound . . . like “start me up” — “up” works because it has a consonant at the end of it, but if you go “take me home,” it wouldn’t have worked. I kind of subscribe to that. It has to sound right sometimes even more than being a poetic lyric. It’s a struggle to fit words onto music, and I want it to be really, really good, so I take a long time. I love having written, but I hate writing. So then I go through postpartum depression, and it’s: “Ugh, I gotta start all over again? Where am I going to get the” — what do you call it? Sitzfleisch?
For more on a similar theme, consider the following, which I likewise discuss in A Course in Demonic Creativity:
In 1982 Philip Larkin gave an interview to the Paris Review. During the conversation, the interviewer did the math on Larkin’s poetic output over the span of his career and asked rather incredulously, “Did you really only complete about three poems in any given year?” Larkin replied, “It’s unlikely I shall write any more poems, but when I did, yes, I did write slowly. I was looking at ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ just the other day, and found that I began it sometime in the summer of 1957. After three pages, I dropped it for another poem that in fact was finished but never published. I picked it up again, in March 1958, and worked on it till October, when it was finished. But when I look at the diary I was keeping at the time, I see that the kind of incident it describes happened in July 1955! So in all, it took over three years. Of course, that’s an exception. But I did write slowly, partly because you’re finding out what to say as well as how to say it, and that takes time.”
Commenting on this in On Writer’s Block: A New Approach to Creativity — one of the best books ever written on the art of cultivating a deep creative flow by learning to relate to the unconscious mind as a collaborating “other” — Victoria Nelson says,
In [Larkin’s] and other such cases, that negative space around the three poems per year looms large in retrospect. Blaming oneself for low productivity, however — an activity Larkin himself engaged in only in private — is punishment for a crime that did not exist until it was named. An uneven artistic output, for many, is a natural condition of creativity . . . . Silence is often as blessed a condition as its opposite. Writing/not writing represents a natural alternation of states, an instinctive rhythm that lies at the heart of the creative process . . . . This rhythm, moreover, takes a unique shape from artist to artist. For every writer who is a relentlessly systematic worker, another is not. For every writer who allows a month of silence to fall between works, another allows a year . . . . [E]ach writer needs to give attention to the unique “personality” of his creative nature.
For a certain type of writer and a certain type of artist — or actually, when it comes down to it, for all writers and artists — these words are wisdom and consolation itself.