More than three decades ago, singer-songwriter Billy Joel released “Piano Man,” and by the end of the ’70s he was a "stranger" no more. The hits continued into the ’90s, through his last pop album. “Today” host Matt Lauer caught up with Joel and his band at their rehearsal space in Oyster Bay, Long Island, as they gear up for a series of gigs.
Matt Lauer: How do you like the prospect of getting back on the road?
Billy Joel: I'm kind of putting my toe back in the water and seeing how it feels. We're going to be doing stuff we haven't done for years and years and years. So I'm looking forward to seeing how this stuff flies.
Lauer: Last month you released a 5-CD box set of your music called "My Lives." Why did you call it that?
Joel: I was listening to stuff and I realized that I've had a lot of different lives. You know the theory [that says] every seven years, you have a different life? I think that's true.
Lauer: So of the songs that haven't been heard by your fans before, what are your favorites?
Joel: I would say the songs that have different lyrics. I always write the music first, and there's a couple of songs on this box set that have different lyrics from what ended up on the final recording.
Lauer: Give me an example. What …
Joel: "Prime of Your Life" became "For the Longest Time," and it was a completely different kind of song. But it just shows how malleable a lot of the material is. It can go a lot of different directions.
Lauer: Let me do a little Billy Joel word association, all right? Song association. Let me give you the title of a song. Just give me what comes to your mind first, okay? "Billy the Kid."
Joel: Move to California — my first impression of the Wild West.
Lauer: What year?
Lauer: Doesn't seem so wild anymore, does it?
Joel: No. Not after having lived there for a while. All the lyrics are nonsense. I had Billy the Kid coming from Wheeling, West Virginia. [But] he was from Brooklyn. I had him being hung. He was shot.
Lauer: You also say he's from a town known as Oyster Bay, Long Island.
Joel: That's right.
Lauer: "...Rode a kid with a six-pack in his hand."
Joel: Yeah. That was actually written about a bartender, not me. There was a guy named Billy who was the bartender in a bar right up here in Oyster Bay.
Lauer: "Piano Man."
Joel: That was a real gig. I did that for about six months, and while I was doing the gig, I got to write a song about it — this is a real slice-of-life song.
Lauer: "Big Shot."
Joel: "Big Shot?" Oh, did a lot of research for that song. [Laughter] A lot of people think it’s about somebody else. It's actually a combination of other people and myself. Looking in the mirror in the morning, going, “Oh, you had to be a big shot.”
Lauer: What do you think is the most recognizable first snippet of music from a Billy Joel song?
Joel: The beginning of "Piano Man."
Lauer: Take me back … it's what I was hoping you'd play. It's the most recognizable to me.
Joel: I actually wrote the song first as "well, it’s 9 o'clock on a Saturday." That bit. Then I said, You know what? It needs some kind of an introduction to kind of set the mood and set the flavor. So I just played this kind of cocktail lounge thing, the hustle and bustle of waitresses going by — that kind of thing.
Lauer: You know Jimmy Buffett pretty well.
Lauer: He kids with me sometimes. He says, “You know what? Whenever somebody comes up to me and says, ‘Play "Cheeseburger in Paradise," ’ I cringe on the one side. But these are the fans on the other side. They want to hear it.” What's your "Cheeseburger in Paradise" song?
Joel: Probably"Just the Way You Are.”
Lauer: Why is that your cringe song? I mean you’re tired of playing it? It got too much play on the radio? What bugs you about it?
Joel: Well, it was written about somebody who said, “I said I love you and that's forever.” It lasted about 10 years.
Lauer: [Laughter] Which segues me into the next word association — "Uptown Girl."
Joel: I was thinking of the Four Seasons, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, and when I was thinking [sings] "Uptown Girl!" I was trying to sing like Frankie Valli. They had a song called "Ragdoll," which was about a poor girl and a rich guy. So I just flipped it around and made it about a rich girl and a poor guy.
Lauer: What's the thing you're most proud of, over the past year?
Joel: I'm most proud of how my daughter is doing with her music.
Lauer: Brag a little, because Alexa is, what, going to be 20?
Joel: My daughter's going to be 20 in about two weeks and she's now out doing gigs. She's a really good pianist, she's got a great voice and she's writing really good songs. Of course I sound like the typical father bragging about their kid. I'm very proud of her.
Lauer: So that's the thing you're most proud of. What’s your biggest regret over the past year?
Joel: The biggest regret? This may be one of those years I have no regrets.