Billy Joel sat smoking a cigarillo on a patio overlooking Oyster Bay. He had chosen the seating area under a trellis in front of the house, his house, a brick Tudor colossus set on a rise on the southeastern tip of a peninsula called Centre Island, on Long Island’s North Shore. It was a brilliant cloudless September afternoon. Beethoven on Sonos, cicadas in the trees, pugs at his feet. Out on the water, an oyster dredge circled the seeding beds while baymen raked clams in the flats. Joel surveyed the rising tide. Sixty-five. Semi-retirement. Weeks of idleness, of puttering around his motorcycle shop and futzing with lobster boats, of books and dogs and meals, were about to give way to a microburst of work. His next concert, his first in more than a month, was scheduled to begin in five hours, at Madison Square Garden, and he appeared to be composing himself.
“Actually, I composed myself a long time ago,” he said. He told a joke that involved Mozart erasing something in a mausoleum; the punch line was “I’m decomposing.” He knocked off an ash. Whenever anyone asks him about his pre-show routine, he says, “I walk from the dressing room to the stage. That’s my routine.” Joel has a knack for delivering his own recycled quips and explanations as though they were fresh, a talent related, one would think, to that of singing well-worn hits with sincere-seeming gusto. He often says that the hardest part isn’t turning it on but turning it off: “One minute, I’m Mussolini, up onstage in front of twenty thousand screaming people. And then, a few minutes later, I’m just another schmuck stuck in traffic on the highway.” It’s true: the transition is abrupt, and it has bedevilled rock stars since the advent of the backbeat. But this schmuck is usually looking down on the highway from an altitude of a thousand feet. He commutes to and from his shows by helicopter.
Joel was wearing a black T-shirt tucked into black jeans, black Vans, and an Indian Motorcycle ball cap. The back of his head, where hair might be, was freshly shorn, and his features, which in dark or obscure moods can appear mottled and knotted, were at rest, projecting benevolent bemusement. To prepare for the flight, he’d put on a necklace of good-luck medallions—pendants of various saints. The atavism of Long Island is peculiar. Though Jewish, and an atheist, he had, as a boy in a predominantly Catholic part of Hicksville, attended Mass, and even tried confession. His mother took him and his sister to Protestant services at a local church; he was baptized there. Still, a girl across the street said he’d grow horns, and a neighborhood kid named Vinny told him, “Yo, Joel, you killed Jesus. I’m gonna beat your ass.” Vinny did, repeatedly. Joel took up boxing to defend himself. The nose still shows it.
There was a rumble in the distance. “That’s my guy,” Joel said. “He’s early.” A helicopter zipped in over the oystermen and landed down by the water, at the hem of a great sloping lawn, where Joel had converted the property’s tennis court to a helipad. He’d recently had to resurface it, after Hurricane Sandy. Joel often attempts to inoculate himself with self-mockery. “Oh, my helipad got flooded,” he says, with the lockjaw of Thurston Howell III.