Billy Joel talks Florida, farewell tours and feeling reinvigorated after 2017

Billy Joel at Amalie Arena in January 2016. (Times file [2016])
Billy Joel at Amalie Arena in January 2016. (Times file [2016])
Published Feb. 5, 2018

Billy Joel saw the future. Long before the curtain rose and fell on 2017, back when he was still an angry young man of 26, he knew he'd be spending some of that far-off year down in Florida.

On Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway), the final song on Joel's 1976 album Turnstiles, he envisions himself as much older, recounting the apocalyptic fall of New York "so many years ago, before we all lived here in Florida."

"You know, a lot of people from New York end up coming down to South Florida past a certain age, because it's just hard to take the cold weather when you get older," Joel said recently by phone from his home on the North Shore of Long Island. "I thought about being an older man talking to my grandchildren from my condo in Miami: 'I remember when the lights went out on Broadway, kids.' You know, kind of setting the scene like that, Miami in the year 2017.

"I wrote out the title and it said, Miami 2017. If I'm still doing this, I have to play South Florida in 2017. Which I did. Twice, actually. Three times."

The song has often been called prophetic for all manner of reasons, but in this way, at least, it came true: In 2017, Joel did, in fact, have a place near Palm Beach, a respite from Long Island winters where he could boat in the Atlantic and ride motorcycles to his heart's content. He rang the year in and out with concerts in Sunrise.

Now 2017 has come and gone, and New York is still standing. Amazingly, so is Joel. Despite hinting at quitting for at least the past quarter-century, he is arguably as popular as ever, with his monthly residency at Madison Square Garden just extended to 55 shows, with more than a million tickets sold. On Friday he'll play Amalie Arena for the third time in five years, the latest chapter in his late-in-life fling with Florida, and the first since 2017 became a relic in the rearview.

"We're in 2018, which is so bizarre," said Joel, 68, "because I thought of it as being so much in the future."

Instead it's the present. And somehow, Billy Joel is still here.

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• • •

Joel's last three concerts in Tampa have all drawn crowds of more than 20,000. It's a far cry from 1974, when his first show in the city was canceled due to low ticket sales.

It's no secret why he remains such a draw. His success as a singer-songwriter is virtually unparalleled: 150 million records sold, 33 Top 40 hits, a shelf full of Grammys, almost every lifetime achievement award you can name. As long as there are pianos, we will have Piano Man. And Scenes From an Italian Restaurant. And Vienna. And dozens upon dozens more.

But it's now been 25 years since River of Dreams, the album Joel insisted would be his proper pop swan song. He's pretty much kept his word, even as he admits the well isn't completely dry: "I got new material right here; you just haven't heard it," he said.

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In those 25 years, Joel has played Tampa more than he ever did back when he was still releasing new music. Is that really how he thought retirement would go?

"No, I actually thought I wouldn't be really working at this point in my life," he said. "I thought once you got to be, I think, 50, you gotta quit rock and roll; you're too old for this thing. This is a kids' job. But these other people kept pushing the envelope. The Stones kept going, McCartney kept going, Dylan kept going. The Eagles are still going. All these bands are still rocking out, and it's, Wait a minute, so who says you gotta retire? This is what I do. I've come to understand that this is who I am. This is what I do. And it's probably keeping me alive."

He has scaled back. He picks his spots, mostly playing one-off stadium shows in ballparks around the country, with the odd festival and European gig here and there. It's a schedule made possible in part by his Garden residency, which he called "the best job in the world," personally fulfilling yet not too draining.

"Having to schlep all over the world is a job in itself," he said. "That's where people get burned out. All the traveling and the checking into hotels, checking out of the hotel and going from here to here — it sounds like fun and it sounds very romantic, but after a few years, it's not. You're a traveling salesman. You get the Willy Loman thing. And that is a bummer."

For Joel, what's kept the past few years of shows satisfying is digging deeper into his catalog, sprinkling more album cuts amid his greatest hits. It is in those not-yet-overplayed songs — Where's the Orchestra?, This Is the Time, Sleeping With the Television On, even Miami 2017 — that his genius for songcraft starts to feel fresh again, both for the audience and himself.

"We didn't used to do certain songs because we didn't think the audience would respond to them," he said. "There's a song on Piano Man called Stop In Nevada, which we just started doing again here recently, and the crowd really likes that song. For some reason, all of a sudden, now that song's a big hit. And there's a bunch of songs like that.

"It's fun to play obscure things that we don't normally do, because you kind of relive the writing of it, and the recording of it, and the arranging of it when you're doing it, after not doing it for a long time. You kind of rediscover it."

• • •

The world has changed since Joel first imagined Florida as the last state left in the apocalypse. In some ways, he's changed, too.

He's a new parent again; his third daughter, Remy Anne, arrived in October. He's not up to speed on his streaming numbers ("I don't even know how to use my cell phone other than make calls") and still sounds a little bewildered by his experience headlining Bonnaroo in 2015. ("We were in this weird place in the middle of nowhere, and I didn't know any of the bands").

While never known as a very political songwriter, he's found himself irked of late by another big-shot New Yorker who likes to winter near Palm Beach. The last time he played Tampa in January 2016, he dedicated The Entertainer to Donald Trump.

"He screws up the traffic every time he's here," Joel said. "You can't take the road you normally take to get somewhere. You've got to go over a bridge, and there's protesters, and there's police, and there's security, and what is he doing — he's golfing? Okayyy, that doesn't seem like a particularly good way to run a country. But I don't know. I got no use for him."

As more of his peers retire from the road, he knows his own future is an ongoing question. It's come up many times before, often courtesy of Joel himself.

"I hinted at it because it felt like, Okay, I'm getting older, I'm getting tired, I shouldn't be doing this anymore," he said. "I look at myself in the mirror and I go, You do not look like a rock star at all. And I think maybe I should just call it quits. But then I realized, this is what I do."

One thing he's fairly certain about is that you won't see him embarking on one big, final, farewell tour.

"You know what a farewell tour is? A farewell tour is just a way of getting people to buy tickets, because they don't think they're going to see you anymore. Then all these farewell tours go on for like five years. The Who have been on a farewell tour for like 30 years. So I think it's pointless. If I'm going to stop, I'm just going to stop. But I don't see that happening."

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Of his old pal Elton John, who just announced a three-year, 300-date farewell tour that kicks off this fall, he said: "I'm looking at it and thinking to myself, okay, maybe it will be his farewell tour, but that doesn't mean he's not going to play again. I'm still playing, but I'm not touring. You could say I've already done my farewell tour. I'm just playing spot gigs and then I go home. So there's a possibility — I mean, Elton lives in England. Maybe he'll play in London and do a residency like I'm doing in New York. You never know."

A lot can change over time. Long ago, Joel sang that the world as we knew it could be gone by 2017. But a month into 2018, Joel said his last year turned out better than he could have imagined.

"I know a lot of people had some issues with that year," he said. "Am I happy with our government right now? No. But that could be said in almost any year. But my youngest was born. My (SiriusXM) radio station is back on again. I'm going to be playing Europe this coming year. 2017 was a good year."

He thought about it for another half-second.

"You know what?" he added. "They're all good years."

Contact Jay Cridlin at or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.