28 August, 1993
“If there is an Irving Berlin in rock’n’roll, then his name is Billy Joel,” announced Billboard editor Timothy White. An exaggeration? White could be forgiven. For Joel had just released his first album since 1989’s Storm Front, and River Of Dreams had entered the charts at Number 1, marking the start of a three-week stay at the top.
But it was not a completely happy time for Joel. Since 1989 he had been involved in legal battles, first filing a $90million lawsuit against his manager, Frank Weber, alleging fraud and misappropriation of funds, then filing a further lawsuit against his attorneys, Allen Grubman and Arthur Indursky. “I’ve reached a point in my life where I’m not going to write unless I have something to say,” Joel told White. “And on this album I have something to say.”
“I was angry about being betrayed, I lost faith in my own judgement.”
That he had plenty to get off his chest was in evident as he embarked on a series of TV interviews to promote the Columbia release. Letterman, Dateline NBC, Charlie Rose, Entertainment Tonight and more all provided Joel with the opportunity to display both ease and eloquence. “The album starts off angry because I was angry about being betrayed. Someone who I had made godfather to my child betrayed me grievously,” he revealed. “I lost faith in my own judgement. How could I have trusted somebody that much and got it wrong?”
To the outside world, Billy Joel had it all. During 1985, aboard a yacht in New York harbour, he’d married supermodel Christie Brinkley, rated as one of the world’s most beautiful women. She’d spent three years as an illustrator in her pre-model days, and, recalled Joel, when he told her about his LP, “she disappeared for about two weeks and said she was going to paint the cover. I thought, What am I going to say if I don’t like it? But it was good.” Brinkley remembered: “I had to take the painting in and compete with the other artists. But I knew Billy would tell me if he didn’t like it.”
Thankfully, in Joel’s mind and those of the Columbia execs who viewed it, Brinkley had produced the perfect, if somewhat literal, cover portrait of Joel surrounded by dreamtime imagery of the album’s songs, floating on a river which flowed through his head.
Additionally, the Piano Man maintained that much of the music heard on the album came to him in dreams. Recalling how he pieced together the title track, Joel said: “I woke up one morning and I had this thing in my head. I heard it as this old doo wop song done by guys on a street corner.” He recorded it simply to shake the song from his system. Producer Danny Kortchmar confirms the story. “Billy first mentioned it in connection with the title track. If you’re a guy like him, who lives and breathes music, that’s likely to happen.”
The album grew from that point on though dreams, Joel later musing that if a song had faded by the time he awoke, he would have to wait for them to recur before he could write them down. One incidence of writer’s block was overcome with the help of his six-year-old daughter, Alexa Ray, named in honour of Ray Charles.
“She was asking, ‘What happens when you die?’” Joel recalled. “Tough question from a six-year-old. I decided that the best way to tell her would be as a song.” He duly composed Lullaby (Goodnight My Angel).
When released, River Of Dreams garnered critical acclaim and huge sales. But though an 18-month tour would follow, the singer had grown disenchanted with recording. Danny Kortchmar recalls that Joel became disillusioned around the time of the recording sessions.
“He was intimating that he might be running out of ideas and becoming less happy with writing pop songs. That’s why the last song on the album is called Famous Last Words.” That song’s lyrics are remarkably direct: “These are the last words I have to say… I don’t give a damn any more… now it’s time to put this book away.”
“I’m 44 years old now,” Joel mused as he quit. “Time to talk about coaching a little – I have all this information in my head.” He was extremely open at his free tutoring sessions to hopeful songwriters and musicians. “Ask me what you will,” he challenged, even offering to answer personal questions.
Though Joel still tours, his disillusionment with recording rock has been maintained. His only long-playing release since River Of Dreams has been a classical album, 2001’s Fantasies & Delusions. And something else fell apart in the wake of that final rock album. In March 1994, it was announced that the Joel-Brinkley marriage was at an end. The divorce came in August, 1994, one year after the release of River Of Dreams.