NEW YORK — Right now, Billy Joel is all about the present.
He’s happy to talk about his Long Island motorcycle shop, 20th Century Cycles, or his upcoming master classes at colleges around the Northeast. He’s happy about being named a “Steinway Artist” later this month, becoming the first pop artist ever to be counted among the masters who have their paintings hung in Steinway Hall. He’s happy about his new boxed set, “The Complete Albums Collection” (Columbia/Legacy), and the new interpretations of his work that keep turning up successfully across pop culture, whether it’s the “Glee” kids tackling “Uptown Girl” or a British ad campaign using a version of “She’s Always a Woman” that pushed his original into the British Top 10.
Joel is even happy to learn — at Sting’s recent birthday party, no less — that Lady Gaga is a fan. “She knows everything I’ve ever done,” he said. “She was quoting lyrics to me.” After learning that Gaga had studied his career, Joel felt honored. “That’s kinda cool — she’s very talented,” he said, before adding with a laugh, “It was very impressive that she was so knowledgeable. I impressed myself, I suppose.”
But the past? That’s a different story.
Joel canceled the release of his autobiography, “The Book of Joel,” this spring, only weeks before it was supposed to come out.
“I saw it being promoted as a salacious tell-all, which it wasn’t in the first place,” said Joel, in one of his first interviews about the decision. “I said, ‘No, no, no, no, that’s not how I want to be defined. Forget it.’ I’m not Keith Richards.”
Though the story of Joel’s rise from Hicksville, N.Y., native to stadium-filling global superstar and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer has been told many times — most recently in the documentary “The Last Play at Shea,” which also chronicled his historic final concerts at Shea Stadium — it has usually been told by someone else. For “The Book of Joel,” it was going to be told by him and that became quite a drag.
“The writing process was really not all that enjoyable,” Joel said. “I felt like I was wading through the same mud that I spent my life trying to get out of. … You pull yourself out of the swamp and then to do an autobiography, you have to dive back in and wade through it all again.
“I was so sick of me,” he added, jokingly. “I’m just not a kiss-and-tell kinda guy.”
The book is done, Joel said, but it won’t likely see the light of day anytime soon. “After I kick off, somebody will probably get it out there,” he said. “It’s really not very salacious.”
Joel said he would much rather have people remember him for his music, which is why he is so happy that his boxed set, “The Complete Albums,” is out.
Because the set collects all of his studio albums, including his classical album, “Fantasies and Delusions,” it’s different from previous compilations. “I’ve been wanting this to come out for a long time,” Joel said. “To me, the ultimate art form is the album format. And because of the situation with the music business over the last 10-15 years and the dearth of retail and inventory, the albums really haven’t been available to the public. Even if I was out on tour, doing bang-up box-office business, either on my own or with [Elton John], and we were playing stadiums or multiple nights in arenas, I would go to a local outlet and there was no way to get the record. There’s probably a lot of people who aren’t aware of most of my material at this point.”
For Joel, his compilations — even “Greatest Hits, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2,” Joel’s most successful album and the third-biggest-seller of all time behind The Eagles and Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” — don’t convey his music the way he envisioned it. “I’ve always considered myself an album artist,” he said. “I came up during the late ’60s and early ’70s, when progressive FM radio was playing album tracks, and I like to define what I do that way. I think a lot of the success we had was because we had some depth, not just the Top 40 singles. When ‘The Stranger’ became a big album, there were album tracks. The people who didn’t like ‘Just the Way You Are,’ the antiballad people, had other alternatives.”
Joel likes “The Complete Albums” because it puts all his songs in context. “All the compilations have been done to death — ‘The Essential,’ ‘The Ultimate,’ ‘The “We Really Mean It This Time,”’ I hate those things,” he said. “A lot of people assume that I’m the one doing this. I’m not. It’s the record company. For me, my last legitimate release was ‘Fantasies and Delusions’ in 2001.”
Will there be another? That’s hard to say.
When Joel met Lady Gaga, she told him that she would love to work with him. “I would definitely discuss it with her,” he said. “I’m not sure exactly what she’s got in mind. … I’m not all that interested in recording these days. I don’t think I’m as good a singer or performer as I used to be and I love the game too much not to play it well, which is also why I’ve slowed down on doing shows these days. … Look, I’m 62 years old and I ain’t no spring chicken anymore and I feel it. I always respected those athletes that took themselves out of the lineup when they couldn’t get to first base as quick as they used to or couldn’t bring the bat around as fast.”
Joel said he’s going to make his touring decisions on a seasonal basis. “I want to see what I feel like doing,” he said. “If I feel like doing some shows, I’ll do a few shows. If I don’t, then I won’t.”
It’s part of Joel’s outlook of striving for contentment instead of happiness. “We are brought up in our culture to look for happiness — that’s a Western concept,” he said. “The Eastern concept is to look for contentment and be able to recognize it. It takes people a long time to get to a point in their lives when they recognize, ‘Hey, I’m not sick. My loved ones are all well. There’s nothing majorly bad going on right now. This is pretty good.’
“Do I miss performing?” he continued. “I miss the interaction with other musicians sometimes. I miss making that joyful noise that we do onstage and having a whole bunch of people be really happy because of what we’re doing. That’s magic — that’s a form of sorcery. I miss that. Do I miss the schlepping? Do I miss all the insanity that goes with it and the loud noise that gives you tinnitus? No, I don’t miss that. I’m content.”