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Billy Joel grapples with the past


Billy Joel wanted to show his daughter where it all began.

His (and ex-wife Christie Brinkley’s) daughter is Alexa, age 17, who goes to school on Long Island and, says her father, “is a songwriter herself, as a matter of fact a much better songwriter than I was at that age, and a better pianist, and a singer with a beautiful voice.”

So a few weeks ago, after “Movin’ On,” the Broadway musical built on the songs of Billy Joel had swept up Tony Awards for Joel and Stuart Malina’s orchestration and the Hail Mary choreography of Twyla Tharp, Alexa’s father took Alexa to Bleecker Street, in Greenwich Village.

Around 1970 or so, “when nobody else would hire me as a soloist, a woman named Penny something, who owned The Gaslight” put The Piano Man at the piano and let him sing.

“They had seats like church pews,” Joel remembers, “and the people who came paid like a buck.”

In those days he would crash at one pad or another in the East Village and come over to play at The Gaslight, the Bitter End, the Village Gate — all of which were distressingly nowhere to be found when he brought Alexa to have a look.

The first song that anyone had paid any attention to was “She’s Got Away,” and a reprise of it is in the big hit show at the Richard Rodgers on 46th Street, a couple of blocks south and a half-block west of where, on the night of Sunday, June 8, Billy Joel sat at a grand piano on an elevated platform in the little Father Duffy triangle of Times Square and launched the three-hour 2003 Tony TV broadcast by singing “A New York State of Mind” as “all these people on buses are going by, same as every day, very surreal.”

Not long later, that same night, up in the press room, the temporarily converted Rainbow Room, 64 stories above ground in the building across the street from Radio City Music Hall, Billy Joel sat perched, knees-up, on a high stool. He talked about how, as a little kid in Levittown, he, with his family every Fourth of July, put on “Million Dollar Movie” and watched James Cagney singing, dancing and having a ball as George M. Cohan.

“And I said: ‘Aaaah, that looks like a real good job!’ “

When he was a little older, he was taken to see “My Fair Lady.”

“I didn’t know what it was about, so I made up my own story. At Westbury Music Fair, when it was still a tent, I saw ‘The Music Man.’ I must have been 10 or 11.”

Some weeks later still, on the phone from the house in Sag Harbor where he’s been living until construction is finished on his true house in the Oyster Bay section, The Piano Man talked about Grandfather Philip Nyman, his mother’s father.

“He would sneak us into operas, ballets and Gilbert & Sullivan by slipping the usher a pack of Luckies, and we’d be sitting in almost the front row. He and my grandmother — her name was Rebecca — had actually met at a Gilbert & Sullivan production in London’s Royal Albert Hall.

“Believe it or not, my mother and father met at CCNY in a production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s ‘Pirates of Penzance.’ They were both also in a production of ‘The Mikado’ conducted by Julius Rudel. Remember Julius Rudel? . . . No one can make this stuff up . . . I owe a great debt to Gilbert & Sullivan.”

Billy Joel’s mother, Rosalind Nyman Joel, was one of three sisters who grew up in Brooklyn. Joel’s father — well, that’s a slightly more complicated story, some of which sprang forth last January from “The Joel Files,” a fascinating documentary by Berlin-born, Vienna-bred filmmaker Beate Thalberg.

The movie tells the intertwining story of the Joel and Neckermann families of 1930s Germany and Austria — of Karl Anton Joel, who built a fortune on a Nuremburg-based mail-order clothing business, but because he was a Jew, had that business (and everything else he possessed except his wife and son) weasled away by shrewd, tireless Joseph Neckermann, the non-Jew who “aryanized” the Joel mail-order empire and made it his own.

Karl Anton Joel and his wife Meta and their 19-year-old son Helmut barely made it out of Hitler’s Europe, reaching the United States and New York City — via Switzerland, England, and Cuba — in 1942. Here, Karl Anton Joel started all over again from the Bronx with a modest hair-ribbon business.

Son Helmut was renamed Howard Joel and was drafted into the U.S. Army, in which service he would one day be driving in a Jeep in Patton’s 7th Army past the ruined onetime Joel factory in Nuremburg — its single surviving smokestack still labeled “JOEL” — toward liberation of the death camp at Dachau. Much of his own family had perished at Auschwitz.

This was the Howard Joel who married that Brooklyn girl named Rosalind Nyman whom he’d met doing Gilbert & Sullivan. Their son William Joseph Martin Joel was born May 9, 1949, in the Bronx, New York.

Howard/Helmut Joel, never really happy in America — the documentary captures his bitterness — would presently go off and start a new life, a new marriage, a new fatherhood, in Vienna, Austria.

“My parents were divorced right around the time Kennedy was elected [1960],” says Billy Joel. “My father wasn’t around when I was growing up. As a matter of fact, I had no contact with him at all until my 20s.”

And then?

“I went on the road as a musician. To Europe to do a ‘promotional’ tour — which means,” he says with a smile that finds its way over the telephone, “that you don’t get paid. So here I am in Europe, and I know my old man is around here someplace, but I don’t know if he’s dead or alive, and I don’t know where.

“I do know that back home he’d worked for GE, so I put the word out at GE’s New York offices — and just as I’m leaving Milan airport, I get a message from New York: ‘Your father’s in Vienna.’ But I had to catch the plane and go.

“I was living then in California. Lived three years in California — a great mistake. My father spoke to me by phone to California, and then he flew to California from Europe.”

How did father and son get along?

“It was . . . strained,” says Billy Joel, after a pause. “No animosity. But I was puzzled. Why hadn’t I heard from him in all those years? But then I realized he’d had plenty of trouble in his own life, beginning with the Nazis . . . the people lost at Auschwitz . . . an unsuccessful marriage in America.”

Another pause. “I would say our relationship was cordial. I have great respect for him. He was a very accomplished pianist — Chopin, Schubert, everyone. And he’s my father.”

Helmut/Howard Joel is also the father of Viennese symphonic conductor Alexander Joel, the much younger brother of whose existence Billy Joel never knew until much later but well before a second kismet-like meeting a couple of years ago . . . in Vienna, between the surviving Joels (Billy and Alexander) and the surviving Neckermanns — the three grown grandchildren of that Joseph Neckermann who’d put the blocks to Karl Anson Joel in the years 1938-41.

“I met Alexander for the first time when he was 7 and I was in my 20s,” says big brother Billy, who by his 20s was already famous around the world with songs like “Piano Man” and “Just the Way You Are.”

Alexander Joel specializes in opera. “I think the name ‘Joel’ might have been an albatross for him. He had to deal with a lot of brickbats” [i.e., from European intellectual snobs]. “We love each other a lot.”

In Beate Thalberg’s documentary, the Vienna meeting between Billy and Alexander Joel on one side and Julia, Joseph, and Markus Neckermann on the other — though as formally and stiffly courteous as any signing of, let’s say, the Treaty of Versailles — is also just as clearly loaded with dynamite.

When Joseph Neckermann declares: “I’m not warming up history over and over again, that’s what I live by,” or Julia Neckermann sweetly says of the whole Nazi era: “Everybody just went along and didn’t know what they were doing,” the camera goes to Billy Joel’s brooding face with its hooded, sleepy eyes, and stays there. What is he thinking?

“I talked with my brother before the meeting,” Joel says, over the phone from Long Island. “We weren’t going to respond. I didn’t want my family’s history to be played out like a Jerry Springer show.

“And I personally don’t hold them (the Neckermann descendants) responsible. Though I do think a certain amount of rationalizing was going on.” Final pregnant pause. “I mean, after all — winter clothing [produced by slave labor in the Neckermann factories] for the Nazi armies outside Stalingrad . . . ?”

He lets the question trail off. It answers itself. And gets a special Tony Award for economy of orchestration.


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