Hall of Fame inductee Billy Joel likens writing songs to labor

May 28, 1992|By David Hinckley | David Hinckley,New York Daily News

NEW YORK -- Billy Joel clearly remembers how he wrote "Just the Way You Are."

"I was at a meeting," he says. "And it came to me. So I walked out of the meeting to go write it down."

The other people at the meeting may be puzzled to this day about his sudden departure. But thousands of newlyweds are not, for in addition to staying on the national charts for more than six months, "Just the Way You Are" has become a modern wedding standard.

"I get mail all the time from people who play it at their wedding," Mr. Joel says. "The only thing, I wrote it while I was married to my ex-wife, so I'm a little worried about the future of some of these relationships.

"I mean, 'I love you just the way you are.' You gotta change a little."

A good point. But an occasional footnote to an old tune apparently has not diminished the collective impact of Billy Joel's songs, because last night the Songwriters Hall of Fame made him one of six inductees at its 23d annual dinner.

Others included the team of Elton John and Bernie Taupin, the team of the late Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, and the late Linda Creed, who wrote "The Greatest Love of All."

Also, the Johnny Mercer Award went to Burton Lane, a lifetime achievement award posthumously to Nat King Cole, the Abe Olman Publishers Award to Bonnie Bourne, the Patron of the Arts Award to Jonathan Tisch and the Special Award to Ed Murphy.

Irving Gordon received a Special Song Citation for "Unforgettable."

The hall itself is continuing to search for a permanent display area, and it also had a public spat. Producer/writer Phil Spector criticized the hall for not inducting his old friend Pomus and his partner, Mr. Shuman, before their deaths in 1991.

Still, the hall remains one of the few organizations recognizing composers of popular music, and presenters were scheduled to include Tony Bennett, Leslie Uggams, Judy Collins, Ray Charles, Jimmy Webb and Steve Guttenberg.

Mr. Joel says, basically, he's flattered. "I didn't think I was old enough to be inducted," the 43-year-old says. "I'm afraid people will think Christie [Brinkley, his wife] was on the phone lobbying the voters."

But he does say he has paid his songwriting dues. "When I'm writing songs for a new record, I tend to isolate myself until it's done. It's a long, hard process. I don't know what real childbirth is like, but writing songs seems as close as I'm going to come.

"My theory on writing is that I dream most of the stuff. I can't squeeze it out like toothpaste. I have to be somehow disconnected from the conscious state. I dream in abstractions, complete pieces of music. I've dreamed symphonies. Then after I wake up, I try to make sense of it. It would be nice if it were still all there, but usually it's not. I'll wake up at 3 or 4 a.m. with this incredible idea and I'll try to scribble it down, then at 8 a.m. I'll wake up and it's gone. Filed in the subconscious. The only good thing is parts of it will usually resurface at some point.

"I almost always write the music first, except for 'We Didn't Start the Fire,' which was kind of a lyrical exercise. Then I wrestle with the words. I'm not pleasant to be around during that process."

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