Billy Joel: afloat on a river of dreams

October 17, 1993|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Pop Music Critic

Philadelphia -- People dream all sorts of things. There are folks whose dreams are more fantastic than any movie, and others whose life asleep is as mundane as a day at the office. Some people dream their hopes. Some people dream their anxieties. Some people simply dream about sex.

Billy Joel dreams music.

"I dream music all the time," he says. "I've dreamt symphonies. And I know when I wake up that I just dreamt this complete piece of music -- but I can't remember what it is."

As he speaks, Joel is two weeks into his current tour, and temporarily headquartered in the Presidential Suite of the Rittenhouse Hotel in Philadelphia. It looks pretty much like what you'd expect an older rock star's suite to look like (Joel, with his black jeans, blue T-shirt, and graying beard, seems well past the entertaining-groupies-and-smashing-TVs stage).

There's no sign of his wife, model Christie Brinkley, or their daughter, Alexa Ray -- both are at home in Long Island -- but it's clear enough that Joel has settled in. He has a grand piano in the room, along with a stereo, a roll-top desk, and a dining room table cluttered with tea cups. David Halberstam's "The '50s" sits on the coffee table before him, next to an open copy of National Fisherman. But angler chat isn't on the agenda at the moment; instead, the topic of conversation is songwriting.

Or, more specifically, song-remembering.

"I'll be sitting there, coming up with nothing, and suddenly something will pop out that's fully realized," he says. "And I'll wonder, 'How the heck could this be happening? Didn't this happen before?' And I realize, 'Yes, you dreamt it, and it's reoccurring to you now.' "

Joel isn't the only pop star who has had songs sail in across the astral plane; Michael Jackson and Sting have also mentioned dreaming new material. And there are definite advantages to the unconscious creative process.

"There's no editor when you're sleeping," he points out. "There's no limitations, no governor. And that's good. When I'm conscious and I'm writing, I'm trying to be very efficient, very skillful. And forget it." He waves his hand dismissively. "All that stuff should go out the window. I'm tapping into pure emotion when I'm dreaming."

Trouble is, a lot of what he dreams remains inaccessible, lost in the realm of Morpheus. "How do you get into the filing cabinet?" he asks. "I've tried writing it down in the middle of the night. But when I read it in the morning, it looks like, 'bloo goo gack.' I've tried taping. But it won't make any sense the next day. There will be no relation to chords, there's no relation to where the beat is, where the beginning of the measure is, what the emotion was. There's no context."

Still, every now and then something will come through with enough power that it eventually finds its context.

" 'River of Dreams' came from that," he says, referring to the title tune from his latest album. "I woke up singing, 'In the middle of the night, I go walking in my sleep . . .'

"My wife goes, 'What's that?'

"I said, 'I don't know.'

"She said, 'What does it mean?' "

Joel didn't know that either, but even so, there was something reassuring and familiar about the melody. "It sounds like a spiritual, almost -- a gospel song about the river, and I've got to cross to the other side. I didn't know what I was talking about, so I just wrote it down. And it wouldn't go away.

"When they don't go away, you have to find out what they mean."

Up to a point, anyway. But at 44, Joel has resigned himself to the fact that there are some things about himself and his life that he'll never completely figure out.

"I don't always know why I'm doing what I'm doing, and in a way maybe I shouldn't," he says. "If I knew too much about what it was I'm doing, I might become a little too self-analytical, and that might cut it off. I might say, 'Well, that's not what I wanted to do.' "

Funny thing is, Joel's albums are never what he wanted to do at the beginning of the process. "See, I always have these great intentions that have nothing to do with the way the album comes out," he says.

"When I start out, I'm going to make the ultimate bar band album. That's what I always want to do. I gather the musicians together, and we start playing a lot of spare, Spartan rock and roll type of songs.

"I'm writing while this is going on. And what we play will kick off one song, and then that song will kick off another song. As this process goes along, it has nothing to do with my bar band concept. Once I start writing, I become sort of a prisoner of the writing process.

"I still haven't made my ultimate bar band album," he says with a laugh, "and I may never get to do it."

The phone rings, and Joel rises. "Let me get this," he says, and heads across the room. Apparently the call has something to do with the movies, because Joel is going on about how much he doesn't want to be in one. "I'm in pain in front of a camera," he

says. "Why don't you get Christie? At least she's photogenic."

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