"Billy Joel, What Happened?"
By Scott Birmingham
Edited by Kim Hunt
My introduction to Billy Joel came in the form of a 45 rpm of his hit song, "My Life". I still vividly recall the first time I heard it coming from an old record player my childhood friend, Chris Friedmann, had. Several years later in high school I was sitting in the front cab of my friend, Tim Dickerson's, pick-up truck. He had left the cassette tape running while he filled his tank with gas and I was alone with the music. The tape playing was the album, “Glass Houses”. I found myself liking every song I heard, not just a few. That was it, I was hooked. It was pretty much from that moment on that I became a fan of Billy Joel.
The music that emanated from that old cassette player and worn out tape in no way prepared me for my first experience of hearing Billy Joel perform live. It was at this first live performance I noticed his drummer, Liberty DeVitto. I had never seen such an exciting and intense performance as well as a sense that these guys were having fun playing some great music. I was not a huge music enthusiast, unlike many of my friends. I did not really follow any bands or albums. It was my few friends who kept me apprised of music and constantly had me listening to new stuff. My sense of appreciation happened to arrive a little later on; it was a slow process for me. However, it wasn't long before I had memorized most of Billy Joel's songs.
It wasn't until after the "River of Dreams" album came out that I noticed, as I was reading the CD sleeve one day, that Liberty DeVitto's name was not credited as drummer. That made me scratch my head a little, Liberty was not just a random studio musician who had occasionally appeared on Billy Joel’s albums. Liberty had been the drummer on virtually every album Joel released over the last 30 years with the exception of a few early albums. Those earlier albums consisted primarily of in-house studio musicians, so...why now?! Why was Liberty gone? Where had he gone? Yes, I was a bit curious, it just seemed weird to me.
I headed on-line for research to see what I could find out. I thought there must be some post somewhere about this sudden break-up - there wasn't. I couldn’t find a shred of information which could give me any insight or any "real" information. After continuing to dig I happened across Liberty's MySpace account where he had posted the following:
"I am a Drummer, song writer, clinician, I would love to play on your next recording, I might even want to play with you live... ask me anything, that’s how you will learn ...email..email@example.com........ For 30 years I was the drummer Billy Joel chose to help him create his hit records and unforgettable tours. I still love to play. Check out the music of Doug Scofield, Flynsolo, Nick Harrison and Sean Kennedy's tune Queen Ann's revenge, same drummer on all... ME , Oh yes and almost every Billy Joel recording."
I was a bit excited to discover this, so I decided to test out his statement, “… ask me anything…” and emailed him. To my surprise, he actually replied answering all of my Billy Joel-related questions. At this point I decided if I had luck with my initial questions maybe I could take this a step further. I asked Liberty if he would be willing to be interviewed by phone to discuss the mystery surrounding his sudden disappearance as drummer for Billy Joel. I also felt I wanted to get the word out to other Joel fans and see where this story might lead. Perhaps even Billy would comment on this. Don’t laugh, stranger things have happened.
Liberty and I talked on the phone twice, both times for about 90 minutes. He called me from his Brooklyn apartment in New York.
My first thought: he has probably answered these questions a number of times and would not be very enthusiastic about answering them yet again. To my surprise, Liberty is quite laid back, extremely conversational, and has a wicked sense of humor. He was not at all bored with my questions and was great at sharing some behind-the-music stories.
Our first conversation focused on what he was currently doing, and from his perspective what happened in this unspoken drift between Billy Joel and Liberty. My phone recorder broke down and stopped fifteen minutes into this conversation, so his quotable words are gone except for what is written below.
The mystery began to unfold as I heard the story from Liberty’s perspective. He had last spoke with Billy around the spring of 2003 in the midst of a tour. I ask Liberty if he remembered what was said during this last conversation they had:
Liberty: Oh, sure...I remember exactly what it was...I walked up to him and I said, "I'm getting divorced and she's getting it all. So, if any crumbs fall off the table, maybe you can sweep them my way." He said, "Nah, I can't do that. I can't do that. Don't ask me that. I can't do that.” And that was it…the next day the tour manager called me up and said you really pissed Billy off when you said that.
This conversation set a new and detached tone for their relationship that would last until this day. They would finish that tour and then go their separate ways.
Unbeknownst to me, my phone recorder then stopped seconds after this was said. Liberty and I finished off our conversation and I later find out I had very little to work with, I also felt I had so many more questions to ask. I Emailed Liberty explaining this. I get an upgraded phone recorder, we agree on another phone call. With this second phone call I also wanted to get into some of their earlier recordings.
The following is that conversation…with added tidbits of factoids on the albums discussed.
"Turnstiles" becomes the first album that Liberty plays drums on and that Joel ends up primarily self-producing. Liberty also becomes part of the touring band for the album. After dismal sales on his earlier works, Columbia Records decides they will give Joel a final shot at an album which would turn out to be "The Stranger". Joel starts looking around for a producer. He initially approaches George Martin (Beatles producer) to produce, but Martin is interested in only using studio musicians and not the current band, so Billy walks.
Producer, Phil Ramone, attends the Carnegie Hall performance the band does as part of their "Turnstiles" tour. It is Ramone who decides he wants to keep the sound and the feel that the entire band brings to the music and preserve it for the recording of the "The Stranger" album.
"The Stranger" successfully makes it to #2 for 6 weeks on the album charts. This is a turning point. They now begin to experience back to back album successes.
The general mindset at this point...
Liberty: We're still doing what we love to do. We're lucky enough to make some great records.
It’s so relatively early for this band, how packed are the venues they are playing?
Liberty: On "The Stranger" tour was the first time we played an arena. It was Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto and we only played to like half the house. Everybody was watching that to see if Billy could go from a small stage to a bigger place and still keep it on a personal level with the audience and when we pulled that off they started to put us in bigger places.
How well did the transition work?
Liberty: The show got bigger, not by more lights...the band was able to play bigger. Billy ran around on ramps, my show got bigger with the arms flailing and stuff like that. So, the show itself stayed at the same level it did in the club.
The only few recognizable songs at this point are "Piano Man" and perhaps "The Entertainer". Even without an opening act they are able to pull off shows lasting two hours or more. Columbia Records contract with Billy Joel is for him to produce an album a year which does happen from 1980-1983, (more on this contract situation later).
What toll, if any, did this take on Joel or the band? Doing back to back albums…
Liberty: Nothing for us. It became a strain on Billy to write songs, that's hard. And yeah, you think about it like OK we're up on the top. It's definitely harder to stay on the top than it is to get there.
How do you explain the success with these early albums?
Liberty: Here's my theory...no matter what you play as long as you play it like you mean it...you're selling that product to people. If you just play it like you're bored stiff, people aren't going to buy it. If you have something that's good, and you throw it at them with everything you've got...they're gonna go for it.
"Glass Houses" become Joel's first album with a bonafide band at his side, not just a studio house band. It also features Joel's first song to make it to #1: "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me". The album itself stays at #1 on the Pop Albums chart for 6 weeks only to be taken down by the soundtrack to "Saturday Night Fever". It also ranked #4 at Billboards 1980 year-end album chart.
In his career with Joel, Liberty has worked with the likes of Stevie Nicks, Meatloaf, and Paul McCartney among others - in the studio only. Although he would have liked to, he was not able to go on tour with these other artists because of Joel's demanding tour schedules.
1983's "An Innocent Man" ends this album-a-year streak even though his contract to produce an album a year has not changed. Two years later in 1985, the same year he marries Christie Brinkley, he comes out with "Billy Joel's Greatest Hits Vol. 1 & 2". Fortunately, Columbia Records still recognizes this as continuing to fulfill his commitment to them.
So, his commitment to Columbia Records is apparently not hinged on new material?
Liberty: I asked him about that once and he said, "I'm supposed to put an album out a year." So, what happens when you don't do that? He said, "It extends my contract." I said that contract can go til after you're dead...He said, "Yeah."...That's why you keep getting the bull****, the same recycled songs, 'Greatest Hits', 'Live at the Garden', 'New Year's Eve'...
In various forms, 5 different versions of a "Greatest Hits" album have been released from Columbia Records which brings Billy Joel original recording records to 13. In 1985 Joel begins work on his 10th original album called "The Bridge" which is released in early 1986. "A Matter of Trust" and "Modern Woman" both peak at #10 on the charts while "This is the Time" peaks at #18. This album is written at a time that, as Liberty puts it...
Liberty: He's at the peak of happiness. You really can't write happy songs. I think "The Bridge" could've been better, and I know he thinks the same thing 'cause he said it too. (The song) "Matter of Trust" should've been on the "Storm Front" (album).
This also turns out to be the last album he and long time producer, Phil Ramone collaborate on. I want to know how that partnership worked out...
Liberty: Phil was great for him. Phil knows how to get the best out of you. He would be a like a manager of a baseball team, you know and know your potential. But you just don't know how to get that, like if you were in a slump or something, he could talk you out of the slump or talk you thru the slump. That's what Phil was like.
Phil Ramone most recently produced with Joel his single, "All My Life". Liberty, not so impressed...
Liberty: That is a song that if he came in the studio, and I were still with him...I would've said 'this is a piece of sh**. What are you going to do with this thing?' 'Cause that song sucked. I mean, c'mon. Whether you love Billy Joel or not that was a horrible song.
His second live album, "Kohuept" (which means concert), is produced in order to finance the 2-week Russian leg of "The Bridge" tour. Their first night in Russia they found themselves involved in an unplanned concert that had a terrible PA system. It ended up killing Joel's voice. The remaining part of that tour became a bit of struggle for him.
Liberty: Also a struggle for him was the way the Russian people were treated in the audience, you know. The famous piano that he threw and flipped over that's in the Hard Rock....actually at the end of the Russian album you can hear something backwards...really, if you play it the right way around, it says '"Stop lighting the audience! You're ruining my show!" People would get up and start to party, and for the cameras they would light the audience so they could film it...and the soldiers would come over and push them back down in their seats. "So stop putting the lights up because people want to get up." Once he made it clear that this is what he wanted to do... frickin' soldiers were on the stage throwing their hats off and stuff like that. It was insanity.
While in Sidney, Australia still touring, Joel approaches Liberty...
Liberty: He asks me backstage, "What would you think if we did the next album just me and you with a bunch of new guys?" That's when that went down...
Liberty’s reaction to this…?
Liberty: To be in a position of like I've got a family, and what am I supposed to say? No way, I'm not going to go away without the guys in the band?! No, hey, you're Billy Joel. You're going to do what you're going to do. The hard part was that these guys were my friends. Russell and Doug were my friends.
Joel tends to makes these random types of decisions because he "likes to change". Guitarist, David Brown quits following the run of this tour, the only band members that remain are Liberty and Billy. Even his Producer, Phil Ramone, is out. This 11th studio album contains more than just personnel changes, it marks the first one recorded digitally.
"House of Blue Lights" had been the working title for what later became "Stormfront"...and was the first song recorded for the album. This album was meant to be more Rock in its overall style. Mick Jones from Foreigner is tapped to produce it. Billy rents out a house and writes a handful of songs that end up never seeing the light of day for the listening public. After a bit of a longer break he re-groups and is able to write and produce some tangible material.
In 1992, Joel's twelfth studio (and last pop) album, "River of Dreams" gets its name in yet another interesting way. The album was referred to as "The Boathouse Tapes", the song was originally titled, "In the Middle of the Night" later known as "River of Dreams"...
Liberty: (mimicking a part of the song) I said, 'What did you just say there?' He said, "We all travel along on the river of dreams." I went, 'You know what?' He looks at me and he says, "That should be the name of the song, right?" I said, 'That should be the name of the album!' That was kind of the end of everything and then Danny Kortchmar came in.
The difference in the producing style between Mick Jones (producer of "Stormfront") and Danny Kortchmar (producer of "River of Dreams")...
Liberty: Well, Mick was a rocker...and he was in a band...and he knows what it's like to be a part...he wasn't a front man, like Lou Gramm was the front man...he was out front as much as Lou was...as far as writing and producing and all that stuff. Danny Kortchmar was always the side guy...a studio musician...so, his approach to the studio is a whole lot cleaner...more sterile.
What becomes the draw then..?
Liberty: He tried to get folks like Eddie Van Halen, but they were busy. So, he kinda settled on Danny...
Danny listens to their demo CD of "The Boathouse Tapes" to give him an idea of what Billy is looking for with these songs which will eventually become "River of Dreams". But something happens along the way...
Liberty: Billy Zampino (Joel's best friend) slipped, he says...Billy's in the studio with a whole new band. I said, "Bull****". Then I called Billy...and I left a message and I said, "Hey, call me back. Tell me what's happening." So, he calls me back: "What are you talking about? What's going on? What are you doing?" I said, "Tell me what's going?" He said, "What do you mean, you called me." I said, "C'mon, tell me what's going on? I know what's going on." He said, "OK, I'm in the studio, I have to try this. I'm only going to do a song to see what happens." Next thing you know it's one song, then it's two songs, then it's three songs. And then he said, "You'll always be my drummer, don't have to worry about that. I just have to try this" That's when I decided to move to Florida, because hey, he's making albums with other people now...I'll go on the road with him, but I’m getting out of here.
Was there any tension or rift going on at this time that can be sensed between you and Billy?
Liberty: No. It wasn't til after him and Christie actually broke up. Because during "River of Dreams" when Danny used other musicians...I wrote him a letter...I said, "Hey, look, Billy, I understand why you're doing what you're doing. You wanna do something different...I'm behind you all the way..." I wrote: "If you ever need me to help you out, just give me a call. If Danny needs any help from me, you can tell him to kiss my a**" and I wrote it really big. I faxed it to him and Billy said he pinned it up in the studio and it was up there. That was the kind of relationship that we had. I could tell him if something sucks...when he finished 'River of Dreams' he says, "Drive out here, I want you to hear the album." I drove out there expecting to call the bass player and say he was right, he did the right thing. "It's unbelieveable!" Ya know? I put the headphones on and he says, "Go in the living room, sit by yourself..." a little Walkman he gave me...and I started laughing when I listened to it. I'm like "Oh my God, this sucks."
A LETTER TO BILLY
In October of 2004 Billy Joel marries 23-year-old Kate Lee. In those months and weeks preceding the wedding, the band members begin receiving their invitations - however, Liberty, his one-time closest friend, long-time band member, and co-collaborator on many of his songs doesn't receive an invite. Feeling a bit confused about it Liberty sits down and writes Billy a heartfelt letter...friend-to-friend.
At first I debated just how much of the letter should be shared. The letter is very personal and is the kind of letter that only a life-long friend would sit down to write. It says a lot, and I felt would not really do the words shared in the letter justice to share only a portion of it. So with permission from Liberty himself, below is the letter in its entirety…
I am writing this letter in hopes that it finds you well. I have recently heard what I hope is a rumor. Someone told me that someone told them that you hated me because I discredited you in a radio interview. This is insane. Billy you and I go back now thirty years. I think I have proven my loyalty and friendship to you. We have made some of the most memorable music in recorded history. I have gone places with you in your music that no one can get close to.
You didn’t believe me when I told you that Jimmy Miner was scalping tickets. You didn’t believe me when I told you Bobby Grasiano was a crazy fan. Why would you think I would say anything that would hurt you? You have always been like a brother to me. If there has been any friction between us, I believe it was crated out of jealousy from others. We were a band. You, Me, Doug, Ritchie, Russell and David. Glass Houses is evident of that. Your management stole from you. Your band didn’t. That was the best band you ever had. Then you let someone get in your ear and you changed all that. Stormfront was a great album but that became you and a bunch of side men. I was the only one who represented the presents of a band. Then during River of Dreams you took me out of the picture. But I still stuck by you because of the love I had for what we had created on ten albums. I think River was a strain on you. It was the last album of pop music you wrote. Was it because you had no one to bounce of? No one telling you what was good or what sucked. I always told you the truth about the music. I also thought we were close enough that I could tell you the truth in your personal life too. I will admit that I did make a mistake trying to keep up a relationship with Christy after you two broke up. I was trying to keep peace with Mary, which eventually turned in to a disaster for me.
Billy I stuck with you when you took the advice of you accountants and took away my royalties. I went on tour with you when you took away my percentage of the gross and put me on a salary. I never held you up for money which was probably my biggest fault being a nice guy. And when I lost everything in my last divorce, you had Max call me and tell me that I pissed you off when I hinted to you that I needed finical help. I still played my heart out every night on that tour because I love what I do. I can’t help it.
Then you separated yourself from every one when Max came along. I had to listen to the band bullshit and watch as Max, Noel, Brian, and Steve flew to a base hotel while I road in a bus with the cry baby musicians. I hated it so much I would wait till load out was finished so I could travel with the crew. Even then I was looked down upon by your elite fleet that traveled with you on your private plane because I had befriended the crew. Your crew. The guys who felt it was an honor to work for you.
You always had a tendency to pal up with the people who "yes" you to death the most. They were the ones that led you to that disastrous night at the Garden. Everyone from Ron Delsner to Don DeVito came to me and asked me to talk to you. I couldn’t get past your circle of ass kissers.
But the worst by far, I call him the cancer that destroyed all that we created, the guy who hijacked the Billy Joel gig, and I believe brought me to the point of writing you this letter, Tommy Byrnes. This man single handedly has made everything we created into a Las Vegas act. I must admit he has put together the best wedding band in New York City with those cover band musicians he uses in the play. I can’t believe you let him be the musical director to Movin Out and produce the soundtrack. He has killed the music. I know the guy bad mouths me. He’s a prick. The thing that pisses me off the most is that he’s making money while the drummer is playing the drum parts I created. I don’t get a dime. He also took the credit for one of the Tony’s the play won. Anything that has to do with the music in that show was created a long time ago in the studio. I don’t think I could bare sitting in the audience of that show hearing what has been done to the music I love so much while some one else is playing the rhythms I created. It makes me wonder how Doug felt when he would come to see us play at the coliseum.
Billy, I probably said too much, but I could not be silent any more. I have been sabotaged by other people too many times before. I wish you the best of everything with your new marriage to Kate. I am a little disappointed I wasn’t invited even though I will be in England doing clinics at the time and wouldn’t be able to attend. Anna and I are doing great. She is working to bring in the money to pay the bills while I try to rebuild my career. Its tough starting over with nothing at the age of 54. I am very lucky to have Anna.
If you every want to talk, you know I always was and always will be there for you.
Take care of your self Billy.
This private and personal letter is given to another member of the band and passed on to Billy while Liberty is away doing a drumming clinic. Billy receives the letter and blowing both discretion and caution to the wind decides to read the above letter out load to the guests that have assembled including those whose names are mentioned in it. According to Liberty, after Joel reads the entire letter out loud he then asks his invited guests what he should do.
Earlier this year Billy Joel and his wife of almost 5 years file for divorce. He and Elton John will join forces once again to do their Face-to-Face tour til the end of the year.
The idea of Billy Joel and producer, Phil Ramone working together again...Liberty’s thoughts...
Liberty: If Billy wanted to make a great Rock album, like Pop album it's called...and he called me up and said, "Hey, I wanna make a Pop album again..." I'd be happy to do it. You know, I know what I did to him...even if he won't acknowledge it anymore...and Phil was a big part of that too...If you read Phil's book where the chapter on Billy Joel, it's about me, Billy and him...what went on in the studio...so, if that got back together again...I think he could make another Pop album. He always wanted to make 'Innocent Man ll"...because there's a lot of the groups he didn't cover on that album...if he did it now, it would be great. You know, he kinda leans toward that Tony Bennett thing...which he just doesn't do well. He's not a real handsome crooner like Harry Connick, Jr. or something like that, ya know...
The one song he never grows tired of playing on drums: "Angry Young Man"
The song he does not like: "My Life" (He apologizes as he realizes this was my first Joel song to hear)
If he had a moment alone with Billy, what he would say...?
Liberty: “Blow me”! As you were asking the question, I was thinking I'll say ‘blow me’ (he laughs) No, what I would really like to say to him...”'What happened? What happened?!" I would really like to hear from Billy Joel, what happened? Why don't we play anymore? That's what I would ask him because I don't really know.
What does he think Joel’s response would be?
Liberty: It's a question that's hard to answer...who knows what he would say...what would I like to hear him say? It would be, 'I followed the influence of other people and...I did the wrong thing.' That's what I would like to hear him say because that what I think happened. I think other people got on him...ya know the term, "F***k 'em" was invented in the music business. If somebody...there's alot of jealousy, so when you put that term and jealousy together...it's like hatred. There is alot of that in the music business. I think THAT's what happened...
According to Liberty, Joel is non-confrontational. One would think all the fond memories would be evoked when listening to the songs or looking at the albums...
Liberty: If he's touring to tell me, 'Look, I can do it by myself'...yeah, of course you can do it by yourself...look at what WE built so you can do it by yourself.
Is there really any more music left in Billy Joel? What say Liberty?
Liberty: I've heard rumors, and they're supposed to be true, that there is an anthology that's gonna come next and that would be everything.
The unanswered question remains between these two: Billy Joel, what happened? We’d love to hear.
Scott Birmingham is an Independent Film Critic and contributes to several film review sites including: iesb.net, reelfans.com, and mynews4.com. For more information on Scott, head to his website: reelfans.com/runaway or write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org