“There are some people who may only know Billy Joel from hearing hit records on the AM or the Top 40 Stations who decided that they don’t like Billy Joel based on the hit records, and as a matter of fact, I don’t blame them. ‘Cause if I was going to interpret me from hearing “Tell Her About It,” “Uptown Girl,” and “It’s Still Rock ‘N’ Roll to Me,” I don’t know if I would like me either. I happen to think that the sum and substance of what I do is far more contained in the album tracks than in a few hits.”
Billy Joel on songwriting
“New York State of Mind”
Music and Lyrics: Billy Joel
Producer: Billy Joel
Initially appearing on the album “Turnstiles” in 1976, the song was never released as a single. However, “New York State of Mind” is a fan favorite that sees regular plays at concerts. Joel famously played the song at The Concert for New York City, the October 2001 benefit concert for the New York City Fire and Police Departments and the loved ones of families and first responders lost during 9/11.
I’ve read that you wrote “New York State of Mind” in two different places. One story says that you wrote it on an airplane flying back from Los Angeles when you were going back to New York. The other was that you wrote it within twenty minutes after returning home.
They are both correct. I started writing the song, actually not on an airplane but a bus. I was on a Greyhound bus, literally, ‘I’m taking a Greyhound on the Hudson River line.’ I started writing, ‘I’m on the Hudson River line in a New York state of mind’ and said, ‘Hey, this is [good].’ I had music in my head.
But I had to get to a piano, and I was wigging. I was completely freaking out on this bus because I didn’t have a piano. And I got to this house where my ex-wife [lived]. A house in Highland Falls, New York; it was a rental house. I said, ‘Hi.’ I got to the door, and I ran to the room where the piano was. I wrote the song probably in the first twenty minutes that I was home. So, it was both.
The whole, complete piece came out?
Yes, I had it in my head, and I was trying to play it quickly, so I didn’t forget it.
All those images are so vivid, the New York Times, The Daily News.
Well, I was homesick too. I had been living in California for three years before I wrote that song, and I think the song began to form while I was still living in California. It just didn’t come into my consciousness until I was actually on the Hudson River Greyhound.
Right, and those Highland Falls, that’s where the song “Summer Highland Falls” comes from.
That’s right. I mean, even “Piano Man” wasn’t a hit record. It’s what they call a turntable hit. They used to play it a lot, but it didn’t sell all that much.
Like “Captain Jack.”
That’s right, that’s another one. As a matter of fact, most people aren’t familiar with most of my material. I would say you are fortunate to have one hit off an album of ten songs, which is usually the way it works. There are a few exceptions. “The Stranger” had, I think, four hit singles. But most of the other albums, it was one-hit singles, really.
There are quite a few off of “An Innocent Man.”
Okay, well, that was another one that was an exception.
And “52nd Street” also. So, you’re an exception, but I know what you’re saying.
Joel: I would say that 90% of the material that I have written were not hits and have not been heard.
But then again, Billy Joel fans have heard of them. But I do hear what you’re saying.
What I am getting at is that there are some people who may only know Billy Joel from hearing hit records on the AM or the Top 40 stations, who have decided that they don’t like Billy Joel based on hearing the hit records. And as a matter of fact, I don’t necessarily blame them. ‘Cause if I was going to interpret me from hearing “Tell Her About It,” “Uptown Girl,” and “It’s Still Rock n’ Roll To Me,” I don’t know if I would like me either. I happen to think that the sum and substance of what I do are far more contained in the album tracks than in a few hits.