Billy and The Joels - The American rock star and his German family story (eBook) - Steffen Radlmaier - ebook

Billy and The Joels - The American rock star and his German family story (eBook) ebook

Steffen Radlmaier

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In the 1920s, Karl Amson Joel and his wife Meta founded a mail-order linen goods company in Nuremberg, Germany. The business flourished, and it could have turned out to be a picture-book success story, were it not for the coming to power of Adolf Hitler. To escape the Nazis, the Jewish couple and their son Helmut fled first to Berlin and then on to Switzerland. The linen goods company was snapped up by department-store 'king' Josef Neckermann at basement price. A further hazardous journey then took the Joels to Cuba and, finally, to New York. Helmut married a young girl from Brooklyn and, in 1949, she gave birth to their son William Martin, known as 'Billy'. When the marriage fell apart, Helmut returned alone to Germany, re-married and had a second son, Alexander, now an internationally sought-after conductor. Billy Joel is one of the most successful solo artists in the world of international pop music, having sold over 100 million albums. His daughter Alexa Ray has also carved out a career for herself in music. In order to write this extensive biography, Steffen Radlmaier not only researched archives and analyzed specialist literature and interviews, over a period of many years he also conducted personal interviews with numerous family members, acquaintances and contemporary witnesses. He visited Billy Joel and his daughter in New York in the autumn of 2008.

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Steffen Radlmaier

 

 

BILLY & THE JOELS

 

The American rock star and his German family history

 

Foreword by Billy Joel

 

 

 

Translated from the German by John Marshall

 

 

 

ars vivendi

 

Originally published in Germany as

Die Joel-Story – Billy Joel und seine deutsch-jüdische Familiengeschichte

2009 by Wilhelm Heyne Verlag, München,

in der Verlagsgruppe Random House GmbH

© 2014 by ars vivendi verlag

GmbH & Co. KG, Cadolzburg

All rights reserved

www.arsvivendi.com

 

Cover: ars vivendi verlag

Data conversion eBook: ars vivendi verlag

 

Fotonachweise:

Steffen Radlmaier, Familie Joel, Stadtarchiv Nürnberg, Günter Distler, Helmut Ölschlegel, Melanie Wager.

 

 

 

eISBN 978-3-86913-342-3

 

Billy & The Joels

 

For Alice and Julian

 

“Glücklich ist, wer vergisst,

was doch nicht zu ändern ist.”

Johann Strauß, Die Fledermaus

 

“Happy is he who forgets

what can’t be changed.”

Johann Strauss, The Bat

 

Contents

 

Foreword by Billy Joel

Restarting the Fire

The Early Years in Nuremberg

Dance on the Berlin Volcano

Escape and Exile in Cuba

The Odyssey of the St. Louis

America at Last

A New Start in New York

Atonement

The Faraway Father

No Easy Start

Reunion

The Piano Man in Los Angeles

Say Goodbye to Hollywood

The Breakthrough

People Who Live in Glass Houses

Dreams and Nightmares

New Love, New Luck

The End of the Cold War

Stormy Times

Viennese Blood

Separation and Farewell

Father and Sons

To Be a Conductor

New Challenges

A Time of Crisis

Comeback

The Fledermaus Effect

Taking a Stand

In Daddy’s Footsteps

Famous Last Words

On to New Horizons

Afterword

 

 

Appendix

Annotations

List of sources

 

Bibliography

Billy Joel Discography

Biographical data

 

Foreword by Billy Joel

For a long time, I knew very little about my family history. My parents separated when I was a child, and the next time I saw my father was in the early 1970s.

In some sense I attribute my existence to the greatest catastrophes of twentieth-century Europe. The parents of my mother fled the horror of the First World War from Great Britain to the United States. My father’s parents had to leave Germany because of the Nazi regime. Though a large part of my family was wiped out, my parents survived – and I was born. For me, this is to this day something unfathomable.

I have mixed feelings whenever I go to Germany. This is of course mostly due to the past. As a child I had many clichés in my head of the evil Germans, as I knew them from films on television. I was therefore astounded during my first visit to Germany when I met many young people who thought and felt exactly as I did. My greatest successes on tour have been in Germany. Our best and most passionate audiences are there.

Through my father I am in fact a little German and at the same time Jewish, even though I was not religiously raised. I grew up in America, in Levittown, where no strong distinctions were made between Christians and Jews, or Italians, Irish, and Germans. I also don’t transfer the sins of the father onto the sons and daughters. If someone is to impart forgiveness, then it is my father. I am not responsible for the mistakes of the previous generation, but I don’t want those mistakes to be repeated. Therefore I want to know my history.

Everything German fascinates me. I have German blood. And I often ask myself certain questions: Why am I so different from my friends? Why am I so filled with conflicting feelings? Why do music and culture move me so strongly? What is going on with me? I believe it is my German legacy.

I grew up with classical music. Oddly, all my favorite composers are German: Bach, Handel, Mendelssohn, Beethoven, Wagner, Schumann, and Mozart. Something in the German soul is best expressed through music: Sturm und Drang. I don’t know exactly what that is. But I have it, my father has it, and my brother Alex has it, too.

 

New York, January 2009

 

Restarting the Fire

Rock stars don’t retire. At the age of 65, Billy Joel is at it again. He’s at the pinnacle of his fame even though he hasn’t released a new pop album for more than 20 years. His fans have never forgotten him and are still crazy about his songs, the soundtrack to their lives for many of them.

“Welcome to my birthday party!” These are the words Billy Joel used to greet his audience of 20,000 in the sold-out Madison Square Garden in New York. It’s Friday, May 9, 2014 – and his 65th birthday. “I‘m supposed to retire at this age … or at least not have the name ‘Billy!’”

He starts the concert with his defiant self-confessional “My Life”, and then the star treats the crowd to two hours of his greatest hits, interspersed with a few rarely-played tracks. The audience celebrates the Piano Man as if he were a national folk hero and reacts just as enthusiastically as the music critics, who have long since made their peace with Billy Joel. This home fixture has been repeating itself (with a slightly changing set list) every month since January. Billy Joel loves New York and New York loves Billy Joel.

 

Billy Joel at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, 2013 · © Steffen Radlmaier

 

Billy Joel at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, 2013 · © Steffen Radlmaier

 

“Billy Joel at the Garden” is the name of this unusual project, which Dennis Arfa, Joel’s concert agent since 1976, helped arrange. “Madison Square Garden made Billy Joel a franchise in the tradition of the New York Knicks and Rangers,” said Arfa from Artist Group International (AGI) in New York. “Billy is celebrating that by playing at the Garden once a month as long as there’s a demand.” He’s the first artist ever to be offered this deal. And it’s not entirely coincidental, as Billy Joel holds the record for Madison Square Garden: Since 1978, he’s played 47 shows there, including a sold-out run of 12 consecutive nights in 2006, and a moving performance at the 12-12-12 concert benefiting victims of Hurricane Sandy.

Billy Joel was in good company for that show: “It was funny, because backstage at the 12-12-12 concert, nobody is a spring chicken any more. Here comes Keith, and Keith is from the time of King Tut. Then there’s Pete Townshend and Mick and McCartney. Rocking-chair rockers. Bon Jovi is next door to me, and then Bruce is down the hall, and we kind of felt like the youngsters. But everybody is still doing it much older than I thought we would ever be. I thought there was a mandatory retirement age at 40, but then the Stones broke that barrier. Now Bruce and I are in our 60s, and the older guys are in their 70s.”1

And it looks as if Billy Joel can break his own Madison Garden record now: All 12 concerts for 2014 sold out almost instantly. Billy Joel is obviously still somebody to be reckoned with. After a few test concerts (in Australia and at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival), there was a small tour of Great Britain and Ireland in the fall of 2013. In December, President Barack Obama presented him with the Kennedy Center Honor for his life’s work. The award is one of America’s most prestigious for the ‘best of the best’ musicians. In an interview with Billboard, the artist commented on the award ceremony in his usual offhand manner: “That was a really moving experience. You just sat there and one thing after another is happening. The State Department gives you the award, you meet the President and First Lady, they’re saying all these nice, effusive words about you. People come up shaking your hand, I didn’t have to do nothin’. I didn’t have to do a speech, I just sat there. There’s Tony Bennett talking about me. It’s funny, I go to places and people say, ‘You were great at the Kennedy Center Honors’, and I say ‘But I didn‘t do anything. I just sat there.’ So it was an easy job.”2

In the same interview, Billy told of what success meant to him: “It still goes back to the mutual respect other musicians have. The people I work with, the guys in the band thinking you did a good job, being proud of each other, and getting a kick out of each other. The same with my roadies, the people who set up the equipment, set up the lights, do the sound, the staging. They’re real proud to be working with us, they’d probably tell anybody they’d rather work with us than any other band. The ‘esprit de corps’ is there, we’re kinda like a military unit. We go in and we do the job, and afterwards you’re proud of the job you did. That’s real success to me, when you’ve enjoyed what you did. Look, the money’s great, I’ve had other jobs and this pays better than any other job I’ve ever had. But I think it’s more about the respect and the pride that comes with having done a good job, and the audience walking out of there really happy with what they heard, making a lot of noise. I’ve always said about 50% of what happens at a concert has to do with the audience. If you play for a dead audience you’re gonna stink. If we play for a great crowd we’re much better. You want ’em to make noise. It’s kinda like sex, if they don’t make noise, you ain’t doin’ it right.”3

What’s always been more important to Billy Joel than success, is the music; he’s never really been interested in the role of the rock star, as he explained to actor and radio reporter Alec Baldwin: “I know I have a talent for music. I don’t think I’m all that good. I think I have a good perspective on it. I can separate the star stuff from the musician stuff. The music is really important to me. Well, one is a job and one is a life. The job thing, I can take off at 5 o’clock in the afternoon, the rock star thing. I go shopping, I cook my own food, I wash the dishes, I take out the garbage. I know who that guy is. And the music has nothing to do with money or career. It’s just part of me. It’s like love. Music, love, food, friendship, my daughter – all these great things.”4

However, the last few years haven’t only been rosy for Billy Joel, who has once again had to deal with a series of health setbacks and problems in his private life. In June 2009 he and his wife Katie Lee, 33 years his junior, made their separation public – his third marriage had failed after just five years.

And his hip problem was causing him more and more trouble. The pain was already almost unbearable during the “Face to Face” tour with Elton John in 2010, he could hardly walk. A double hip operation was necessary, incapacitating him for months to come. It took almost half a year for him to recover from the operation, during which he had to go through hours of laborious physiotherapy to learn to walk again. He told The New York Times: “I was probably born with dysplasia. In the old days, when they took a baby out, sometimes they used forceps. I was a breech baby, so the theory was that they displaced my hips. Over the years, jumping off the piano, landing on a hard stage certainly didn’t help. Way back in the early 70s, I used to do somersaults, flips off the piano. I would climb up the cables and hang upside down, anything to get attention. When you’re an opening act, you gotta do whatever you can. But over the years it got excruciating. I couldn’t walk at one point; I had one of those little scooter chairs, banging into furniture. By the time I finished the tour with Elton in March 2010, I was in a lot of pain, and over that year it got worse and worse and worse. I’m glad I did the surgery, because my life changed. I’m able to be ambulatory again.”5

Billy was still recovering from the operation when he got the sad news of his father’s death. Helmut Joel died in Vienna, Austria, on March 7, 2011 after a long illness. He was buried in the Jewish graveyard in the city of his birth, Nuremberg, Germany, as was his wish – next to his parents Karl and Meta Joel, Billy’s grandparents. Alongside his second wife and his son Alexander, his old friend Rudi Weber attended the burial. The funeral eulogy was held by another old school-pal: Arno Hamburger, chairman of the Jewish religious community in Nuremberg.

Billy Joel was unable to attend the funeral as the long flight from the USA to Germany would have been too strenuous for him after the double hip operation.

Three years later, just as things were really going well again for Billy Joel, his aged mother – to whom he’d always been particularly close – died on Long Island. The following was posted on his official website: “Rosalind Nyman Joel passed away July 13, 2014 at the age of 92. She is survived by son Billy Joel, and her daughter Judy Molinari; her sister, Bertha Miller; and her two granddaughters, Alexa Ray Joel, and Rebecca Molinari Gehrkin. In lieu of flowers the family requests a donation to The Little Shelter in her name.”

The Early Years in Nuremberg

Flashback: In the Golden Twenties, which in reality were not so golden, the Nuremberg salesman Karl Amson Joel had a vision. He wanted to set up a mail-order business based on the American model, America being the ideal of progress and success. The young man had experience in the textile trade through his work for the Witt mail-order house in Weiden. Joel gathered all his savings together, totaling 10,000 Reichsmarks, and in 1927 founded the Karl Joel Linen Goods Company. This sounds impressive, but in the beginning it was a modest, one-man operation. The plain four-room apartment at Uhlandstrasse 9 served as office and storeroom. This art nouveau building still exists in the Nordstadt quarter of Nuremberg. The ground floor is now occupied by a trendy bar.

Karl Amson Joel and his wife Meta · © Stadtarchiv Nürnberg

Registration cards of Karl and Meta Joel · © Stadtarchiv Nürnberg

Karl Joel started his mail-order business in this house in Nuremberg · © Steffen Radlmaier

The range of articles offered mail order by this aspiring company, which was slowly but surely building up a clientele, was limited: mostly bed articles and material sold by the meter. Soon Meta Joel was needed to help her enterprising husband. During the day they put together the orders, and evenings they took the bound packages with the handcart to the post office. Their young son, Helmut, often sat on the cart, enjoying the vibrations on the cobblestone streets.

Helmut, who was given the middle name Julius after his grandfather, was born on June 12, 1923, in Nuremberg – the year during which the devastating inflation reached its peak in Germany, destroying an unimaginable amount of monetary value. It was also the year of the failed Hitler putsch in Munich, the first attempt of the National Socialists to seize power in the crisis-riddled German Reich.

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