New Yawk, New Yawk: Billy Joel and the author take a break from riding Moto Guzzi’s new V7
The Long Island Sound is an estuary of the Atlantic Ocean that separates the New York suburbs from Connecticut. But in another sense, the Long Island Sound might be the music of Billy Joel. While many famous musicians have come from Long Island (Harry Chapin, Mariah Carey, Blue Oyster Cult and The Ramones, to cover the full range of genres), none so strongly personifies the stereotypical Long Islander. Billy Joel has a Brooklyn accent, expertly employs the New York Alphabet and sings songs about blue-collar, working-class folk. When Shea Stadium (1969 Mets forever!) was slated for demolition in 2008, it was Billy who hosted the farewell concert. He is to Long Island what Bruce Springsteen is to New Jersey.
I grew up on Long Island myself, thus have been aware of Billy’s music since “Piano Man” hit the charts in ’73. So when Piaggio USA invited me to attend the Moto Guzzi Cafe Racer Rumble at Billy’s motorcycle shop in Oyster Bay, I jumped at the chance.
Not your ordinary dealership, 20th Century Cycles is more like a museum where Billy houses his impressive collection of vintage and “vintage-ized” motorcycles. He’s got some nice ones, too, including a whole row of Moto Guzzis (see The Bike that Changed My Life, page 15) and my personal favorite, an ’05 Harley-Davidson Sportster done up as an original ’57 model. “Old guys are always telling me, ‘I had one of those,’ Billy says, “And I tell them, ‘No, you didn’t.’”
While Billy comes across as a “regular guy,” spend some time with him and it becomes apparent that he breathes rarefied air. When I ask him if he still lives in the same house on the beach in Lloyd Neck, he says no; he sold it and moved to East Hampton because the paparazzi kept floating up in boats trying to take photos of his former supermodel wife Christie Brinkley. When the couple split up, Billy sold the house in the Hamptons to Jerry Seinfeld and moved to an apartment in New York City. This, in turn, he sold to Sting of The Police, who recently re-sold it—for $25 million. “That must have been a damn nice apartment,” I remark, to which Billy replies, “Yeah, it was nice, but a few million dollars nice, not f*ckin’ $25 million nice!” He allows that his current home on Oyster Bay’s Centre Island “looks like a f*ckin’ university,” a byproduct of him being “a filthy-rich f*ck.” With 150 million records sold, he can afford to be self-deprecating.
Billy tells a funny story about Bono from U2. During a recent U.S. concert tour, the Irishman took up residence on Long Island’s North Shore. The two spent a day together, and when it came time for Bono to go home, Billy offered him a ride in his Vespa sidecar rig—except Bono didn’t know his address! So the pair rode around asking locals if they knew where Bono lived until they found someone who did.
The highlight of my visit is when Billy leads me on a tour of his stomping grounds (see First Ride, page 54), the most memorable part of which is the revelation that The Piano Man doesn’t wear gloves! “My hands have been broken so many times, it doesn’t matter,” he says. “I can play rock-and-roll with my elbows!” In fact his career almost ended in ’82 when he crashed his Harley-Davidson XLCR café racer, breaking both hands and crushing one thumb. The remnants of that bike now reside in the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.
For three years early in his career, Billy lived in the Hollywood Hills, but didn’t like the smarmy music-business executives. “What’s that saying: ‘In New York they stab you in the gut; in Los Angeles they stab you in the back’?” Although he didn’t have a bike at the time, he’s since returned to Southern California and ridden all the roads. Naturally, he tours with a half-dozen bikes in a tractor-trailer.
Yup, Billy Joel is a regular guy. He's just got a lot more motorcycles.