A Conversation With Jon Brett

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Jon Brett, right, with Billy Joel.

They say not to meet your heroes.

Jon Brett ignored that piece of advice, going so far as to write a book about his — “Billy Joel: Tales of An Innocent Fan” — which the British author will promote on Sunday, June 16, at Blooming Shells in Sag Harbor and on air with Bill Evans between 2 and 6 p.m. on WLNG.

“Billy Joel’s songwriting genius has affected millions and millions of people around the world. There are so few people who can say they’ve done that,” Brett said during a recent telephone interview from across the Atlantic.

“I can’t even get my head around it, I can’t comprehend it, how one person can affect so many other people. That to me is the fascination of Billy Joel — how he can reach out to people and how he can connect through his songs and through his music.”

After interviewing a range of talent and personalities in The Piano Man’s orbit — from Joel’s original drummer and bass players, Rhys Clark and Larry Russell, to a friendly, eccentric cab driver named John Marchut in Hicksville — Brett opened up to the Sag Harbor Expressabout the origins of his own fandom, the writing process, and what it was finally like to meet his hero.

The Sag Harbor Express: Take me back to the first time you heard “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” at age 12.

Jon Brett: I can remember it clearly. We were living in London at the time — I was living with my parents and my two sisters — and my eldest sister had a copy of “The Stranger.” She would listen to this LP in her bedroom, but it was this one track, “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,” and it was seven and a half minutes long. I was a young boy with a great imagination, and I could just picture in my mind Brenda and Eddie meeting up together after all these years in that Italian restaurant, having a bottle of red and a bottle of white, and reminiscing about their relationship.

And then, of course, the song takes you back in time and I could picture a young Brenda and Eddie hanging out in the village green, driving in their convertible and it just conjured up an image of ’50s Americana in my young mind, and I was just gripped by the image and the excitement of that era, and the images that song evokes.

How did this fandom continue to grow?

Brett: As I got older, I discovered more of Billy’s music and the music changed in different ways, but it really was “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” that turned me onto Billy Joel — and having spoken to lots of Billy Joel fans, lots of people say the same thing about that song. It’s quite incredible.

What was the research process like for this book?

Brett: Billy’s music has always been a passion of mine and I enjoy writing. I trained as a journalist, so writing does come quite easily to me. I find it relaxing to sit down and write my thoughts and stories. I had several visits to New York over the years — I’ve been to Hicksville, I’ve been to Sag Harbor — and it was my wife, really. She said, “Wow you’ve got all these great stories that all relate in one way or another to Billy Joel. Why don’t you put all of these stories together?” And that is how the idea first started.

I gathered all those trips and memories, but I needed to speak to people who shared my love of Billy’s music and understood where I was coming from and where Billy’s music was coming from. Strangely enough, that started with a guy who does a Billy Joel show, who’s based in the UK, Elio Pace.

I went to see his show and I was blown away, and I made contact with him. He was my first interview. We spent hours playing together, playing and talking about the music, and Elio was able to open doors to people for me in the U.S.

I knew I had to strike fast, while all these doors were open, because I was very aware that the doors could all close very quickly. And I was very lucky I managed to do so many interviews and meet so many interesting and lovely people in a very short space of time. The whole project – from the idea to the finished book – was probably two years.

It’s interesting how the book is, obviously, about Billy, but also became about all these other people, too.

Brett: There was a reason behind that, as well. You can buy biographies about Billy Joel already, most famously the Fred Schruers book. His biography, in my opinion, is a bit dry and it perhaps goes into a little too much detail for my taste. I wanted to create something that was funny, that was fast-paced, that was lively, and was somewhat controversial — because Larry Russell’s memories of Billy Joel aren’t that great, and his story is told for the first time in this book.

I also reached out to Billy Joel fans around the world. I said to them, “Tell me your Billy Joel moment.” And I was swamped with hundreds of messages from people around the world. And I had to narrow that down to 80-odd quotes for the book.

What was the most surprising thing you learned about Billy?

Brett: Firstly was Larry Russell’s description of Billy Joel in his early days, about the pure driven ambition that Billy had to succeed, and how it appeared that Billy was prepared to let people fall by the wayside so he could achieve his goal of international superstardom. That was a surprise to me, in some respects.

And I think also, it became very clear to me, very quickly, that Billy surrounds himself with a very tight circle of friends who protect him. It’s very difficult to get into Billy himself because he had this great network of people who are looking out for his best interests. Over the years, Billy’s been ripped off like any rockstar. Nowadays, I think Billy carries that element of not trusting people with him. It’s probably not a deliberate trait of his, but he’s learned the hard way, really, that he has to protect himself and his family, and by doing that, he has to keep a lot of people out and look after number-one really.

What were your visits like to Sag Harbor?

Brett: We had a great time in Sag Harbor. We didn’t go there to sit outside Billy’s house for days on end; we came to Sag Harbor to see what it was like. For British tourists, it conjures up a village for the rich and famous. You have to be fairly wealthy to enjoy a nice lifestyle in Sag Harbor, and we wanted to come along and have a taste of what that lifestyle was like.

We stayed in a motel in the village and we went for diner in the American Legion, which was sensational and is also one of Billy’s favorite places to eat, I understand, in town. We would visit local businesses and people were interested in a British accent whenever we went into the shops. I would talk to them about Billy and everyone in Sag Harbor, they’re so proud. If you mention the name Billy Joel, everyone puffs their chests out, “Yes, he’s our Long Island boy. He walks his pugs up and down our High Street.” And it was so nice to see. 

How did you feel when you finally met Billy Joel, the first time?

Brett: He had just played a huge stadium gig in Manchester, in the United Kingdom, even bigger than Madison Square Garden. The riggers had built the stage in the wrong position — that meant that thousands of side-view seats had no view of the stage at all, and we were sat in two of those seats, unfortunately. So it sounded like a great gig, but we never actually saw it. It was very disappointing.

But I knew Billy was staying at the hotel in Manchester, called the Lowry Hotel. So we managed to leave the concert just before the end, we got a cab straight from the venue to the hotel and Billy had just finished the concert and had, clearly, just gotten to the hotel a moment before we arrived. I walked into the hotel with my wife, I went to the bar and Billy was sat at he bar with two of his friends. Billy was drinking rosé wine and it looked like he was eating chicken nuggets from the basket; it was just totally bizarre.

I’d never seen Billy Joel so close before, and I ran over to my wife and said, “Sharon! Sharon! Billy’s here! He’s at the bar!” So we both rushed back to the bar and I leaned in and said, “Billy, I’ve just seen your show. It was a great show.” And he shook my hand, but he had the look of thunder on his face. He didn’t look happy at all. He had a very steely look in his eyes and I thought, “Uh oh, this isn’t good.” I instinctively knew that this was not the time to ask for an autograph or a photograph. I’d just have to be content with a handshake.

Billy was my hero, I had just met him for the first time and I didn’t know how I felt. I felt happy, I felt sad, I felt confused, because the meeting wasn’t how I’d imagined the meeting would be.

But six months later, you met him again?

Brett: We were in Oyster Bay and we’d just had lunch at Taby’s, and we were walking back to our hired car, which we had parked near his motorbike shop. We were just walking past his motorbike shop when Billy Joel walked out, literally, we nearly ran into one another on the sidewalk. Billy was in a great mood and he stood there talking to us, and we were with him for a good 15 minutes. And I was able to talk to him about his shows, about some of his music, but what I didn’t do was tell him I was writing a book about him. I thought he might think it was a bit strange.

He told me about his love of history and he posed for photographs with us, and he signed an autograph, which is priceless to us and is reproduced in the back of the book. That’s how I imagined it should be when you meet your hero. He was great, he was funny, he was willing to spend time and chat to us, so that really was the icing on the cake, for me, and this Billy Joel project.

For more information, visit billyjoelbook.com.

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