The Piano Man has found a way to turn his heartbreak into chart-topping hits like “Uptown Girl” and “Just the Way You Are.”
“You can have all the money in the world, you can have mansions, you can have properties, you can have yachts, you can have limousines, you can have motorcycles,” Billy Joel told his official biographer Fred Schruers. But without love “it doesn’t mean a goddamn thing.”
Even though Joel has reached the upper echelons of status, wealth and celebrity, the singer admits that the one thing he struggles with is love. However, he was very good at spinning his heartache into chart-topping hits, and despite his romantic failures, Joel remains hopeful.
“You just need one – one person out of millions – to know and accept and love you for being, well, just the way you are,” he told Schruers. “I see old folks walking down the street who look like they’ve been together 50 years, and there’s something very touching about it – that they’ve lasted so long. I used to wonder: How come I don’t have that? I can dream about it, think about it, write music and lyrics and sing about it. I can even try to achieve it again, and often have.”
Yet despite having his heart broken, Joel has managed to be on good terms with each of his ex-wives: Elizabeth Weber (married from 1973-1982), Christie Brinkley ().
“Just the Way You Are,” “She’s Got a Way” and “She’s Always a Woman” were inspired by Elizabeth Weber
Falling in love with and marrying his first wife, Weber, was arguably the costliest relationship Joel ever had. Joel met Weber when she was married to his bandmate Jon Small in 1970. Her independence and straight-talking style made Joel smitten from the start. The two began having an affair, but Weber ended up leaving both men, causing Joel, then aged 21, to become suicidal; he even wound up in a mental institution for a few weeks, according to the New York Times.
Eventually, Joel got back with Weber. She convinced him to let her manage him, and the couple married in 1973. While Joel was madly in love with Weber and wrote the songs “She’s Got a Way” and “She’s Always a Woman” for her, Weber had no shame in directly asking him if she’d receive earnings on the backend for being his muse. One year, for Weber’s birthday, Joel wrote her the song “Just the Way You Are,” and after he played it for her she said, “Do I get the publishing, too?”
Before the couple divorced in 1982, Joel made the grave mistake of allowing Weber’s brother, Frank, also work for him. Later, the singer discovered Frank that had secretly stolen tens of millions from him, causing Joel to sue Weber for $30 million in compensatory damages and $60 million in punitive damages, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Supermodel Christie Brinkley inspired “This Is the Time” and the album ‘An Innocent Man’
After his divorce from Weber, Joel went to St. Bart’s for a holiday getaway. He began playing at a piano bar, and it was there he met supermodels Elle MacPherson, Christie Brinkley and an up-and-coming singer, Whitney Houston.
When 33-year-old Joel returned to his Central Park penthouse in New York, he was shocked to see that MacPherson, who was just 19, and Brinkley, 28, were competing for his affections. Joel couldn’t believe his luck, and although he briefly dated MacPherson, it was Brinkley who ultimately won his heart.
The couple married in 1985 and Joel’s album An Innocent Man was inspired by his relationship with Brinkley. He also wrote “This Is the Time” for her – a song that imagines a couple reminiscing about their best days together.
However, Joel and Brinkley’s marriage had major challenges. Because the Piano Man had suffered a huge financial setback from his legal battle with Frank, he was forced to go on tour nonstop, which created distance between him and his supermodel wife. After rumors spread that Joel was cheating, which Joel denied, the marriage fell apart, and the couple called it quits in 1994.
“Uptown Girl” and “And So It Goes” were inspired by Elle MacPherson
Brinkley famously appeared as the love interest in Joel’s “Uptown Girl” music video, so everyone naturally assumed the song was inspired by her. But in fact, the song was about Joel’s love affair with MacPherson – and then some.
Originally, the song was called “Uptown Girls,” which encompassed his experience dating not only MacPherson and Brinkley but also another woman who preceded them. In the end, he made the song singular, and by the time the music video rolled around, he was dating Brinkley. The rest is history.
Expressing his insecurities about dating a much younger (and taller) woman who was on the brink of superstardom and whom he believed would ultimately leave him, Joel wrote “And So It Goes” for MacPherson.
“I remember somebody got a shot of us walking down a beach at Coney Island,” Joel said. “… Elle was so tall that I looked like Bubbles the Chimp next to her, and I realized this was just not going to work.”