A riot almost broke out yesterday at the Arizona correctional facility where I’m currently doing research for a novel about a handsome mayor who’s been wrongfully sentenced to 12 months in an Arizona correctional facility. Why, you ask? Because I prefer to use my time wisely.

Oh, you mean why did a riot almost break out?

Well, it all started when the Associated Press reported that HarperCollins had canceled the publication of Billy Joel‘s memoir, The Book of Joel (cowritten with veteran entertainment journalist Fred Schruers), less than three months before it was due to arrive in bookstores. The singer-songwriter had decided, appropriately enough, that he’d rather keep it to himself, it’s his life.

“It took working on writing a book to make me realize that I’m not all that interested in talking about the past,” Joel told the AP, “and that the best expression of my life and its ups and downs has been and remains my music.”

Uh … April Fool’s? In the past 18 years the Piano Man has written and recorded a grand total of two new songs, neither of which help answer the question “Soooo, whatcha been up to since River of Dreams?” nor do they recall his memorable, melodic hits of the ’70s and ’80s, for what it’s worth. “All My Life,” from 2007, may have been written about Joel’s third wife, Katie Lee (they split up two years later), but it’s more or less a Sinatra pastiche, while “Christmas in Fallujah,” released at the tail end of ’07, features lead vocals by 21-year-old singer Cass Dillon, not Joel. Was that his way of reminding listeners that working too hard can give you a heart attack-ack-ack-ack-ack-ack?

Right now you’re probably asking yourself one of three questions: (1) “Why am I still reading this?”; (2) “Why does this convict assume I’m asking him anything?”; and (3) “Why would a bunch of prisoners try to set their mattresses on fire simply because the guy who sang ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’ wants to keep his private life private?”

Answers: (1) You’re lonely; (2) I’m lonely; and (3) Because the book club I started here in prison a few months ago refuses to read anything but rock-star biographies, so they were really looking forward to The Book of Joel. (What’s with the pseudo-religious title, Billy? You used to have sex with Christie Brinkley. That’s not exactly the ultimate sacrifice.)

It’s my own fault. For our first book I assigned the group Moby-Dick, explaining that Herman Melville’s 1851 novel revolves around a motley crew of seamen as they hunt the title character, a deadly sperm whale.

After their laughter finally died down, one of the older members of the book club, who goes by the name “45,” spoke up (sadly, he didn’t earn that nickname because of his singles collection). “Doesn’t Motley Crue have a book?” he asked.

That’s when everyone decided they’d rather read The Dirt: Confessions of a Notorious Rock Band (2001), written by the Crue and reporter Neil Strauss, instead. Frankly, I was relieved  I’d picked Moby-Dick just so it’d look like I had good taste, but my only real knowledge of the book comes from a porn flick of the same name that I watched in high school, which I’m pretty sure took major liberties with Melville’s themes and symbolism (though, technically, the “whale” in the movie isn’t a whale).

Our book club devoured The Dirt in record time, then dove right into Tony Fletcher’s Dear Boy: The Life of Keith Moon, Keith Richards’s Life (cowritten with James Fox), The Confessions of Rick James: Memoirs of a Super Freak, and — not my choice, but our group is a democracy in which everyone has a say — Sarah Gallick’s Divinely Decadent: Liza Minnelli — The Drugs, the Sex & the Truth Behind Her Bizarre Marriage, which I personally found to be tawdry and invasive.

These books generated many thought-provoking questions among our group, such as “What does ‘success’ really mean?” and “Is a popular entertainer automatically responsible for being a role model to young people?” and “How is it possible that Keith Richards is still alive?”

I think you can see now why my book club was up in arms about The Book of Joel‘s sudden death and the tales of booze-fueled debauchery that will now go untold. (Coincidentally, “An Innocent Man” is how every prisoner I’ve met in the past eight months describes himself.)

The Long Island native and his music inspire powerful emotions even outside of heavily guarded walls. Slate‘s Ron Rosenbaum deemed Joel “The Worst Pop Singer Ever” in 2009, calling him out for his “self-righteous contempt for others and the self-approbation and self-congratulation that is contempt’s backside, so to speak. Most frequently a contempt for the supposed phoniness or inauthenticity of other people as opposed to the rock-solid authenticity of our B.J.” On the flip side, Chuck Klosterman defended Joel in his 2003 book Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, admitting that the singer’s never been “cool,” per se, “yet Billy Joel is great. And he’s not great because he’s uncool, nor is he great because he ‘doesn’t worry about being cool’ (because I think he kind of does) … What he does as an artist wouldn’t be better if he was significantly cooler, and it’s not worse because he isn’t. And that’s sort of amazing when one considers that he’s supposedly a rock star.”

Mr. Joel, you get people talking, for better or worse. And you can get people reading in prison book clubs all over this great nation if you’ll only let HarperCollins publish your memoir. If you do reconsider, though, I have one favor to ask: no e-books, please. My book club will definitely read The Book of Joel, but once we’re done with it some of the club’s members would like to have a place to store their contraband, if you know what I mean. Unfortunately, it’s impossible at present to cut a dime-bag-size hole in the middle of an e-book, but I’ve been assured that technology will catch up sooner or later.

Below is a performance by Joel that was recorded at the Bottom Line in New York City on June 10, 1976, shortly after the release of his fourth album, Turnstiles. Joel “welcomes” special guests Joe Cocker and Bruce Springsteen (whom Rosenbaum loves and Klosterman teases by saying that some of the lyrics of “Born to Run” are “as funny as anything Tenacious D ever recorded, except Bruce is trying to be deep”), and as he introduces the members of his band he lifts a line from the greatest comedy album of all time, Albert Brooks’s Comedy Minus One (1973), making Billy Joel eternally cool, if you ask me.*

Prelude/Angry Young Man
Somewhere Along the Line
Summer, Highland Falls
Piano Man
Root Beer Rag
Travelin’ Prayer
New York State of Mind
The Entertainer
The Ballad of Billy the Kid
[band introduction]
I’ve Loved These Days
Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)
Captain Jack
All You Wanna Do Is Dance
Ain’t No Crime
Weekend Song

* Please ask me. Anything. I’ve got a lot of time to kill.

About the Author

Robert Cass

Robert Cass lives in Chicago. For Popdose he's written under the Sugar Water, Bootleg City, and Box Office Flashback banners and collaborated on the series 'Face Time with Jeff Giles and Mike Heyliger.

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