Saturday (August 28th) marks the 28th anniversary of Billy Joel‘s last studio album — River Of Dreams — topping the Billboard 200 album charts. River Of Dreams, the “Piano Man’s” 12th album, was released on August 10th, 1993 and spent three weeks at Number One — between August 28th and September 17th — when it was knocked out of the top spot by Garth Brooks‘ In Pieces. River Of Dreams‘ cover was painted by Billy’s then wife, Christie Brinkley and snagged Rolling Stone’s “Top Picks” award for “Best Album Cover Of The Year.” To date, the album has sold over five million copies in the U.S. alone.
For River Of Dreams — despite the success of his teamup with Foreigner‘s Mick Jones, who was behind the boards for 1989′s Storm Front — Billy tapped veteran guitarist/producer Danny “Kootch” Kortchmar, best known for his guitar work for the likes of James Taylor, Carole King, Crosby & Nash, Jackson Browne, and Linda Ronstadt, among many others. At that point, Kortchmar was particularly hot following his co-production and songwriting duties on Don Henley‘s 1984 set Building The Perfect Beast and its 1989 followup, The End Of The Innocence.
River Of Dreams, which was Billy’s last work completed during his marriage to Brinkley, touched upon their relationship on “Blonde Over Blue,” their pending split on his song for their daughter Alexa, “Lullabye (Goodnight, My Angel),” and his contempt for his former brother-in-law and crooked ex-manager Frank Weber on “The Great Wall Of China.”
The album spawned four singles, the Top Three “The River Of Dreams”; “All About Soul,” which hit Number 29; “No Man’s Land,” which peaked at Number 18 on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock Tracks chart; and “Lullabye (Goodnight, My Angel), which reached Number 18 on Billboard‘s Hot Adult Contemporary Tracks list.
River Of Dreams was nominated for four Grammys the following year, including the coveted Album Of The Year, with the title track garnering noms for Song Of The Year, Record Of The Year, and Best Pop Vocal Performance. Ultimately, Billy went home empty handed that year.
With decades now between Billy Joel and his last rock songs, we asked him why he’s traded rock music for mostly unheard classical compositions: “The reason I stopped writing pop songs, and songs in general, is because I felt constrained by song form. There’s an orthodoxy to pop; you’re writing inside of a box. Y’know, it can’t be too long, you have to repeat the verse over and over, you gotta have a hook, you gotta have lyrics in it, you gotta have rock n’ roll instrumentation, you gotta have bass, drums, guitar, there has to be a voice taking the lead. Then I thought to myself, ‘Well, why? Why? Who says I have to do this?'”
It’s been over 25 years since the release of the River Of Dreams album. Billy explained that he left the songwriting trade with a telling and poignant kiss-off: “I wrote a song called ‘Famous Last Words.’ I felt like I had reached a point where I wasn’t gonna write songs anymore. It was sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy. It says, ‘These are the last words I have to say/for that’s the story of my life.’ It just seemed like that was the time to write that song, and I kinda closed the book.”
Elton John, who spent many years on the road with Billy Joel, believes that he still has more rock songs in his system, despite having not released a rock album in a quarter-century: “He seems to say, ‘Well, I can’t do this anymore, I can’t do this anymore.’ But, y’know, he’s not a rock n’ roll artist — he’s a great songwriter, and great songwriters always write songs, and there’ll be songs coming from Billy Joel’s piano again. I’m always saying, ‘Come on, come on, come on, come on,’ but in good time, he’ll do it again. In the meantime, he’s gone off and done something else, and he goes and does lectures and stuff like that. He’s enjoying himself. Y’know, he’ll, he’ll admit, ‘I’m just coasting at the moment,’ but I don’t think that he’s gonna be happy coasting.”
During Billy’s exile from releasing rock music, he composed the 2001 classical album Billy Joel: Fantasies & Delusions (Music For Solo Piano) and recorded one “pop” song, the big band-inspired one-off single, “All My Life,” which was released in 2007 and produced by the late-Phil Ramone.