TUCSON — Billy Joel winced in pain as he fiddled with a formidable-looking brace on his recently sprained right ankle.
"I may never waltz again," he joked. "Of course I didn't waltz befo r e I hurt this thing either." He chuckled briefly, then sneered at his ankle.
In jeans and a T-shirt, Joel looked as if he was dressed for gardening rather than a sold-out concert at the Tucson Community Center. About two hours before showtime he was sitting backstage, chain-smoking and drinking Scotch out of a paper cup. Though he must have been nervous, he certainly didn't show it.
At 37, the native of the colorfully named Long Island suburb of Hicksville still comes across like a shrewd, smart-alecky, New York street tough. Being a super-rich superstar with a stack of million-selling albums and a glamorous wife--model Christie Brinkley--doesn't seem to have gone to his head.
"Me, acting like a stuck-up star, puttin' on airs? Gimme a break," he wailed. "I'm still cool. But if I wasn't, do you think I'd be dumb enough to act like an arrogant jerk in front of the media?"
Joel, a rock critic for a short time in his youth, has a love-hate affair with the media. He reads all his press clippings even though the negative ones upset him. He even quotes reviews at will. The power of the press, he admitted, impresses him. But, he noted, that power can be abused.
"When the press gets behind you, they can make you a star, a hero. They can go a little too far sometimes too. Look at Bruce Springsteen. They've made him like Abraham Lincoln. This is a rock 'n' roll star we're talking about here. I like Bruce as much as the next guy but he's a singer, not Jesus Christ.
"The media have helped me too. They've made me a hero at times. But they've also made me seem like a bum. Realistically, I'm somewhere in between."
On stage for about 2 1/2 hours, Joel--appearing tonight at the San Diego Sports Arena and Saturday at the Inglewood Forum--turns in the kind of intense, high-energy performance audiences love. People look at him at the end of the show--drained, soaked in sweat--and know he's given them their money's worth.
He gets a feeling for what the audience likes by a rather bizarre process: "I step out of myself and go out into the audience. Part of me is sitting in the audience checking myself out. I'm thinking, 'What's this guy doing on stage? Is he any good? Is he being real?' Sometimes I don't like what I see. I think to myself I'd better do better."
What's interesting about his shows is the songs he doesn't sing. The material he avoids includes some of his best-known songs. He doesn't do "She's Always a Woman," "Movin' Out" or "Say Goodbye to Hollywood." The most surprising omission, though, is the romantic ballad "Just the Way You Are," which has become a standard.
"People are telling me I gotta sing it," he said. "People have gotten married to this song. They say it's an institution. Who cares? I'm not into it. It's like a cocktail-lounge tune. We play it half-heartedly. My drummer is making jokes while I'm singing it."
He doesn't sing another oldie, "My Life," either. "I don't like it any more. It didn't age well. I don't think it's a strong song."
Surprisingly, he also excludes "Modern Woman," the first hit single from the current album. Written for the movie "Ruthless People," it's apparently not one of his favorites. He calls it a bit "too poppy."
"People aren't screaming for it at the shows," he said. "But we may reconsider and do it in L.A."
Joel considers himself first and foremost a songwriter.
"It may sound crazy, but songs come to me in dreams," he explained. "I hear the melody, the chords, the rhythm. Sometimes I hear sounds, vowel sounds. But I don't hear words.
"What happens is that when I'm trying to write I get into this creative frame of mind that's still there when I'm asleep. Stuff comes to me when I'm sleeping. I'll wake up at 4 or 5 o'clock and mumble something into a tape recorder or go to a piano."
"New York State of Mind," one of his favorite songs, was dreamed up. "It's effortless and seamless and it doesn't sound forced," he said. "My best songs have come to me in dreams. You can always tell the ones I didn't dream--they sound labored. I've done a lot of labored songs, more than I care to admit. I don't really want to point out a whole lot of them either."
As a youngster in Long Island, Joel studied classical piano but on reaching his teens switched to pop and jazz. His problem as a pianist was establishing high standards he was never able to meet.
"I wanted to be Bill Evans or Art Tatum or Oscar Peterson," he recalled. "Oscar is so good he makes me crazy. He does throw-away stuff that I'd give my left arm to be able to do. I finally realized that I was never going to play as well as those guys. So I eventually focused on songwriting."