Billy Joel sounds shocked—shocked!—when he is told that Tuesday was the 25th anniversary of the release of “Allentown” as a single.
“There’s an actual anniversary for that?” he says incredulously in a phone interview, his first ever with The Morning Call about the song that shaped the country’s perception of this region.
Then he lets out a laugh, letting it be known that he is indeed aware of the anniversary and that he realizes the significance of “Allentown,” both for Lehigh Valley fans who were his “bread and butter” in his early years and for the city itself.
In a 35-minute interview with The Morning Call, he speaks freely about the inspiration for perhaps his most controversial song, as well as his feelings about this area a quarter-century later.
Q: Since it’s the anniversary, could you talk about how the song started, how it evolved over time?
A: Well, it started out, actually, called “Levittown,” (Long Island, N.Y.) because that’s where I grew up. Problem is, there was nothing to talk about. And the lyric went, “Well we’re living here in Levittown, and there’s really nothing much around,” and it went on like that. I had a melody and a rhythm and chords, but nothing to talk about. I remember reading about how the decline of the steel industry had been affecting the Lehigh Valley, and I decided that’s what I was going to write the song about.
Q: Could you pinpoint the year you decided to write about Levittown?
A: I know that I had the idea for the original melody and the chords probably in the `70s, but didn’t write the song until `82.
Q: Is that common in your songs, where an idea will germinate over a long period?
A: Not normally. Usually when I’m writing, I try to write fairly quickly. If a song sits around too long, it starts to take on a stink. Most of my songs are written in one sitting, two sittings maybe. Those are the ones I like the best, anyway. But I guess the idea had germinated after I had read the story about how the steel industry had been affecting that area.
Q: Do you happen to remember what publication it was?
A: No, I don’t. I was in New York at the time, so it was probably a local New York paper, either the Times or Newsday or the Daily News. We had played a lot in the Lehigh Valley, and we had played in Allentown and at Lehigh University, a couple of places in that area.
Q: The Roxy Theatre?
A: The Roxy Theatre in Northampton, right.
Q: Northampton Community College. I talked to the promoters who brought you there, Denny Somach and Dave Sestak, in the past week.
A: We played a lot of colleges and small theaters back in the `70s, before we had a big album come out, which was “The Stranger.” That was like our bread-and-butter region, a lot of Pennsylvania.
One of the last times that we played in the area before I wrote “Allentown,” I remember a guy coming up to us and saying, “You’re never coming back here.” I said, “Why do you say that?” He said, “Well, you’re probably gonna become a big star. Nobody who ever becomes big comes back here.” And I felt so sad for this kid, he seemed so bitter about it. I said, “Well, I’m coming back, no matter what.”
Q: So why did the steel industry troubles make such an impact on you?
A: Well, it’s a song about being out of work, and people may not put that together with rock stars. But rock stars aren’t born, they’re made, and they start out being musicians. Musicians know all about unemployment. You’re unemployed a lot, and I think there’s a great deal of empathy between musicians and people who are out of work.
Q: Did you have family or friends thrown out of work?
A: OK, yeah. My own family. My father left when I was pretty young and my mother had to take what work she could get. Being a single woman living in the suburbs, it was not easy for her to get a good job. She had to take whatever job she could get, usually secretarial, bookkeeping, anything to keep the family together.
I came from a blue-collar area. You know, some people think that because I came from the suburbs I lived in a privileged area, very hoity-toity. Well, it wasn’t. It was a working-class town.
I had been touring since the beginning of the `70s, so there was maybe close to 10 years seeing America and wanting to write about what I’d seen.
What I was really writing about, to be honest and fair, was about Bethlehem, not so much about Allentown. There was no intention to stigmatize the place, and I know there’s been some, um, ah, discontent about Allentown being known by the song.
But for some reason, people all over the country know that song now. It’s not like they ran out and bought it like it was sliced bread.
Q: But I think that like any work of art, if it has content that is notable it will eventually find its audience.
A: I’m amazed at the resonance it has had. Even though I was writing about the region, Allentown just had a name that was very American. I’ve mentioned this before, it’s almost like Jimmytown, Bobbytown, Allentown.
If I look at a map and I wanna find where the heartland begins, I’d probably start right there in the Lehigh Valley because I grew up in New York. It’s a very cosmopolitan, almost European city which is somewhat separate from the heartland of America. Until you get that far west and into the state, you’re not really in the heartland yet. That’s where it felt like it started. So the name Allentown worked for me as a heartland name.
We had actually seen—I don’t wanna call it a decline—but over the years of playing in the Lehigh Valley there did seem to be not a sense of futility but there was a kind of wearing on the area from what had happened in the steel industry.
There wasn’t a sense of growth anymore. There was a sense of wanting to go somewhere else, but they were going to stay. Which is something I wrote about in the song. I wanted to end on an optimistic note—“It’s getting very hard to stay, we’re living here in Allentown.” We’re staying. We’re here.
Q: I think that was overlooked initially. When people first heard it, they were so shocked by the first part that they couldn’t hear the last part.
A: Right. To be fair, I was writing about the region, not necessarily Allentown itself. I talk about “they’ve taken all the coal from the ground.” There’s no coal in that area, but there is coal mining in Pennsylvania. I used Allentown as a metaphor for the region.
Q: Do you have any lingering memories from the concerts in the Lehigh Valley?
A: What I remember mostly is that they were great audiences. They were very receptive. You know we had a good deal of success in Philadelphia, even before we broke big in New York. And whenever we played that part of the country, the audiences were familiar with our stuff. Every time we went back, the size of the crowd was bigger, the reception was better, they were more enthusiastic.
Q: The first Billy Joel article that ever ran in our newspaper was in 1974, after you had performed at Allentown’s Ag Hall. Afterward you were part of a news conference and said something funny. In describing your music, you called it “impressionistic” and said, “I don’t want to be known as a rock artist. I think rock is dead.”
A: Really? No, I don’t remember saying that. But you know what? I said a lot of crazy stuff.
I was always very cynical about being called an artist. I mean, as soon as you sign a recording contract, it says, “and now Billy Joel, here and after referred to as the artist.” Anybody who signs a record deal automatically becomes an artist? Uh-uh, I don’t think so. You know, like, where’s my beret?
Q: So when you finally decided to play at Stabler Arena—you know there was a big petition drive after “Allentown” came out.
A: Was that when (Allentown) Mayor Daddona gave me the key to the city?
Q: Exactly right. And was it hard to make that decision to play there since, obviously Stabler was about a third of the size you were used to playing. What went into that decision?
A: I know there had been some controversy about the recording of “Allentown.” I thought it was a great idea. I said, “Sure. Let’s go.” And I remember that kid saying to me, “You’ll never come back here.” And I remember saying to him, “Yes I will.” And I thought, “Well here it is. Here’s the opportunity.” We had been playing 20,000-seaters, and Stabler, yes, it was a small arena. But I’m like MacArthur: I shall return!
It was an exciting show. And I remember when I got the key to the city. I know it was a good photo-op for the mayor. I don’t know if anybody reported: He said, “Here’s the key to our city,” and my response was, “Great. Where’s the gate?”
Q: As far as I can tell, the only other artist that ever received a key to the city of Allentown was the James Gang in 1971.
A: They gave the keys to the James Gang?
Q: I interviewed James Gang leader Joe Walsh just this year because he played in Bethlehem, and I asked, “Where’s the key to the city?” A couple of years ago it was in his mother’s attic. Now, I think he has it in a locker in Los Angeles. I was wondering where you have yours.
A: Oh yeah. I know where mine is. The James Gang? I think they trashed the place. They were known for that. I have an office in a home that I have in Long Island. I have a table behind my desk where I have the keys to all the different cities that I’ve been given, and it’s right there.
Q: So where have you gotten keys from?
A: Oh my God. Miami, St. Louis, Chicago, Boston. You name it. If I can find the gate, I can get in.
Q: Was Allentown the first one you got?
A: I believe it was. Started the ball rolling.
Q: Listening to your music it seems to me that loyalty is a common thread.
A: Well, I would like to think so. I have friends that go back to childhood. As a matter of fact, they work with me on tour. I place a great deal of value on loyalty. I’m also somebody who appreciates history. I love reading about history and I love going to a place and asking, “Why is this place here? What’s the industry here? What’s the history here? What’s the tradition here?” It gives you an insight as to where you are.
And when I see an entire community disenfranchised, it disturbs me. Not that I’m a message guy, per se. I write about people. I like to write about human beings, not crap political rhetoric. I’ve tried to avoid that all my life. When I wrote about soldiers in Vietnam, I wasn’t trying to make a political statement. I was trying to write about how screwed things were for soldiers, and how they still are.
Q: So in retrospect, how has “Allentown” held up after 25 years? Did it capture just a moment in time, or is it still relevant?
A: I think for the time the record came out, it did reflect the passing of an industry in America. A whole lot of people had to find another line of work.
It’s funny. I run into people from the Lehigh Valley and Allentown all over the world, and they’re obviously doing pretty well. They say, “Oh, it’s pretty nice there now and there’s a lot of new businesses that have come into the area.” Nobody’s telling me, “Yeah, I left.” Everybody says, “You know, I’m there. It’s great. It’s really nice there, and you made our town famous.”
That means you’re not mad at me, right?
I’m just glad I never tried to finish the song “Levittown,” because they would have never let me go home again.
Q: Do you think you’ll ever perform “Allentown” in Allentown?
A: I did before.
Q: Well, technically it was Bethlehem.
A: Sure, but it was the Lehigh Valley. But I don’t see why not. Right now, we’re just putting our toe back in the water on our own without Elton (John). We toured with Elton for 10 years. We’re kind of in the middle of touring in places where we haven’t played on our own for a long time. Still have a lot of the land to cover. Anything’s possible. Sure.
Q: One final question: People at the newspaper have tried to talk with you over the years about “Allentown,” so why now?
A: I don’t know. Somebody said, “You wanna talk to somebody in Allentown about the song?” And I said, “Sure.”
Q: Thank you again, and I hope you do get back here sometime. There’s a lot of love for you here.
A: Thank you, and the same goes back. Tell people I said hi and thank you for all those good years.