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Will Godfrey Will Godfrey

A Profile of Billy Joel Exposes the Abstinence-Moderation Schism

Billy Joel has had problems with alcohol, but still drinks. That hits a few raw nerves.

19 Substance

A fascinating passage from the New Yorker’s new profile of Billy Joel, by Nick Paumgarten, highlights different ideas of what recovery from alcohol problems may—or should—involve.

On the one hand, there’s total abstinence, an option recommended by Alcoholics Anonymous and the US addiction treatment establishment. On the other, there’s moderation, espoused by harm reductionists and those who recognize natural recovery (although harm reduction and abstinence are perfectly compatible). Popular culture, with pop stars at its pinnacle, has its prejudices about both. Here’s what Paumgarten writes about Joel’s alcohol problems:

He is sensitive about the alcohol thing. He cops to having had lots of problems in the past, drinking to excess, behaving like an ass.

You’ll hear Long Islanders tell old stories about the time they saw Joel at this or that Huntington bar, the man not looking his best. There were, in the past decade, a couple of interventions and a couple of stints in rehab, in 2002 and 2005.

Paumgarten adds, skeptically:

…Joel greets most booze-related reports or questions with a flash of annoyance. He has protested that a trio of car accidents, in the early aughts, weren’t actually booze-related. It was dark, it was icy, he’d had eye surgery, the Citroën 2CV is a tricky little car. But it is true that these incidents coincided with a rough patch in his life—one of many over the years, the catalyst usually a breakup or a divorce. He takes it hard. His friends and collaborators give these periods a wide euphemistic berth. Schruers, in the biography, tells the story of an intervention led by friends in the summer of 2009, at the house on Centre Island. The friends brought along a trained counsellor, and Joel turned on him: “Now, who the fuck are you? Who the fuck do you think you are?”

Of the star’s approach to booze these days, Paumgarten writes:

People tend to assume, given the recent burst of reputational favor and vigor in performance, that Joel must be sober, that the narrative of redemption must rest on abstinence.

Not so, however:

…[Joel] rejects the AA approach and favors the kind of self-moderation that AA’s devotees cluck at.

Joel steers clear of spirits, he says, and just drinks wine, in moderation. “I think of it as a food group,” he told me. At one lunch, we each had a glass of Chianti. At another, we had a little sake.

This kind of approach from a confirmed sometime “problem drinker” doesn’t always win other people’s approval—even though many people who have previously had an alcohol problem can drink safely. Elton John, a self-identified recovering addict, promotes not only an abstinence approach but a so-called “tough love” one:

Elton John, who did a number of tours with Joel, told Rolling Stone in 2011, “Billy’s a conundrum. We’ve had so many cancelled tours because of illnesses and various other things, alcoholism . . . He’s going to hate me for this, but every time he goes to rehab they’ve been light . . . When I went to rehab, I had to clean the floors. He goes to rehab where they have TVs. I love you, Billy, and this is tough love.”

Paumgarten describes how Elton John’s remarks angered Joel so much that (according to a biography) he wrote him a letter, concluding:

“What gives you the omnipotent moral certainty and authority to justify the public humiliation of anyone—especially of someone to whom you should, at the very least, consider according a modicum of honor?” [signing off] “We are done.”

Meanwhile Paumgarten’s own summary of the possible explanations for Joel’s attitude to questioning seemingly fails to consider that Joel’s decision to drink moderately might sensibly be made on its own merits:

Whether it’s denial or a hard-earned aversion to the intrusions of the celebrity-media complex and its twelve-step pieties…

All of which emphasizes the dominance of 12-step culture over mainstream thinking about substance problems, as well as the unfortunate, continuing mutual hostility between many proponents of either moderation or abstinence.