BY PAM ARNOWITZ PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID NEEDLEMAN| July 31, 2011 |
Billy Joel with a custom-built bobber that started out as a 1999 Kawasaki W650
A vintage Sinclair fuel pump
The world may know him best as the Piano Man, but spend an afternoon with Billy Joel at his very own 20th Century Cycles in Oyster Bay, and it is quickly obvious that his passions stretch far beyond the confines of those 88 keys. As the six-time Grammy Award winner talks about this Harley-Davidson Sportster, that Ducati or this Triumph, it is easy to forget you are face-to-face with a music icon; you are entranced by the knowledge and humbled by the enthusiasm of an authentic motorcycle aficionado.
In a rather visible corner of Oyster Bay and open to the public, 20th Century Cycles is a “Big Boy toy store.” Originally a Ford dealership, the garage now houses more than 60 motorcycles, old and new, all plated and ready to ride. It is a place to see Joel’s remarkable collection of bikes and learn about their history; a place for riders to stop in and discuss their mutual fascination. Reminiscent of post-war America—vintage signs abound, and there’s a jukebox and a hint of motor oil in the air—it is the perfect place to hear the stories Joel has to share.
HAMPTONS: When did your passion for riding begin? BILLY JOEL: It began with my bicycle. When I was a little boy, I used to take playing cards and attach them in the spokes with a clothing pin. The noise made it sound like I was riding a motorcycle. Thinking of that, a famous Norman Rockwell painting comes to mind. It was a picture of a group of young boys surrounding a bike, awestruck; that was me.
H: What was your first bike? BJ: My first ride was on a neighbor’s BSA Lightning in 1965. He went off to war and entrusted me to take care of the bike while he was gone—that’s when I fell in love. He came back in the late ’60s and I bought my first used bike, a Triumph. It was a horrible mess, in bad shape and falling apart, but terrific fun. After that I left motor world for a bit and got heavy into my music. I moved back to Long Island in the late ’70s after a stint in California and I began to ride again.
H: Do you have a favorite era of bikes? BJ:The ’30s through the ’50s was the height of automotive design. It was very American, heavily chromed with sexy, streamlined curves. They are not very fuel-efficient, but they are aesthetically pleasing. I like the history of bikes, I like to promote that; I am somewhat of a curator. I am not a fan of bikes covered in fiberglass that reach speeds of 250 mph. Growing up, fast for us was 100 mph. It’s not about how fast you go, it’s about how fast you feel like you are going. When you wind up an old bike, you may be going only 50 mph, but it feels like 100.
H: Do you compose while you ride? BJ: I always have music running through my head. People point out that I am always whistling. Whether it is someone else’s song or one that I am composing, it is what I call my inner radio. There is always music going on—always.
H: What does it mean to you to have a shop now in Oyster Bay? BJ: This space became available, and it made sense. This is not a business; it is called a collection, but it’s not really that either. I do not buy to collect; I buy to ride. Every bike is ready to roll. I ran out of room in my homes, and this is a perfect location. Motorcyclists are known to ride aimlessly on the North Shore on weekends—this is a destination, a pit stop. It is somewhat like a place in the UK, Ace Cafe London; it is a great stop-off for riders.
H: Have you ridden in other countries? BJ: Lake Como is a great place to ride; it is home to Motto Guzzi, my favorite bikes. Everyone there drives like Mario Andretti—it takes some getting used to. They drive 85 to 125 mph, no limits. I was doing 60 and felt like I was going fast but was being passed by carloads of families. I eventually got up to speed. It was a thrill. I learned to appreciate Vespas in Europe; my girlfriend rides a Vespa. I have one with a sidecar for my dog—a pug—and she loves it.
H: Where do you like to ride on the North Shore? BJ:North of 25A to the Long Island Sound is beautiful—Old Brookville, Brookville, Lattingtown, Oyster Bay. It looks like parts of England—beautiful trees, lots of green and windy roads. I love riding on the East End as well.
H: Do you prefer riding solo or in a group? BJ: I am pretty much a lone wolf; I don’t ride in packs. Occasionally, I will ride with a friend, but rarely with a group. Riding is kind of like a fraternity. We have a biker wave—it is a subtle drop and shake of your hand.
The garage, with all of the bikes separated into categories: cruisers on the left, customs and standards in the middle, and cafe racers on the far right
1974 Ducati 750 Sport
A wall of ephemera, neon clocks and vintage signs
H: Do you find women on bikes attractive? BJ: A woman on a bike is very cool. There are women racecar drivers, so why shouldn’t there be cyclists? There are some lighter, smaller bikes for women; Harley makes a Sportster. Not a lot of women I have been in relationships with are riders; most are passengers. One woman I was dating was not a fan of riding and did not want to get on the back of my bike. Having dinner one night, we ran into Shirley MacLaine and we were talking about bikes. She told the woman to “ride the bike with Billy—there is nothing more romantic than that.” Thank you, Shirley; you were the stamp of approval! And yes, Shirley is right, it is very romantic.
H: What are your thoughts on safety? BJ: Helmets are a must. There are organizations advocating for no helmets, claiming it is not cool, that you need to feel the wind in your hair. How about a car in your hair? Common sense in riding is an acquired skill.
H: Have you had any accidents while riding? BJ: A few, but luckily I was in full gear. I broke my hands—not great for a piano player. Luckily, I am a rock-’n’-roll pianist. Had I been a classical pianist, it would have been over.
H: You have an passion for boats as well. How do you compare the two? BJ: It is a similar experience. You put on a helmet, hop on a bike, and you are anonymous; I am just another guy on the road. It is the same on a boat. I can be a mile offshore and I am all on my own. I like that. I still feel like I am in the ’70s, like I am 25. I think I will always feel that way. I was watching my closing performance at Shea Stadium; I was thinking, “Who is that old guy on stage?” Kind of crazy. Close to 75,000 people chanting, “Billy! Billy! Billy!” Then the gig is over, I jump in my car, hit the LIE and now I am just like any other guy on the road—anonymous. It is a great equalizer. You go from sensory overload to sensory deprivation. I clearly recognize that transition; in fact, I often crave it.
H: What type of boats do you have? BJ: I designed and built a boat called a Shelter Island Runabout. It is a 38-foot fast boat that looks like a lobster boat. I love the look of it. After mine was built, others showed interest and wanted their own, so we started a production company. They are mostly on the East End—Bernie Madoff bought one and called it Sitting Bull; great name for a Madoff boat. When production slowed, I wanted to keep the crew working, so I commissioned the building of Vendetta, a 57-foot one-off, built to be like the older commuter boats that used to go from Long Island to Wall Street. Back in the day, Vanderbilt would race J.P. Morgan, as would Whitney and Frick. I love the history and boat-building tradition on Long Island.
H: Do you build bikes for others? BJ: Occasionally. I am building a Bobber for Bruce Springsteen now. It is an original chopped bike, not a chopper—not a big fan of those. It is light and fast, a bare hot rod.
H: You ride and sail, but do you have any interest in flying? BJ: Not at all. I am a white-knuckle flyer. Been in a few too many close and hairy calls. For me, it is all about the water and the road.