When former Billy Joel drummer Liberty DeVitto started work on his new memoir Liberty: Life, Billy and the Pursuit of Happiness about 15 years ago, he was still angry. Joel had just fired him from his band after 30 years together, and DeVitto saw the book as a chance to vent his rage and settle old scores. “I was the ‘angry old man,’” he tells Rolling Stone. “And the anger was eating me from the inside out.”
But as the years ticked by and he had the chance to tell his side of the story, in the 2016 documentary Hired Gun, DeVitto felt the fire inside him dying down. Suddenly, the bitter words in his manuscript read differently to him. “I had to go back and think about what I’d written,” he says. “I went back in and rounded out the rough edges.”
“There was an ex-wife I really didn’t care for at the time,” he continues. “I had to think about it. I had a problem with alcohol, and I was, to her, probably a horror. But I blamed it all on her. You don’t look at it when you’re in that head space, but I was half of that process. Also, I began thinking about how Billy thought, why he did the things he did. And also why I did the things that I did. The more I thought about all that, the more I thought, ‘Life is too short to be angry all the time.’”
The finished book (which arrives on July 17th) still traces DeVitto’s whole life, focusing heavily on his three-decade run with Billy Joel, but nearly any hint of anger about the circumstances of his departure is absent. And when he was nearly done writing it, he reached out to Joel via email, and the two old friends agreed to meet up for breakfast and finally make peace. Joel even agreed to write the foreword for the book, something that would have been unimaginable just a couple of years ago, when they communicated solely through lawyers and angry comments back and forth in the press.
DeVitto called up Rolling Stone from a car parked outside his home in Brooklyn’s Clinton Hill, on a sweltering New York afternoon (“the air condition is blasting”) to chat about the book, his long career, making peace with Joel, and learning to let go of the past.
What made you want to write this book?
I wanted to write it because I’m the kid that didn’t take any lessons in school or any drum lessons at all. This book is how I went from my immigrant grandparents coming over from Italy and then I got to play on one of the top five [bestselling] albums ever, which is Billy Joel’s Greatest Hits I and II. People ask, “How did that happen?” I ask myself, “How did that happen?”
So I kind of outlined what happened in my life and the different things that went on and why I got to where I was. I believe the path you take in life is how you become the person you become in the end.
I want to trace some of your history here. You write about loving Ringo Starr as a kid. How exactly did he change your life?
I was in the eighth grade when the Beatles were on The Ed Sullivan Show. I was 13, and it was time to meet girls. I wasn’t doing well because I didn’t play sports. When the Beatles went on The Ed Sullivan Show, all these girls were going crazy for them. I thought, “Wow, that is what I want to do. I want to be a band with my friends and make girls scream.”
When that happened, like thousands of other guys around the country, we started a band. We started playing high school dances, and people would come up to me at school the next day and go, “Hey, you were the kid that played the drums.” The drums gave me an identity. I became somebody. I became the drummer in the school.
That’s what Ringo did for me. He was an amazing drummer because we can’t say that Ringo paved the road for us. No. Ringo knocked down the trees, and he plowed up the dirt, and then he paved the road for us.
You’re so well-known for your work with Billy Joel that I don’t think most people know that you played with Mitch Ryder long before that.
Yeah. Eighteen years old. I graduated high school in June, and by November I was on the road with Mitch.
What did it feel like that first show, when you’re playing songs like “Devil in a Blue Dress” with the guy who sang them originally?
It was one of the most exciting things that ever happened to me. The fact that I could stay calm and actually play the song is a total miracle to me.
Tell me your first memory of being aware of Billy Joel.
I used to play shows around Long Island with my band, the New York Workshop, and he was playing in his group, the Hassles. I saw him sing the Traffic song “Coloured Rain” by Steve Winwood. I was very impressed by that. This was in 1967, maybe.
What’s funny is that I was always into music like Aretha Franklin and Sam and Dave, that kind of stuff. My mother really appreciated that music too. When I first heard that I was going to audition for the Billy Joel band, I was practicing to some of his songs and my mother came downstairs. With a puzzled look on her face she said, “You’re going to play with this guy?” It was so out of context with what I was used to playing and listening to.
The first album you played on was Turnstiles. Why do you suppose it didn’t sell well despite having all those classic songs on it?
I don’t think they wanted Billy to produce it. They wanted Jim Guercio from Caribou Ranch to produce the album. [Bassist] Dee [Murray] and [drummer] Nigel [Olsson] from Elton’s band were playing with Billy, and Billy didn’t like it. He went, “You’re fired, Guercio,” and moved down to where we were. It was just us. There was no people from Columbia Records coming in. It was just us putting the album together, so I don’t think they fully got behind it. The funny thing is that of all the tours I did with Billy, we were always Turnstiles-heavy in the set list.
This was a period of disco, early punk, and prog. This was very far outside of that.
Right. And when we did The Stranger, the only album that kept us out of Number One was the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack.
During the making of The Stranger, did you feel like it was different and maybe the one that would finally take off?
The excitement was working with Phil Ramone. We knew he had done so many things that we listened to on the radio, in Paul Simon’s catalog alone. We were very excited about that, but when we listened back to the songs, we were a bunch of guys doing what we love to do. You’d think that “Movin’ Out” would be a hit. We hated “Just the Way You Are” [laughs], and “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant” was very long. I’m not good at calling what’s a hit.
I spoke to Billy a few years ago, and he told me that during the making of “Only the Good Die Young,” it was your idea to get rid of the reggae vibe. What’s your memory of that?
We tried to play it reggae and we were just beating it to death. I was like, “We don’t play reggae. We’re not from Jamaica. The closest we’ve ever been to Jamaica is Jamaica station, where you change at the Long Island Railroad.” I always loved the song “Up From the Skies” by Jimi Hendrix on Axis: Bold as Love. I played that lick and started to do the shuffle from that song on the brushes, and Billy started to sing “Only the Good Die Young” and Phil was like, “Yes, that’s the swing we need.” It had that swing, which really made the lyrics go over people’s heads.
That really shows how a drummer can drastically reshape a song.
I’ve been called a songwriter’s drummer. One of the other examples is “The Downeaster ‘Alexa’” on the Storm Front album. Billy came in one day and he goes, “I want you to give me the feel of a fishing boat out on the dark waters of the North Atlantic, and there’s big waves and diesel engines.” I had to come up with that kind of mood that sets the whole mood of the song.
The music scene really shifted in the early Eighties with MTV and all these New Wave bands and pop acts. Did you worry that Billy’s music might start seeming passé?
I thought that maybe it was. But we were recording in Europe, and I went out to see the Police. I came back and I told Billy, “You have got to see these guys. They are incredible.” I remember him making fun of me for seeing them. He really didn’t want to know about it. But then he listened to that kind of stuff that I guess I made him aware, because some of the stuff on Glass Houses was, like, our version of punk.
Then a few years later he did “Uptown Girl” and even danced a bit in the video. He really adjusted to the era.
Yeah. Billy likes to change, which is a good thing. A lot of the guys that stay the same start falling off after a while.
Tell me your favorite memory from the U.S.S.R. tour in 1987.
This isn’t musical, but we had these Russian people that followed us around. They were like the tour guides for us. They told us to bring things with us because they wouldn’t have things like peanut butter or bottled water. They told us the diet was a little strange over there. I remember my guide, Elena, walking into my room. She looked around and was like, “So this is peanut butter. This is what you Americans are crazy about.” I said, “Yeah, try it.” And she took a spoon and put it in her mouth and ate it. She then spit it out. She said it was terrible. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried Vegemite, but it was kind of like that. I was shocked because everyone likes peanut butter. I’d never seen anyone not like peanut butter.
Speaking of the period around The Bridge, I’ve seen Billy say that he feels that wasn’t his strongest record. What did you think of it?
That was a tough one for Billy in terms of writing songs. We actually went into a house out on the east end of Long Island. He had a bunch of songs, and Phil Ramone would come out along with the band. That is when he changed the band. The songs that he wrote went in the trash can. I think he was having a hard time adjusting, and he started to get discouraged with the music business. It was a very difficult time.
I think with songs like “A Matter of Trust,” he was starting to write songs that you’d write on the guitar instead of the keyboard. He was searching.
Storm Front was a huge departure. Did any part of you think it was too different and modern?
No. When I heard Storm Front, I was like, “OK! This sounds good. This really sounds good.” I thought “I Go to Extremes” would be the first single out of the box, but Columbia Records didn’t agree, and they wanted another song. That is when Billy came up with “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”
I love that song, but it’s such an outlier in his catalog. It’s as close as he comes to rapping, almost.
It is almost like a rap. The drum part at the beginning is me, Crystal Taliefero, and Billy playing on timbales, bongos, and congas. It gave us that world sound that he wanted. It was a very different kind of record to make, and an interesting record. Mick Jones came in Phil’s place.
It gave him a whole new audience. I think it brought a lot of young fans onboard.
Definitely. “We Didn’t Start the Fire” was huge in the classroom when they taught history. It was funny because I remember sitting next to him when he wrote it. He had a book called The Chronicles, and he just started at his birth and kept turning the pages to see different events that went on.
I know you don’t play much on River of Dreams, but did you have any sense in that time that it might be his final record?
No. I just remember we were playing the David Letterman show when he first switched networks. We were the first band to play The Late Show [on CBS.] I asked him, “You aren’t going to write any more music?” He said, “When I need some money, maybe I’ll write the ‘I Love You’ songs again.” He always spilled his beans about his life when writing songs. If you listen to “State of Grace” from the Storm Front album, you can hear that he and Christie [Brinkley] are at their end.
How were the big Elton John tours of the Nineties from your perspective?
They were fun. I don’t mind clubs, but playing stadiums and sharing the stage with Elton and his band was incredible. I love his band. Davey Johnstone is one of the greatest guys and so is Nigel Olsson. Listen to that ride cymbal he does in “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me.” I do the same thing on “Honesty” and “Leningrad,” and I told him that. It was so great to look over, and there’s one of my idols playing.
You played Madison Square Garden on the big New Year’s Eve show at the end of 1999. Did you think then that Billy might be retiring?
After every tour, I thought he was going to retire. I remember we were near the end of a tour once and we were playing “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant.” He started it and I looked at him and thought, “I can’t believe we have to do this song again.” [Laughs]
I’m sure there were times during “Piano Man” when every person onstage was having thoughts like that.
Oh, yeah. It’s hard to keep that up. People are coming in and they pay good money to see you. You can’t look bored stiff up there. When it was the original band, we were a bunch of friends. One of the guys from Elton’s band once said, “You guys are really funny and joke around a lot, but once you hit the stage you are serious.”
I’m sure you’re sick of telling this story, but how exactly did you find out you were out of the band?
He was getting married to his third wife [Katie Lee] and I didn’t get an invitation yet. I called up the keyboard player in the band [David Rosenthal] and I said, “Wow, I guess we aren’t going to the wedding.” And he said, “I got my invitation.” That’s when I knew. I was like, “Oh, boy. Something is going on.”
Nobody told you that you were out? Did you get a phone call, or anything?
It must have been difficult at first to see another drummer up onstage playing your parts.
That’s the worst part of it. You created all these parts, and now somebody is up there playing them. Some of the guys take credit for doing it and go, “I’m Billy Joel’s drummer” and they’re playing the parts. I don’t say “I’m Billy J. Kramer’s drummer” when I’m playing with him. I say, “I’m playing drums for.” I’m not taking credit for creating those parts.
Billy was asked what happened by Vulture in 2018. He said this, “It had nothing to do with money. Absolutely nothing. I’m not going to tell my side of the story. Because it would ruin Liberty’s life if I said what really happened, and I don’t want to ruin his life.” Do you know what he’s talking about?
I do. Since we’ve gotten together again when I asked him to write the foreword, we were emailing back and forth, and he emailed me one day and told me what actually happened. It turns out that he heard something that he thought was true, but wasn’t true. I never heard that, so I couldn’t have defended myself. It was one of those things. If it was true, it would have been cause for dismissal, definitely, but it wasn’t true.
I imagine you don’t want to share what it was publicly.
You sued him a few years back, but the book didn’t mention that. Did you just not want to revisit that?
I told him when we were going onstage once and somebody wrote this book with things that weren’t nice about him, “You know what? I’m going to write a book about you, but I’m going to write about all the good things that we do.” And so to bring up again that I sued him … I was suing him for internet royalties and stuff like that. He told me when it happened, while we were sitting there with the lawyers, that it was a big mistake that his accountant made. That’s why we were sitting face to face. We wouldn’t have had to do that if the accountants had done the right thing.
Do you regret it, then, since it seems to be a big misunderstanding?
It was a big misunderstanding, but I don’t regret anything that happened. It’s like trying to say that you regret getting divorced from your first wife when your second wife is so great and you’re having a great life right now. Do you regret being married to your first wife? No. I had great children, and I’m happy where I am now.
Me and Billy are both very happy. He has a grown daughter. I have three grown daughters. He has two little children and I have one little child. We started life all over again, and I just wanted my friend back into this new life that I have.
How did it feel emotionally at the breakfast a few months back when you finally sat down and made peace?
It was comfortable. We sat down and it was just two old friends talking. We knew what we’d been through. We knew there was bad blood. We knew everything we had done in the past. But we knew, without saying anything, that that wasn’t what we were going to talk about. We were going to rebuild and reclaim this friendship that we have.
If you think about it, I went places with Billy musically that his wife can’t even go there. To lose that friendship was really hurtful. That’s what hurt the most. It wasn’t losing the gig or playing at Madison Square Garden. It was losing him as a friend.
Backing up a bit, what compelled you to email him out of the blue like that?
I was laying in bed. I’d just had a knee operation. I was thinking, “Life is too short to be carrying the weight of this anger around and to not have this friend.” I get approached by people every single day that ask me, “Are you ever going to talk to Billy again? If you saw Billy on the street, what would you do?” I said I’d give him a big hug and tell him I loved him. I wanted to have that opportunity. We were getting older, and a lot of people around us were passing away. A lot of people around us were sick. It was like, “I don’t know how much time we got, but I want to make this right.”
You’ve been playing Billy songs in recent years with the Lords of 52nd Street. Tell me how that group came together?
When the Billy Joel Band got inducted into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame, I was still angry. I almost told them I didn’t want to do it. They asked us to play a Billy song. We did, and the crowd reacted so great that we did five that night. We thought to ourselves, “We should be doing this. There’s a lot of tribute bands doing Billy’s music, and we’re the guys that did it. Why aren’t we doing it?”
It brought me back to the happiness that we had when we went in the studio and we were a little gang. When we recorded with Karen Carpenter, The New York Times called us “Billy Joel’s hoodlums,” or something like that. It was great to be back in that place again, but in a place of appreciation for what we did.
Do you see any scenario where he’d call you onstage to play a song or two?
I don’t know. He might. He does bring guests up at the Garden. We’ll see what happens. But right now, we’re very happy where we are.
What advice do you wish you could have given yourself right after you left the group?
I would have said, “Why don’t you just pick up the phone and call Billy? Why don’t you just talk to him?” That’s what I should have done. I should have done that. But I was very angry. I thought I didn’t do anything and he should call me.
The good new is that you have this book now to tell your story finally.
Yeah. It’s my story. Everyone thinks that the artist walks into the studio and points to everyone and tells them what to do and what to play. It’s not like that. I always said that Ringo is famous for being in a band called the Beatles. My name is connected to Billy Joel. Billy has the contract, and the Beatles — all four of them — were signed to the record company. But what is the difference between what Ringo did for the Beatles and what I did with Billy? We did the same thing to the songs.
Tell me what you want to accomplish in the years ahead.
Well, I want this book to become a New York Times bestseller! [Laughs] No. When I first signed with Hudson Music to do the book, my wife said, “Even if it sells one copy, this is still so great. You wrote down your history for your children. It’s down there.” I’m thrilled with where it’s going. It’s going beyond my expectations. What would I want next? I don’t know. I just want my kids to succeed. I want the future to be bright. I want people to realize that we need more love in this world.