When Billy Joel Injured Both Hands in a Motorcycle Accident
Since he was a teenager, Billy Joel has been a motorcycle fanatic. Fame and fortune allowed him to slowly build a collection of classic and newfangled bikes and he has even paid tribute to his hobby in music (“Motorcycle Song,” “You May Be Right”).
“A motorcycle is an amusement-park ride. It’s dangerous,” he told Playboy in the spring of 1982. “Everybody out on the road is out to get you. A truck goes by and it can blow you right off the road. Cars are constantly pulling out in front of you like you’re not a real vehicle. … You’re constantly playing terror chess: ‘What am I going to do if this guy does that?’ It clears all the cobwebs out of your head. When you get off the bike, it’s, ‘Whew, I made it.'”
But, not long after Joel gave that interview, there was a time where Joel didn’t make it. On April 15, 1982, the singer-pianist was riding his 1978 Harley-Davidson in Huntington, Long Island. When he came to the intersection of New York Avenue and West Ninth Street, he had a green light, but a car crossing from the right accidentally ran a red.
“She barreled through the intersection,” Joel told Café Racer in 2011. “I hit the brakes as hard as I could, but it was too close. So I ran into the side of her car. … This [left] thumb got crushed and this [right] wrist got pulled out of the socket. And I flipped over the car and landed on my back.”
Joel, who was wearing a helmet and riding leathers, avoided further injury. He was helicoptered to Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan, where Dr. David L. Andrews performed a two-hour surgery on the pianist’s busted wrist and thumb. The orthopedic surgeon allayed fears that the “Piano Man” would never play again.
“He’ll think he’ll be as good as new,” Andrews said after the surgery. “I think he’ll be better.”
Joel remained in the hospital for a month after the accident, gradually practicing playing piano as part of his rehabilitation. Because of the accident, the release of the rocker’s new album, The Nylon Curtain, was delayed, but only by a few months – surfacing in September. As he approached the tour to promote The Nylon Curtain, he was unsure of how his hands would survive the road.
“I feel OK. I won’t really know until I go out on the road and bang the piano how far I’ve really come with recovery,” he told Martha Quinn on MTV. “I practice, but there’s no substitute for going on a stage. You can bang as hard as you want at your house… but when you go out on stage and there’s 20,000 people going [makes roaring crowd noise], that’s when you really pound.”
Lucky for Joel and his fans, his hands held up and he’s continued to pound the piano in theaters, arenas and stadiums in the decades since, although he doesn’t have a bone in the tip of his left thumb, only flesh and cartilage. The accident didn’t deter the singer from biking, who continues to ride and collect motorcycles. In 2010, he opened his own shop 20th Century Cycles, and built a bike for Bruce Springsteen. But should Joel suffer another crash, he has a back-up plan.
“You play with your elbows if you have to,” Joel said. “It’s rock ’n’ roll.”