Billy Joel doesn’t get enough credit as a storyteller. Or at least I haven’t heard to him referred to as such, but even Johnny Cash doesn’t get that credit. However, a lot of Joel’s songs tell a story about life; little moments rather than a full-on narrative but that’s true for most songs. 1973’s “Piano Man” is one of those songs. If you thought that was an 80s song, so did I. But while he made a new video in the 80s the song comes from his 1973 album of the same name and is his first single. I would love to come across the original video. It supposedly has an altered version of the song but is still the same length of the album version.
The story is told from the perspective of a singer in a piano bar as people try to forget their problems with booze and song. One of the things I love about doing these articles is that I learn something interesting about most of the songs I look into the story of, and this is no exception. Did you know the song is semi-biographical?
For six months between 1972 and 1973 Joel played in a piano lounge under a pseudonym while sorting out some contract issues as he had problems with his music label at the time. It was the only way he could perform. The characters in the song are also based on people he met during that period.
Joel has stated that all of the characters depicted in the song were based on real people. “John at the bar” was really the bartender who worked during Joel’s shift at the piano bar. “Paul is a real estate novelist” refers to a real estate agent named Paul who would sit at the bar each night working on what he believed would be the next great American novel. “The waitress is practicing politics” refers to Joel’s first wife Elizabeth Weber, with whom he moved to Los Angeles from New York in 1972 and who worked at The Executive Room as a waitress while Joel played the piano. Joel had moved from New York to L.A. to record his first album, Cold Spring Harbor, which was marred by a mastering error by the album’s producers at Family Productions, the first label that signed Joel. After this bad experience, Joel wanted to leave his contract with Family Productions for Columbia Records, but the contract that he had signed made this very difficult. So Joel stated that he was “hiding out” at the bar, performing under the name Bill Martin, while lawyers at Columbia Records tried to get him out of his first record deal.
And my link-finding service just pointed to an actual songwriter from Scotland named Bill Martin. I don’t know if that’s a coincidence or not but that’s pretty interesting. Apparently he had a songwriting career around the same time and even did music for movies.
The song itself focuses more on the various stories of Bill’s regular patrons and even some of the staff. It’s only at the end that Bill discusses his tale, how his music helps them forget their troubles, with the exception of the refrain and the old man at the start of the song. It’s kind of foreshadowing what the piano player means to the bar as he asks Bill to play him a song from his youth but has trouble remembering it and the chorus is actually the patrons cheering for him to sing. From there we hear snippets of the lives of other regulars until Bill finally takes the stage, giving them a respite from their weary day. In the 80s video the final version of the chorus has the patrons joining in, which also happens when Joel performs the song at concerts. During my brief look into the song I came across a Rolling Stone interview where Joel stated that this is the job of an entertainer. Or at least that’s how I read it.
I try to stay out of politics. I am a private citizen and I have a right to believe in my own political point of view, but I try not to get up on a soapbox and tell people how to think. I’ve been to shows where people start haranguing the audience about what’s going on politically and I’m thinking, “You know, this isn’t why I came here.” As a matter of fact, one of the biggest cheers of the night comes when we do “Piano Man” and I sing, “They know that it’s me that they’re coming to see to forget about life for a while,” and the audience lets out this huge “ahhhh” and I say, “OK, yeah, don’t forget that.” We’re more like court jesters than court philosophers.
That’s sentiment I can easily get behind, and what I’d expect from Bill Martin. That Bill Martin, not the other one…never mind. Point is, while there is nothing wrong with using your fame to speak out on issues that matter to you, there’s a time and place. Sometimes we just need a break from the tragedies so we can approach them fresh and find common ground. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Isn’t that why they went to lounge in the first place?