Song of the Day #1,508: ‘Piano Man’ – Billy Joel

Billy Joel is another strand in the ‘Piano Men (And Women)’ segment of my personal musical genome. That’s fitting, considering he gave it its name. And I didn’t feel right selecting any other song to represent him.

Joel doesn’t bridge any of my other categories in a meaningful way. Apart from the cinematic intro to ‘The Ballad of Billy the Kid,’ he’s never dabbled in country. His experiments with doo-wop and 50s pop on An Innocent Man aren’t exactly what I have in mind for my ‘Pure Pop’ category. And his street-smart style in no way derives from folk rock.

That leaves the ‘Melancholy’ category, one that doesn’t leap to mind when I think of Billy Joel. That said, two of his best songs — ‘Vienna’ and ‘She’s Always a Woman’ — do fit the bill. But that’s not enough to earn him a check mark in that particular box.

But when you’re the original piano man, honestly, what more do you need?

It’s nine o’clock on a Saturday
The regular crowd shuffles in
There’s an old man sitting next to me
Makin’ love to his tonic and gin

He says, “Son, can you play me a memory
I’m not really sure how it goes
But it’s sad and it’s sweet and I knew it complete
When I wore a younger man’s clothes.”

la la la, di da da
La la, di di da da dum

Sing us a song, you’re the piano man
Sing us a song tonight
Well, we’re all in the mood for a melody
And you’ve got us all feelin’ all right

Now John at the bar is a friend of mine
He gets me my drinks for free
And he’s quick with a joke and he’ll light up your smoke
But there’s some place that he’d rather be
He says, “Bill, I believe this is killing me.”
As his smile ran away from his face
“Well I’m sure that I could be a movie star
If I could get out of this place”

Oh, la la la, di da da
La la, di da da da dum

Now Paul is a real estate novelist
Who never had time for a wife
And he’s talkin’ with Davy, who’s still in the Navy
And probably will be for life

And the waitress is practicing politics
As the businessman slowly gets stoned
Yes, they’re sharing a drink they call loneliness
But it’s better than drinkin’ alone

sing us a song you’re the piano man
sing us a song tonight
well we’re all in the mood for a melody
and you got us all feeling alright

It’s a pretty good crowd for a Saturday
And the manager gives me a smile
‘Cause he knows that it’s me they’ve been comin’ to see
To forget about their life for a while
And the piano, it sounds like a carnival
And the microphone smells like a beer
And they sit at the bar and put bread in my jar
And say, “Man, what are you doin’ here?”

Oh, la la la, di da da
La la, di da da da dum

sing us a song you’re the piano man
sing us a song tonight
well we’re all in the mood for a melody
and you got us all feeling alright


6 thoughts on “Song of the Day #1,508: ‘Piano Man’ – Billy Joel

  1. Dana says:

    I would say the Piano Man album as well as Streetlide Serenade have decidedly country influences. “You’re my Home” is one example as are “Travelin’ Prayer” and “Stop in Nevada” and “Great Suburban Showdown” and “Roberta.”

    And Joel has certainly tried to expand into all sorts of genres from pop to rock to jazz. In fact, one of the major criticisms of him is that he tries too hard to be a musical chamelion. Still, I agree that he was always at his best when he stuck closest to being the Piano Man.

  2. pegclifton says:

    I definitely agree he is the best when he’s the “Piano Man”

  3. Amy says:

    You probably addressed this question in your original post kicking off this project, so I WILL go back to look for the answer. However, as I’m reading your post today I can’t help but wonder why you abandoned the traditional categories the music business has given us for ages. How isn’t Billy Joel simply an ideal example of a singer/songwriter? For me, the person who sits at an instrument – piano or guitar – and works out a melody and lyrics to tell a story is sometimes going to deliver a pure pop gem, sometimes a melancholy reflection on what has caused sadness, sometimes going to play with recent influences – country, jazz, punk, whatever…. and, thus, in a most organic fashion, defy all of these attempts you’re making at categorizing. A singer/songwriter experiences different moods, evolves as both a person and a musician, and so, too, will the music.

    If you look back at the artists you’ve selected, I’d bet many of them fall into this category (Aimee Mann, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Ben Folds, and on and on). You are attempting to categorize artists, and artists can’t be categorized. I have found the fatal flaw in your project! šŸ™‚ These songs don’t come out of a factory, so how can they be labeled and processed. You respond to some artists; you don’t respond to others. If you’ve connected with an artist, you’re far more likely to put up with, if not fully appreciate, the musical experiments you might otherwise not tolerate by another artist.

    Anyway… that’s my guess. You don’t like Billy Joel because he is a piano man. You like him because he is THE piano man (and the guitar man and the angry young man and the man who knows Vienna will wait for him and so on).

    (Sorry I’m weighing in on these songs after the fact… but doing so all in one sitting is giving me a bit of perspective on this whole genome project thing!)

  4. Clay says:

    A musical genome is about the sound of the music, though, not the fact that the person making the music wrote the songs.

    ‘Singer/songwriter’ can be expanded to include pretty much every artist who isn’t processed through a studio machine. It becomes useless as a genome designation because it encompasses all strands of the genome simultaneously.

    Certainly I tend to prefer artists who write their own songs, but I also dislike scores of singer-songwriters. What I’m interested in is what similarities exist in the sound and feel of the artists I do like.

  5. Dana says:

    Clay, I had a similar reaction to Amy’s comment, as “singer/songwriter” is simply too broad a category. I am curious though who the scores of singer/songwriters you dislike are because, to Amy’s greater point, I think the true common link amongst your 35 artists are that they are all singer/songwriters whose songs are generally not written by others or by committee.

    Amy also made the comment offline that it would be interesting to see amongst your categories those artists you don’t like and why. For example, if you generally like certain artists because they are “piano men” or exhibit “melancholy,” who are the artists in these categories you don’t like and why? And if there are scores of artists in those categories you don’t like, then can you really say that you like the ones you do like BECAUSE of the categories you place them in? And if you like them for reasons separate and apart from those categories, then what is the common link? If you go down that path, perhaps you wind up where Amy suggests: you like singer/songwriters who exhibit strong musical originality, thoughtful lyrics, play their own instruments and have a unique “voice” in whatever genre they may choose to express it.

  6. Clay says:

    First, I must stress that I am only a couple of weeks into a two month data-gathering period, so it’s far too early to draw any conclusions. Each of these SOTD posts is contributing to a growing set of data that I hope will help me arrive at a more nuanced exploration of my musical genome.

    When I say there are scores of singer/songwriters I don’t like, basically I mean that I have a finite set of artists I consider favorites, while the universe of singer/songwriters is immense.

    It’s easier to set aside those acts who don’t write their own music and play their own instruments and call them “Top 40” or “Processed Product” and note that none of them are among my favorites. But that doesn’t say anything about why I like what I do like.

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