Song of the Day #1,914: ‘Piano Man [Live]’ – Billy Joel

pianomanI’ve featured Billy Joel’s ‘Piano Man’ on the blog before, in its studio version, but I wanted to tell a little story about it so I dug up this nice 1975 live version on YouTube.

‘Piano Man’ has the honor of being the song I most misunderstood as a kid.

The year was somewhere between 1981-1986, making me somewhere between 9 and 14. I hope I was closer to 9.

I know the time span because I remember the house I was in when I would listen to this song repeatedly on my parents’ turntable.

I loved its sound and its cast of characters and what I mistakenly believed was its melancholy twist ending.

You see, I misinterpreted the final verse completely.

I thought “they sit at the bar” meant that the people were drinking instead of listening to the piano man. “The put bread in my jar” meant these rude people were stuffing pieces of bread into his money jar to disrespect him. And they said “man, what are you doing here?” because they didn’t think he was good enough.

You see why I hope I was 9.

I also misheard a line earlier in the song, about the man who “knew it complete when [he] wore a younger man’s clothes.” I thought he said “when I wore the other man’s clothes” and that suggested to me that he was gay (though I’m not sure why I assumed gay men shared their wardrobes).

I’m not sure when I was set straight about any of those misinterpretations. Probably shortly after I learned that “bread” was slang for money.

It’s nine o’clock on a Saturday
The regular crowd shuffles in
There’s an old man sitting next to me
Making 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”

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 feeling alright

Now John at the bar is a friend of mine
He gets me my drinks for free
And he’s quick with a joke or to light up your smoke
But there’s someplace that he’d rather be

He says, “Bill, I believe this is killing me”
As a 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”

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

And the waitress is practicing politics
As the businessmen slowly get stoned
Yes they’re sharing a drink they call loneliness
But it’s better than drinking 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’ve got us 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 coming to see
To forget about life for a while

And the piano 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 doing here?”

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 feeling alright

2 thoughts on “Song of the Day #1,914: ‘Piano Man [Live]’ – Billy Joel

  1. Dana says:

    Cute story. I know I had similar misinterpretations of other songs when I was a kid, but none come to mind at the moment. Of course, at the tender age of 46 and as recently as last night, I thought that Miley Cyrus was either dancing with herself or a girl named Molly. Had to be corrected on that one by my far more hip wife and daughter. Thankfully, Daniel also didn’t know that Molly was a drug reference.😄

    Actually, telling the Molly story reminds me that, as a kid, I had no idea that “horse” was a drug reference. So, through my entire childhood, and probably longer than I care to admit, I thought the guy was literally riding through the desert with a horse with no name. Frankly (and this does give away that I was older at the time), I used to wonder why joe Jackson was talking about shooting horses in “Cha Cha Loco..”

    Anyway, on a side note, do you think Billy Joel had any idea in 1975 that he would one day be bald? I mean look at that full head of hair! Geez!

  2. Andrea Katz says:

    Caught a Billy joel interview many years ago where he explained that this was a trani bar and surprisingly the guys were cavorting switching clothes and stuffing baguettes into his tip jar. 🙂
    I love this song, played by my brother in the family living room every new year’s eve. I also love the misinterpretaion of lyrics. Not the same thing, but in the 70’s when I had a very full head of hair, my friend called to ask if I’d heard the new song with the lyrics, “Midnight at the oasis, sing your camel to bed…” I accused him of making the whole thing up. Those were good days.

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