Piano Man was inspired by John’s Tumbleweed Connection, in its use of Western themes and country-fueled character sketches (including a literal ‘Ballad of Billy the Kid’). The album’s classic title track offers up a bar full of memorable characters, enough to stock a decent NetFlix series.
‘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.
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.
Joel’s breakthrough album, Piano Man, is probably best remembered for the tune that gave it its title. ‘Piano Man’ is indeed a great song, but it’s become a cliché. Has there been a write-up of Billy Joel in the past 36 years that hasn’t referred to him as a “piano man?”
In addition to that signature tune, though, Piano Man contains a treasure trove of beautifully written and played songs. Several, such as album opener ‘Travelin’ Prayer,’ ‘The Ballad of Billy the Kid’ and today’s song, have a strong country vibe. One of Joel’s greatest strengths is his ability to bring his own flavor to a wide range of genres and he proved that right out of the gate.