Piano Man

Almie Rose

Billy Joel drawing by me. Incredible, isn’t it?

Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” has reached now legendary status, but it wasn’t always that way. My cousin and his fiancé told me a story about Billy Joel that I hope is true, because if it isn’t, it really ruins everything I’m about to write.

They said that Billy Joel was struggling with his record label. He hadn’t delivered what they wanted and they were ready to drop him. They gave him one last chance. “Come in tomorrow,” I imagine they said, “And play us whatever you got left.” That night, a young Mr. William Joel trudged home to Long Island, or wherever the hell he was living, and said to himself, “Billy? It’s time to shine.”

I imagine he sat down at his piano and thought very hard. “It’s time,” he said quietly. “It’s time I give them ‘The Piano Guy.'” (I like to imagine at that point, he hadn’t come up with the now title “Piano Man” but that he was working instead on “The Piano Guy”.)

The song is full of characters who are in dead-end job living sad lives. There’s Paul, a real estate novelist, who never had time for a wife. And he’s talking to Davy, who’s still in the navy, and probably will be for life. That’s heavy stuff for a pop song, Doc. I bet Joel had a talk with a bartender who told him, word-for-word, “Bill, I believe this is killing me. Well I’m sure that I could be a movie star if I could get out of this place.” And then the smile ran away from his face and won a MEDAL for its speed.

Anyway, Joel hammered out this song in one night. He had the bare bones, but it was time for the meat. They wanted a burger, he was going to give them a burger. The next morning he strolled in, with “The Piano Guy” in his head. No sheet music, no nothing — it was all in Casa de Joel en la Cabeza. “William,” I imagine his stuffy manager said. “We’re all in the mood for a melody. And you got us feeling alright.”

“Shit, that’s good,” Joel thought, as he mentally scribbled those lyrics in. “Much better than, ‘we’d like to hear a big fat song and you’ve got us feeling not wrong.'” He sat down at the piano, about to play.

“Uh…William?” his manager interrupted. “Billy, sir.” “Yes, Billy. Are you going to…show us, anything son? Sheet music? Lyrics? Can you tell us anything? How long this is?” “No,” Mr. Billy said, taking a drag of a cigarette that materialized out of nowhere. “I got this.”

And he puts on his sunglasses and starts to play. And keep in mind, it’s just him and some executives in a room. (This part is apparently true.) It’s just him, singing and playing for his life, with “Piano Man.” He’s fighting for his career with this one song. And it’s the song that becomes one of the most legendary songs of his career and of singer/songwriter history. “Piano Man” is actually one of my least favorite Joel songs; it’s so long and involved, it feels like I’m listening to a book on tape. But you can’t deny the power and endurability of “Piano Man.”

They couldn’t either. After Joel finished playing, the room was silent. Was this a good thing? He wasn’t sure. He takes off his sunglasses. “I guess you guys aren’t ready for that yet. But your kids are gonna love it.”

And their kids did love it. “Piano Man” was Billy Joel’s biggest hit ever and even inspired Bill Clinton to run for President of the United States of America (note: this is probably not true at all as I just made it up, but who knows?)

The point to ALL OF THIS is, Joel was on his last chance and he cranked out his biggest song. What if he gave up? And what if YOU gave up? What if you’re giving up your own “Piano Man”? Get my point here? We can’t give up, because we could be giving up our biggest success without even realizing it. That’s why we have to keep trying, we have to keep going, even when all we want to do is just crash our cars into trees in the Hamptons. We have to keep moving. We have to keep singing our song. We don’t stop until we have our “Piano Man” and then we just keep on flying. Please follow my advice to get to your own “River Of Dreams” and I know you may think I don’t know what I’m talking about, and “You May Be Right” but do it anyway as a “A Matter of Trust” and take my advice even though I’m just “The Stranger” with a weird blog.

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25 thoughts on “Piano Man

  1. Jenny K.

    I love your weird blog.

    For some reason, Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” has been this specific, half-joking benchmark I use to define my own creative failures. “Billy Joel was 24 when he wrote ‘Piano Man’; what have I done?” Every time I feel I’m falling behind: “Billy Joel wrote ‘Piano Man’ when he was 24.” So to know that he was struggling makes me smug and happy.

    (Also this Billy article by Chuck Klosterman is pretty great: http://www.nytimes.com/2002/09/15/magazine/the-stranger.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm)

    1. Almie Rose Post author

      Oh GREAT now I’ve got THAT to deal with!

      Gonna check out that article, I love that Chuck loves Billy.

  2. Allyson

    I attended a Catholic middle school, and one day we had a “retreat” instead of regular classes. This retreat was basically us going into the rectory basement for a day with this very strange man who I think was named Fr. Terry. I don’t remember very much of it because I have a terrible memory, but I know that he made us sing and dance a bunch (which I hated) and he made us hug him and each other a bunch (which I really hated) and as a 13-year-old girl I felt very creeped out that I was being forced to hug some adult man.

    At one point, he sat down at a piano and played “Piano Man” and promised us that for the rest of our lives we would think of him when we heard the song and HE WAS RIGHT. Every time I hear “Piano Man” I think of sitting in a rectory basement being creeped out by a priest making me listen to that song and hug him. It’s such a weird random memory but I hate that song so much now.

    I tried to look him up on the internet to show you what I mean but this was way before video phones or camera phones or cell phones in general so all I found was some vague references from other kids who were traumatized like I was.

    1. Almie Rose Post author

      This is my favorite comment ever written on my blog. Thank you so much for sharing it. Really. And I’m sorry.

    2. joe bush

      I had the exact same experience. Father Terry did a retreat for my confirmation class in 1993 at Queen of the Rosary in Elk Grove. I never forgot that.

  3. Jesse

    This piece made me laugh.

    Question: are the only people who comment on this blog, like, way hott babes? Awesome.

    They made a music video for “Piano Man” more than 10 years after the song came out, and it’s AWFUL. It’s one of those videos where EVERYTHING in the song must be depicted literally. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gxEPV4kolz0

    I remember my Dad telling me that “Piano Man” was partly a product of the fact that Joel’s first album totally flopped (which came after his rock band Attila’s only record had already flopped), and so he made ends meet by playing shitty bars. “Piano Man” is his romanticized version of that really awful time in his life, which yielded the song that made him. Not sure if that’s true, but it sounds cool.

    Also, can we talk about how then-U.S.-attorney Rudy Giuliani made a big stink about how immoral “Captain Jack” was because it talked all about masturbatin’ and weed smokin’? So hilarz.

    1. Almie Rose Post author

      YES, THE LITERAL PIANO MAN VIDEO. I saw it and I remember telling my boyfriend, “Wait, why did they make this now? Billy is older in this video than when he recorded it.” And my boyfriend was all, “No” and I said, “YES” and he said, “Okay” and then sure enough at the end they show a photo of Billy Joel from when he wrote the song, which was like 5 years if not more before the video and I said to boyfriend, “SEE?” and he was all, “I agreed with you and I don’t really care about this” (I’m paraphrasing). I’m rewatching it now and it’s so funny, they even have the old man mouthing (poorly), “I’m not really sure how it goes.” GOD IT’S SO STUPID.

      “Captain Jack” freaked me out as a kid because of how open he is about the dude ‘batin. He doesn’t even use a euphimism!!

  4. Greg

    Senior year of high school, in a small town in Maine in the late 1990s, a bunch of us would hang out in the auditorium/theatre. One of my good friends, Edmund, was a talented pianist, and we’d always end up gathered around the piano singing “Piano Man.” It became an anthem for us, which is an odd choice for high school students, because it’s about middle-aged failure and regret. Maybe we could sense it looming, way off down the road.

    Or maybe we were just weird, and it’s a ridiculously catchy song.

    The secret to “Piano Man” is that it presents all these people, but sells the fantasy that *you* can be Billy Joel, too, and that you won’t turn into a total jerk, but you’ll still come back and play in the bar. But it’s fundamentally an honest fantasy, because Billy Joel totally *is* that dude.

  5. Alisha

    This is BRILLIANT.

    1) I’ve always wondered what the hell a real estate novelist is. Does he write books about real estate?

    2) WHO THE HELL WOULD READ A BOOK ABOUT REAL ESTATE?

    3) One of my happiest memories was at the end of my cousin’s wedding when we’d been dancing all night and we were all getting ready to leave (there were buses to and from the venue so the whole party was leaving at the same time) traipsing through the foyer of this cellar door and one of the groomsmen sits down at this grand piano and just starts tapping out Piano Man. We all stopped and had a big magical singalong. Was amazing.

    1. Almie Rose Post author

      Thank you!

      1. Dude, SAME! I guess he means it’s a guy in real estate who wants to be a novelist, but it sounds so stupid, it’s like, maybe you don’t have time for a wife, maybe you don’t have a wife because you call yourself “a real estate novelist.”

      3. “Piano Man” is the BEST “time to go home song” EVER.

      YEEEEAAHHH!!!!!

  6. Sophia

    For a few years, my “thing” was talking about Billy Joel on dates. It just kept coming up, and so I memorized a bunch of random facts about him so I could drop them into conversations. This post has made me want to bring that back!

      1. Sophia

        He was an amateur boxer in his youth! He was really good, but stopped after his nose got broken.

        He owns a boat company.

        He didn’t graduate high school!

        He played piano on Leader of the Pack by the Shangri-Las!

        Apparently he gets a lot of fanmail from American GIs who are in Iraq, because he wrote a song about it.

          1. Sophia

            They are all real facts! There is some dispute about the Leader of the Pack thing, but according to him, he worked on the demo, and may have made it into the final version.

            1. Almie Rose Post author

              Whoever disputes it is an ASSHOLE. IT’S BILLY J, HAVE SOME RESPECT! Am I right or WHAT???

  7. Hey Almie, it's me!

    My friend went Liberty DeVitto’s (BJ’s long time drummer) house once, and when they were there Billy called. That’s all I have. It’s true, but I still feel the need to apologise.

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