Piano Man is one of my favourite songs of all time, it highlights Billy Joel’s talent as a story teller, he doesn’t just tell a story but takes you on a musical journey. As someone who frequently likes to drink a little bit too much and make noises (not dissimilar to the sound of singing) into a microphone for the amusement (or sometimes bemusement or apathy) of an audience (aka kareoke) i consider this a classic to boisterously belt out from the “nine a’clock on a saturday.” to the climactic “man what are you doing here!”
As i partake in this endevour i already have doubts, the meaning of this song is obvious, the theme of this song is escape, all of these characters that Billy Joel introduces to you briefly while you sit by him and he plays them a song that will sooth them of their feelings of age, loneliness and failure. But it’s a bit more complicated than that. While on the face you might think that this is a story of hope, hope to relive old days, hope to “get out of this place.”, hope that you don’t have to “play politics.” with old stoned lecherous bastards.
Piano man is story of someone who gives hope to the hopeless, he plays the piano as they medicate their feelings of loss with alcohol while the sound of the piano makes them forget that they’ll never be young again, it’s too late to try and “find time for a wife.” and for the love of god John you’ll never get out of that place!
The character of the piano man is an enabler of the mass delusion that “when there’s a will there’s a way.” and this delusion is the only thing that these people have as the only option is living with the feeling of loss that they feel until they inevitably die.
I feel this is a heavy burden on the piano man, not only does he have to sit in this grim smoke filled room full of failures and down and outers but he has to put up with the bar patrons, first an old man comes up to him, obviously drunk as he seems to be quite enamoured by his latest G&T, he slurrily declares to the piano man something that basically amounts to “mate can you play this old number i used
to like in the old days, i’m not really sure how it sounds or what it’s called, but can you play it?”
Of course it’s not all bad for the piano man as he seems to get his drinks for free by one of the bar staff, he’s always there with his cheerful demenour cracking jokes, topping up his beer and flashing his lighter to light up a smoke. But it must be quite a bore to put up with his proclaimations of “i hate my job.” “I could have been a contendor.” “I should be starring in pictures.”
Finally the piano man is left alone on his piano he surveys the crowd to see a bunch of lonely old men, mostly businessmen. The odd one out is Davey who is serves in the navy and has no other option but to continue to serve for the rest of his life. Davey is talking to Paul a man who made his money in real estate who now regrets not allowing any time for matters of the heart. The remaining businessmen are all sharing a table and in their drunken (and apparently stoned) state they are making passes at a put upon waitress who is trying to serve them drinking without being grabbed.
Apparently this rabble of lonely businessmen constitutes a pretty good crowd for a saturday, either this means there are alot of them or that the manager’s expectations are pretty low as he smiles at the piano man as he pulls in the rabble. While i said this is a depressing and hopeless story the managers smile represents a bittersweet ending. The piano man is the true winner out of this, he gets to play artist regularly with free drink as a bonus. The crowd need the piano man to play to take the pain away and the manager needs to keep bringing him in as his playing can pull in the rabble.
Of course this is one (admitedly cynical) man’s interpretation, maybe there is a thin layer of hope to this fantastically tragic story. I personally love tragedies and i particularly love a story that has a bitter sweet ending, and this song delivers on all counts.