of the week

Billy Joel is one artist I’ve loved ever since I heard Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song) when it first came out in 1978 and have tried a few times, unsuccessfully, to get tickets to see him. In December 2023 it was announced he was doing just one date in the UK in 2024 and Cardiff’s Principality Stadium was the chosen venue and Billy’s first ever gig in Wales. I was online so quickly and waited patiently for the lines to open and, before I knew it, not only did I have tickets but was more or less right at the front. Billy, here I come. Just two weeks after securing them, I get a request for Piano Man, one of Billy most famous songs that, not only became the title track of his 1973 album but also the title of his 2004 Greatest Hits collective that has spent over 130 weeks on the UK album chart yet the song, when released as a single, was never a UK hit. Go figure!

There is something about autobiographical songs and the way they are portrayed that really give you a sense of really knowing the protagonist. Listen to Andrew Gold’s Lonely Boy or Janis Ian’s At Seventeen and you almost feel like you know them, the same applies to Billy Joel’s Piano Man.

For many years it was disputed as to whether Billy Joel played piano, as a session musician, on the two Shangri-la’s UK hits Leader of the Pack and Remember (Walkin’ In The Sand) and it was eventually confirmed that he did. He didn’t remember at the time because as a session musician, you turn up, play your part, get paid and leave and especially as Mary Weiss, the lead singer who passed away the I wrote this, wasn’t present at the time. Her vocals were added later. He then joined a group called The Hassles before embarking on an amazing solo career.

In the second verse of Piano Man, there is a line that says, ‘Bill, I believe this is killing me as the smile ran away from his face’ and you wonder why the piano man is referred to as Bill, well, at the time, Billy was using the pseudonym Bill Martin with Martin being Joel’s real middle name. In a 2006 interview, Billy explained how it began, “It was a gig I did for about six months just to pay rent. I was living in L.A. and trying to get out of a bad record contract I’d signed. I worked under an assumed name, the Piano Stylings of Bill Martin, and just bullshitted my way through it. I have no idea why that song became so popular. It’s like a karaoke favourite. The melody is not very good and very repetitious, while the lyrics are like limericks. I was shocked and embarrassed when it became a hit. But my songs are like my kids and I look at that song and think, ‘My kid did pretty well.'”

You can just imagine him turning up each night and having a chat with ‘John’ at the bar before the night gets going and then comparing notes at the end of the night over a glass of scotch.

Verse three tells us about a real estate novelist called Paul, this was a real person too who, at the time, claimed to be working on a novel but Billy never imagined he would finish it as he was ‘always’ in the bar. Two other notable ‘characters’ are Davy who really used to be in the navy and whose real name was David Heintz and who had really met Billy Joel in a pub in Spain in 1972. His daughter, Lisa, gave an interview saying, “He married while he was in the navy, had three children and sadly passed away in 2003.” The other one was a waitress called Elizabeth who ‘practiced politics’ and she actually worked at the bar and then became Joel’s real first wife. The killer line comes at the end of verse three which says, ‘Yes, they’re sharing a drink they call loneliness, but it’s better than drinking alone’.

The song also features a harmonica part which Billy included after being inspired by Bob Dylan, he said, “Bob was the first person I saw who used a strap to hold the harmonica whilst he played another instrument.”

The whole premise of the song is to entertain the ‘lonely’ punters most of which are in a dull job, with dull lives and unfulfilled dreams and his job is help them forget all their woes just for a night. The people in the bar really used to say, “Sing us a song you’re the piano man” which forms the chorus of the song. If he sings them the right song then they will ‘put bread in my jar’ meaning he’ll get tips, as verse four states and they will ask, ‘Man, what are you doing here?’

Saturday night is obviously the busiest night of the week as you can imagine most of the patrons are not weekend workers and if the manager is happy he will give Bill a knowing smile.

Between 1994 and 2010, Billy Joel toured extensively with fellow pianist and musician Elton John, who, incidentally, referenced the Piano Man in his song Tiny Dancer, the Face to Face tours are noted for being the longest running and most successful concert tandem in pop music history.

Joel was not a fan of the song in the early days and as he points out the song can be quite dull when played in this format. He explained to the U.S. radio shock-jock Howard Stern in 2014, “I think it’s a decent song. It doesn’t change too much. When they play it on the piano as an instrumental, it gets really boring because it’s the same thing over and over and over.” It seems that Billy has a different opinion on Piano Man now as he will often include it in the encore at his live shows. I’ll let you know after I’ve seen him in August.