Okay, maybe I’m laying it a little thick, but this truly is an awesome song. Wednesday night I went to see Billy Joel and Elton John in concert. I’ve been a huge Billy Joel fan since high school, and I particularly love Piano Man, because it tells a poignant story in such a beautiful way.
It’s nine o’clock on a Saturday
The regular crowd shuffles in
There’s an old man sitting next to me
Makin’ love to his tonic and gin
The last line of this stanza presents an image that’s almost become a cliché, but I believe Billy Joel was the one to popularize it. If you look at the idea with new eyes, you see what a great job it does of illustrating the way this old man relates to his drink. There’s a seductive relationship between him and not just the alcohol, but the relief it provides.
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.”
A memory. Isn’t that exactly what a song becomes to us as time passes? A snippet of music can be as powerful as a scent in transporting us. And this idea of “a younger man’s clothes” is such a sweet way of indicating the passage of time and the advance of age. You can feel the sadness imbedded in these words.
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 the 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”
What gets me most about this stanza is John’s conviction that he could be somebody if he just had the chance. But really, the reason he hasn’t succeeded is that he’s afraid to make the attempt, to commit to the necessary sacrifices. Maybe John could be a movie star. But I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that he’s never going to try.
Now Paul is a real estate novelist
Who never had time for a wife
And he’s talkin’ with Davy, who’s still in the Navy
And probably will be for life
Davy is another example of someone playing it safe. I don’t get that he’s staying in the service because he loves serving his country. I get that he’s doing it because it’s the easiest way to spend his life. It’s comfortable, a secure job that he doesn’t have to think about. Nothing wrong with the choice he’s made, other than his reason for making it: he’s one of those countless people leading lives of quiet desperation.
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 drinkin’ alone
I love these last two lines. Everyone in this bar is tired of his or her life—they’ve settled in their jobs, their relationships—in everything they do. They go to this place to drown their sorrows, and they’ve learned that it’s better to commiserate together than to suffer by themselves. To me, this is the only hopeful part of the song because it shows that, if nothing else, these people have a community. They may not ever take a risk and live up to their full potential, but they have each other. And really, that’s a lot.
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 comin’ to see
To forget about life for a while
And the piano, it 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 doin’ here?”
This is my favorite stanza. First, I get shivers every time I hear the line about the piano sounding like a carnival and the microphone smelling like a beer. That’s showing. It’s the kind of imagery that sweeps you away and plants a full picture in your head. And then we get to this last line, which for me sums up the whole sad song:
“Man, what are you doin’ here?”
Everyone in this bar knows the piano man has far too much talent to belong in this dive, but he doesn’t believe it, so every night he sits down at that piano and squanders his gift. I suppose one could argue that he’s giving something important to his audience, but for me that’s not the point. For me, he’s the summation of the problems of this little microcosm, the poster child for people who can’t believe in themselves. It’s like the piano man is Billy Joel’s alter ego, the man he would have become if he hadn’t taken chances and allowed his passion to override his doubt.
I’m not really sure why it is that I have such strong feelings for a song that’s about fear. Maybe because deep down, I’ve always felt like the piano man. Afraid to believe in my talent. Scared to leave the safety of the known to explore the uncertainty of the possible. But when I look back over my life, I realize I didn’t let that fear control me. I’ve taken the risks, even when I didn’t have faith in myself. Maybe in part it’s because things like this song inspired me by showing me a picture of what I don’t want my life to become.
Overall, I think the reason I love this story is that I empathize so much with the people in the bar, and particularly the piano man. It’s hard to believe in yourself. It’s painful to feel the wanting, yet be paralyzed by the fear. But the saddest thing of all is knowing that I could lecture the piano man all day long, and I’d never get him to see his true potential.
So what do you think? Have I totally misinterpreted this song? Or do you see it, too? Are you a piano man, or do you know one?
You can find the full lyrics for Piano Man here.