Why “Piano Man” is the Best Song Ever Written.


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.

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23 Responses to Why “Piano Man” is the Best Song Ever Written.

  1. Marla Bowie LePley says:

    I’m not a huge fan of Billy Joel (or Elton John) but Piano Man is probably the song I like best by him. I’ve never tried to analyze it, but I do like the lyrics. They’re picturesque.

    Like

  2. I had always felt the song was about a bar filled with lost and lonely people, but I had never torn it apart as you did. I applaud your in-depth insight!

    Like

    • The song evokes a lot of the western society predicament. You can see something similar in the Hopper painting, Nighthawks. In person, the painting is huge, making the use of negative space unnervingly powerful. You can experience similar sensations in Stories like, ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” -inaction. This you can trace back to Hamlet, at least. And, more contemporaneously, see inaction be mocked in Davis Foster Wallace’s The Infinite Jest. Throw in Tristram Shandy, and, well, there’s a thesis for some bored student.

      Like

    • The song evokes a lot of the western society predicament. You can see something similar in the Hopper painting, Nighthawks. In person, the painting is huge, making the use of negative space unnervingly powerful. You can experience similar sensations in Stories like, ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” -inaction. This you can trace back to Hamlet, at least. And, more contemporaneously, see inaction be mocked in Davis Foster Wallace’s The Infinite Jest. Throw in Tristram Shandy, and, well, there’s a thesis for some bored student.

      In essence, there is pent up tension. This story places the burden on the person who chooses to do little (is incapacitated by the gravity of the decision to be made) forces another to make that decision. Else we all live in limbo. Which we do.

      This is all Philo 101, but a really great, concise demonstration of it.

      Like

  3. Roxie says:

    Lots of mixed feelings about that. Musically, poetically, it’s marvelous. Lovely, haunting melody, poignant, artfully crafted lyrics. But I’ve seen too much of the dark side of “CHeers” to feel cozy about the neighborhood bar, and people who anesthesize themselves rather than face and deal with their lives.So much collateral damage!

    (Oh, and “Davy, who’s still in the navy” is probably gay.)

    Like

  4. tracy brill says:

    Lisa,
    I always enjoy your writing. The poignancy in this analysis lies in my memories of Diane Harris, in her pushing us to see beyond words and find meaning. She is always a little voice in my mind, decades after my too brief high school english class. And, of course, every time I drive by the Springdale Tavern, with the same cars parked out front, I cannot help but think of the community within a community.

    Like

  5. Charlie says:

    I’ve never heard this song, but I love the way you describe it and I can understand why you empathize with the characters. I think that a lot of people are content living an ordinary boring life because the familiar feels safe and comforting to them. I’m thinking maybe the pianoman is perfectly happy where he is, seeing the same faces every night. Maybe he feels like he belongs there? I like what the person wrote above, about the community within a community.

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  6. You know, I always had a slightly different take on this song…I always thought of it as relating a time early in the piano man’s career, when he was just getting started, and he’s since made it out of that bar and on to bigger/better things. Which means the song really ought to be in the past tense, and it’s not, so I’m sure I’m wrong. Odd how I always assumed that!

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  7. shelli says:

    i think at the end of the day we are all piano men trying to make it but helpd back by doubts and fear!

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  8. Barb says:

    I’m with Christine. I’ve always thought of the song as a lookback at the guy’s journey. But I agree with you that it’s fantastic lyrics. Here’s to those moments when we all have to “sing a song.”

    Like

  9. Ahhh….I love this song…it always brings me back to summer. For some reasons, we used to always get in a big circle (with all the staff at camp) and sway and sing to this song.

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  10. Lisa Nowak says:

    Thanks, everyone, for your comments. I’m sorry I haven’t responded to them like I usually do. Things have been crazy this month with getting an agent (yay!) being sick for 2 weeks (yuck) and having several customers wanting me to do some early landscaping work. I’m trying to get my juggling act together so I can stay on top of things.

    I really appreciate all you guys. And Tracy, thanks for the comment about Mrs. Harris. I think about her a lot, too.

    Like

  11. I see the man who is the Piano man as the local hero. He knows everyone in the crowd intimately and to all of them, he is the local hero. What would the bar become without him? While he may have unrecognized talent, the bar is the highlight of his week. He looks forward to performing each week.

    You did an excelent job of this song. I was young and in love when it came out……

    Like

  12. I think this is a wonderful analysis/interpretation of the song and pretty spot on. I’d love to see you tackle Springsteen’s “Blinded By The Light” next. 🙂

    Definitely Billy Joel’s best song, too.

    Like

  13. John says:

    Beautifully said. I agree with every last word you said and empathize with the “Piano Man” in the same ways you do. It’s almost scary how similar our interpretations and thoughts about this song are. Thanks for sharing

    Like

  14. Robert says:

    “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”

    I always felt Paul and Davy were probably closeted gay men. Something about the way the other parts of that stanza go made me feel that. I might be stretching it, but I don’t think I am.

    Like

  15. Dan says:

    Lisa, you have interpreted this song perfectly with one exception. Billy Joel played for 6 months in a small bar in LA while he was trying to get out of his first recording contract. He was hiding and playing under a different name while Columbia Records figured a way to get him out so they could sign him. He has said the characters are based on real people he met. I’m researching because I REALLY want to figure out what song the old man calls a memory. I can not get it from that snippet Mr Joel put in his song. Any ideas?

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  16. No thanks says:

    “Man, what are you doin here”

    I too love this line so deeply, but for different reasons. I think it’s because he knows the piano bar and he loves it, and the people around it, even more. Going on to bigger and better things is impossible because he’s right where he wants to be.

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    • Lisa Nowak says:

      Thank you for sharing. I love this idea. It’s true that talented people are often called to a larger pond, but sometimes the small pond is actually a better fit. Your insights round out my argument.

      Like

  17. rajdavezz99 says:

    I always thought of the Piano Man as a lonely guy playing the instrument in a closed room, with his imaginary friends. He’s old, has no friends, no family, but he still has his pride. He has seen his ambitions die and his body wear out over the years, and all he is left with is the imagination of still being important to a room full of people.

    Like

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