'Piano Man'

September 6, 2019

Title: “Piano Man”

Artist: Billy Joel

Release date: 1973

Favorite track: “The Ballad of Billy the Kid”

 

After a reader dropped by the office to point out a different version of a Billy Joel song I didn’t address in a recent column about “Turnstiles,” I felt like it was my duty to brush up on Joel’s music.

Because the title track, “Piano Man,” is so wonderful, it seemed like a good idea to start with this album — one often compared to the music of James Taylor, John Denver and, most frequently, Elton John and his 1970 album, “Tumbleweed Connection.”

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t file the two iconic songwriters — Joel and John — in the same folder of my mind, but I didn’t listen to “Tumbleweed Connection,” before I wrote this, so it wouldn’t compete for my attention or affection.

I have space in my heart for both.

“Piano Man” was Joel’s first album with Columbia Records. It’s fascinating listening to it now, after recently hearing “Turnstiles,” because they’re so different.

Popular musicians in the early ‘70s were so drawn to this signature blend of folk- and country-rock, and I honestly dig it. The storytelling lends itself well to Joel’s sometimes gruff, but passionate vocals.

 

MUSIC

I’m a stickler for a good album arrangement, and this one’s got it.

I have no qualms admitting I enjoy a fast-paced opener and a thoughtful closer. With its quick pitter-patter beat and fast-paced banjo, “Travelin’ Prayer” is the perfect album opener. It’s a cool country song that sounds extra western with the female vocals in Dolly Parton’s popular 1999 cover version.

The record ends with “Captain Jack,” which Joel has said is anti-drugs, because it describes a man going nowhere in life. While the lyrics are, as some describe, depressing, that’s kind of the point. Its cinematic style still leaves the album on a note of grandeur, which I prefer.

The title track is this album’s dynamite.

It’s hard to pinpoint what it is about “Piano Man” that unites people. The lyrics are loosely based on Joel’s time as a lounge musician in L.A. The music video illustrates it perfectly. It’s exactly what you picture, beer glasses and swaying heads huddled around a man behind a piano.

 

Sing us a song, you’re the piano man

Sing us a song tonight

Well, we’re all in the mood for a melody

And you’ve got us feelin’ alright

— “Piano Man”

 

Joel’s later song, “The Entertainer,” refers to the editing of “Piano Man.”

 

It was a beautiful song, but it ran too long

If you’re gonna have a hit,

you gotta make it fit

So they cut it down to 3:05

— “The Entertainer”

 

“Piano Man” is one of the greats. In 2015, it was selected as one of 25 sound recordings to be preserved by the Library of Congress National Recording Registry for being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.”

“You’re My Home” is a truly sweet, sentimental song Joel wrote about his first wife, Elizabeth Weber. The lyrics are simple and, because of that, effective.

 

Well I never had a place

That I could call my very own

But that’s all right my love

‘Cause you’re my home

— “You’re My Home”

 

The piano music in “The Ballad of Billy the Kid” is my absolute favorite. I’m already a sucker for piano players (no surprise there) — and I’m sorry I sound cliché — but this song musically reels me in from the first note.

“The Ballad of Billy the Kid” is not an accurate telling of the real outlaw Billy the Kid, but it’s still my style — plus, it mentions Oklahoma (where I’m from).

Although released as a single, “Worse Comes to Worst” isn’t a stand-out song for me. I do like the title. “Stop in Nevada” has some of the same gusto as “Piano Man,” so it’s another winner.

I haven’t heard every Joel album, but this is vying for my favorite.

DESIGN

I find this album art haunting, but in a good way.

Bill Imhoff made the cover illustration. He specialized in photo-realistic portraits and did many artists’ album covers, although I didn’t see an overwhelming amount of information about him online.

He sure made Joel’s eyes look like wells of emotion.
 

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