makin' peace

Makin' Peace … with "Piano Man"
by Christopher J. Makepeace

I latched onto Billy Joel's music as a kid, perhaps partly because being a small-town boy playing the piano in the 70s would invariably elicit "Gonna be the next Billy Joel?" comments from family friends. (Better that than "Gonna be the next Liberace?," I suppose, but that one did occasionally happen, and a big "Fuck you" to those who said and meant it).

But it was more than simple convenience that drew me to Billy Joel. I really connected with the songs – 52nd Street was my first real "rock" album (that is, one I got myself, instead of borrowing from my older sisters) I spent many a rainy day spinning this LP in our living room Montgomery Ward stereo. Who was this woman that was such a "Big Shot" anyway? How could Billy sound so sweet in "Honesty" and so completely different in "Stiletto?" Why did I hate the jazz break in "Zanzibar" to such a degree that it took me until my college years to be able to listen to trumpet solos again? Could piano pop ever hit the soul-sweet heights as high as "My Life" did?

From there on, I would grab subsequent Billy Joel albums as soon as they hit the shelves: The Stranger, Glass Houses, and personal favorite The Nylon Curtain.

Later on I would find out that most critics seemed to hate Billy, largely for his "faux rocker" tendencies, but at the time I was in my own musical childhood bubble and couldn't have given two shits less. Even later, I realized that most rock critics are frustrated jackasses anyhow, so more props to pre-teens everywhere for just loving what they naturally love.

Billy Joel, to me, meant songs with melody, mushy New York sentiment, and often misdirected anger, but I took it all in and made it my own.

Piano Man

But even way back in the day, I knew Billy's trademark "Piano Man" and never took a shine to it. I sit here now and ask myself yet more questions. Is it the wheezy harmonica? The overly-simple key of C? The pathetic characters that inhabit the song? The ultimate here-and-now hopelessness it conveys, with only the slightest sliver glimmer of goodness?

Perhaps. But affecting me much more deeply was the phenomenon, even in my youth, that whenever I'd sit down at the keys, I'd get at least one request to play the fuckin' song for someone. Even as an attention-seeking kid, I'd politely decline, snarl my lip, and launch instead into the more obscure "Half A Mile Away" in pure protest. Hipster elitism in the 4th grade. Wonderful.

Fast forward to 1993, college, and I'm rather skeptically ushering a Billy Joel concert. I told another usher that if "Piano Man" was played that night – and of course it would be – that I was going to quietly wait outside. She shrugged confusedly in vague agreement.

Sure enough, after what was admittedly a wholly entertaining show, I spied the harmonica-holder slipping over Billy's head, and I was out the door before the first notes could be blown.

The audience inside were linked arm-in-arm, singing like they all went through a war together, while outside I paced anxiously, utterly unable to connect with the feelgood spirit.

2003, and I'm sitting in my studio staring across the room from a neglected Fender Rhodes begging to be played, or at least dusted. If I hear "Piano Man" sneak its way onto my radio these days, I still turn it off, but I'm now comfortable enough to recognize it as a very well written, confidently melodic piece – I particularly appreciate the A minor pre-chorus ("la-la dee-dee-dahhhh …"). It's still way too contrived and maudlin for my tastes, but who am I, really, to endeavor a criticism of a song that can instantly bring strangers together, briefly bonding people of every age as though they had once battled side-by-side in Lyons. Can I say I've written something like that? Hell no.

In my heart, I know that will never come to really love "Piano Man" – because I truly don't, and never have. But at least I can now proclaim my respect for it as a rare and connective piece of art. My own songs may not be nearly as "lame," but I can't say that any one of them could get a midnight-Saturday-night bar crowd singing along, full voice, arm-in-arm-in-arm.