The Life of the Piano Man


A photo taken of Billy Joel

If only four-year-old Billy Joel could see that his small hands on the piano would grow to command crowds, conduct piano keys, caress microphones that would rumble through full stadiums, all singing his songs. Billy Joel is a singer-songwriter who, through the 70s and 80s, wrote hit after hit, good song after good song, making future classics that to this day have not dwindled in quality from the gusts of modern-day pop music. His most popular song, “Piano Man,” describes the real-life experiences Joel had as a lounge musician, struggling to get out of a low place in his life and move on in his career. From that moment up to his concert on December 20, 2021, in New York, that Piano Man has come a long way.

Billy Joel was born May 9, 1949, in the Bronx, New York, growing up in Long Island. As a four-year-old toddler, Billy Joel’s mother had signed him up for piano lessons, not knowing the expert he would become merely years later. Joel dropped out of high school to pursue a career in music and took part in two bands, The Hassles, and Atilla. He would sign a record deal to release his lesser-known album Cold Spring Harbor before getting signed to Columbia Records, where he released his second album Piano Man. This album was the breakthrough in his career. Billy went on to release another big album, The Stranger, and hit singles like “Just the Way You Are,” “Only the Good Die Young,” “She’s Always a Woman,” “Movin’ Out,” and more. In the ’80s, Billie tried to establish himself as a rock artist, with songs like “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me,” which topped the Billboard charts. He also released hit songs like “Uptown Girl,” “Innocent Man,” and “The Longest Time.” From the ’90s to today, Joel has toured playing his hits throughout the years, sometimes with well-known artists such as Elton John and Bruce Springsteen. The most sentimental song Billy plays today on tour starts with the nostalgic riff of a piano.

The lyrics of “Piano Man” have been analyzed by musicians to just regular people. The true beauty of “Piano Man” lies in its ability to convey a story. There is no true philosophical meaning behind this song, not outside of the lyrics nor beneath the melody of his harmonica. The song describes people who are in (frankly) a very pathetic low in their life, gathering at a bar to drink away their sorrows and listen to Piano Man glide across the keys. The irony is that the Piano Man in the song, too, is at a low in his life, and Billy was able to use this song and his music to climb out of the rut he was in (Billy is the Piano Man). The song describes these lonely characters, Paul the “real estate novelist,” Dave who’s “stuck in the Navy,” the bartender who has dreams of becoming a star if only he could get out of his situation, and even the old man who wants Billy to play him a melody. Billy, too is lonely like everyone else in the bar, but he uses his piano to make the drinkers “forget about life for a while.”

Billy Joel is a large name in the history of American music. His music and his passion can be respected by so many people. And as the sun sets upon jammed cars coming from work, America begins to sway in its seat when it hears the familiar tune of harmonica and the low “It’s nine o’clock on a Saturday…”