A subdivision of ACIDEMIC

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Open Letter to "The Piano Man"

I never like to write things wherein I'm hating on a song, but there are some songs you just can't avoid. One is Billy Joel's "The Piano Man," a fairly operatic if hopelessly maudlin ballad of working class blues and veiled self-aggrandizement that plays sooner or later in ever grocery store, Rite Aid, bodega, or bagel shop I go into. Nothing's worse than hearing it in the M2M (3rd and 11th in NYC) and then leaving to go the "Fern Cliff" deli across the street for Pepsi Max, and there's the same damn song still playing!

So I wrote a letter to the man, about his song, and his life, and here it is, as originally published c. 2009 in Letters to the Preditor, a now gone website of letters.

Dear Piano Man OR BILLY JOEL,

I need to address your song, "The Piano Man," a fairly operatic if hopelessly maudlin ballad of working class blues and veiled self-aggrandizement that plays sooner or later in ever grocery store, Rite Aid, bodega, or bagel shop I go into, and which I used to hear in bars, and all the annoying people would sing along, and even earlier when I had a car and listened to the radio, it would come on all the time.

So.. instead of hearing, say, a poem by John Donne or Edgar Allen Poe over and over until it's something we all know by heart, we get your mopey drunkard song as the popular ballad of our era. I thought then--to illustrate my annoyance--I'd analyze some of your lines as if we were in a songwriting workshop at an accredited art school.

Assuming you know your own song by heart, as does all of America, let's just skip around a bit:
John is a real estate novelist, who never had time for a wife.
Now that's kind of a double dose of crass and convoluted detail with a double meaning:

One, it infers that you, Billy--the piano man who brings hope and joy or at least melancholy solace to a bunch of working class drunks--instantly has the right to put himself above the sorry state of "real estate" novelists.

Two, what the hell is a real estate novelist? (Heard at bookstore: "I'm looking for the real estate novel section? You know like fictional stories about people buying and selling real estate? Do you know that burgeoning genre?") I imagine it's a real estate agent who spends his evenings moping over rejection letters and working on some fictionalized version of his sad life? Why?

And wait, your friend "John," if that is his real name, "never had time for a wife"? How much time does a wife take? Sorry, but that line reeks of feminist offense. Sorry, ladies, the burgeoning real estate novel genre won't write itself."

Oh you never had 'time' John? Joel makes it sound like a union with a lesser human, i.e. cohabitating in a lifetime partnership of equals--if it's with a female--is like reading War and Peace, or skydiving, as if recounted on a deathbed. "I..."choke"... never had time to do that sky diving thing... or the whole wife thing."

Does John's presence at the bar imply it's far too late for him to settle down? Is he now too old or are you just presuming he's such a loser he'll never find the right woman, one dumb enough to marry a real estate novelist, drunk enough to not notice his alcoholism, but hot enough to fit his unrealistic high standards?

Or is it just that in your jaundiced, overly conservative Little Italy world, a wife is about an hour of time between loafing around at bars and staggering up the steps to the garret of your mistress. God forbid John miss one hour in your company, you beer-soaked self-important maudlin drunk Piano Man!
And he's talking with Davey, who's still in the Navy,
and probably will be for life.
Now, I'm glad Joel finds a rhyme with Davey (Navy!) but in the process he show some serious disrespect for the naval branch of our armed services, which includes the SEALs and the Marine Corps who, frankly, my smug Piano Man, I wouldn't fuck with. When you're lost at sea and they're doing a helicopter search and lowering SEAL divers to rescue you, I hope you remember how you went around equating being a member of one of the greatest of all seafaring organizations into a jail sentence. I'm sure they'll be glad to hear that, over and over, wherever they go off drinking and trying to forget having to kill to keep you safe and drenched in freedom.
And the piano sounds like a carnival
And the microphone smells like a beer
As the piano man in this bar, it's your duty, Billy, to control what your instrument sounds like. If the piano sounds carnivalesque, it's perhaps due to your own limited ability or maudlin tendency towards grandiose flourishes (or both - and if he piano needs tuning, maybe suggest it to the proprietor). And as it is your own microphone that smells of beer, you seem to be in complete denial that you have been drinking, heavily and will soon be driving, or rather weaving, home, singing "The cop pulls me off to the side road / and my car and clothes smell like a beer."
and they sit at the bar and put bread in my jar.
When I was a young child and this "bread" line was fresh on the radio (instead of the overbaked moldy presence it is now) I took it literally to mean they were stuffing slices of bread into your jar. Now that I know it means money it's somehow even more disturbing. Why not say "change" or do they put dollar bills? Be specific --that's the first thing you learn in writing class. Instead it leads into the coup de grace of offensive superiority in your little ballad:
and say "Man, what are you doing here?"
This translates, Piano Man, to some pretty serious disrespect - they're allowed to say it, but when you repeat it, well, it smacks of morose self-pitying grandiosity: "Oh the regulars love me so much they think I should be at Carnegie Hall instead of this dive."

Of course this is very self-deprecating on the part of this barroom crowd, but they're allowed to deprecate themselves... that's what America is all about. You're supposed to validate them and stick up for them, the way they are for you. Instead, your misplaced 'sympathy' amounts to a superior dismissal. Why not something then like "they sit at the bar, occasionally walk over and put change into the jar on my piano and say I'm glad you're here as your playing helps my mood, to which I reply thanks it's a pleasure to be playing for any kind of audience."
It's a pretty good crowd for a Saturday
and the regular crowd shuffles in, there's
An old man sitting next to me / making love to his tonic and gin
Now here's some bad writing that wouldn't pass in a 4th grade poetry class. Just to rhyme gin with in you subvert the order of the name gin and tonic? Very lazy. Meanwhile "making love" to a drink paints only at first a portrait of a sad smiling old man gazing longingly into his ice cubes. But taken deeper, it becomes rather unpleasant to imagine, with ice cubes all over the floor, the man panting and screaming how cold it feels on his disease-ridden member...

Well, don't tell me that wasn't in your mind at least for a split second.

And check out the passive aggressive, misinformed judgment of your audience for the night: "It's pretty good... for a Saturday." Saturday is usually the best night of the week, money-wise, for any bar, and here you're like "it's a good crowd for a Saturday, i.e. it's like your bar is so working class that its best time is Friday happy hour and everyone is home watching The Love Boat on Saturday and drinking sour whiskies and Mary Bloodies and Collins Toms instead of stuffing 'bread' in your dirty little 'jar'.

Even so, college kids will at least be there, and what kind of local bar even has a piano player--especially one of your alleged superiority--on weeknights? Not many.

In other words, Saturday night is going to be at least 60-90% percent of your money for the week. If you don't get a good crowd then you're fucked. So, your phrasing doesn't make any sense! It's like saying "it's a pretty good party, for a New Years Eve," or "you ran pretty damn fast, for a Kenyan."

Do you get the picture, Billy Piano Man Joel? Do I have to even mention the endless "la la la la la" which would be fine in a little bridge or something, but then you add like five more la's, all the way into the little flourish that precedes the bridge: "La la lalala La LA LA LAAAAAAA." It's just not done, Mr. Man. Just not done.

But I feel for you, Billy. I mean, clearly the ubiquity of your hits on the radio ensures you'll always have pocket money, but love? Maybe not. Either way, my whole attitude towards you changed when I saw how your ex-wife Christie Brinkley and her (then) new rich husband, Peter Cook, used you to play at their PBS benefit, which aired as a rerun on PBS a few years ago and I just happened to see.

How sad and lost and disheveled you looked up on that bourgeois stage, my dear Piano Man!

It all became so sad and clear: you had finally gotten out of the place where puffy red-faced Irishmen go "Man what are you doing here?" and made it to exactly the place they had wished you to reach, Carnegie Hall, or thereabouts, the pinnacle of bourgeoisie society, the PBS fund-raising gala, and there's your one-time ticket of goomba respectability, a nice WASP supermodel ex-wife, Christie Brinkley, in her million dollar makeup, hair and gown ensemble, with her born-in-a-tuxedo-at-a-gala new husband, and there's you, kind of looking like some homeless Italian American drunk was dragged off the street, stuffed into a tux and pushed onstage for the amusement of the cruel aristocracy. You made it to Carnegie Hall all right, but as an organ grinder monkey, made to dance at the shouted orders of the well-dressed high society in the audience, including your ex-wife and her new husband. It was like The Blue Angel and Marlene and her strongman shouting for you to crow like a chicken.

I remember how you sat there onstage as they shouted for that song, you know which one, and you were all hunched over, and maybe said in a half-drowned feeble protest, "I don't do that song anymore," as you wanted to play more recent work... but of course, with many a forlorn side look at Christy in the third row holding hands with her husband--you obeyed their jeering, almost mocking command--you started to play, barely singing, finally waving at the audience to continue singing while you barely even bothered to play a note.

Instead of singing, you looked like you were fighting not to cry, remembering the words of that song, how long ago and how far you'd come only to wind up in this humiliating position. "what are you doing here?" indeed. I could feel you having an epiphany, a realization of your own hubris and artistic insecurity, all crashing down on your head in a moment of crushing epiphany.

I loved you, in that moment, Piano Man.

This moment was your kind of Monkey's Paw just reward for all the crimes you committed in writing "the Piano Man" in the first place. Forgive me if I haven't read any interview with you on your opinions towards the song's barroom jukebox inescapability, it's endless use in shopping centers and delis, it's infusion into our psyches. It's enough for me that it has happened, and your passive aggressive snottiness towards sailors, SEALS and overworked real estate novelists led you here, to this moment onstage in front of Christie, and a smirking tux-wearing audience.

But the good part in all this is, and this is why I suddenly loved you, was that you 'got it.' You saw Christie and the dull Anglo Saxon clotheshorse she belonged with--their eyes completely free of any intellect, irony or self-awareness at the cruelty they were inflicting--and you knew it wasn't their fault.  You didn't blame them. They would always be shallow surface dwellers with no depth beyond a wine cellar at their Riviera chateau, but you have levels deeper than the hole in the heart of the world, and here you were in some private Sisyphusian hell of having to sing this one lame surface-only song over and over until you died... and maybe even beyond. You knew then what you were doing there, at that rundown Little Italy bar, instead of up on that PBS stage. That was where you belonged. You'd let pride drag you into this terrifyingly empty moment.

And I could see in your eyes that you weren't mad at Christie for exploiting your still smoldering torch for her by dragging you to this benefit; and you weren't mad about how now they all saw you as the guy who drove home drunk alone from gigs and got pulled over. You were mad at no one, and that's why I loved you. You were finally free. The long byzantine process by which the devil began to slither around you, layering you with gifts and fame, had finally come to its suffocating close. Finally free of all that bourgeois Faustian grass-is-greener fence climbing, free to shrug it off and go back to that working class bar, and start over. And the next time someone says "Man what are you doing here," you are going to punch them in the face, and then you will be healed in God's eyes, and mine.

Erich Kuersten


  1. You've got a lot of anger (and time on your hands. It's just a song.

  2. Someone had to say it. I miss the Billy who used to rip up bad reviews onstage and write those charmingly misogynistic ballads. He really has become a caricature of the piano man he described in the song, doomed to sing the hits over and over. At times he's showed real potential, nothing maudlin about "All For Leyna", it's just the song for wounded romantics like me to listen to over and over to fight back the darkness in one of those dark nights of the soul.

  3. true - as a kid in the 70s I'd listen to my Columbia record and tape club STRANGER cassette incessantly - imagining vast and gaudy Italian rest-a-raunt tapestries of red, white, and rose--or the punk badassery of "I'm moving out" with its revving engines. All the more tragic to see him a drunk and beaten man forced to perform like a-da dancing monkey of a Little Italy organ grinder