Once in a while you do come across some instant classics such as “Piano Man” by Billy Joel. After listening to the song on repeat for about 2 hours straight, we decided to take a gander at the beautiful stories this song tells. Get ready for a beautifully tragic ride.
“Piano Man” is a song written and performed by the legend Billy Joel himself. He wrote the song for his second studio album of the same name. The song was released as a single on November 2, 1973. Almost 50 years later, this song still remains a classic that endures time.
“Piano Man” Accolades
In 1974, “Piano Man” peaked at #25 on Billboard Hot 100, making it Joel’s most successful song at the time. The song reached #10 in Canada.
In 2015, the Library of Congress selected “Piano Man” for preservation in the National Recording Registry for its “cultural, historic, or artistic significance.”
The song also made it into Rolling Stone magazine’s ‘The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time‘ list at #429.
The inspiration behind “Piano Man” by Billy Joel
Billy Joel drew inspiration for “Piano Man” from his own experience of working as a piano-lounge singer at the Executive Room bar in the Wilshire district of Los Angeles. He worked there for six months under the alias of ‘Bill Martin’ in 1972-73, during somewhat of a tough patch in his life. Billy talked about the song and its success in an interview with Metro newspaper in 2006;
It was a gig I did for about six months just to pay rent. I was living in LA and trying to get out of a bad record contract I’d signed. Then I worked under an assumed name, the Piano Stylings of Bill Martin, and just bulls–ted my way through it. I have no idea why that song became so popular. It’s like a karaoke favorite. The melody is not very good and very repetitious, while the lyrics are like limericks. I was shocked and embarrassed when it became a hit. But my songs are like my kids and I look at that song and think: ‘My kid did pretty well.'”
What is the song “Piano Man” about?
“Piano Man” is a song about a Saturday night in a lounge-bar setting where the live entertainment is a singer /pianist. The song is sung from the point of the pianist who narrates some of the stories of the regulars at the bar. One common feature among everyone present at the bar is that nobody actually wants to be there. And yes, this is common for the piano man himself.
Notable characters in the song are; An old man, John the bartender, the waitress, businessmen, and bar regulars like ‘real estate novelist’ Paul, and US Navy sailor, Davy.
The chorus of the song breaks POV. All of a sudden the entire bar full of people explode into a karaoke, asking the piano man to sing them a song and keep them entertained for the night.
Are the characters in “Piano Man” based on real people?
Yes. Billy Joel spoke about the characters that he sings of in his iconic track with AccessOnline;
“Yeah. John was the bartender. Paul was this real estate guy who wanted to write the great American novel and Davey was a guy who was in the Navy. It’s a true story and I knew when I was doing the gig, I said, ‘I gotta get a song out of this’ and it worked out.“
“Even the girl in the song, that says ‘And the waitress is practicing politics, as the businessmen slowly get stoned’ – that was my first wife. She was working there too, as a waitress.”
Songfacts reveal about the Navy man Davy;
The lyrics, “And he’s talkin’ with Davy who’s still in the Navy and probably will be for life” were inspired by David Heintz. His daughter Lisa told us: “He met Billy Joel in a pub in Spain in 1972 while he was in the Navy. He married while he was in the navy, had three children. He passed away in 2003 of ALS. It really hurts when I hear this song played on the radio and they leave this part out.”
Watch “Piano Man” Music Video by Billy Joel
Buy ‘Billy Joel Essentials’ Album on Apple Music and Amazon
“Piano Man” Song Meaning and Lyrics Review
After an iconic instrumental intro with a piano and a harmonica, Billy Joel gets to work.
It’s nine o’clock on a Saturday
The regular crowd shuffles in
In the first two lines of the song, Billy Joel sets the setting for the entire song. It’s a Saturday night at Billy’s piano bar where he played for six months in 1972. The regular crowd starts trickling in and Billy knows some of their stories.
Billy gets a request from an old man sitting right next to his piano (maybe the old man has hearing problems and doesn’t mind the piano blasting “like a carnival”). The old man is sipping on some gin and tonic and asks Billy to play him a memory. The old man cannot recall the song’s name, but just remembers emotions it invoked in him “it’s sad and it’s sweet.” He just wants to be taken back to a different time–a younger time when he was full of life and youth!
The lyrics iconically sing “tonic and gin” instead of the colloquial use “gin and tonic.” Billy Joel explained that even this was based on real experience; “the old guy was drinking. He didn’t call it gin and tonic. I’ll have a gin and tonic.”
The iconic lullaby of “La, la-la, di-dee-da / La-la, di-dee-da, da-dum” is Billy Joel singing for the old man. Billy himself does not know what to sing to the old man, so he just fills in. The old man would be satisfied of this.
The infamous lyrics ensue;
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 feeling alright
In the chorus of the song, the regulars at the bar start chiming in. The crowd asks Billy to sing a song for them. They say they are in the mood for a melody on this fine Saturday night. They are in this joyous mood not necessarily because they are happy, but rather they want to forget their real lives at least for these few hours.
In the second verse of “Piano Man,” Billy talks about John the bartender. John is a friend of Billy and pours his drinks for free. Since Billy knows John on a personal level, he knows that John aches to get out of this bar.
Billy sings how John is a bartender of exquisite skills–he is quick to make anyone laugh with a joke and always handy with a lighter for anyone who needs it. For anyone else, John the bartender might seem like he is having the time of his life. But Billy knows better. He recalls the time (or many times) John has said to him; “Bill, I believe this is killing me.” As soon as he says this, his usual smiling temperance disappears. This is truly tragic!
John has a dream–a dream to be a movie star.
In the music video for “Piano Man,” we see each one of these characters in the lounge bar. We see John looking at himself in the bar counter mirror. He might not have the typical ‘Hollywood’ cut and shape, but he certainly has the attitude to make up for it.
In the third verse of the song, Billy Joel brings in a few more characters.
First, he talks about Paul the real estate novelist. Again, Paul is inspired by a real-life character Billy knew at the bar. Paul had to dedicate his life to his job as a real estate agent. But this is not what he wanted to do. He wanted to be a novelist; “Paul was this real estate guy who wanted to write the great American novel.” Maybe Paul is working on his great American novel, but Billy knows for sure that the novel is not finished. If it was finished, Paul would not be drinking at a bar, talking to a random guy who he met there.
Paul is all by himself at the bar for a reason. He dedicated his life to his career and he never had time for a wife. He is trying to fill the loneliness in his life by hanging at the bar every Saturday night.
Watch Elton John and Billy Joel Perform “Piano Man” Live
Paul is talking to Davy, a guy from the Navy. Billy Joel sings that Davy, too, had a similar story to that of Paul. Davy committed his life to the Navy and he could never find a life on land. Billy sings that Davy will probably be in the Navy for Davy’s entire life. This doesn’t sound too enthusiastic, which tells us that Davy loathes to have a life outside of the Navy.
Next, Billy Joel sings about the waitress at the lounge. The waitress is a real-life person, too. In fact, Billy Joel married this waitress, one named Elizabeth Webber. According to NYPost, Billy was married to Elizabeth Webber when they moved to Los Angeles in 1972 and Billy began playing piano at the Executive Room bar, while Elizabeth worked as a waitress.
Billy Joel sings about the waitress;
And the waitress is practicing politics
As the businessmen slowly get stoned
“Practicing politics” could be referring to the waitress muttering sweet nothings in the ears of the wealthy businessmen getting drunk as the night goes on. She might be looking to make some extra tips. Another idea would be that the waitress is actually practicing law to get into politics or pursue some other higher aspirations than being stuck in a bar.
The saddest part of “Piano Man” which directly addresses the theme of the song follows next;
Yes, they’re sharing a drink they call loneliness
But it’s better than drinkin’ alone
The underlying theme of the song is ‘loneliness.’ Each person described in the song has unfulfilled dreams. Neither character is described to be at the bar with their partners. Everyone is just here to burn a few quick hours of their reality.
However, being at a bar, chatting up with some familiar faces, listening to Billy Joel sing and play the piano, and forgetting their drowned aspirations is better than being alone at home.
Characters in “Piano Man” and what they actually want
- An old man – wants to be in his youth
- John the bartender – wants to be a movie star
- Paul the real-estate broker – wants to be a best-selling novelist
- Davy in the Navy – wants to escape from being locked in the sea
- Waitress – wants to be in politics
- The Piano Man – wants to have a successful musical career
Watch Billy Joel Perform “Piano Man” Live at Yankee Stadium in 1990
In the fourth and the final verse of “Piano Man,” Billy Joel introduces us to one more character at the bar–the bar manager. In contrast to the entirety of the song so far, the bar manager might be the only person here who actually wants to be here. For one; it’s his bar and most likely his passion. Also; Billy Joel is performing (although Billy was relatively an unknown figure at the time due to his debut album failing miserably) and the crowd just loves it.
The manager smiles at Billy to show his appreciation. There is a pretty decent crowd this Saturday night and drunk businessmen, single and rich real estate brokers, and Navy men have money to throw on booze and smokes. Good business. The manager knows that ‘Bill Martin’ is a big factor that all these people keep pouring in without fail.
Billy Joel sings his heart out and plays the piano the same. He knows all these people are here looking for some sort of escape from reality. And music is the universal language that appeals to everyone alike. So, Billy does what he knows best. His piano blares like a carnival. The crowd goes wild.
And they sit at the bar and put bread in my jar
The crowd appreciates Billy, too. They pour in with tips into the jar Billy has in front of his piano. He is earning his bread.
And finally, we hear that the Piano Man himself does not belong at this bar;
And say, “Man, what are you doin’ here?”
The crowd knows that this singer/pianist is too good for a small lounge bar like they sit in right now. And they ask him ‘what are you doing here?’ With that, we close the chapter on the piano man himself. Billy Joel was singing about everyone else’s aspirations and dreams so far. Finally, he voiced his audience to tell himself that you deserve better–that you can do better!
“Piano Man” is a song of epic proportions. From lyrics to the music to composition and to instrumentals. Above all, the song captures a timeless idea of loneliness that surrounds us all. We are what we make ourselves to be. Make sure to spend your time wisely.
Let us hear what you think about this song in the comments below. Check out the complete lyrics on Genius.