Billy Joel | Piano Man (Sony Legacy)

 

CD pianomanIt is very easy to look at Billy Joel now and forget that he was once young and angry, and the world was literally his oyster.

 

 

My memory of Billy Joel’s Piano Man, which is being re-released this month on Sony Legacy, is its title track being played endlessly on Schenectady, New York’s WGY while my mom ironed or cooked or whatever other project she had going in the kitchen. That song is all I knew of the album for several years, until high school and the release of The Stranger, at which time Joel’s career went meteoric. At that point, Piano Man served as historical reference to the emotional beginnings of a superstar. Even then, I probably didn’t appreciate the odd window this album offered into Joel, the music industry, and the decade in which I grew up.

The new package contains the original album, remastered, along with a second disc containing a concert originally broadcast onPhiladelphia’s WMMR. The concert, like the album, is a beautiful example of an artist on the verge of stardom.

The underlying story of Piano Man is that LI (as in Long Island) moves to LA (as in Los Angeles) with a trunk full of ideas brewed while playing rock ’n’ roll and soul in the sleepy ’burbs of New York City. A musical collision ensued—East Coast meets West—creating a phenomenon. It is very easy to look at Billy Joel now and forget that he was once young and angry, and the world was literally his oyster.

The album is a typical first effort from a very talented performer. It offered influences that spanned many of his early years, but also revealed attention to craftsmanship that was borne of a less successful experience in the release of his first album. Cold Springs Harbor featured songs that were in-artfully mastered, ones that Joel would rework in the future. The album, garnering bad industry vibe, was barely released and quickly disappeared.

Piano Man, Joel’s first CBS release, was an odd concoction of the two worlds that Joel straddled in the early years of the ’70s. He had grown up on Long Island and played in bands that drew on his love of soul and the blues. His 1970 move to Los Angeles immersed him in a completely different musical environment that was discovering a renewed appreciation for country rock with bands like The Eagles and performers as diverse as Neil Young, John Stewart, Linda Ronstadt, and Jackson Browne. It added another influence on Joel’s writing, which makes this album all the harder to sort out. You can hear songs that he carried from the East Coast to the West, ones that embraced the country twang, and you hear a young performer—certainly confident—reaching out to find the sound that would define him.

Sonically, the album veers among the genres that Joel dabbled in and was shaped by. It starts with “Travelin’ Prayer,” which sounds as if fell off the stage of country hoedown, even featuring explosive banjo riffs. The album moves along through a series of musical genres, but always seems to find its heart in Joel’s ability to tell a story utilizing his powers of observation and wit. The obvious standouts on the album and the songs that would solidify his career were the “Ballad of Billy the Kid” and “Captain Jack.” “Billy” features a tight retelling of the brief yet notorious life of the famed outlaw, but Joel uses the song as a metaphor for his own travels, contrasting the first stanza’s “From a town known as Wheeling, West Virginia/ rode a boy with a six-gun in his hand,” with the final’s “From a town known as Oyster Bay, Long Island/ rode a boy with a six-pack in his hand.” “Captain Jack” was the song that made Joel. Picked up as a bootleg of a live performance, the song was played on the still truly alternative radio of the day. With its honesty and social criticism, this version on Piano Man almost stands out like a sore thumb.

Your sister’s gone out, she on a date.
You just sit at home and masturbate.
Your phone is gonna ring soon, but you just can’t wait
For that call.
So you stand on the corner in your New English clothes.
And you look so polished, from your hair down to your toes.
Ah but still, your finger’s gonna pick your nose
After all.

Joel’s take on the emptiness of life on Long Island (his own and the malaise of the United States at the time) was sharp, and his observations on this song equaled the ones he put together on the album’s title “Piano Man” which would bring him fame and buoy his career. The song was composed from observations during a six-month stint playing piano at the Executive Room onLos Angeles’sWilshire Boulevard. The success of the single also seems to have provided a solid path that Joel would follow throughout his career. “Captain Jack” and “The Ballad of Billy the Kid” revealed the man inside, while “Piano Man,” despite its sharply drawn sketches, cast Joel as an observer. While he would write some really great songs in future years, he never dug as deep as he did on this album. While it is uneven (banjos—need I say more?), it is also filled with a kind of soul that seemed to disappear as Joel became a rock star.

While Joel has continued on and scored tremendous success, he probably never hit a nerve as hard as he did with “Captain Jack,” though he came close with songs like “Only the Good Die Young” and “Allentown.” He chose to play the entertainer and allow his public voice to be one of broad metaphor. He had a choice between being a social commenter or the guy playing piano in a bar—paying attention to the beautiful stories around him and crafting those stories in to succinct, three-minute nuggets—an entertainer. No one can hold it against him that he chose “Uptown Girl” over “Billy the Kid.” B- | Jim Dunn


About Jim Dunn 126 Articles
Jim Dunn grew up in NY in the 70s and 80s. Even though that time in music really shapes his appreciation it does not define it. Music, like his beloved history is a long intermingled path that grows, builds and steals from its past. He lives in Colorado with his lovely wife and a wild bunch of animals.

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