Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” At 50

Billy Joel Concert Courtesy of Getty Images

With the news of Billy Joel’s first single in 17 years, (“Turn the Lights Back On”) being released and the fact that his decade-long residency at Madison Square Garden is ending this year, Billy is very much in the air these days. What better time to embrace his breakout album Piano Man, which has been in our consciousness for half a century?

Billy Joel has been endlessly entertaining. He serves up great storytelling, maestro keyboards, and lush instrumentals along with a signature blend of wit, snark, and sentiment. His songs often build to climactic crescendos, with lyrics that stick. All these elements appear in abundance in 1973’s Piano Man.

Piano Man was not Joel’s first record; that would be 1971’s Cold Spring Harbor. But it was the one that established his persona. Eleven more studio albums would follow until 2001 and his self-imposed moratorium on recording new LPs.

The man famously from Long Island opens with “Travelin’ Prayer,” an undersung tune with an uptempo pace. It’s a prayer for his lady love to be safe while she travels far away. Not a big hit but a fine piece of country-flavored pop, sung with New York briskness.

The second track is the titular “Piano Man.” So much has been said about this masterwork, which remains a poignant delight. Hey, we all know “Davy, who’s still in the Navy” and “Paul, the real estate novelist.” An autobiographical tune about Joel’s days as a piano player in a dive bar, he turns the lens away from himself and onto the sad patrons who “share a drink they call loneliness, but it’s better than drinking alone.” Using a waltz tempo, the beautiful song is an aching story about the human condition.

Next up is the wildly underappreciated “Ain’t No Crime.” It honors our gritty humanity while encouraging us to screw up with impunity. Joel’s boogie-woogie keyboards are vibrant. He did a superb rendition on British TV in 1978 on “The Old Grey Whistle Test.”


Things chill out with “You’re My Home,” a melodic tribute to his wife of the time. This also has a country feel, along with a mix of clever, slightly cringe-y lyrics (“You’re my castle, you’re my cabin and my instant pleasure dome” comes to mind).

Side One closes out with the classic “The Ballad of Billy the Kid,” which got lots of airplay despite its five-and-a-half-minute length. Joel stays in Country mode as he takes artistic license with the story of gunfighter Billy the Kid. Then, in the last verse, he honors another bad-ass Billy…from Oyster Bay, Long Island. It’s a jarring shift, but fans at his shows cheer madly at the hometown reference.

Side Two opens with “Worse Comes to Worst,” a funky rocker that was a follow-up single to “Piano Man” and foretold Joel’s early gig as a lounge pianist. In it, he gives himself an existentialist pep talk as he hits the open road to find his fortune as a musician.

The country/funk continues with “Stop in Nevada,” a virtuoso track filled with empathy for a woman who ends her moribund marriage and forges a new life for herself. (“Oh, and now she’s heading out to California/with some money in her pocket she’s a rocket on the Fourth of July.”) It celebrates female emancipation with its joyous conclusion.

“If I Only Had the Words (To Tell You)” is a beautiful ballad with lush harmonies and an aching sweetness. Cautionary bitterness kicks up on “Somewhere Along the Line,” as Billy ponders how we’ll pay for the bad habits and bad attitudes of our youth.

The closing track is one of Billy’s best-known – and bleakest: that ode to suburban ennui,  “Captain Jack.” It remains a dark character study of a young man who seemingly has the material trappings of life but is so dead from the toes up that he only comes alive when he gets high on “Captain Jack,” a non-specific drug. “Captain Jack” was also the name of a heroin dealer from Joel’s hometown. Intended as an anti-drug song, it remains a much-discussed and sometimes misunderstood classic.

Let’s acknowledge the confounding cover art. Small, old-timey print provides the title and artist. The image is a startlingly eerie close-up of Billy’s face against a black background on the front and the negative image with a white ground on the back. Piano Man is a mystery on the outside and superb tunes with observant themes and memorable musical licks on the inside. What a stellar package.

-Ellen Fagan

Photo: Getty Images


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Ellen Fagan is a forever New Yorker, long-time Greenwich Village resident and vintage Duke University graduate with hippie-esque leanings. The best description of Ellen was given to her by a sardonic lawyer during the voir dire of one of her myriad Jury Duty stints: "...housewife, mom, voracious reader, freelance writer, copy editor, jewelry designer and frequent cyber-sleuth."

6 comments on “Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” At 50

  1. John Smistad

    Super job as usual, Ellen.

    My high school drama teacher suggested that perhaps “Captain Jack” is religion.


    • Ellen Fagan

      Thanks a million, John! I do appreciate you. Your drama teacher gave some fine food for thought, but…religion for “Captain Jack” wouldn’t be my FIRST guess. 🙂

  2. John Smistad

    Nor mine. I’ve always leaned toward 🐴 personally.

    • Ellen Fagan

      An excellent guess! Joel denies it on record, but… who’s to say. I’ll concede some artistic license & deliberate vagueness on his part.

  3. John Smistad

    As it shall, and should, be, my friend. :]

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