Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” has reached now legendary status, but it wasn’t always that way. My cousin and his fiancé told me a story about Billy Joel that I hope is true, because if it isn’t, it really ruins everything I’m about to write.
They said that Billy Joel was struggling with his record label. He hadn’t delivered what they wanted and they were ready to drop him. They gave him one last chance. “Come in tomorrow,” I imagine they said, “And play us whatever you got left.” That night, a young Mr. William Joel trudged home to Long Island, or wherever the hell he was living, and said to himself, “Billy? It’s time to shine.”
I imagine he sat down at his piano and thought very hard. “It’s time,” he said quietly. “It’s time I give them ‘The Piano Guy.’” (I like to imagine at that point, he hadn’t come up with the now title “Piano Man” but that he was working instead on “The Piano Guy”.)
The song is full of characters who are in dead-end job living sad lives. There’s Paul, a real estate novelist, who never had time for a wife. And he’s talking to Davy, who’s still in the navy, and probably will be for life. That’s heavy stuff for a pop song, Doc. I bet Joel had a talk with a bartender who told him, word-for-word, “Bill, I believe this is killing me. Well I’m sure that I could be a movie star if I could get out of this place.” And then the smile ran away from his face and won a MEDAL for its speed.
Anyway, Joel hammered out this song in one night. He had the bare bones, but it was time for the meat. They wanted a burger, he was going to give them a burger. The next morning he strolled in, with “The Piano Guy” in his head. No sheet music, no nothing — it was all in Casa de Joel en la Cabeza. “William,” I imagine his stuffy manager said. “We’re all in the mood for a melody. And you got us feeling alright.”
“Shit, that’s good,” Joel thought, as he mentally scribbled those lyrics in. “Much better than, ‘we’d like to hear a big fat song and you’ve got us feeling not wrong.’” He sat down at the piano, about to play.
“Uh…William?” his manager interrupted. ”Billy, sir.” “Yes, Billy. Are you going to…show us, anything son? Sheet music? Lyrics? Can you tell us anything? How long this is?” “No,” Mr. Billy said, taking a drag of a cigarette that materialized out of nowhere. “I got this.”
And he puts on his sunglasses and starts to play. And keep in mind, it’s just him and some executives in a room. (This part is apparently true.) It’s just him, singing and playing for his life, with “Piano Man.” He’s fighting for his career with this one song. And it’s the song that becomes one of the most legendary songs of his career and of singer/songwriter history. “Piano Man” is actually one of my least favorite Joel songs; it’s so long and involved, it feels like I’m listening to a book on tape. But you can’t deny the power and endurability of “Piano Man.”
They couldn’t either. After Joel finished playing, the room was silent. Was this a good thing? He wasn’t sure. He takes off his sunglasses. “I guess you guys aren’t ready for that yet. But your kids are gonna love it.”
And their kids did love it. “Piano Man” was Billy Joel’s biggest hit ever and even inspired Bill Clinton to run for President of the United States of America (note: this is probably not true at all as I just made it up, but who knows?)
The point to ALL OF THIS is, Joel was on his last chance and he cranked out his biggest song. What if he gave up? And what if YOU gave up? What if you’re giving up your own “Piano Man”? Get my point here? We can’t give up, because we could be giving up our biggest success without even realizing it. That’s why we have to keep trying, we have to keep going, even when all we want to do is just crash our cars into trees in the Hamptons. We have to keep moving. We have to keep singing our song. We don’t stop until we have our “Piano Man” and then we just keep on flying. Please follow my advice to get to your own “River Of Dreams” and I know you may think I don’t know what I’m talking about, and “You May Be Right” but do it anyway as a “A Matter of Trust” and take my advice even though I’m just “The Stranger” with a weird blog.