Still getting real here on WMMCM, or in this case real-ish, because while this song is about a person who is very definitely real, it is written and sung by one of the most teeth-grindingly inauthentic artists in the whole history of pop ‘n’ roll. And I’m talking, of course, about Billy Joel and “Piano Man,” a heartfelt tribute to the talent and driving ambition of Billy Joel.
(Postage-stamped just because Billy Joel annoys me. And a link for the e-mailites. Sign up, and get WMMCM in your in-box!)
And if you rolled your eyes at my using a silly rock critics’ term like “inauthentic,” I absolutely agree with you. It’s one of the words I tend to avoid, because the whole idea of a successful rock artist who is “authentic” is kind of ridiculous. Authentic artists are playing for a dozen people on a good night and posting videos of themselves on YouTube, not having their records released by major labels.
A successful major-label act is by definition groomed, shaped, imaged, packaged, and ruthlessly manipulated visually and aurally to fit a particular niche at a particular time. Springsteen was of course the street-savvy poet, Bob Seger, the sexually charged voice of the working man. Simon & Garfunkel were the intellectual urban folkies, and Steely Dan the too-cool aging frat rats who were really a jazz act, if you listened close. Freddie Mercury was the clever glam elf who remade himself as a pumped-up metal god, albeit with indifferent success. And every rock ‘n’ roll anarchist and bad boy from Eric Burdon to Jim Morrison to Johnny Rotten to David Lee Roth has been the product of careful calculation, by themselves and by their handlers.
All these people were hugely talented and/or original — I’m talking about good rock ‘n’ roll here. They and their handlers had something real to work with. But what got them to radio and got them on the charts and into the fast cars and mansions was a refined and reworked and perhaps highly distorted version of their original gifts, overhauled and adapted to make it as certain as possible that it would sell a ton of records.
Not that this is news. The object of the exercise is to sell a ton of records, not provide a platform for the expression of someone’s innermost soul. Anyone who’s heard a lot of free and untrammeled and uncorrupted and unsigned artists can tell you that most of them are unsigned for solid, even excellent reasons. The tension between a genuinely talented artist’s original vision and his desire to be signed by a major label and become very, very rich is almost a defining feature of rock ‘n’ roll.
Many an artist, having succeeded financially, will seek other ways to satisfy the lunatic ambition that is the first requirement for ever even having a shot at being a rock star, and will want to do something different. And then what happens? Artists who find they don’t have to give a damn anymore and can do pretty much as they please almost invariably choose the least interesting available direction — the bad ideas those heartless label execs were smart enough to shoot down. For every Pink Floyd that thrives with less constraint and sells a bajillion records, you have a hundred more like Bruce Springsteen, who when he gained creative freedom became the dull, hectoring nit he’d been at heart all along, and promptly dropped off the charts. Or Prince, a certified pop genius who made a top priority of his battle to be allowed to sink into hopeless, irrelevant self-indulgence. And so he did, and rose no more.
The best pop and rock, having gone through major-label plastic surgery, come out with a still-beating heart and a prettier face, and are the better for it. But the process is supposed to hurt, at least a little. The stitches are supposed to show. And that is exactly what makes hackery, harmless and easily ignored in so many other contexts, so intensely annoying in rock music.
And thus we come at last to Billy Joel and “Piano Man.” From his second album and his first hit, this came out in 1973. In sound and affect, it’s much like a Harry Chapin record, though one hates to make even that connection between a genuine pop eccentric like Chapin and the slick and overcooked Billy.
Let us set the scene:
It’s nine o’clock on a Saturday,
The regular crowd shuffles in
There’s an old man sitting next to me,
Makin’ love to his tonic and gin
He says, “Son can you play me a memory
I’m not really sure how it goes.
But it’s sad and it’s sweet,
And I knew it complete
When I wore a younger man’s clothes.”
OK, I will give him the opening lines, and I will even tolerate “Makin’ love to his tonic and gin,” though the unnatural inversion of “gin and tonic” doesn’t make any sense. But it wouldn’t annoy me from anybody else. But I refuse to allow “When I wore a younger man’s clothes.” The whole point of all this “I’m just a piano player in an L.A. bar” business is that it’s so real, man. And no English-speaking male on earth ever said the words “When I wore a younger man’s clothes” unless he was picked up in the bar by that younger man and borrowed something to wear for the cab ride home in the morning.
Exactly that kind of lyric is the signal and guerdon of an ambitious hack: They get so close, you think they’re gonna say something, and then you get a lyric that is so plainly a “What the f***, it rhymes” that it takes you right out of the song. Bernie Taupin wrote some very weird lyrics, but never something so transparently lazy. And Harry Chapin, of course, would’ve never considered a song finished with such a sloppy, jarring line.
Rock is not always about the words, and I love some songs with deeply stupid lyrics. But if you are going to take on the persona of a genuine, story-telling singer-songwriter, then you need to finish the damn song.
After a refrain that manages, while saying nothing stronger than “You’ve got us feeling all right,” to convey 100 percent pure braggadocio, we get a series of variably condescending portraits of the failures who are too cowardly to pursue their dreams and whose lives Billy brightens a bit. The bartender wants to be a movie star, and there’s a “real estate novelist” (a decent phrase, actually), and Davy “who’s still in the Navy/And probably will be for life.” (Wow, what would Billy have done if that sailor hadn’t been named Davy?) All types, not one original character or thought.
And the waitress is practicing politics,
As the businessmen slowly get stoned,
Yes, they’re sharing a drink they call loneliness
But it’s better than drinking alone
Aside from the condescension, these lines manage to read as both utterly obvious and patently unbelievable. “A drink they call loneliness?” Seriously? It takes some nerve to throw out something like that in a song like this, but Joel always had a knack for lines that, while not actual cliches, are nonetheless hackneyed, weirdly unfamiliarly familiar.
But then we have the last verse:
It’s a pretty good crowd for a Saturday,
And the manager gives me a smile,
‘Cause he knows that it’s me they’ve been coming to see
To forget about life for a while.
And the piano sounds like a carnival,
And the microphone smells like a beer,
And they sit at the bar and put bread in my jar,
And say, ‘Man, what are you doin’ here?’
That is from a different song. Those lines may be the most plausible Billy Joel ever wrote. He was too damn good to be singing in bars, he knew it, and very shortly, he would back up the boast — to say the least. Why, why, why is this great verse buried in such a crappy song? Why did somebody who could write a half-dozen lines that ring so absolutely true ever settle for less? Or, alternatively, how did the guy who loosed “Just the Way You Are” and “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” (who asked you?) upon the world write a half-dozen lines like that? Was the only subject that ever inspired this songwriter to a great lyric, even for a moment…. himself?
But of course Joel proved almost infinitely adaptable, and had a long stretch on the charts with well made, derivative pop Cheez-Whiz that no label exec could ever take exception to, and that is much loved by some, though I have never been able to understand why anybody bought it, in either sense. Though there is hardly such an animal as an “authentic” rock star — I suppose one can’t say it never happened — if it’s going to be worth your time and devotion or mine, there has to be more behind the mask than empty air.