Sing a song of me!

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 this:

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.

About Bridey

Bridey has been a music nut since falling in love with Elton John's "Caribou" album in grade school (why that one? I was nine). She's a magazine editor by trade who writes regularly about radio, music, and related industries.
This entry was posted in Cheese By Any Other Name and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Sing a song of me!

  1. Michele says:

    I absolutely loved this post, it was entertaining, witty and fun…and just made my day.
    It was also a great insight into what I have heard of the recording business.
    As for Mr. Joel, I like a couple of his songs, this one, well I could do without the lyrics,
    but I like the rest of it. I do like the piano and harmonica though, that’s something. ♫

    Thank you for this Bridey, it was great!

  2. Kender says:

    I disagree…poetically the lyrics are just where they need to be. Would you happen to have a suggestion for a line to replace “When I wore a younger man’s clothes”?

  3. Jeff says:

    If you were talking about the pop diva’s of today, like all the ones Disney puts out then I would say yes. But not of all record lable rock. The reason those who you’ve named got where they did on the charts is because their music spoke to the people. Freddy Mercury for instantce his voice and vocal range is legendary. He was the sole voice on Bohemian Rapsody. Not to mention they had input into what they wanted. The songs they sang usually was written by themselves. Which ment they had to be not just poets. But poets who knew how to touch that something inside of all those people who listen to and buy their work, and still buy their work. Their work will live on for generations. Your blog against them is already fading from the minds of those who read it. Wait what did you write?

  4. Jan Brown says:

    I liked the song but have to say the lyrics made no sense to me. I’m no write though so I cannot say much – Jan

  5. Kender says:

    This is in response to an article written by a woman called “Bridey” on the website Who Moved My Cheese Metal. Here’ is the original: http://cheesemetal.com/?p=5786

    In this article Bridey calls Billy Joel “one of the most teeth-grindingly, inauthentic artists in the whole history of pop ‘n’ roll” and goes on in an attempt to pick apart the lyrics of Joel’s 1973 hit “Piano Man.”

    What follows are her words and my rebuttal.

    “And if you rolled your eyes at my using a silly rock critics’ term like “inauthentic,” I absolutely agree with you.“

    I take exception to the word “inauthentic” as it relates to Joel. His authenticity is unquestioned. His song writing ability is clearly evident in his many hits and his ability as a musician is superb. An “inauthentic artist” would be any one of the dozens of kids Disney and the rest of the industry has foisted upon us in the name of art over the last couple of decades. Name me one pop sensation that has mastered anything beyond following choreographers directions, much less an instrument. The list would be small I assure you, if, indeed, there is even anyone on it.

    We will skip over the part she wrote about other artists and the music industry as a whole and go right to the meat of this post. Her dissection of Piano Man’s lyrics. Of Joel’s 1973 album that included Piano Man she says:

    “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. “

    So Billy Joel is slick and over cooked? Perhaps Chapin needed a better publicist/hairstylist/what have you. Billy Joel, like so many other artists, went with a quasi-theme to his persona, going so far as to pen “Uptown Girl” which was somewhat self descriptive about his relationship with supermodels Elle MacPherson (whom he was dating) and then Christie Brinkley (who he married) and Billy Joel, Bronx born and Hicksville raised is certainly a downtown man. Joel wrote all of his hits himself, including Uptown Girl, and if that is not authentic I don’t know what is. But onto the lyrics:

    “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.”

    First off, let’s look at tonic and gin as opposed to gin and tonic. It’s much easier to rhyme “gin” than “tonic” and as any writer of prose and poetry will tell you, the phrase must flow, the words should caress your ears and evoke an image. “It’s nine o’clock on a saturday, the regular crowd shuffles in” sets the image in your head. It’s saturday night, there are “regulars” so you know that it’s a meeting place of some sort. “There’s an old man sitting next to me, making love to his tonic and gin” lets you know you’re in a bar. The phrase “making love to his tonic and gin” evokes the image of him holding it gently, sipping it slowly, savoring his drink.

    As for the phrase “When I wore a younger man’s clothes” Bridey takes literalism to new heights. The phrase, to anyone who comprehends English, is instantly recognized to mean “when I was younger” and again it is the artists job to create the flow of words that fit the music and paint images in the listener’s (or reader’s) mind. In nine lines and 61 words Joel sets the scene of a bar full of regular customers on a saturday night with the old man (apparently sad or wistful) nursing a drink and making a request.

    She goes on to call Joel an “ambitious hack” and says he should have “finished the damn song” and for my money an ambitious hack is better than a lazy hack and judging by his success over the last almost 40 years I would say if he IS an ambitious hack then perhaps more of us should be ambitious hacks.

    She goes on:

    “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. “

    First off, who would you expect to find as a regular in a bar, especially a bar with a piano player? The bartender wants to be a movie star? Really? I don’t know if Bridey has ever actually BEEN to Los Angeles, but try finding a bartender/waiter/waitress in this town that DOESN’T have head shots and an agents number in their pocket. This may be the most authentic line of the whole song. The fact is the descriptions Joel gives of the regulars are EXACTLY what you will find in any bar, anywhere with the exception of career choices (those will naturally vary) but the reality of the song is it could have been written to describe just about any run of the mill bar. Now THAT is authenticity.

    Our intrepid Bridey continues with this morsel:

    “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 (a waitress with an interest in politics! What a freak!), 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.”

    Bridey starts this paragraph out with a wonderful example of either not paying attention to the words and phrases or an amazing lack of reading comprehension by stating “Aside from the condescension (a waitress with an interest in politics! What a freak!), these lines manage to read as both utterly obvious and patently unbelievable.” The waitress doesn’t have an interest in politics, she’s PRACTICING politics. There is a vast difference and truth be told, it was this one particular line that caused me to write this article. Most of what was written I could let slide as one persons opinion (and indeed it still is) but such a blatant twisting of the lyrics, such an outrageous reading and accusation could not be left untouched.

    As for the line “Yes, they’re sharing a drink they call loneliness, But it’s better than drinking alone” the nice bit of word play here is clever enough, and drinking a drink they call loneliness which is better than drinking alone brings forth an image of people drinking together yet being alone within the crowd, a feeling most everyone has probably experienced at one time or another. What Joel has done with these “unbelievable, hackneyed, weirdly unfamiliarly (yet somehow familiar)” lyrics is touch the listener on an emotional level by calling forth a feeling common to the human condition, namely the quirky sense of feeling alone in a crowd of your fellow humans.

    She goes on to rip apart the last verse too, and has some demeaning things to say about Joel in the end, asking why the last verse was so great and the rest of the song crap, but I think Joel did exactly what a storyteller is supposed to do. He touches common human experiences, evokes the emotions that accompany them and he does it with a catchy tune which one could easily imagine those lonely regulars singing along to with Joel and maybe, for a moment, not feeling quite so lonely.

  6. Bridey says:

    I’ve been fisked! And I love it! You’re obviously a passionate fan, Kender, which is great. And you are absolutely right about the “waitress” line. That I didn’t get it occurred to me shortly after I posted but I didn’t go back and change it — and of course I should have. Rather a good line, correctly understood.

    That said, the fact that Joel writes his own songs is of course no defense. Most pop artists do, and a songwriter is not exempt from creating hackwork any more than a novelist or poet is.

    I am quite aware of why he inverted “gin and tonic.” He did it because it rhymed. And I don’t think that’s a good enough reason to flip a set phrase. I also stand by my assertion that “When I wore a younger man’s clothes” is a ridiculous way to convey “When I was younger.” (That that is what it is conveying was too obvious to point out.) It is simply sloppy, easy-rhyming stuff. Even you don’t attempt to defend it as anything like idiomatic.

    And I don’t feel any obligation to supply an alternative; I’m not a songwriter, but that hardly disqualifies me from criticizing a lyric I find absurd. I suspect that, since you’re obviously a serious music fan, you’ve thrown out some criticism from time to time without feeling obliged to do what you claim I should do.

    My opinion is unchanged: I consider Billy Joel a superb pianist, an excellent singer, and a hugely talented hack whose music is derivative, unpersuasive, often bombastic, and frequently dull. Though to be fair, it is something to be an artist capable of inspiring such strong feelings.

    And, incidentally, I’ve lived in L.A. all my life, so yes, I am familiar with the waiter/model/actor phenomenon. I simply think Joel evoked it in an inept and obvious manner.

  7. Bridey says:

    Hi, Jeff — thanks for the comment. Freddie Mercury had many gifts, but he was not, in fact, the sole voice heard on “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Al the band members’ voices are heard, and drummer Roger Taylor provided the memorable falsetto.

    As to your other points, I think there is considerable middle ground between the Disney kids and a genuinely great rock act, like, say Springsteen or Tom Petty. That an artist is not a prefab Disney kid is wonderful — but it isn’t enough. Not by a long shot.

    That my blog got your attention long enough for you to respond is great, and I appreciate it. We aren’t carving on stone here, just writing what we think.

  8. Kender says:

    Bridey, you said “I suspect that, since you’re obviously a serious music fan, you’ve thrown out some criticism from time to time without feeling obliged to do what you claim I should do” regarding my suggestion to you to offer up an alternative lyric. In fact I have offered up alternative lyrics to well established songs on those rare occasions I take exception to their words, and have sat with several song writer friends rewriting lyrics when they asked me to do so. As for as being a music fan I think I am an average to slightly above average music fan. But I have close friends who can discuss the most in depth subjects of music, from almost any genre, many of them accomplished artists themselves.

    Why I defended Joel’s Piano Man is not because of my love of music my rather a deeper passion of mine, the written word. I’m a bit of a poet and words are magic, when used correctly, and to be used correctly to reach the largest possible audience they must flow, caressing the ear and stroking those chords in your heart that touch an emotional place. This ability to touch emotions is one of the few things that brings humanity together and creates a common bond, strengthens ties and community and personalizes the “other” in people, and it is not a skill to be taken lightly.

    If Joel is “derivative, unpersuasive, often bombastic, and frequently dull” then I put forth that the bulk of humanity must also be derivative, unpersuasive, often bombastic, and frequently dull. He’s certainly not as clever as They Might Be Giants of The Spin Doctors can be at times, but his music speaks to a broad swath of humanity over several decades now, which means he has consistently touched untold people in a way that is uncommon and meaningful to his fans, and is that not the mark of a great artist?

  9. Kender says:

    I meant They Might Be Giants OR The Spin Doctors…sorry for the typo

  10. Bridey says:

    Kender, good for you, but the demand that someone be able to write a better line before criticizing a lyric is still silly. I don’t claim to have the ability to write a better TV show than “Hawaii 5-0″ but I still feel perfectly entitled to say it’s terrible.

    As far as your passion for the written word, that’s great. I wish there were more of it about; I’ve made my living as a writer and editor for some years, so I have rather strong feelings about the language myself. But this is simply a difference of opinion and taste. What strikes you as powerful and evocative strikes me as tiresome and puerile. I realize Billy Joel means a lot to people, but that is neither here nor there with regard to my own opinion. He may touch your emotions and those of millions. He touches mine only to the extent that he annoys me. The painter Thomas Kinkade means a lot to people too. He sells millions of paintings and prints and he’s quite technically skilled in his field, as is Billy Joel. But that doesn’t, in itself, make their work good. The mark of a great artist is, in fact, great art.

    I don’t know how They Might Be Giants or Spin Doctors got into this; I’ve never mentioned them here. If you mean they’re shallow and silly, I quite agree.

  11. Kender says:

    actually the spin doctors have some quite clever lyrics and TMBG have some lyrics that you simply will not understand without some education under your belt. I brought them up as examples of clever lyricists….

  12. Bridey says:

    Kender, my understanding and education are just fine, thank you. I simply do not care for the too-cute, too-clever lyrics of the artists you mention.

    I have gone out of my way to be civil to you, but you continue to insist that mere differences of taste are reflections of comprehension or character. I will not be flamed on my own blog. This conversation is at an end.