Published on May 13th, 2014 | by Andy Sedlak
‘Piano Man’ – Billy Joel 
Summary: Joel rebounds from an awkward debut and brings it with the vignettes, ballads and don’t-screw-with-me rockers. This is a young man gathering his thoughts and laying a foundation that would lead to one of the most lucrative careers in music.
Length: 42:51 | Released: Nov. 9, 1973
Producer: Michael Stewart | Label: Columbia
Top 40 U.S. Singles: 1 | Peak Position on Billboard Album Chart: 27
Piano Man opens with a lonesome soul staring at lines along the highway. They’re probably rushing by as quickly as his lover’s patience.
That song, “Travelin’ Prayer,” is about road-weariness. But it’s also about business. And obligations. And the people you leave behind on a “temporary” basis. It’s about hoping the other person understands like they say they do and that in the end it’s all worth it.
But you also sense the narrator is pushing his luck. Welcome to Piano Man.
Billy plays “Travelin’ Prayer” a few years after its release.
Released by Columbia in the fall of 1973, Piano Man is unapologetically poetic. Yet it also thumps a little harder than what was customary for a singer-songwriter courting AM radio in the 1970s. It’s the first proper record from Joel, then a 23-year-old kid. He was two years removed from a botched solo debut (his voice was bizarrely sped up during mastering) and only three years beyond a chillingly awkward suicide attempt in which Joel found himself drinking furniture polish.
The record would be the turning point. Piano Man established Joel as, well, you know. It gave him a hit single and an album critically well-received. It showcased rock, classical and saloon-style playing. He was probably a more complete Elton John, wearing both the lyrical and musical hats. There was humor beyond the poetry and Joel made the most of both twenty-something cynicism and quality filler.
From “Ain’t No Crime:”
Well now you tell me you love somebody
And you’ll love ’em forever
You may love ’em forever
But you won’t like ’em all of the time
Well now you tell me you need somebody for the rest of your life
You might have somebody
But you won’t want ’em every day
Joel has been married how many times now? A new sadness coats those lines with the passage of time. They’re nestled within an album that, generally speaking, is more consistently autobiographical than some of his later works.
From “Worse Comes to Worst:”
I’ll do my writing on my road guitar
And make a living at a piano bar
If that’s not Joel then who is it? Further, the vignettes that would make him famous on The Stranger and The Nylon Curtain were already coming to life on tracks like “Stop in Nevada.”
She tried for years to be a good wife
It never quite got off the ground
And all those stories of the good life
Convinced her not to hang around
The forward-looking “Somewhere Along the Line” almost previews the righteous-but-grumpy old man that would dim the lights on his recording career on River of Dreams.
Hey, it’s good to be a young man
And to live the way you please
Yes, a young man is the king of every kingdom that he sees
But there’s an old and feeble man not far behind
Oh, that surely will catch up to him
Somewhere along the line
A 1980 piece on Joel from ABC’s 20/20.
The love songs here are marvelous.
“You’re My Home” and “If I Only Had the Words (To Tell You)” are two of the most openly sensitive songs in his catalog. But while the poofy 70s-era drum sounds dominate the uptempo tracks, 70s-era schmaltz dominates Piano Man’s ballads. Look past it. I’m telling you.
I need you in my house because you’re my home
Tell me, why didn’t Willie Nelson cover that? Aside from the strange reference to a “pleasure dome,” it’s bullion. Whoever his intended target was – whether actual or imaginary – got the best out of him. And one wishes the same inspiration was there now.
If I only had the words to tell you
If you only had the time to understand
That latter bit is, of course, the tricky part.
But Piano Man’s calling card remains the title cut. It’s like Martin Scorsese and Barry Levinson collaborated on a song, to stellar results. There are times – when it catches me right – that I’ll still tear up when Joel describes Davy in the Navy. And Lord, the aging bartender who still catches himself daydreaming is a heartbreaking reality for any fellow romantic. Melody, lyric and the playing become a unified piece of art. It’s damn near perfect, and it’s been a companion of mine for many years.
“Captain Jack,” meanwhile, could have been another character sitting at the piano bar. The song’s narrator spares no dingy detail to show us what life in his early 20s has become. If Captain Jack is the pusher man, he’s got this kid hooked. It’s a perverse tragedy.
There’s an argument to be made that Piano Man was taken out of the oven a little too early. As good as aspects of “Somewhere Along the Line,” “Ain’t No Crime” and “Worse Comes to Worst” are, the songs feel largely unfinished. The album was produced by Michael Stewart, whose brother John was in the Kingston Trio. It’s conventionally produced – steered and geared toward AM radio. And that’s not really who Joel was.
And before I forget … “The Ballad of Billy the Kid?” No, thanks. That kind of thing is charming on an outtakes record. Nowhere else.
The video for the album’s signature title track.
Piano Man was really the start of one of the most lucrative rock careers of all time. Joel released 11 studio albums from 1973 to 1993. He released one a year from 1976 – 1978. Joel’s notched 33 Top 40 hits – there were seven hits on 1983’s An Innocent Man and five on 1977’s The Stranger. Joel’s collected six Grammy awards. A Kennedy Center honoree, he was inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame in 1992 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999.
If nothing else, Piano Man would be famous for simply being the start of all of that.
It’s stunning now to realize Joel has now been away from the studio for as long as he was in it. But what an introduction, huh? In spite of some of the record’s drawbacks, Joel still represented a new kind of writer and player. A fresh return to piano rock. I wasn’t kicking in 1973, but I have to imagine rock fans were thinking there might be good days ahead after this release. And there certainly were.
If the album seems a little fragmented, it’s because Joel had just started scratching the surface. The Stranger was still four years away. But after Piano Man, it was apparent that it was coming.