I heard my first Billy Joel song one random afternoon as my family was driving down some random highway. Dad was always a big fan of Western music and frequently put on tracks by the Beatles, the Bee Gees, and other dated artists while we were in the car. (I guess there was something about the easy listening genre that made it suitable for kids.) Since the internet was still new and Spotify had yet to be created, the only time I could listen to music was in the car. Ultimately, the music became interesting, emotional, and cathartic, so I fell in love with those artists and the ballads they often write.
But Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are” was different. Compared to the traditional structure of my other favorite songs, this one opened to a sharp, bitter rift where the melody was more subdued and hidden, forcing you to concentrate more on where the notes will go. It was something that I had never heard before, and it made me want to hear it over and over again.
Now you’d think that some washed-up American would probably not be the first musical artist a Chinese boy would follow. And you’d be right. I heard my first Billy Joel song when I was seven, and I wouldn’t hear another one until I was fifteen, when “Uptown Girl” blared out one morning inside a coffee shop. Joel’s own versatility as an artist didn’t help either; for a long time I found it difficult to get his style. He has bluesy-sounding tracks like “New York State of Mind” and “Baby Grand,” but then he can easily shift into his pop rock persona, with “Only the Good Die Young” and “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” He even did some Doo-Wop acapella with “The Longest Time.” Not because the songs I listed above aren’t great (in fact, they are awesome and you should totally go listen to them), but I will always see him as the piano man and the works he has written with the instrument itself.
Take, for example, the most famous of Billy Joel’s songs, “Piano Man,” which is one the first classics he created. It’s a song that has often fitted itself within the shouts of gleeful drunks and retro jukeboxes found in your local bars. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. After all, the entirety of “Piano Man” is a story about a weekend bar scene and the subsequent occupants inside. But what’s really cool is how such a scene is painted so clearly and descriptive within the song’s opening lines. The jazz-esque chords of the piano, which brilliantly play well with the whistling rings of the harmonica, set the tone, and the words Joel uses next are descriptive, memorable, and somehow manages to capture a tragic sense of why people go to bars in the first place.
We can visualize an old man nostalgic for his younger self, asking Joel to “play him a memory” from his glory days. We can clearly empathize with John, the friendly bartender “who’s quick with a joke/and to light up your smoke” but ultimately feels trapped by his work. We can understand the sentiment Joel echoes through Paul and Davy, as they talked about how their jobs as a real estate agent and a naval officer cuts into their personal lives. Then there’s that “waitress practicing politics” with the businessman, not because she’s particularly interested but rather out of loneliness.
When the song finally finishes, its focus on Joel himself. He realizes that his role in this song makes them “forget about life for a while”–an apt metaphor to the way music affects our lives and the way it heals with our emotions. At the same time, Joel is also playing this song for the listener, and we realize how easy it is for us to lose ourselves when its “9 o’clock on a Saturday” just to start “feeling all right.”
Ultimately, I think the main reason why Billy Joel–and “Piano Man”–captivates me so much is his ability to craft a story and write some superb lyrics in his songs. When the New York Times wrote a profile on him a while back, the interviewer noticed the distinct dichotomy between the success of his works and the background behind it: “Joel is able to connect with people in a way that even he doesn’t completely realize,” the reporter writes. “He musically amplifies mainstream depression. He never tried to invent a new way to be sad.” And when you combine these skills with the simplicity and delicate sound of a piano, it creates a magical experience.