The poetry of Piano Man

Piano man is a classic song. It works on a lot of levels, with the right hooks, it’s not over-produced, and the first time you hear it you could swear it sounds familiar. As a piece of writing, it creates an entire world, layers it with ambiance, and creates something much greater than the sum of its parts. Now, if you’re scoffing at the bourgeois sensibilities of suburban, early-70s pop music, get off my lawn. That song has been charming people for over 40 years, hipster.

One of the underrated parts of the song (even by Joel himself) is the poetry of the lyrics. Yes, he wrote it based on his real life experience as a piano man in an LA bar. But that’s the source material. That he turned that material into the song’s lyrics, how perfectly honed they are to communicate volumes in an efficient, poetical manner, is pretty amazing for a twenty-something guy who got into music to get girls. It’s pretty genius for anyone. It gets the words just right to a staggering degree.

Many songs these days have non-intelligible lyrics, in-jokes, lyrics that tell no story, don’t describe a world, have no grace, and manage to communicate less than they should. (Lourde may be an exception.) Maybe it’s my age, or the relative crap of today’s lyric-writers, or the more writing experience I get, but I appreciate the quality of Piano Man’s lyrics more and more.

Tired of me blathering on like a Joel fan boy (which I’m not)? Allow me to demonstrate, by subtraction, how genius the lyrics are by stripping them of any poetry other than rhyming.

Here is what I imagine are the lyrics for Piano Man if written by a talentless hack:

 

It’s around nine pm on a Saturday

The regulars are all coming in

An old man sits down next to me

Telling me his life story again

 

He says, “Kid can you play me a melody

Something from a vaudeville show

It’s funny and endearing

And it helps me remembering

This girl that I used to know”

 

Play us a song on the piano, man

Play us a song somewhat right

We’re all erasing our memories

And the drinks have us feeling tight

 

Now John tending bar is a buddy

Who does crosswords to pass the time

He’s gentle with drunks but will toss out punks

But he can’t pretend that he’s fine

 

He says, “Bill, I don’t think this job is ideal

As he stared at movie stars on the walls

“I’m sure I could be an actor

If an agent would return my calls”

 

Now Paul is a real estate agent

Who’s trying to write a novel

And he’s talking to Davy, who’s a sailor in the Navy

But doesn’t have a story to tell

 

And the waitress is flirting for bigger tips

As the businessmen hope to get boned

They’re buying drinks for some hookers

But they know they’re going home alone

 

Play us a song on the piano, man

Play us a song somewhat right

We’re all erasing our memories

And the drinks have us feeling tight

 

It’s a rowdy crowd after a payday

And the manager gives me a smile

‘Cause it’s my songs that bring them all along

To maybe get a little wild

 

And the piano sounds like a symphonic orchestra

And I sing every damn song that I know

They cuddle their beers and blink back tears

And say “I think that’s how it goes”

 

Play us a song on the piano, man

Play us a song somewhat right

We’re all erasing our memories

And the drinks have us feeling tight

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