After leaving the heavy-metal band Attila in 1970, Billy Joel found himself working as a lounge singer in a piano bar. In painstaking detail, he recounted that chapter of his life in the song that shot him to fame: "Piano Man."
It's one of the saddest songs ever, describing people drinking themselves away from their unfulfilled dreams. No one in the song seemed more pained than the piano-man narrator himself, who knew he deserved better than playing for this crowd.
That Piano Man, of course, eventually found fame, fortune, and accolades. Since he wrote that song in 1973, Billy Joel has sold 150 million records and been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. So it's surprising, considering the bitterness in the lyrics of "Piano Man," that he has returned to his lounge-singer roots.
Joel hasn't recorded any new music since 2001, when he released an album of classical compositions, Fantasies & Delusions. You have to go all the way back to 1993's River of Dreams to hear the last time he delivered the piano-based pop music that rescued him from living on what was left in his tip jar.
Instead, for the past few years, Joel has declared Madison Square Garden his new piano lounge. Once a month, he commutes via helicopter from his home in Long Island to Manhattan, with concerts in other locales sprinkled in, including New Year's Eve at the BB&T Center.
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Sure, there's more money to be made in arena gigs than in those old piano bars where the microphone smells like beer. But you can't help but wonder what the narrator of "Piano Man" would think of Joel's later years. Instead of challenging himself artistically, Joel is content to play his old hits in front of massive crowds. Even if he knows he's the one they've been coming to see to forget about life for a while, wasn't the state of being stuck playing memories the very thing against which "Piano Man" railed?
After being famous for so many decades, it would be impossible for Joel to write fly-on-the-wall lyrics like he did with "Piano Man," but it could be interesting to hear him try. Or maybe he knows there's no point in fighting that we're all in the mood for old melodies and he's got us feeling all right.