In 1973, Billy Joel released “Piano Man,” a song that still gets a lot of airplay today and is constantly blaring from barroom juke boxes. Given the poor handling of his earlier debut album (released at the wrong speed, making Joel sound like someone else entirely, a contract that bordered on legalized theft), it’s amazing the song even made it on the air, much less became as timeless as anything The Beatles had recorded. But “Piano Man” came to define Billy Joel in a way nothing he’d recorded since ever would.
He first came to my attention with the release of Glass Houses, an angry meltdown from the strain of the 1970’s Me Generation. I especially liked the line from “You May Be Right” that went “I told you dirty jokes until you smiled.” There was a certain bravado in that song, along with “Big Shot.” “Big Shot,” from the earlier 52nd Street, was clearly about New York culture at the tail-end of the 1970’s, but even at 13, I’d already known a few people like that. This was the adult version of the kid who wanted to be top dog, only it was about a woman, and she’s all grown up, and she’d just survived one of those parties. You know the kind. We’ve all had “Big Shot” evenings.
Most of Billy Joel’s output before 1982 was very New Yorkish, which should not surprise anyone. Joel grew up in Hicksville out on Long Island and started out being the Piano Man in New York City dive bars. He did have a band before signing a solo deal in 1970, but it’s that era that shaped Joel’s sound. Glass Houses really opened his music up to a wider audience. I started hearing more of his earlier work, including a minor hit that was a staple of his live act until recent years, “Say Goodbye to Hollywood.” Being fourteen when it came out, I latched onto the post-punk, post-disco hangover “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me,” which slammed the conformist attitude of a supposedly non-conformist crowd, complaining about how much work it is to stay hip.
It was 1982’s Nylon Curtain, though, that made him everybody’s singer. “Pressure” talked about how everyone faces pressure, and nobody’s pithy advice is going to help. “But you will come to a place/Where the only thing you feel/Are loaded guns in your face.” “Allentown” captured the mood and confusion of the post-industrial era and resonated with us kids in the Midwest. The auto, rubber, and steel factories we had counted on to employ us when we grew up were disappearing before we could get jobs. “Goodnight, Saigon” said everything the forgotten Vietnam vets wanted to say even though Joel had never spent a day in the military.
An Innocent Man, however, found Billy Joel in love with supermodel Christie Brinkley. The album is almost entirely about her, from the title track to “Uptown Girl” to “The Longest Time.” I do remember Cleveland’s John Lannigan frequently playing a hilarious parody of “An Innocent Man” sung by a jerk who would French kiss a bride at her wedding and cut off three lanes of freeway traffic, run a red light, and barrel through a mall parking lot to get the really good handicap slot. “I am an ignorant man” the singer wailed in a dead-on Billy Joel.
1986’s The Bridge found Joel experimenting, but it was the end of a long run of hits. “Big Man on Mulberry Street” was an interesting throwback to the big band era, but the album really didn’t catch fire like his earlier work.
Joel later toured with Elton John, an odd pairing until you consider they’re both “piano men.” He’s since dropped some of his earlier songs from live shows as they tear up his voice. He might not be doing as much original work, but then he’s done more than most singers could ever hope to do.