BILLY JOEL: PIANO MAN (1973)
1) Travelin' Prayer; 2) Piano Man; 3) Ain't No Crime; 4) You're My Home; 5) The Ballad Of Billy The Kid; 6) Worse Comes To Worst; 7) Stop In Nevada; 8) If I Only Had The Words (To Tell You); 9) Somewhere Along The Line; 10) Captain Jack.
Third time's the charm: on Piano Man, Billy Joel finally found Billy Joel and confronted him face to face. The album title may have been a little arrogant, because by 1973, everybody knew who was the real piano man — Elton John; Billy, however, indirectly insinuated that the US of A should have its own piano man for its own patriotic reasons, and that he was perfectly willing, capable, and ready to be to Elton what the Monkees were to the Beatles. And for now, let us assume that this is a compliment for the Monkees, not a slur for Billy.
After a live Philadelphia radio broadcast of ʽCaptain Jackʼ garnered much interest, Billy got himself a contract with Columbia, moved to Los Angeles, got himself a professional backing band, and finally recorded an album that managed to present him as a coherent artist without, however, having to pigeonhole himself directly in one image, be it a mad organ grinder or a sentimental serenader. Piano Man is a well-balanced mix of roots-rock, vaudeville, folksy singer-songwriting, orchestrated ballads, and a little bit of old-fashioned rock'n'roll — essentially the same formula as Elton's, but ever so slightly «Americanized» for local enjoyment. No coincidence, after all, that the very first song greets us with banjo, fiddle, and a general honky-tonk atmosphere.
One thing Billy never thought of was hiring a good lyricist: all the words to his songs come from his own mind, and neither depth of meaning nor complexity of expression were ever among his fortes — which, on one hand, helped him find mass appeal, but, on the other, exposed him to plenty of critical ridicule. He is a clumsy one, for sure: ʽThe Ballad Of Billy The Kidʼ, for instance, takes great liberties with the historic facts on Billy The Kid (who was never hanged, for that matter), without ever letting us know why it does that, creating the impression that the author was either illiterate or had a warped understanding of the meaning of «artistic license». Or take the title track — «meaningless lives commemorated at the local bar stand» is a worn out theme that, nevertheless, can always use a little extra exploration, but Billy's «telling it like it is» approach reeks of boredom and limited verbal talent rather than artistic realism.
None of which would be too bad if Piano Man were one of those albums where «the lyrics do not really matter», but they do, since Billy wires them up to his melodies; and just like his lyrics, his melodies are easily comprehensible, accessible, and even memorable, but not particularly interesting. On the «epic» tunes, such as the title track, ʽBilly The Kidʼ, and ʽCaptain Jackʼ, Joel seems to be more interested in telling a story, with predictable musical accompaniment throughout, playing the part of a «street poet-observer» (or, in the case of ʽKidʼ, «dirt road poet-observer»), and your ability to enjoy these songs as a whole will surely depend on whether the guy manages to hook you up in the first few minutes, whether that stark, simple combination of voice, piano, and content will make you feel inspired, or cringe in disgust, or leave you utterly unaffected in either direction. And that, in turn, will surely depend upon your previous experience. For instance: if you have heard Elton John's ʽBallad Of A Well-Known Gunʼ and Billy Joel's ʽThe Ballad Of Billy The Kidʼ, what would you prefer? And if you prefer the former, would it, in any way, bias you against the latter? In my case, it does.
The thing that works in Billy's favor is that it takes impoliteness and cruelty to shoot the piano man. His singing on the album is exceptional — powerful, ringing, well-ranged — and his playing fluent and fun as usual. He is neither being too humble or minimalistic so as to let anyone suspect unprofessionalism, nor trying to rise to particularly pretentious heights: ʽCaptain Jackʼ comes a little close, but it's about heroin addiction, after all, and when you are subtly campaigning against heroin addiction, anything goes. These songs aren't great, because great songs ought to have a mystery component, and my feelings detect no mystery here whatsoever — but they all sound «okay» where they could have sounded much worse, and maybe it's even for the better that Joel sets them to such basic, familiar melody patterns.
Actually, from a melodic standpoint, Billy's best compositions should probably be sought among the shorter tracks here — particularly ʽWorse Comes To Worstʼ, distinguished with a funky wah-wah guitar part that sounds highly unusual for this kind of album (and this is probably the only time in music history when somebody tried to marry funky wah-wah guitar to an accordeon!); and ʽSomewhere Along The Lineʼ, which might be the most blatantly Elton John-like tune on the entire record (echoes of ʽBorder Songʼ and ʽTake Me To The Pilotʼ all over the place), but it still takes talent to come up with such a good variation. The orchestrated coda to ʽBilly The Kidʼ is fairly good, too, come to think of it: Billy's take on what a «Billy Joel Piano Concerto No. 1» would probably look like.
If we are going to give any thumbs up to Billy at all, Piano Man is as good a record as any in his catalog to be our first choice. Of all the flaws to be found on Billy's records, it only shows those general flaws that are inherently wired in «Billy The Artist» as a concept — there is really no complaining about how the songs lack hooks, or how the production lacks taste, or how the singer lacks commitment, or how the lyricist is a stupid moralizer, etc. Like myself, you may feel no pressing need to ever hear a single one of these songs again — but that would be no reason to deny or condemn access to them for other people, because Piano Man, unlike, say, something like Aerosmith's Get A Grip or a late period Rod Stewart album, seems completely harmless for the central nervous system and the future paths of human evolution. Just as long as you don't spend too much time looking at the album sleeve, that is — I've heard rumors that Medusa look on the cover acts as a strong petrifier on people with low immunity levels.
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