With ‘The Essential Billy Joel’, You Too Can Dive Into The Musicianship Which Made The Piano Man So Famous

taylor
Written by taylor
/ 10 mins read

There are a few artists who were big at the same exact time which I have, for much of my life, overlooked, giving preferential treatment to one and not the other – but now is the time to stack all their music against each other. I have given Elton John a chance to wow me, but wasn’t exactly blown away like I thought I would be. Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, and Billy Joel, in my head at least, seem to be in the same songwriting camp – and I have always been much more of a fan of the piano pub era of Springsteen’s music – you know – songs like “Hungry Heart” where the piano plunks away and end up feeling instantly so damn working class, listening to hard luck tracks (yet always with a fire that is not truly extinguished) – and while Elton John’s music sometimes sounded that way for me, I would say that Billy Joel, from the songs I know, seemed much more like the Springsteen music that I already like. I suppose it’s an American blue collar spirit that I find charming to hear and to sort of recreate that experience – and so looking for some music like that, I had hoped that Billy Joel would provide more of it. The Essential Billy Joel seemed a perfect compilation to hear new music of this specific sub genre – and who knows how much of this style would be represented, or how many new styles and facets of Billy Joel would be discovered. I had a feeling that it would be of the lounge sort of vibe – perhaps Tom Waits without all the smoker’s voice. Don’t know why, but I’ve always dug the idea of a piano bar – and the melancholic piano player, and the barfly audience, and the general sad idea that the player should be a star, but ‘here he was’, loyally playing for the patrons who were loyal enough to show up every night.

Not Only Does The Piano Rock, But The ‘Rock’ Rocks As Well

“Piano Man” is one of those perfect and iconic songs that honestly, I used to get mixed up with Elton John’s “Rocket Man” and “Tiny Dancer” combined – not really peeping that “Piano Man” was by Billy Joel until I ended up hearing it being played years ago by a pianist named Rod Dibble at a piano bar he had been playing at for like decades, called The Alley in Oakland CA. I found out recently that Dibble was the house musician until his death in 2017, but I have always associated this song with Dibble, and the actual context of the lyrics mirrors what Billy Joel’s life was like before super stardom. He had classical training, wanted to be a rock star nonetheless, made an album that didn’t go anywhere, had to switch gears and move from New York to LA, ended up hating the experience I guess because success was hard to come by, yet at the same time, he would play piano bar gigs, such as at The Executive on Wilshire Blvd, until fate stepped in; one of his singles “Captain Jack” was gaining traction enough where he would get a second chance by a label to make music again. The rest is history, as he did not squander his second chance at all. But “Piano Man” captures this down and out vibe, of the musician, and the customers, which I totally dig; “it's nine o'clock on a Saturday / the regular crowd shuffles in / there's an old man sitting next to me / makin' love to his tonic and gin.” Great stuff, but I must restate – even to this day, the way that the song swings in bawdy, folk-rollicking style still seems British in an Elton John-ish sort of way to me. Other songs on The Essential Billy Joel though – not so much. There’s “Captain Jack”, the aforementioned, breakthrough seventies hit – and I am blown away, because I have never in my life heard this song. It’s not like I’ve heard the hook before and didn’t know what it was part of; no, rather, I don’t know this track at all. It is a little early David Bowie-ish to my ears, which I love. Call it Glam Folk. Great arrangement, with a bittersweet melody that really gets exciting on the chorus, and also some fascinating lyrics; “Your sister's gone out, she's on a date / you just sit at home and masturbate / your phone is gonna ring soon, but you just can't wait / for that call.” These are some of the most apathetic yet honest lyrics I have ever heard in a track from this period, and I can totally see why his music was a little creative revolution at the time. Great, challenging and philosophical words abound; “and if you can't understand why your world is so dead / why you've got to keep in style and feed your head / well you're 21 and still your mother makes your bed / and that's too long.”

It Is Amazing To Take Time To Listen To Music That Has Been In The Background You’re Whole Life

It doesn’t get more classic than “New York State of Mind.” Another hit we all know, but to actually sit down and listen to the intricacies of piano playing, lyrical interplay, and rich soulful vocals, is a real treat – and best of all – there is this jazziness that just goes hand in hand with the theme of ‘The Big Apple’ – where ‘if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere’, or so the trope goes. That is why this song will never get old – it has too much talent and thought wrapped up within the piece. Billy Joel sings “some folks like to get away / take a holiday from the neighborhood / hop a flight to Miami Beach or to Hollywood / but I'm takin' a Greyhound on the Hudson River line / I'm in a New York state of mind.” Here, he is expressing how die hard he is for the New York lifestyle over the beachy and glitzy destinations who ‘could’ visit instead. It’s just not the same – especially for the real Billy Joel, who did not dig the experiences out in LA. Therefore, riding a bus in the vicinity is much more serene to this New Yorker – and furthermore, he is down with taking the good with the bad – as that is a part of character of the city. I have likewise heard but never really ‘heard’ songs like “We Didn’t Start the Fire”, which is surprisingly about all the hot button topics that effected the world between Joel’s birth in 1949 and the release of the song forty years later in 1989 – now that is a crazy concept to me, as the headlines are listed off against a continuous mantra like explanation; “"Wheel of Fortune", Sally Ride, heavy metal, suicide / Foreign debts, homeless vets, AIDS, crack, Bernie Goetz.” Joel says ‘we didn’t’ start none of this – rather, ‘we’ inherited the woes. Two other huge classics that I have a new found respect for is the throwback rock n roll bops known as “Uptown Girl” and “It’s Still Rock and Roll To Me.” On the other hand, songs that have annoyed me continue to annoy me, such as the sill Doo Wop of “The Longest Time” and most frustrating and unsettling (for me) of all, the incessant melody of “Allentown.” The endless hook is torturous to me on some visceral level. “My Life” has a newfound respect in my life though, as it sounds even better when I give it its proper listening respect. Funny how again, I thought this was by Elton John all this time.

Not Only Is This Like Discovering Brand New Master Songwriting, But Ear-worms Of The Past Return To Me

I am blown away by the Vietnam era ballad “Goodnight Saigon”, which I have never heard but am sure glad to have heard now. Very original and haunting chords set the tone for this ghostly song, and what strikes me most is the patience with which the vocals and piano notes are dispersed over an acoustic strumming rhythm. Literally every note, I am saying to myself ‘wow’, as a fall deeper into this poetic pit of despair; “we had no homefront / we had no soft soap / they sent us playboy / they gave us bob hope / we dug in deep / and shot on sight / and prayed to Jesus Christ / with all of our might.” This is an indictment of war, yet also paints the picture of soldiers who have no choice perform their function – so long as there are distractions to get your mind off of killing people. The Jesus line is powerful, because on the one hand, it could be about praying to Jesus to be protected, but on the other hand, it could be about praying to Jesus to be absolved of the sin of murder – and of course, it could be a bit of both. “You May Be Right” is a strange Dance Rock number, with perfectly odd moments and perfectly Pop moments that add up to a great sense of balanced songwriting that I find is remarkable – especially since it is basically a brand new song to me. Yes, the notes here really bend and stray from the key they started with, it seems to me – but all for a more interesting effect. My absolutely favorite discovery on the whole 36 song album is one that might end up rubbing true Billy Joel fans the wrong way, since it is clearly a later and probably more commercial pandering era of this artists’ career, yet personally, it means a lot to me. I swear to god, I have been humming and singing “The River of Dreams” since I was like in pre school – never knowing who sang the song, and certainly feeling it was called ‘In The River of The Night’ this whole time (but obviously not looking said song up.) Wow! This song is so soul stirring for me – with its Worldbeat rhythm leaning towards Afro beat, and its catchy as hell phrasing, where all of these philosophical, up-in-the-middle of the night contemplations seems to be asked within this one song, with all happy sounding yet complex concerns being summed up by the last stanza; “We all end in the ocean / we all start in the streams / we're all carried along / by the river of dreams.” This jubilant song is about existential questions? Damn, Billy Joel is so dope.

2. Track List (36)

3. Official (36)

4. Live (14)

5. Featuring Remixes (2)

7. Similar Albums (5)

8. Similar Artists (17)

9. Album Info

Songwriter

  • Billy Joel