Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Rock Lit 101 - Chaucer and the Piano Man

The Executive Lounge, 1972
I had an English professor who pointed out that "Piano Man" was Chaucerian in concept and structure, bearing resemblance to the General Prologue of the Canterbury Tales. In each the we meet simple folk in quick succession, in such a way that we want to know more about them; our attention is drawn away from the narrator as we take his perspective.

To telle yow al the condicioun, [It’s nine o’clock on a Saturday]
Of ech of hem, so as it semed me, [The regular crowd shuffles in]
And whiche they weren, and of what degree, [There’s an old man sitting next to me]
And eek in what array that they were inne, [Making love to his tonic and gin.]
And at a knyght than wol I first bigynne...

The verses are sung from the point of view of a bar piano player who focuses on the regulars: an old man, John, the bartender, Paul, the "real estate novelist," Davy, a sailor, and the waitress. These are characters with unrequited, dissatisfying lives who've come to "forget about life for a while." The chorus, in bar-room sing-along style, comes from the patrons themselves, who plead, "Sing us a song/ You're the piano man/ Sing us a song, tonight/ Well, we're all in the mood for a melody/ And you've got us feeling all right."

The song was inspired by a gig in L.A. at The Executive Room while Joel was recovering from the failure of his first album Cold Spring Harbor. The LP tanked and Joel was looking to be released from his contract with Family Records in order to sign with Columbia. The Cold Spring Harbor Billy Joel effectively disappeared, playing under a pseudonym with handbills and advertisements touting "The Piano Stylings of Bill Martin." During his time at the lounge, Joel wrote "Piano Man" based directly on his experiences at the bar.

The narrative shifts away from the crowd and back to Bill Martin to prepare for the verse: "And the piano sounds like a carnival,/ And the microphone smells like a beer./ And they sit at the bar, and put bread in my jar,/ And say, 'Man, what are you doing here?'" These lines reflect a Columbia Records Exec who saw how talented Billy Joel (Bill Martin) was. After a fateful performance, the man, asked Bill why he was playing little gigs at the piano lounge. The man ultimately realizing that Bill Martin was actually the Billy Joel they were searching for, was finally able to finagle him out of his contract with Family Records. That was 50 years ago.

Though Billy Joel would go on to produce hit after hit, it's the story songs, his Canterbury Tales, songs like "Scenes from Italian Restaurant," "New York State of Mind" and "Downeaster, 'Alexa'", that would cement his rep as a preeminent singer/songwriter and elevate his craft to something vaguely Chaucerian.