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
He says, “Son, can you play me a memory
I'm not really sure how it goes
But it's sad and it's sweet and I knew it complete
When I wore a younger man's clothes.”
La la la, di da da
La la, di da da da dum
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 feelin' alright
Now John at the bar is a friend of mine
He gets me my drinks for free
And he's quick with a joke or to light up your smoke
But there's someplace that he'd rather be
He says, “Bill, I believe this is killing me.”
As the smile ran away from his face
“Well I'm sure that I could be a movie star
If I could get out of this place”
And the waitress is practicing politics
As the businessmen slowly get stoned
Yes, they're sharing a drink they call loneliness
But it's better than drinkin' alone
Now Paul is a real estate novelist
Who never had time for a wife
And he's talkin' with Davy, who's still in the Navy
And probably will be for life
It's a pretty good crowd for a Saturday
And the manager gives me a smile
'Cause he knows that it's me they've been comin' to see
To forget about life for a while
And the piano, it 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 doin' here?”
This next song is a true story.
I say that because some of the stuff I write is a pack of lies.
I've known this song from when it became popular in the late 70's, but when I remember listening to it the most was when I was about twenty, and was working full time as a programmer, while continuing on an ever-so-slow progress towards finishing college, two classes at a time. I listened to a lot of popular music then, and what strikes me now is how entirely oblivious I was to the content of that music. In addition to some Billy Joel, I also listened to a lot of Moody Blues. Years later, when I was in a relationship, I was stunned to discover that the Moody Blues was almost entirely love songs.
Looking at covers of “Piano Man” on youtube, I see this same disconnect. Many seem to see this song as being primarily about playing the piano, and perhaps about getting together with some music, a bit of drink, and having a mellow good time.
For me, this is an essay in the evolutionary psychology of men. Joel could not be clearer that these men are all losers, and the reason that they are losers is that they aren't with a woman on Saturday night. See men for details about the technical definition of “loser”, but in the (uncharacteristically gentle) euphemism of male talk, they “aren't getting any.” They're there because there's no place they'd rather be–that is, anywhere else is worse. They're hoping that with a generous dose of anesthetic solvent and some sentimental music, they can feel “all right.”
While the mythic scene from the video many not have actually happened, he surely did spend some time in bars like that. The “Piano Man” in the song doesn't directly tell us what he's thinking himself, but I hear “John at the Bar” as partly speaking for him, or at least acting out a role of being stuck that serves as a warning. The videos may overdo the part about these men being old, giving the impression that the song is some large part about losses from aging. Even the regulars come and go in the bar, and you don't know for sure if you're a loser until you're old. Davy isn't old yet, but he's well on his way to being a loser.
The second layer of evolutionary irony is that Billy Joel used his music to turn himself into a winner, and for men this does seem to be a considerable motivation behind musical performance. While I don't know or care about his sexual practices, he certainly could have slept with a lot of women if he wanted to. I also hear in this song Joel liking it that men value his music, and some of that feeling of camaraderie of men when they get together to drink and talk. Men compete to win, but they also do this, spend time together in somewhat vague friendship, mostly not talking about anything real. It's an adaptation to staying alive: live and let live.