It was around midday last Sunday, I was putting my make-up on when a song started playing on the radio: Piano Man by Billy Joel. I usually really like songs that tell a story, so it caught my attention. While it was going on I realized it talked about something that has been on my mind a lot lately: the feeling that you don’t belong where you are and that you could be in a better place if circumstances were different or if you had handled situations better. I have come to realize that most if not all people feel like this in one way or another.
I played the song over and over to discover its secrets and since I wanted to make a blog post referring to this, I thought I could start from those wonderful lyrics.
The song builds a very atmospheric image of a piano bar on a Saturday evening. We see everything through the pianist’s eyes although we never learn much about him compared to what we hear about the rest of the people who are spending the night in the bar. The figures are almost stereotypical and we can probably recall them in our memory. We have probably come across them at some point.
As the pianist begins to explain what he sees, he starts describing an old man who seats near him drinking his gin and tonic – he actually uses the words “making love to his tonic and gin” which emphasizes his dependency on alcohol. The old man asks him to play a melody he knew as a young man. This person is the first one who is being described and is probably somehow the future self of everyone in that place. He listens to the piano full of nostalgia, missing a life he had but he was never able to appreciate at the time just like the younger people in the bar. He looks back at what everyone else turns away from and what he probably had turned away from when he was young: his life. Now, he only lives in memories hanging on a bottle and the tunes of the pianist that will somehow let him return to what he once was.
The next person we meet is John, the barman. He comes across as a very cheerful man He always has a joke to tell but deep inside he just feels trapped. He is a friend of the pianist so he can confess to him that he’d be a movie star if he wasn’t stuck at the bar. In this case, we, as the listeners, feel like he could change that. He dreams of being an actor but remains there doing nothing about it. Of course, we know nothing much about John’s life but we assume that if he wants it that bad, he could take a risk. He says that this life “is killing him”, so does he have something to lose if he takes a risk? Is his phantasy of being a famous actor really a desire? Or is it just something he uses to make himself feel somehow like a failure?
Two men are sitting somewhere near, Paul and Davy. Paul is a novelist who doesn’t have a family. We can assume he is a cynical and practical man, since the pianist describes him as a “real estate novelist” and he is taking to another man named Davy who still works in the Navy “and probably will be for life”. Of course that “still” is the magic word that changes the meaning of the lyric. It instantly gives us the sense that Davy wasn’t intending to stay at this job but for practical reasons, he stayed. He probably had bigger dreams. Maybe he would be a movie star just like John would but he’s there now and he’ll never know.
Lastly, Bill, our Pianist, refers to the waitress who speaks with a stoned businessman. They are both lost in their loneliness trying to fight it in meaningless conversations. In the end of the song, as we are almost seeing that bar in front of us, feeling the loneliness of every single person in there and knowing that they can only get away from it for as long as a song lasts – a song by the piano man – something devastating happens. Someone approaches Bill and gives him a tip. Then he asks him “man, what are you doing here?”.
After we’ve seen everyone else through Bill’s eyes realizing how they’ve wasted their lives and they’ll probably never be happy, someone else comes to ask the question we’ve been too busy – thinking about everyone else – to ask. What is he doing there, in this sad, little bar filled with unhappy people looking to drown their problems in alcohol instead of admitting their wrong choices? Was that his dream all along? Is anyone where they were supposed to be? Is life an endless chain of mistakes we just keep trying to cover up? Is loneliness inevitable?
I thought of the song lyrics for days. I started noticing people around me wondering how they were experiencing loneliness or what were they settling for out of fear. Let’s not lie. At some point we all do. Or… can we chose not to?
have a magical day,
by Elena Ktenopoulou