In recent years, I haven't quite been able to work out Billy Joel. For a long time, his music was quasi-inspirational in the sense that his level of singing and piano playing always felt attainable. That I can barely play the solo from 'Scenes From An Italian Restaurant', let alone 'The Entertainer' or 'Root Beer Rag' now suggests my ambitions were somewhat, well, ambitious. Several years ago, I was fortunate enough to see Joel perform (he must have been at least 60). Imagine a dark concert arena, and the lights come up as Joel is launching into the Prelude. The effect is quite hard to describe, but it was one of those moments which crystallized my desire to play rock piano. What followed was no less incredible - two hours of flawless singing across probably four octaves and a virtuosic display on the piano (though not in the sometimes esoteric manner of prog rock).
And then I read a piece of criticism maybe last year which suggested Billy Joel was deeply uncool and guilty of being a bit of a phony. Now you can't believe everything the hipsters say, but it got me thinking and reevaluating Joel's musical contribution to the world. Some of these charges are probably accurate. Take 'It's Still Rock and Roll To Me' - the song attacks the hipsters of the 1970s and 1980s (the punks, the new wavers) by claiming an affinity with the good old days of rock and roll. Who needs fashion and style when you have nostalgia? But the song is set in a new wave style (minimal texture, minimal harmonies) with a touch of pop (the ubiquitous saxophone solo). Maybe this could be considered a parody, but it seems rather convenient that Joel is critiquing current trends, while still following the current trends that will ensure he, oh I don't know, get into the top 10 of the Billboard charts.
So beneath the virtuosity, is there something of aesthetic worth? I don't know Joel's entire output well enough to answer comprehensively, but I want to look at two songs that deserve high praise. The first is off Joel's first solo album, Cold Spring Harbor (1971). 'Tomorrow is Today' is similar to the opening track of the album 'She's Got Away' (another Joel beauty I might add) - it is only Joel accompanying himself on piano; the basic structure of the songs is quasi strophic with each title line serving as a refrain; and both songs' harmonies are based on a bass part (the left hand of the piano) moving in steps.
The difference between the two is the lyrical content. 'Tomorrow is Today' was written taking lines from Joel's own suicide note (written in 1970). I'm not sure which lyrics stemmed from the note, but it is not hard to hear to suicidal tone in the song. The refrains play on the notion of time - yesterday, today, tomorrow - which I think is a fairly powerful concept and pregnant with connotations. A cliched view is that we leave behind yesterday, maybe to live in the present, and always with the dream of things improving tomorrow. Joel shatters that myth in the title line - if tomorrow is today, then when he does wake up, nothing will have changed; he doesn't need to see his dreams tomorrow because they're the same as yesterday. It's a bleak picture.
The music reinforces these ideas. Note how the progressions at the start of each verse rise (C-C/E-F-D/F#-C/G, etc.) as the narrator dreams of a better life, but then fall as the narrator sinks bank to reality. It's a simple, yet effective touch. In 'She's Got A Way' we hear the same technique but inverted; thus, as Joel ponders the mystery of his object of affection, the harmonies drop away from G major, before returning upwards as he proclaims he can't live without her. Back to 'Tomorrow', the initial bridge ("I don't care to know the hour...") uses the same type of pattern, rising in the first phrase, and descending in the second.
To conclude each verse, Joel plays a stock gospel progression (Dm-C/E-F-F/G-C, or ii-Ib-IV-IV/V-I). While I might be reading a touch too much into these harmonies, to my ears, they convey a sense of spirituality, as if Joel is appealing to a higher figure for guidance and salvation. These suspicions are seemingly confirmed when the second bridge comes around, with its overt references to the river and being delivered by the Lord. As it stands, this bridge is the song's weakest point; the mood change is out of place and contrasts too much with the initial material. Nonetheless, it sets the song up for the concluding statements, which, musically, offer a resolution (return of original verses), but lyrically point to the end.
It is difficult to interpret 'Tomorrow is Today.' Perhaps our own emotions aroused only because we know the song came from Joel's personal experiences. But, the song appears to present a genuine sense of helplessness and desperation. It would take a listener with the proverbial stone heart to not feel some sympathy.
Where 'Tomorrow is Today' back ups its sentiments through the music, 'Piano Man' offers us greater meaning, I believe, than is already present in the ballad's lyrics. Supposedly autobiographical, 'Piano Man' (from the 1973 album of the same name) tells the story of the titular character, who works in a deadbeat bar and observes those around him at "9 o'clock on a Saturday."
It's another bleak setting, and much of the song's appeal lies in the group of losers that comprise the cast list. There's the old man who "makes love to his tonic and gin" (a clumsy rhyme, but an amusing image), John who thinks he's destined for movie success, but can't get out of this town. Presumably, if he was so destined, Hollywood would have come a-calling by now. It's the same with Paul who "never had time for a wife"; he's also a "real estate novelist," a meaningless profession if ever there were one. And then there's the kindly waitress "who's practicing politics" — Barroom 101. For all of them, excuses are central to their existence. "Oh, I would do something better, but..." And for all of them, the piano man offers a glimmer of hope, of happiness, of respite from mediocrity.
So what of this piano man? In the final verse, the manager asks in exasperation, "Man, what are you doing here?" Maybe he's too good for the losers. Certainly, his musical prowess lifts him above the others. But then again, his music itself is nothing special. Every verse and every chorus, he plays the same harmonic progression - basic chords in the right hand, a simple descending line in the left hand. There's a little variation in the bridge ("daa, daa, dah") but it's the same pattern starting on a different note. His brief solo is little more than a few blues licks up and down the A minor scale; likewise the opening call to attention. Sure he can play a harmonica too, but his pianistic skills are flashy with little substance.
My point is this: the piano man is, ultimately, just one of them. He could probably get out of the small town, but in Los Angeles or New York or any other hub, he wouldn't stand a chance next to all the other piano men. And thus, the narrator is stuck in his role as a quasi-saviour, revered by a bunch of drunks who know bugger all about anything, especially music. "Sing us a song" they clamour, probably every Saturday evening; and the piano man obliges, probably with the same songs every time. The final nail in this ironic coffin is apparent when the musical details are summed. We have a waltz time signature (read lilting rhythmic feel), a repetitive structure, a simple melody that can be sung by everyone (hence the song's subsequent popularity in karaoke bars); in other words, it is anthem. But it is not an anthem sung in honour of a country or a heroic individual. No, it is an anthem sung in honour of the deadbeats, a group to which every member of the cast belongs.
The interpretations would appear to rest on the assumption that Joel consciously used the music as a reinforcing and contradicting agent in 'Tomorrow is Today' and 'Piano Man,' respectively. I have no reason to believe this is the case, so I have to hide behind the claim that these are my interpretations only; their success or otherwise depends on whether I can convince you to hear these songs accordingly. But, if I may return to my initial thoughts, we know that Billy Joel is a supremely talented pianist, capable of performing in varied styles at a ridiculously high technical standard. Thus, it is not unreasonable to claim that Joel pared back his piano playing for 'Piano Man,' which creates this irony and tension. Similarly, he knows enough licks that his gospel arches in 'Tomorrow is Today' may have been a considered choice amongst other options, in order to reflect the lyrics. And if this is the case, then however uncool he may have been or still is, Billy Joel deserves our recognition as a fine songwriter.