Billy Joel didn't exactly come out of nowhere with 1973's Piano Man -- it just seemed that way because of the deep obscurity into which his previous projects had so quickly fallen. His Rascals wanna-be band The Hassles never took off (the name does seem like kind of a jinx), his organ/drums duo Attila bombed, and then his November 1971 solo debut Cold Spring Harbor was cursed with faulty mastering that left his vocals sounding squeaky. Famously, he escaped these setbacks -- and contract problems (he was waiting for Columbia's lawyers to get him out of his old contract) -- by leaving his native New York and heading to Los Angeles, where under the pseudonym Bill Martin (his first and middle names) he worked at a piano bar, an experience he portrayed in the title track of this album, now reissued with an additional disc.
But, let's face it, anybody who would want this album already has it. Yeah, the remastering's nice (the orchestra at the end of "The Ballad of Billy the Kid" now sounds spectacular, and the organ in the outro of "Captain Jack" is otherworldly), but it's Disc 2 that's the main attraction in a way, a legendary concert finally seeing its first official commercial release almost 40 years after it happened. Even the CD booklet here spends more time talking about this April 15, 1972 radio concert than about the Piano Man LP.
It took place before Joel's six-month L.A. sojourn, when he was still on the road stubbornly promoting Cold Spring Harbor. After a show impressed a DJ at Philadelphia free-form FM station WMMR (Jonathan Takiff, who as a result of his role in this chain of events got to write the vivid booklet notes here), Joel got booked into a studio-with-audience to record a concert for radio broadcast. That concert not only got played on WMMR, it got shared with other radio stations, and as a result, before Piano Man was even recorded, the scandalous song "Captain Jack" was getting radio play on the more adventurous FM stations. Yes, kids, back in 1972-73 Billy Joel was edgy underground music. Even after Piano Man was released on November 9, 1973, some stations (growing up on Long Island at the time, I heard it on WBAB and WLIR) continued flaunting their hipness by playing the more exciting WMMR version (which has had some sloppy drumming tweaked away in its new incarnation thanks to engineer Frank Filipetti).
And it's not just that song that makes this great. We get the best songs on Cold Spring Harbor ("She's Got a Way," "Everybody Loves You Now," "Tomorrow Is Today") in vastly more convincing versions, we get to hear not only "Captain Jack" but also two other Piano Man tracks, "Travelin' Prayer" and "The Ballad of Billy the Kid," a year before he recorded them for Columbia, we get a bunch of other songs that mostly fell into obscurity and thus sound invigoratingly fresh now ("Long, Long Time," "Josephine," and "Rosalinda" never on an album before, I think), and we get Billy's smart-aleck between-songs banter.
Okay, I really should write about Piano Man itself -- an album I have loved for so long that its every foible is a charming old friend. Hence, being critical is kind of a stretch, not to mention beside the point at this time, but let's pretend there's some people out there who don't have Piano Man who could be persuaded to finally take the plunge at this juncture. It kicks off with its biggest anomaly, "Travelin' Prayer"; complete with banjo and country fiddling, it's much more L.A. folk-rock (perhaps ironically so) than the style Joel later settled into. The way the arrangement builds is pretty neat, and Joel's faux honky-tonk piano solo's amusing, but ultimately it's a false start musically speaking; thematically, however, it establishes that most of the songs on the album (seven of the ten) will significantly feature traveling.
It's the title track, which comes next, that brings us to the real Billy Joel. It's also wildly eclectic in its construction, possibly with elements of pastiche given its opening lounge jazz piano licks, waltz rhythm, accordion, Dylanesque harmonica, and "la-diddy-dah" bridge. It makes Joel the hero, the man who's "got us feelin' alright," but on a deeper level it's about the redemptive power of music, which is something I'm always down with.
"Ain't No Crime" lets Joel show off his piano chops and throws in some gospelesque touches (organ, backing singers) in, contrarily, an apology for partying and not always liking one's spouse. While no masterpiece, it rocks and it's good fun, complete with some raunchy guitar and -- still uncredited after all these years for some reason -- sax (if it's not David Sanborn, it's somebody trying to sound like him). Then we're back to L.A. folkieland with "You're My Home," a sweet ballad drenched in pedal steel guitar, but that fits better than the banjo on "Travelin' Prayer." Joel later said of the song, "I was broke at the time ('73) so I wrote this for my wife as a Valentine's Day gift."
We're back to magnificence with "The Ballad of Billy the Kid," which features an orchestral arrangement and some emphatic piano (the tone of which sounds more richly rounded and less two-dimensionally clangorous in the new remastering). The theme/equation that occupied the Eagles for an entire album (also in 1973), Joel gets through in a song, and with more wit in the last verse than on all of Desperado (not that I don't also love Desperado). On the original LP, this ended Side 1 in a blaze of glory.
"Worse Comes to Worst" is a genre song, a sort of hybridized calypso complete with steel drums, about a guy who's content to "get along" because he's got a back-up plan: "I know a woman in New Mexico." Once again, Joel starts the LP side with an anomalous trifle, a bit of a weird strategy in tracklist planning. I wonder whether the woman leaving her husband on the following song, "Stop in Nevada," is ditching the non-committal guy in "Worse Comes to Worst"; certainly one can pair their contrasting attitudes. "Stop in Nevada," another bit of pedal steel-reinforced balladry, is much the better song, and the start of a stretch of songs until the end of the record where, unlike the ups and downs and stylistic twists of Side 1, everything is consistent, and consistently excellent.
"If I Only Had the Words (To Tell You)" is a sweet ballad, though it does have a bit of Joel's trademark "don't blame me, I'm doing the best I can" attitude, which drives a lot of critics to despise him. Doesn't bother me, though (hmmm...what does that say about me?). The rollicking "Somewhere Along the Line" is an open acceptance of the ups and downs and the imperfections of life; taking the good with the bad isn't such a bad strategy, since you at least get the good. The final verse sums it up rather pessimistically, though:
Then comes the big finish, "Captain Jack," which, with its portrayal of a suburban loser living for his heroin fix, depicts someone who takes that easy-come, easy-go attitude way too far. It includes the immortal couplet "Your sister's gone out, she's on a date / And you just sit at home and masturbate," along with many other clever turns of phrase. But it's the music that makes it work, the most majestic arrangement Joel ever had -- and that's saying something.
Verdict: not perfect, but still a pretty great album.
Now, if I'd been in charge, this would've been handled a little differently. The WMMR show would be its own release. But the music industry being what it is, this is how it works, so if Piano Man's being released yet again, it shouldn't still be 43 minutes; I'd make sure there were bonus tracks -- we know there are demos because four of them, including the title track, found their way onto the 2005 box set My Lives. And I would have continued to include the songs' lyrics in the booklet.
Meta verdict: For all my bitching, $15 for the live disc and the sound upgrade on Piano Man is a reasonable deal. - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based poet and composer who is halfway through recording his five songs composed on texts from James Joyce's Pomes Penyeach with singer Kate Leahy and cellist Suzanne Mueller.