If not the greatest, certainly one of the greatest (but, probably the greatest)...
Yes, “Piano Man” is the greatest song ever written.
The subject of Billy Joel’s breakthrough hit and signature song, and the question of whether it is, in fact, the greatest song ever written, was broached recently by a friend on Facebook. Within minutes of his fun-spirited post (he later admitted he was drunk when he wrote it), he was bombarded with stinging rebukes like “Every track on The Stranger is better” and less diplomatic fare like, “Forever ignorant” and “You fart queen.”
Because I am a good friend with a reasonable command of words and a soft spot for underdogs, I chimed in support of this incredibly subjective notion. It was Friday morning and I was bored at work, so my few paragraphs for the affirmative helped kill an hour before lunchtime. As I finished going Lincoln to the negatives’ Douglas, a weird thing happened: I’d convinced myself that Billy Joel’s “Piano Man,” recorded 35 years ago this fall, is better than any Beatles song, the entirety of Motown’s musical output, whatever 50 million Elvis fans considered right and all the collected works of the classical masters. It is the greatest song ever written.
I realize this sounds absurd. “Piano Man” is not even my favorite Billy Joel song. Nor is it his. Joel appeared on Stephen Colbert’s late night show once and Colbert asked him for his top five Billy Joel songs. “Piano Man” was noticeably absent. (It should be noted that “favorite” and “greatest” are two different adjectives for two different things. Did da Vinci consider the "Mona Lisa" his favorite work? Did James Joyce believe Ulysses was his greatest masterpiece? Let’s book them on Colbert to find out).
I also admit I am laughably biased. I’m an avowed Billy Joel fan. I own every album on vinyl, cassette tape and CD. I know all of the lyrics, even to core-of-the-earth deep cuts like “The Great Suburban Showdown” and “Last of the Big Time Spenders.” I’m convinced Joel wrote “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant” for me and three old friends. I have yellowed clippings from his past Houston shows in a closet upstairs. I’ve seen him live eight times since 1982, seven times with my wife by my side singing along. When he last came to Houston in November 2015, the editors at Houston Press indulged me in a week’s worth of articles about the man, his music and its impact on my own life. He is my favorite musical artist, besides my own kids, who are both musicians, as is his daughter, Alexa Ray. When Joel croaks, if he does ahead of me, I'll be inconsolable. Just leave me to my copy of Songs in the Attic. After a few spins of “I’ve Loved These Days” my broken heart will begin mending.
I know you probably disagree with me. Quoting Billy Joel himself, “You may be right; I may be crazy.” But I truly feel I can set aside my prejudicial leanings and make an objective case. “Piano Man” is the greatest song ever written.
First, the data-driven, empirical arguments. “Piano Man” is in the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry, rubbing elbows with “God Bless America” and Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, It was included in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list (though, it was wrong-headedly ranked 420 slots too low at #421). It remains Billy Joel’s top-ranked i-Tunes Store track. As he is a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and is the sixth bestselling recording artist of all-freakin’-time, go ahead and shoot “Piano Man” up the best-ever-songs chart with a bullet.
If you are reading this, you are probably a musician or someone who loves one. “Piano Man” is about the struggle to have your music heard. You feel that, right? Who else can identify with this yearning to have one’s musical expression recognized and appreciated? Oh, how about EVERY MUSICIAN EVER. Kanye, Joni Mitchell, Robert Johnson, the Joplins (Janis and Scott), Chopin, the afore-mentioned Alexa Ray Joel and every struggling D.I.Y. artist playing house shows and basement bars anywhere. Keep going back to Enheduanna if you must; they all felt compelled to share their melodic creations in hopes others would listen. “Piano Man” is not just about the rigors of making music or the compulsion to share it, it’s about the joy that shared expression brings us. It’s about how music and all art helps us forget about life (and death) for a while.
On a broader scope, “Piano Man” touches on whether our lives’ endeavors are worthwhile. Is anyone paying attention to what we are attempting here? Do I matter? These are timeless philosophical queries, people. The answer, according to the song, is that we do make a difference, if even only a handful of humans’ lives are improved, even momentarily on a Saturday night, by our best efforts.
The song depicts loneliness and drunkenness in realistic ways. These are difficult matters to cover in a thousand-word think piece on a slow news day. But, the song reflects on how our solitude and problems can be salved by coming together. Like the waitress who’s practicing politics and the businessman who slowly gets stoned, like John and Paul (two Beatles – or Apostles) and Davy, we find comfort and strength in each other. That is the human experience explained in a five-minute tune by Long Island's finest.
Singing “Piano Man” never gets old. It gets the karaoke crowd going. More than once my scalp has come alive with the frenetic tingling of ASMR hearing people sing it in unison, whether it’s 20 people at the Cozy Corner or 20,000 people at Toyota Center. Every time I’ve heard it in a rock arena I’ve felt like I was in that bar, the one with the regular crowd shuffling in, close enough to put some bread in the piano player’s tip jar and always knowing the stranger next to me felt just as I did. We appreciated the melody. It got us feelin' alright.