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Piano Man Psychology

Updated on January 21, 2011

From a paper I wrote in college:

“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.’”

So go the best laid plans Of Mice and Men.

I had an English Professor in 1995 named Bonnie Davids. She taught me how to “read between the lines” of any written work by taking “dialectical notes”. This system has opened up a lot of doors in my mind as to the many possible meanings that can be contrived from what I am reading. Dialectical note taking is a simple but tedious process.

In the line above from the popular song “Piano Man”, Billy Joel is actually singing it in the first person sense as if he was telling a story. He is talking about his friend John, the bartender. There is a connection there between them (there has to be for the singer to be getting free booze). John appears to be a very affable and sociable person. He appears to be friendly and outgoing. But he has a burning within himself to be better, to be something more than just a bartender, and it makes him unhappy. He has a lifelong dream that hasn’t been fulfilled.

“Now Paul is a real estate novelist who never had time for a wife, and he’s talkin’ with Davey, who’s still in the navy, and probably will be for life.”

As The Piano Man plays, he looks around the room and takes note of all who are there. The patrons at the bar are all obviously regulars, and the singer knows their life stories. Paul, ‘a real estate novelist’ has been so consumed with his job that he takes no time out of his schedule to enjoy life, to experience the joys of raising a family; or maybe he tried at one time, but never took the time to be there for them. So he has condemned himself to the daytime toils of his job and the nighttime ritual of drowning his angst in booze. Now Davey is another story. Or is he? Why would a young man spend his entire career in the armed forces? From my point of view it may be from lack of drive, the lack of willingness to succeed on his own, or the fear of not being able to succeed on his own. He has the protection of the Navy to supply his needs.

“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 drinking alone.”

So here you have several businessmen drinking themselves to drunkenness. Why? Either they have been so dedicated to their jobs, much like Paul and his real estate, that they have no time for a “life” much less a wife, or they have forsaken their wives and families for the sake of their jobs. Whatever the reason, they are lonely. Regardless, the listener/reader gets the impression that the businessmen are successful at what they do by the mere fact that the waitress is “practicing politics” as they become drunker and drunker. This waitress is no idiot. She is plotting to take advantage of these drunken businessmen for her own personal gain. Is she like John, always looking for a way out because she feels that she can do better?

“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.”

What a great job to have. The Piano Man enjoys what he’s doing, and he can bring a few moments of happiness to some dreary lives, and he has some job security there as well…but there is something else in it for him, too.

“And the piano, it sounds like a carnival”

Again, what a great job to have. The musician has a great gift to create such happy sounds from a simple object.

“And the microphone smells like a beer.”

Well, maybe he’s not singing at The Garden, it sounds more like a dive on Beacon Street, but that doesn’t matter. He is dealing with real people with real lives that all enjoy coming together on Saturday night to “Forget about life for awhile”. He is the catalyst that keeps them going, and they show their appreciation…

“And they sit at the bar and put bread in my jar”

The payoff. Everyone has a reason for doing what they do. For most of us, it is a grind, but I don’t get the impression that the Piano Man’s job is really a grind. It seems as if it is a part time gig for extra cash. I think that he really enjoys hearing the ultimate compliment:

“And say,’ man, what are you doin’ here?’”

The ultimate compliment; nothing can follow those words. Back in the day, I used to hear that from time to time when I would have an exceptional day on the ball field. A few quick plays, a couple of homers or diving catches, and the guys on the other team would say “What are you doing here, man?” How do you respond to something like that? I never could. It was “instant humility”.

But if you take that question to a different level, and ask yourself the very same thing as you toil day in and day out at the same job….you begin to really wonder “What am I doing here?” Is it the money? If I made $100,000.00 a year doing something that I really didn’t enjoy, something that caused me pain, would I keep doing it? Am I going to be able to keep doing what I do for another 20 years, just so my dividends pay off? Money and security can be good reasons to hang on to a good job, but you always feel the emptiness of not being able to fulfill your lifelong desires. You reach the end, and your sense of accomplishment is bittersweet to say the least.

“You know you can’t drive with a broken back, at least you can polish the fenders.”

We can all use a Mama Leoni every now and then.

© Del Banks 1996/2009/2011


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      Kathi 6 years ago from Saugatuck Michigan

      I really enjoyed your take on the piano man and your last paragraph at the end is something we all need to stand back a ponder from time to time. Thanks for sharing