The album that changed my life: Piano Man

Categories:  Music    The Arts
Friday, September 27th, 2019 at 10:45 AM
The album that changed my life: Piano Man by Thomas Taylor

For the longest time, I didn’t know pianists could be rock stars. I didn’t know they could be cool, or popular, or even find love. It was always the guitarist, with their weird hand formations and high vocals — usually a tenor. It was that way for a long time, until one summer around nine or 10 years ago, it all changed.

I was visiting my grandparents at their beach house in Beach Haven, New Jersey. I still remember the smell and view of the beach; even the backgammon board smelled like it was freshly made. A lot of my mom’s family would visit from Long Island. One of my relatives pulled me over to the couch at some point and showed me two songs: “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen and “Piano Man” by Billy Joel. One of those songs would change my life, and it surprisingly wasn’t Queen’s.

I had never heard anything like “Piano Man” before, having coming from only hearing classical piano. It was a breath of fresh air. In the live performance that I watched, he was classically trained, but had a vibe previously belonging only to guitar players. His lyrics came from a place of honesty. I could see every character in the song clearly, sitting at that bar, biding their time and drinking their beer. That day, I realized it didn’t matter whether it came from a guitar or a piano, or even if his voice was a little lower: it’s still rock ‘n’ roll to me.

I went on to listen to the album where the title track hailed from, and my mind jumped from song to song: from the country-style tunes of “You’re My Home” and “The Ballad of Billy the Kid” to the folk-rock style of “Captain Jack,” and everything in between. There was this versatility to every song, switching and mixing styles and instrumentation so that every song felt unique. He was telling stories with the characters going through drama and to extremes. As an entertainer and storyteller, he drew from his own experiences and from those around him, and it shows. He was a “Streetlife Serenader” for that kid far away from 52nd Street, looking for a voice to tell his story.

His music always made me envious, particularly his skills as a pianist and composer. I could only strive to work hard in my lessons, to gain the skills that he had. His music inspired me to try and compose my own songs, one of which was inspired by “For The Longest Time.” “Life is a Rose” has yet to be completed, but the a capella melodies are still in my head.

Some of his tracks were just piano instrumentals, such as “Root Beer Rag,” while others had instrumental breaks between sections. The piano solo from “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant” was one that I tried so many times to get, but could never do. Even today, the sheet music still sits on my piano at home, waiting to be performed.

Through all of middle school and high school, he was my voice, the key to my emotions. With the first person I ever loved seriously, “Just the Way You Are” would play in my head every time I was around her. After my first heartbreak, I would sing along to the lyrics of “She’s Always a Woman” and “Honesty,” looking for some type of solace. High school was full of emotional highs and lows. One day could be a river of dreams, and the next moment I’d wish I could be like Anthony in “Movin’ Out” and leave that town. Billy Joel’s music was an emotional base where I could feel vulnerable but still able to address my own problems.

The moment I realized how much of an impact Billy Joel’s music had on me was one I’ll always remember. I was performing with my high school’s chamber singers, and we were listening to another group sing at Youngstown State University. The song that group performed was “And So it Goes,” the a capella voices of young men and women conveying the emotions perfectly. Every chord and lyric lingered, pausing for reflection. That performance stood out to me, maybe even more than later on in the concert when I first heard “Adagio for Strings” by Samuel Barber. I was in my junior year and I realized that song meant more than heartbreak from somebody you loved. It was the pain of having someone or something leave you, and for me it was the memories and friends I made in high school. How could I move on in life after those times had come to an end?

I wondered this throughout senior year and it wasn’t until my last musical performance in high school that I had the answer. I needed to slow down, enjoy the time that I had left in high school with all of my friends. My own ambitions would be waiting for me later in life, but I needed to keep dreaming and creating. The memories and friends I had in high school would always be there, no matter where I went. “Vienna” was the song which made me realize that. It was also the song that was in my head when I walked across the stage during graduation to get my diploma.

His music continues to speak to me in college, about the hardships of life in the real world. It’s truly amazing how music can still speak to you, nearly a decade after you were first introduced to it. My dream is to see Billy Joel perform live at Madison Square Garden in New York City, or wherever he goes. Until then, I’m taking a Greyhound, down the Hudson River Line. I’m in a “New York State of Mind.” 

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