The Bridge: Piano Man, Everyman

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S1: But listen. Come on, let’s stop. Hey, everybody. This is Chris Marlantes, host of Hit Parade, Slate’s podcast of pop chart history. Welcome to the Brit Payback’s. That’s getting closer. The final track on Billy Joel’s 1986 album, The Bridge. The Hammond B3 organ was played by Steve Winwood, which makes this song Extra, 1986. The bridge is widely regarded as Billy Joel’s weakest 1980s album, including by Joel himself. But it still went double platinum and generated three top 40 hits. In retrospect, the bridge served as a bridge into the final phase of Billy Joel’s career. He recorded only two more studio albums of pop music before retiring from recording permanently. Did not. And these mini episodes Bridge are full length monthly episodes.

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S2: Give us a chance to catch up with listeners and enjoy some hit parade trivia this month. I’m thrilled to be joined by the man who helped inspire my most recent episode of Hit Parade. Julian Valeyard is a singer songwriter and recording artist who appears regularly on the Howard Stern Show. And NPR’s Ask Me Another. As of 2017, he has been an artist in residence at the prestigious Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater in New York City. As a piano playing polymath, Julian knows Billy Joel’s material more intimately than most. Maybe more than he’d like his new musical. Please don’t make me play. Piano Man is launching this year as an album. A podcast and a live show.

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S3: Julian is calling in from his home studio and the piano you’ll hear throughout this interview was recorded by Julian himself, Julian Valeyard. Welcome to the bridge.

S4: Thank you, Chris. I am going to just say this now. I am.

S5: This is such an honor. I’m like in my favorite TV show right now. I feel like a Seinfeld’s because I am an avid devoted. Listen to the podcast. You’re also a friend. But I’m also a fan. So it’s weird. I’m in the bridge anyway. Feels good.

S2: It’s like it’s like wheels within wheels. We’re talking about the bridge. We’re on the bridge. It’s it’s very meta. This is quite possibly our most meta episode. So first of all, I just want to say thank you for the thesis of this episode, because briefly, the story of this episode, I had gotten requests to do a Billy Joel episode of Hit Parade almost since the beginning. And folks have heard me say on the bridge before that I have a natural resistance to what I call Chris Farley episodes where you’re merely talking about isn’t that artist awesome? And you don’t really have, like, something new to bring to the table or a thesis about their career or why they scored so many hits. And then you and I went to see your show at Joe’s Pub in December and we got drinks afterward. And you said, oh, man, Billy Joel, here’s the thing. He, like, borrowed something from everybody for his hits. And the more we got to talking, the more I realized, oh, this is actually an angle on Billy Joel. And you kind of gave me the germ of that idea and like, set me rolling and let me roll with it. And. And you also served as my Billy Joel consultants on the episode, you know, helping me think about some of the comparisons to some of the songs that we made so huge. Thank you for all of that.

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S5: First of all, I’m not going to accept that. Thanks, because it’s a I was really drunk, so I was I be it’s actually not my idea. So I toured with this guitar player, Ryan Ball, for years. He’s a dear friend of mine. And just to just to give the Quincy realism, you’re going to be hearing my children and wife screaming throughout all this, but it’s fine. So I talk with Ryan for five years, and Ryan was Alexa Ray, Joel’s M.D. for four years. Wow. So he is like the most incredible Billy stories. We would always just kind of get into it on long car rides and I can’t remember what tour it was. But he sat me down and made this point to be like, Billy Joel is not an original artist. Every single one of his songs comes from another artist. And that kind of blew my mind. I never looked at it that way. And I it sort of set me off in thinking and thinking, you know, again, I was just really trying to sell you on a Billy Joel episode because like all your other listeners, I selfishly want my Billy Joel. But it’s actually it’s a great episode. It it it threads the needle. I mean, I think he did an incredible job. I mean, it as someone who is very intimately familiar with his career, because for guys like me, New York Jewish piano players, you know, he is like he’s the thing, you know, he’s like my dad, basically. So I kind of love him and I hate him.

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S6: You just segway into the next thing I wanted to ask you, which is Billy Joel as a New Yorker heritage. So. All right. I revealed my family’s pro joal bias in the episode. By the way, you talked about the Jewish connection for Italian Americans in New York City. It isn’t just scenes from an Italian restaurant. It’s moving out. Anthony song like even though Joel doesn’t have a drop of Italian blood in him. We have kind of adopted him as our own. So my family worships him. I’ve lived with him my whole life. I hear you about love and hate. I’m not sure I ever got to hate. But there’s definitely I rolled my eyes at Billy Joel as much as anybody. So I guess my question is, did you feel like Joel was sort of our birthright as New Yorkers, like it or not?

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S4: Well, you know, first of all, he’s so polarizing. Right. Right.

S5: As a character and as an artist, which is fascinating because, you know, all these rock purists and rock critics, he’s not part of the lexicon. He’s always been sort of on the outside. It’s not like Springsteen because I always use billions. Springsteen is kind of the opposite ends of the pole. Right?

S7: Because Springsteen is, you know, loud with critical praise is sort of this icon of America. The last time he wasn’t a millionaire was age 26. I mean, he’s a millionaire, maybe a billionaire at this point, but he’s still singing about his working class stuff.

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S5: Where’s Billy’s expression of the every man is so intertwined in a weird way. His songs are more honest to me. He’s really explaining about what it means to live a suburban life attached to New York City. And where is Springsteen as much of his larger concept of what America mean? Billy Joel is living the songs. He is the songs, you know, and you’re going through his life with him, which is why the songs are, you know, so troubling at times or problematic.

S2: Let’s talk about some of those problematic songs. So Piano Man. It’s a song. It’s Billy Joel’s nickname.

S6: It is a very common piano bar request. One of my regular Slate plus listeners pointed out that it’s far and away. He’s a guy who plays at a piano bar and it’s the request he gets like twice as much as anything else. And it’s even in the title of your forthcoming musical. So what the heck is it about that song? Is it the melody? What is it?

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S5: So you can attack that song from a lot of angles. Right. And I’ve played it so many times that I’m completely qualified to attack the song. So it is a limerick. Right. There once was a man from men took it over to light. But the whole song is written like a limerick. So it does have that sort of bar loping quality in three. But what I think is the most fascinating about that song. So he wrote that song based on a gig that he did when he lived in L.A.. Right. It was a place called the Executive Room. It’s actually Elizabeth Weber. His first wife, she’s the waitress practicing politics. She worked at the bar, too. Oh, see, that’s fascinating. Right. And it’s serious. You only you only live that reality for three to six months. Then he went on. He moved back to New York. He made turnstyles, which, you know, is my favorite Billy record. So basically what fascinates me about Piano Man, why I think it’s such a unique song in the canon of music.

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S7: It’s the only song that when you sing it, if you’re not Billy Joel, it is a horrible, horrible place to be because the whole song, whole power of that song is built on the line. Man, what are you doing? Right. It’s all these drunks acknowledging Billy Joel’s greatness. And yet he went on to Madison Square Garden every month in a career. But anybody else who plays that song that is so closely identified with him is not him. And therefore, they are the guy in the song. Right. Like, I can’t think of another song that when you sing it, you become the guy in the song. Right. Because nobody is going to sing Piano Man playing guitar. That’s insane. I’ve actually seen it done, believe it or not. Right. What you’re seeing when you’re playing piano and singing Piano Man, you’re the piano man. It’s it’s it’s completely fascinating. And I use a line in my show. I have a whole bit about it. But if the song is an existential prison. Right.

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S5: I think it’s actually an incredible song, but it has become so wrapped up in our culture, it’s impossible to listen to it with any kind of distance.

S2: So to go back to the thesis of the episode. You know, let’s talk about Omar’s versus rip off. I called Billy Joel a pop Zelig, but I didn’t call him a thief. And you’re the one who pointed out to me, Visa V, your friend, that he nixed ideas from everywhere. I mean, how bothered should we be by this?

S8: Like, if say good bye to Hollywood is very clearly, overtly No-Match to be my baby by the Ronettes. He wants you to notice that. Right. That’s that’s not him ripping it off and he’s turned it into its own thing.

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S7: Well, first of all, that’s what’s happening in modern pop music. Right? Of course, it’s in fact, now it is cool to adopt the style, right. It is cool to wear the clothes like Bruno Mars would do.

S5: Or you’re saying Robin Thicke and Pharrell with all that and they ended up getting sued, which is a whole other thing. I want to talk about that. But hold that thought. So, you know and you know, and then also you sort of drew that line to the late Adam Schlesinger. You know, it’s this idea, I think back then when he came out, the you know, especially with all the British influence on New Wave. And so identity was a huge part of what you were putting forth in the record. And Billy was a craftsman, right? He was he he might as well have been Irving Berlin or some other guy from Tin Pan Alley. But he lived in this pop world. And I think what also you sort of pointed out was that they’re not rip offs, is that his sense of melody and harmony, which is very much informed by classical music. You know, you he it’s like he is doing his version of those things. But the Billy Joel, this is always in there and which to me is that sort of classical harmonic influence and also the lyrical thrust of this very personal, very New York experience. And I think that’s why it resonates so hard, because you’ve got this common ground of all these tropes that people know. Right. It’s not original, but it’s familiar. But then there is a singular identity of a person woven throughout.

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S2: You mentioned Blurred Lines, and I would love to talk briefly about Blurred Lines. Yeah. As one of my Slate plus listeners asked an astute question of basically whether in the post Blurred Lines World, a song like Say Say Goodbye to Hollywood, which is openly emulating something like the Ronettes, whether you’d have to add Phil Spector to the songwriting now, whether you get dragged into court, because it’s it’s a different melody and it’s a different overall feel, but it’s doing an Oman to something very specific. And what, you know, in the modern universe, on the one hand, you’re right, that pastiche is common in modern pop, certainly in hip hop. But we also drag people into court for evoking the rhythm or the cadence of a certain record. Well, with Billy Joel be, you know, strung up for that now.

S5: I mean, I think what we’re dealing with in my mind, we have we’re in sort of this post-modern experience of pop music. Right. Which she did not exist in. And right. Legally, a song, the copyright of a song is tied to the melody and the lyrics. The harmonic information or the production information is actually not part of the copyright. But obviously, this is changing. I mean, you look at modern songs and there’s 11 writers. The song is a piece of real estate. It’s a copyright. It’s like a TV show or anything else these days now. So if you’re borrowing from the value of another brand, the argument is that, hey, this is a brand that’s been established. So you need to sort of pay money to it or pay credence to it. The identity of the artists now is built upon this commentary of what has already happened. Right. It’s more about what Taylor Swift means across three albums rather than in one song. And I don’t think that was the case for when Billy Joel existed. But what’s really interesting and why I think he’s ahead of his time is that his narrative is completely tracked in all the records. And I think by his sort of relentless copying of styles, he was able to kind of make the songs weirdly more about him. Right. Because he was a. Million. So it forces your mind in your ear to really get at the heart of who is the guy who’s singing this stuff and not get him tied up? Oh, this is a punk artist. Oh, this is a you know, he represents X, Y and Z. And I think, you know, with Blurred Lines, it is. The lawsuit is invalid. I mean, Lee, you know that I am hearing for the record. But, yeah, the legal definition of what a song is, is, is mutating because basically what’s happened is that harmony has been replaced by production. That’s a great point that Chili Gonzalez has made and a bunch of his online masterclasses. So now it’s not even about the chord or this. It’s about the sound of the record. Right. Right. That’s what people are taking in.

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S2: I agree. What are some Billy Joel songs that you don’t mind playing these days?

S5: I love to play, whereas the orchestra I love. I love Allentown. I think Allentown is just a beautiful, beautiful song. I mean, I love I like I, I pretty much like playing all of them except for frickin, you know, the one that shall not be name that we named endlessly earlier. Yeah. And at.

S9: This one drives me nuts to.

S5: A fad that crashed your party. Mainly because it’s it’s all the songs are always a step too high for me because I’m a true baritone and he’s a real tenor. So I have to constantly just be getting myself up into that register. I mean, they’re great songs, you know? And I don’t think the schmaltz, you know, I don’t think. I don’t think it translates as much. I mean, they’re they’re they’re very, very, very well-built, well-built songs.

S2: Well, you mentioned Allentown. Part of what I like about Allentown is the production sounded on that Nylon Curtain album, which has his John Lennon album, for all intents and purposes, with the double tracking of the vocals and the Beatles esque melodies. I feel like it’s the most successful active originality on that album where he really created something new. When you don’t have those production touches is it’s still just a great song to play.

S5: Oh, I mean, it’s this is gorgeous. It’s like.

S4: Where we’re living here in Allentown and the close in all the factories down. Out in Bethlehem, the killing field in and our four homes and stand in line. Yeah, I mean.

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S2: It’s great. So this is Segway nicely into one of the last things I wanted to ask you, which is do you feel you live in Billy Joel’s shadow? I’ve heard Ben Folds, a piano player, complain about Billy Joel comparisons. Are all piano players doomed to live with this? I mean, do you think of Joel as the piano man first?

S5: You know. No, they don’t say you live in Elton John shadow, right? They don’t. It’s usually Billy Joel. And yet. So why is that? Right. And I think, again, Elton John is a creation. He is a fantasy. Right. So if you’re trying to do something fantastic or spectacular and even the early records, you know, you can have more kinship with him. But if you’re a guy sitting down at a piano trying to tell your story, it kind of begins and ends with Billy Joel.

S4: And if you’re from New York, I mean, it is the I mean it when I try to tell people and I guess with esoteric you know, I’m sort of a hybrid of Harry Nielson and Tom Waits and Randy Newman. I just get blank stares. Soon as you say, yeah, I’m kind of like Billy Joel.

S2: Everybody knows who you’re talking, whether it’s the New York thing or the piano playing thing. I mean, one of the core ideas of my podcasts was that Billy Joel is not the piano man, or at least he’s more than the piano man. And yet, at the end of the day, there’s this image of Billy Joel that is etched in stone that will never go away.

S5: I think that’s retroactive. I think, like you pointed out, that the Piano Man was just one of his, you know, many disguises that he wore. And I think what people were really people take away from Billy Joel is sort of the New York news and kind of the earnest weightiness of the songs. Right. The sort of almost devoid of a sense of humor or self-awareness. And I think that’s sort of his appeal because he’s just being himself. Right. And that, in a weird way, is that’s a legacy I’m proud to share as I’ve grown older. That comparison bothers me less and less and less, because I don’t think when people say you sound like Billy Joel. It’s not because you just play piano and write songs. I think it’s because you’re essentially trying to tell your story in music. That’s wonderful. Some books like To Get Away Say Good had an effect on the neighborhood.

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S6: Well, Julian, this has been amazing. Thank you especially for all the music. That was a special treat. And you have got a lot going on a musical Kickstarter, some new tunes. So tell the people where they can find your stuff.

S4: Yeah, the Kickstarter just closed. But today on all your digital services, you can find the new single from my musical. When and when I say musical, it’s a concept album about a guy who writes a musical about not being belligerent. And I have a song out. It’s called Please Don’t Make Me Play Piano Man, which is also the name of the musical. So you can check that out. And I think it’s appropriate to have it released on the day that I’m doing this podcast, because the song is a inversion of the song Piano Man, not a parody, but an inversion. So it’s it’s out to day. And then the album’s gonna come out in June. Again, the album is called Please Don’t Make Me Play Piano Man, but you can find me, you know, just type my name into a computer and you’ll wind up at me having a New York State.

S2: Now comes the time in Hit Parade, the bridge where we do some trivia. And I’m delighted to be joined on the line by Lisa. Hi, Lisa. Are you there? Yeah, hi. I’m here. And I understand that you are contacting us from another part of the world entirely. Where where are you calling from?

S10: I’m based in Stockholm, Sweden.

S2: That’s amazing. Are you of Swedish heritage yourself?

S10: I am not. I’m American. Can probably tell by my accent or lack of accent. Right. But I am have been living in Sweden for a little over two years. I got a job here and I’ve lived outside the United States for about eight years, so.

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S2: So you’re calling from Stockholm, Stockholm, which, as we all know, is the homeland of much of the pop music we now take for granted. In fact, I did a whole hip great episode about that. And I understand you even have a bit of an anecdote about your Stockholm pop experience.

S10: Yes. So last summer, I think it was I was out with some of my colleagues and I walked down the street and they said, oh, right over there. That’s where Britney Spears recorded baby one more time. So, wow. The Irish stuck. Homer is quite proud of that fact.

S2: So this must have been the shire on studios of Max Martin fame.

S10: Yeah. Yeah. It’s in the neighborhood called Coon’s Home, and it’s not there anymore, but it’s where it used to be spectacular.

S2: Well, one last thing before we kick off the trivia, I really just wanted to say thank you for being a slate plus subscriber. As you know, we only open our trivia rounds to Slate plus members. So if you’re listening to this and would like to be a trivia contestant, visit Slate dot com slash hit parade. Sign up. That’s Slate dot com slash hit parade. Sign up. All right. So, Lisa, I think you know how this works. We’re going to ask you three questions. The first will be a callback to last month’s full length episode of Hit Parade. And the next two will be a preview of the next episode of Hit Parade. Are you ready for some trivia?

S10: OK. All right.

S2: Here we go. Question one. Last month’s episode on Billy Joel’s career talked about his 1977 breakthrough album, The Stranger, which generated four top 40 hits. Which of these was not one of them? A stranger? B, moving out Antony’s song. C. Just the way you are. Or D. Only the good die young.

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S11: I want to say.

S7: And that is correct, the correct answer is a title track of the album. The Stranger had a face that we hired away.

S8: But we take them now and show ourselves when no one has gone. It is an album rock radio staple. But it was not issued as a single in America. Only in Japan, France, Australia and New Zealand. For him to chair. The fourth single from the album, which I didn’t mention in the question, was.

S2: She’s always a woman. And that was also a top 40 hit. All right, you’re one for one. You ready for some preview trivia?

S12: OK, yeah.

S2: Here we go. Question two. What was the last hip hop album to win the Grammy for album of the year? A Lauryn Hill. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. B Outcast Speaker Box. The Love Below. C, Connew. W the College Dropout. Or D, Kendrick Lamar to pimp a butterfly.

S12: Okay, let’s see.

S11: I know the Learn Hill. That was a while ago, I guess. And then I guess D.

S2: I’m sorry. The correct answer was B outcasts. Speaker box. The level below.

S8: That 2003 album was the last LP to win the top Grammy, Lauryn Hill’s 1998 solo debut is the only other rap album of any kind to win the big prize.

S2: Both the Connew West and Kendrick Lamar albums were nominated but did not win. Well, fascinating, right?

S10: That’s a long time. That’s surprising. That is a long time. Yeah. I was just going with the most recent one.

S2: I. I hear you. And that’s why that question is counterintuitive. Anyway, that was a tough one. Here’s one last question for you. Ready for question three? OK, question three. In 2004, Outcaste became one of very few artists to replace themselves. At number one on the Billboard charts, when the way you move ejected. Hey ya. Which of the following artists did not pull off that rare chart feat before Outcast A. Elvis Presley. B, The Beatles. C The Beaches. Or D Boyz Two Men.

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S11: I’m going to guess. D.

S2: I’m sorry. The correct answer was C the beaches.

S1: Although songs written by the Gibb brothers succeeded each other on top. The Bee Gees never replaced themselves on top has passed other acts. Who achieved this feat before?

S2: Outcast included the rapper’s Puff Daddy and Nelly. All right. Well, one out of three ain’t bad. Glad you got the Billy Joel question. And now here comes the fun part. Now you get to turn the tables on me. I understand you have a trivia question for me.

S12: Yes, I do. So when Outcasts Haigha first hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100 in December 2003, it replaced a song by a fellow rap act that had occupied the spot for just a week. What was the song that hair placed at number one? Was it a Shake Your Tail Feather by Nelly featuring P. Diddy and Murphy Lee. B Stand up by Ludacris featuring Sharna. C Slow motion by juvenile featuring Slick Soldier Just Slim or D. Slow Jams by Twista featuring Kanye West and Jamie Fox.

S3: This is a good question because all four of those hip hop and there were all number ones. I know that. And they all went to number one I believe in either 2003 or 2004. Hey, y’all went to number one and something like December of 2003. So if I’m if my memory is serving me, the one that was on top just before Hagar was stand up, the Ludacris featuring Shonna record. So I’m going to go ahead and guess maybe you are correct.

S13: The answer is based in of failure. We’re not we’re not just outcasts replaced. It’s Phil, Atlanta based rap act. After his only week ever atop Top Hot 100 as a top billed artists, Ludicrous did make it back to number one as a featured artist three more times and notably stayed there for 12 weeks the following year on the Usher single.

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S3: Yeah, that was all excellent trivia. Thank you so, so much for that, Karen.

S12: I mean, when I think back to what I was doing around that time, it’s definitely soundtrack bad cast. So I’m looking forward to hearing Metaphysic Preserve.

S2: Well, that’s wonderful, Lisa. Thank you so much for being a contestant on Hit Parade the Bridge.

S12: Yeah. Thanks for having me.

S3: So as those trivia questions indicated, the next episode of Hit Parade will be about when hip hop moved south.

S8: You know, Outcaste were indeed, as that question indicated, the last rap act to win album of the year. But in addition to that, there are other legacy is really helping to shift the center of Hip-Hop rap as a medium was invented in New York City and then it went multi platinum on the West Coast in the form of rappers like Snoop Dogg, Tupac, Dr. Dre. But of course, now it’s super regional. The current best selling rapper Drake is from Canada.

S3: And really the big moment happens in the late 90s when the center of gravity for rap shifts from neither the East Coast nor the West Coast, but down south and Atlanta is now where many of its movements take root. And rappers, as I said a minute ago, rappers can now come from anywhere. What’s more, Outcaste were hitmakers. They redefined what a number one song could sound like. They crossed Pop Orombi, even alternative rock. If we’re talking about Haigha, they were the new millennium’s most innovative hitmakers.

S8: And finally, they even have something in common with last month’s subject. Billy Joel. They quit while they were ahead. So that’s what the next episode of Hit Parade is gonna be about. Look for it in your pod catcher. By the end of May.

S6: This episode of Hit Parade. The bridge was produced by Asher Solutia, and I’m Chris Malani. Keep on marching on the one.