First Appeared in The Music Box, January 2012, Volume 19, #1
Written by John Metzger
Wed January 18, 2012, 05:30 AM CST
Billy Joel shifted gears and issued Cold Spring Harbor at the right time. The singer/songwriter movement was just beginning to flourish, and the way he balanced his sensitivity with lyrical twists that were considerably more virile than those of his counterparts — James Taylor, Elton John, and Carole King, among them — should have allowed him to find his niche much sooner than he did. The problem, though, was that Cold Spring Harbor was mastered and pressed at the wrong speed, and Joel wound up sounding ridiculous. Although it contained a pair of superb tracks that he would later harvest for his seminal concert set Songs in the Attic — She’s Got a Way and Everybody Loves You Now — the album tanked. Feeling understandably despondent, Joel moved to the opposite end of the country, from Long Island to Los Angeles, to plot his next move.
Of course, Los Angeles proved to be a troublesome home for Joel. As he made clear on Streetlife Serenade and Turnstiles, he felt like a fish out of water in the City of Angels, and he yearned to get back to the gritty streets of New York City. Nevertheless, Joel’s relocation played a vital role in strengthening and refining his voice as a songwriter, which ultimately helped him to secure a contract with Columbia. Los Angeles also was the backdrop for Piano Man, which not only remains one of Joel’s most highly revered songs but also served as the title track for his Columbia debut.
Piano Man is one of those albums that has gained in stature with each passing year. Joel’s lyrics and melodies are actually stronger than the perfunctory music that surrounds them. Although Joel was supported by a slate of Los Angeles’ finest studio musicians, they never quite captured the feistiness of his personality. Befitting his role as a stranger in a strange land, his East Coast songs were given a West Coast treatment. Adorned with banjo and fiddle, some of them sound quite different from anything else in Joel’s canon.
The passage of decades inevitably has boosted the strengths of Piano Man’s material while mitigating its foibles. After all, the album contained a number of stellar compositions that continue to be highlights of Joel’s concerts. In addition to its title track, which depicted the lost and lonely souls who ventured into the bars where he set up shop as Bill Martin, Piano Man also featured his theatrical depiction of teen boredom and angst (Captain Jack), his modernized tale of a restless outlaw (The Ballad of Billy the Kid), and one of the finest love songs he ever penned (You’re My Home).
Seven lesser but nonetheless strong cuts complete Piano Man. Taken in full, they illuminate the various aspects of Joel’s persona, from his experiments with country-rock on Travelin’ Prayer to the pained, gospel-imbued pleas that fill If I Only Had the Words (to Tell You). Elsewhere, on Ain’t No Crime, he pays homage to Leon Russell while also cementing a long-lasting connection to the works of Elton John. Although it is impossible to go back and hear Piano Man in its entirety for the first time, the sonic clarity that emanates from the latest rendition of the endeavor certainly heightens its emotional intensity.
The other factor that helps to bolster Piano Man: Legacy Edition is its bonus material. At long last, Joel’s set at Sigma Sound Studios in April 1972 has been given its official release. Recorded before he moved to Los Angeles — as well as prior to his signing with Columbia — the hour-long program was originally broadcast on Philadelphia’s WMMR. Meant to showcase material from Cold Spring Harbor, the performance also unveiled several selections that later became integral to Piano Man. In particular, Captain Jack sparked interest in Joel’s work by establishing his credibility among college students.
Even at this early date, Joel had a natural, easy-going demeanor on stage. Perhaps because Cold Spring Harbor was such a failure, he was able to relax and just be himself as he loudly slurped his beer and poked fun at the state of his career. Even so, it’s clear that his confidence hadn’t been shaken too badly. Joel used the opportunity to explore his full slate of influences as well as his burgeoning catalogue. All of the rock and soul records he had absorbed while performing in cover bands — not to mention his classical training — came rushing through his material, from the majestic Nocturne to the Jerry Lee Lewis-infused Josephine to the Ray Charles-inspired Tomorrow Is Today.
Some fans might grumble that the worst mistakes that Joel and his band made during the show were cleaned up for this release. While these changes certainly skew the historical accuracy of his performance, the end result speaks for itself. Without the distractions, the world can focus on an important moment in Joel’s history, one that opened the door for his future success in Philadelphia and New York City.
Of Further Interest...
Piano Man: Legacy Edition is available from
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2012 The Music Box