The song Piano Man came from the inspiration Billy Joel got while avoiding legal and financial problems caused by mismanagement of funds and contracts by his trusted advisor. In 1973, Billy Joel went to Los Angeles and played in piano bars under the pseudonym Bill Martin. He tried to keep a low profile but the song Captain Jack prompted Columbia Records to track Billy down and offer him a recoding contract. Within a year he released Piano Man, which sold over a million copies by the end of the year. From this contract, Billy Joel earned $7,763.

At a 1996 lecture appearance Billy Joel shared a few anecdotes and observations about the song that rocketed him to superstardom. It is my pleasure to relay some of those tidbits to you now.

Piano Man's lyrics are a series of limericks. Take a look at the stanzas of the song. They all read like a limerick. Example:

John at the bar is a friend of mine
He gets me my drinks for free
He's a quick with a joke or to light up your smoke
But there's someplace that he'd rather be

Piano Man doesn't go anywhere melodically. Joel said that everytime he goes into a hotel piano bar or is at a function where a live piano player is performing at a bar, the piano player sees him enter and immediately launches into playing Piano Man. However, each stanza of the song is played to the same melody, so that after the pianist finishes a verse he's back where he started and is unable to gracefully finish. Joel said that when this happens he always shoots a glace at the pianist as if to say "I told you so."

Piano Man is always the last song in a live concert. Typically it's the last song of the encore. While touring with Elton John the duo always perform this as a duet.

The piano bar that inspired Piano Man no longer exists. Joel said that several years ago he went back to where the piano bar that inspired the song was, but found an office building in its place. The bar is just gone, and there's no sign that it ever existed. Joel wondered if perhaps he just imagined the entire experience.

The nickname given to a presumably British man who was discovered near a beach in Minster, England on April 7, 2005. Found dressed in a suit and tie, the Piano Man is unwilling or unable to speak, which has further confounded attempts to identify him. His one distinctive feature is his desire (and ability) to play the piano. This fact was discovered after he drew a detailed picture of a piano and hospital staff led him to one. These artistic efforts have apparently been Piano Man’s only attempts to communicate since he was found.

This otherwise unremarkable missing-persons story has achieved international press coverage, however, as it bears a passing resemblance to the story of David Helfgott, the pianist whose mental breakdown and recovery was made famous by the 1996 movie Shine. Of course, the allusions made to this similarity reference the movie, and not the real-life events the movie is about, adding another layer of surrealism to an already unreal news event.

The story of Piano Man is therefore a perfect example of the state of journalism, particularly in America. His story has a perfect narrative arc built in. A mysterious derelict is found, but something about him makes it appear than he is more than a simple pauper. He cannot communicate verbally, the fashion of choice for the vast majority of the Earth’s people, but can communicate via a musical instrument, which is something a majority of people cannot do. Who is this tragic virtuoso? Eventually, someone who recognized him from the news reports will identify him, and the Piano Man’s name and history will be revealed in a thrilling denouement. This is fodder for several news cycles (if editors and producers are lucky), and it sure beats having to watch people blow up all day. If they are really lucky, Piano Man will regain his power of speech just in time for the exclusive Barbara Walters interview.

This ongoing pseudo-event makes Piano Man the perfect celebrity in the Boorstinian sense of the word. He is famous for being famous, even though no one knows who he is.

UPDATE: A report appearing in the May 18, 2005 Scotsman claims that a Polish mime living in Italy has identified the man as Steven Villa Masson, a street musician he had worked with in Nice. This information is as-of-yet uncorroborated. The Polish mime says he recognized Piano Man's picture in the news reports about the mystery.

(HOPEFULLY FINAL) UPDATE:After a series of false leads (including the above), Piano Man was released from the hospital he was being treated at, and returned to his home in Germany. He broke his silence to declare his nationality, and was later identified by his parents. His true name has not been released due to patient confidentiality reasons.

Debate continues as to whether he was an excellent or terrible piano player.

Purdy, Alison and Anna Farley, "Piano Man 'Is French Street Musician',"Latest News, Scotsman.com, May 18, 2005, http://news.scotsman.com/latest.cfm?id=%204569592

"'Piano Man' flies back to Germany," BBCNews UK Edition, August 22, 2005, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/kent/4172662.stm

"I'm going to start with a warm-up song."

That's my first line at the karaoke box. Singing runs in my family, and one of the things I love about Tokyo is the prevalence of intimate places to sing along to a machine.

So every first date begins with "Piano Man." I have sang it as an opening several times now, and each time I sing it across from a lovely young lady, we end up in the sack several hours later.

I don't know why this happens: for that matter, I don't know whether the deciding factor is "Piano Man" or the obligatory midway performance of U2's "Even Better Than The Real Thing" (by which point in the ritual I'm generally comfortable enough to lean back on the couch, nearly into my date's lap) or the embarrassing moments when I decide to do Japanese hip-hop.

Doesn't matter. I love the song. It brings something out inside me.

I know that when I was broke, anonymous and depressed in college, I thought anything must be better than wasting away in a sweaty dorm room making writeups about Japanese railway lines. I dreamed about becoming a big-shot politician and seducing the beautifully-sculpted South American girl I had a crush on in high school.

It turned out that when I finally went on the campaign trail, I found practicing politics to be too corrupt, too cynical, and when I got that beautifully-sculpted South American girl in bed a couple of years later, she turned out to be a basket case. I was back to square one, knowing only that there was someplace that I'd rather be.

So I ended up in a little law firm in Tokyo. The little law firm turned into a big law firm which turned into a financial institution, and before I knew it I was spending my weekdays in a Herman Miller office chair on the upper levels, writing contracts for billion-dollar deals and looking out my window over half of Japan. High, but enslaved to debt, and constantly throwing money at my own lack of fulfillment and lack of dreams; a young man who had lost his younger man's clothes.

My dream girlfriend freaked out, dumped me and started dating one of my friends a month later.

The guys who hired me were laid off in the recession, and the papers piled higher on my desk.

For the first time in my life, my father was clean and his son was a drunk. The smell of success, whatever it was worth, was the smell of a beer.

And finally, one night, when it was all crashing down, I put the bottle of Nikka Black back on top of the fridge, left my apartment and walked for four hours down the river, lost in the lights of the city and the deep sound of the waters.

The river slowly washed my tears away, and as I walked farther from home, I remembered my English teacher from high school. She was an energetic lady who, soon after, quit her job to become a full-time novelist and sailboat captain.

She wrote in my yearbook when I graduated: "You can follow law or politics or whatever, but deep inside, you're a writer. Never forget that."

Somehow, I felt the poetry stirring in my soul, words circling like a carnival ride.

And I sat there on the shore, and the only question left for myself was obvious: "Man, what are you doing here?"

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