new yorker festival

4 Decades Later, Billy Joel Still Isn’t Sick of Playing ‘Piano Man’

The New Yorker Festival 2015 - Billy Joel Talks With Nick Paumgarten
Billy Joel speaks onstage at the New Yorker Festival 2015. Photo: Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for The New Yorker/2015 Getty Images

You might think that after 42 years Billy Joel would tire of singing about Paul who’s a real-estate novelist and Davy who’s still in the Navy. But the iconic tune “Piano Man” never gets old for him. Originally released in 1973, it is one of the Grammy Award–winning singer’s most popular hits. Singing the same song at every gig doesn’t annoy him — it’s a part of his life’s work.

“It’s not a job you get bored in: We’ll play similar material at various gigs but it’s always so different,” he said in a conversation with New Yorker staff writer Nick Paumgarten Sunday night. “There’s always a different dynamic, a different ambiance in the room, the audience is different, you’re different that night.”

Unsurprisingly, the song was born in a piano bar. Years ago Joel took a job playing in L.A.’s Executive Room. He would say to himself, “I don’t believe I’m doing this, but maybe I’ll get a song out of it.”

Lo and behold, he did, and he’s played it too many times to count.

“If you would have told me at that time that a song that was almost six minutes long in three-quarter time about bummed out losers in this alkie bar in Los Angeles would be a hit, I would say, ‘Yeah sure,’” he said.

He doesn’t feel as much fondness for all of his songs. He now finds “Captain Jack” dreary, and about some older lyrics he’ll wonder, “What was I thinking?”

Clearly audiences disagree. Joel’s sold out 24 consecutive shows at Madison Square Garden, though he hasn’t released new music in two decades, and says he never set out to make chart-toppers. “I don’t know what is going to be a hit,” he explains. “When I write, it’s what I do and it’s what I want to hear.”

Billy Joel Still Isn’t Sick of ‘Piano Man’