Welcome to Two for Tuesday, an ongoing bi-weekly series where Consequence of Sound’s Henry Hauser will take two ”unlikely pairs” in music and compare, contrast, juxtapose, and evaluate the commonalities between both parties. Last time, he discovered the shared loserdom between The Beatles and Beck; this week, he’s celebrating 40 years of Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” by pairing him up with Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man”.
When facing down the harsh realities of day-to-day living, music promises a panacea for anxiety, loneliness, and depression. A bona fide catch-all remedy, it has the power to dull heartache and assuage imperfections with just a handful of mellifluous chords. As an antidote for pain, music is extremely versatile. For those overwhelmed by the turbulent events unfolding around them, it offers escape from social strife by providing a path to the stillness and tranquility of one’s own subconscious. Folks wallowing in isolated self-pity can also find refuge in the power of song, as it can serve as the cohesive glue that bonds wretched loners together in a supportive community. Bob Dylan and Billy Joel know this better than anyone. Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” frames music as a means to mitigate alienation by uniting disparate outsides under a common banner. In “Mr. Tambourine Man”, Bob Dylan enlists an ethereal minstrel in seeking escape from the incessant, whirlwind demands of social life.
“Piano Man”, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this week, is an autobiographical account of Billy Joel’s time as a piano-lounge singer in Los Angeles. Performing under the moniker Bill Martin, Joel spent six months at the Executive Club on Wilshire Boulevard while a team of Columbia Records lawyers fought to extricate the young songwriter from his rotten lifetime contract with Family Productions. Leading with jazzy piano lines that give way to an elegiac, folksy harmonica, Joel tersely sets the scene: “It’s nine o’clock on a Saturday/ The regular crowd shuffles in.” A motley crew fills the bar, as the piano man serenades perennial bachelors, military lifers, failed actors, stoned businessmen, and nostalgic geezers with a waltz of forgotten memories. Despite his beer-scented microphone and poorly tuned piano, the singer entrances his patrons with haunting, wistful tunes of yesteryear.
Though these lugubrious drunks are doomed to spend the rest of their days in a dolorous haze, a touching tune is all that’s needed to turn back the clock. Atop a glimmering foundation of piano, guitar, mandolin, and accordion, the dejected crowd comes to life with an unassuming and endearing request, “Sing us a song you’re the piano man/ Sing us a song tonight/ Well we’re all in the mood for a melody/ And you’ve got us feeling alright.” The piano man is more than happy to oblige, providing his audience with a few moments of relief from their humdrum lives.
“Mr. Tambourine Man”, off Bringing It All Back Home, has Dylan sketching a surrealistic landscape apart from society. Liberated from worries and cares, he shamelessly requests that Mr. Tambourine Man play him a tune. Ties to the outside world are gladly chucked aside, as we surrender our full attention to Dylan’s tranquil acoustic finger picking. It’s a fresh start, an escape from those “ancient empty streets too dead for dreaming.” This is a place where our physical bodies no longer come into play – we’re transcendent (“My senses have been stripped/ My hands can’t feel to grip”). Rather than seeking solace in the company of his peers, Dylan searches for inner peace within his own psyche. “The only thing that’s real,” Dylan declared shortly after releasing this song, “is inside you.”
According to Billy Joel and Bob Dylan, music can heal just about anything that ails us. Whether loneliness plagues your soul or the grating demands of society bombard your mind, music makes life just a bit more livable. In reaching out to the “Piano Man”, alienated burnouts find comfort in their collective loneliness. Though it doesn’t sound like much, it’s certainly “better than drinking alone.” Dylan, on the other hand, entreats “Mr. Tambourine Man” to transport him from a turbulent society to more serene environs, “far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow.” Music men: “In the jingle jangle morning I’ll come followin’ you.”