In Search of Escape: A Lesson from The Piano Man

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 feelin’ alright

“The Piano Man,” lyric by Billy Joel, 1973

On Saturday evening Shannon and I attended a unique night of music and elegance at the Monroe Symphony Orchestra. The symphony and its special guests were performing selections from the musical catalog of two music icons: Billy Joel and Elton John. I had never been to a concert like this before but Shannon loves Billy Joel’s music, so we dressed to the nines and hob-nobbed with the rich and famous for Valentine’s weekend. I was slightly aware of Joel’s music, though not really a fan, but since orchestras delight me endlessly I hoped for the best.

It was, for the most part, really good. Three vocalists sang the songs while the symphony played accompaniment. I had to wear plugs because of my ears, which dampened things a good bit, but I took them out when one of the performers, Josh Madden, stepped behind the orchestra’s piano and started to play an iconic melody.

“La la la, di da da, 
La la, di da da da dum,”I saw people in the crowd mouth those notes as if they had memorized them long ago. Which I supposed they had!

The song was “The Piano Man,” a famous ballad written and performed by Billy Joel back in 1973. Being a story song, I was captivated by the lyrics and it made my heart and mind stir with a mix of emotion and thought. The song starts,

“It’s nine o’clock on a Saturday
The regular crowd shuffles in
There’s an old man sitting next to me
Makin’ love to his tonic and gin

He says, “Son, can you play me a memory
I’m not really sure how it goes
But it’s sad and it’s sweet and I knew it complete
When I wore a younger man’s clothes.”

The scene is established. It’s a bar in the late evening. A man asks the author to play an old song as he drinks. His is a pity case — he has grown older and now finds release in a drink, longing for old memories.

As the song progresses we meet other down-on-their-luck characters at this bar. The barkeeper who longs for better things, the single man, the career soldier, the waitress engrossed in politics, and the businessmen who are high. They’ve gathered at this bar to drown out their loneliness and, well, to be broken people together. Their chorus rings out:

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 got us feeling alright

The piano player’s job is important. He’s there to cheer them up through his art — through his music. The broken patrons want to find some form of mental and emotional escape from their circumstances and they are relying on this one person — this bar musician — to help them find their escape.

But the story’s kicker comes from the final verse:

It’s a pretty good crowd for a Saturday
And the manager gives me a smile
‘Cause he knows that it’s me they’ve been comin’ to see
To forget about life for a while

And the piano, it sounds like a carnival
And the microphone smells like a beer
And they sit at the bar and put bread in my jar
And say, “Man, what are you doin’ here?”

The piano man is just as broken and messed up as the people he plays for. He is the main attraction at the bar, a bar at which he chooses to play despite his talent. “Why are you here?” they ask him. The answer is that he is messed up, too, and in need of escape. Beer and music are his escape. He makes a living on tips (“put bread in my jar”) while drinking for free.

I love story songs that don’t sugar-coat the truth of the world around us. I think I enjoy those lyrics because they almost always point to some element of truth that surrounds us. People are broken in a broken world. We have troubles in this life and almost every person has wished for escape at some point. Some people turn to addiction and some turn to outside hobbies and fascinations (“the waitress practicing politics” in this song). Still others turn to art for escape. A lot of musicians began and sustained careers as escape from broken or stressed-out circumstances.

Perhaps “The Piano Man” also has some nugget of truth that followers of Jesus Christ can take to mind and heart. The piano man had a ministry, though no one considered it such. He served as a beacon of light in the midst of darkness, playing melodies and singing words that cheered up the weary and downtrodden. I think art can be a great tool for pointing hurting people towards the healing that can be found in Jesus Christ. A song, a play, a movie, a painting… all can be used like the Piano Man used his talent.

Any light has its greatest impact when it shines in the darkest times. Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Anyone who follows Me will never walk in the darkness but will have the light of life (John 8:12; see also John 9:5 & 12:46). One other truth of light is that it has little impact when it is not around any darkness. In order for someone to be illuminated by it, there must be darkness all around. Like at that bar, or any place where broken people routinely gather. Those places are ripe for the ministry of brothers and sisters in Christ, shining the light of Christ’s love, His healing, and His grace.

It is this divine escape — finding eternal freedom in the person and work of Jesus — that is the escape from brokenness that people need. It is the only escape that will satisfy the spirit and the soul! Will you be a “piano man” to those people and share the light of the gospel of grace? They desperately need to hear it.

Many thanks to Billy Joel for unintentionally reminding me of that truth.

If you want to see the original music video, here is a YouTube link.

Be God’s.