Not Fade Away: Gavin DeGraw Talks Billy Joel’s ‘Piano Man’

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In Not Fade Away, we take a look at the legacy of some of the greatest albums of the past few decades – some iconic, some lesser known – as they celebrate significant anniversaries. Here, we focus on Billy Joel‘s breakthrough album, 1973’s ‘Piano Man,’ as it turns 40. Radio.com spoke with singer/songwriter Gavin DeGraw album the album, and Billy Joel’s impact on him. 

It was nearly a year ago that Billy Joel blew pretty much everyone off the stage — the Rolling Stones, Kanye West, the Who, Chris Martin of Coldplay and Alicia Keys included — at the 12-12-12 concert at Madison Square Garden. The show raised funds for the Robin Hood Foundation to help people in the tri-state area affected by Superstorm Sandy. Besides raising much needed money for a great cause, the show also seemed to serve to remind many what a great performer the guy is, and how great his songs are. He’s in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, the Songwriters Hall Of Fame, and next month, he’ll be one of the honorees at the Kennedy Center Honors. And yet, he always seems to be underrated: he’s never been a critical darling. More than that, he’s rarely cited as an influence by other artists.

Gavin DeGraw is an exception to that rule. I interviewed him in 2003 when I worked for VH1 News, as he was promoting Chariot, his debut album for J Records. DeGraw spoke about Billy’s impact – a lot. I hadn’t seen Gavin since then, but when he came to Radio.com‘s offices to talk about his new album, Make A Move, I asked if he could spare a few minutes to talk about Billy Joel in general, and Piano Man specifically. It turned out that he was, indeed, able to spare a few minutes. More than a few. In fact, after I said, “So I’m writing a piece on Billy Joel’s Piano Man,” I barely said anything else for 15 minutes, and I didn’t need to.

“It’s funny: maybe a lot of people don’t cite Billy Joel as an influence,” he said. “For me, I was 15 when I went to see him in concert and saw him play. Prior to that, I wanted to be an opthamologist. I wanted to make the blind see, like Jesus. I’m at this concert, and I see the joy in these people’s faces as he’s playing these songs, I saw them just overwhelmed with joy. And it was the first time I regarded music as medicine.  Prior to that, I thought that music would be a selfish occupation. A selfish decision for a career, completely self-serving. When I saw how it affected people, that’s the first time I thought that music was medicine, or at least a form of medicine. After the concert, I told my family, ‘I know what I want to do now. I want to do that.’ My father said, ‘It looks like fun, doesn’t it?’ and I said ‘Yeah, it looks like fun.’ And he said, ‘Then that’s what you’ll do.’ Just like that.”

(Ben Horton/Getty Images)

(Ben Horton/Getty Images)

(Gavin DeGraw/photo credit: Ben Horton, Getty Images)

A lot of artists may use the phrase “it changed my life” when describing another artist’s impact on them. But Billy Joel really did change DeGraw’s life. And like Joel, DeGraw would go on to write in a down-to-earth, sincere way, a way that rarely curries the favor of critics, doesn’t appeal to hipsters, but does resonate with lots of people who don’t fit into either category.

“When I think back on the Piano Man record, not just the song, but so many of the songs, you’re looking at a young artist’s early attempt at reaching the world, right? At getting out of the barroom and reaching the public. The beauty is that the barroom is the public.” Of course, when talking about Piano Man, it’s hard not to talk about “Piano Man,” and DeGraw sees his own life in that song.

“I can feel where he’s coming from. He brought you into the fishbowl of ‘piano bar society’ and what’s it’s like to be a piano player in a piano bar. I used to go to a piano bar here in New York City, called Don’t Tell Mama, in the theater district. I’d go in there after I finished writing a song. I got friendly with the staff there. I’d go in and say, ‘Hey I finished a song, can I play it tonight?’ Tourists would always go to that bar, and I wanted to see how that song would translate (with them). It would give me a baromter if the material was any good. After I spent time there, I got to know the staff, I got to know the regulars. There really is a society there. Maybe someone (there) used to do musial theater. But they make better money working at the bar, singing two songs a night, than they were making working on Broadway. Maybe someone else there, like the piano player, also makes a living doing voice over work. Another buddy of mine, he got out of the bar, he became the piano player for Ringing Brothers and Barnum Bailey Circus.” But back to Joel’s piano bar: “There’s so many stories, story upon story upon story in one setting. As many people that are in there, there’s an autobiography for each, and there’s a pile of dreams. That’s the beauty of that song.”

“(Billy) was really cutting his teeth in public. He was really portraying his perspective and telling his story about what it was like, with that song or ‘The Ballad Of Billy The Kid.’ To turn that story into a western – from Long Island. What a cool concept, he’s a great writer. I feel like I’m seeing things through his eyes when he sings his songs.”

His powers of observation are in full display on the title track, but also on the much lesser-known “Stop In Nevada,” about a woman leaving a failed marriage to go to California. “She tried for years to be a good wife/It never quite got off the ground/And all those stories of the good life/Convinced her not to hang around.” DeGraw comments, “He’s a writer who can put himself in the shoes of the subject matter. It’s as if he can tell the story from the perspective of anyone’s life, like an actor. The stories are told in such a way that you feel like you’re there. It’s a very difficult thing (for a songwriter) to do. But seemingly very easy for him.”

Another outstanding track is “You’re My Home,” which Joel famously wrote for his first wife when he couldn’t afford to buy her a gift. DeGraw relates to that as well: “It’s what a poor musician would do, feeling broken about their ability to provide for somebody. So much of it, when I hear it, it feels like a man’s persepctive, who feels like he’s unable to provide 100%, which is perhaps a different burden for men. The classic expectation of what it is to be a man – that was written in 1973, an era where that really existed. It’s a plea. ‘Even if we’re gonna lose our home, you’re my home.’ It’s a beautiful sentiment.”

Of course, it is also sung beautifully. “I think Billy Joel is one of the most underrated singers in pop music, period. It’s funny to me that it’s never mentioned: what an excellent singer he is. And he’s able to deliver great singing while telling a story. Not getting caught up in the emotion of riffing, because riffing really isn’t that hard.  It’s hard not to riff. He put taste before everything else, and that’s my favorite thing about him.” 

Joel has scaled back his touring over the past few years, and there are often rumors of him retiring from the road. But he’s just announced a few new shows, including one on New Year’s Eve at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Former critical favorites the piano driven trio Ben Folds Five is opening, so who knows – maybe Billy Joel will end up as a hip influence to future waves of sincere piano-based rock acts. Whether or not that happens, the sixty-something year old will likely fill arenas with audience of all ages for as long as he wants to do it. 

“The draw of him is that he makes everything so relatable,” DeGraw says. “He’s one of the greatest of the 20th century. Really. And if he puts another album out, he’ll be one of the greatest of the 21st century.”

Brian Ives, Radio.com 

 

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