“Like Musical Herpes”

“Welcome back to the world of blogging!” I am now telling myself. It’s been a little while, and I can’t quite guarantee that I’ll be writing blogs at any consistent rate. But when an issue like the following comes up, I’ll be sure to milk it for all I can get.

In a recent interview for the A.V. Club’s HateSong series, a lead singer I’d never heard of for a band I’d never heard of took aim at a song I have heard all too often – Billy Joel’s “Piano Man”.

I don’t mean to make light of Tesco Vee, his band the Meatmen, or his opinion. The fact that I’d never heard of him really doesn’t amount to anything – there are many musicians I’ve never heard of, and hell – practically NO ONE has ever heard of me.

On this issue, I happen to agree with him on many of his points. Let’s get that out of the way right here:

  • My knee-jerk reaction is to want to grab the drill out of the dentist’s hands and shove it into my eardrum, then drill out my eardrums so I don’t have to hear it anymore.
  • That song is a frat boy singalong
  • It has harmonica in it. I think all the harmonicas in the world should be gathered up in a big pile. To be Earth-friendly, maybe they could be made into an instrument that is more pleasing to the ear. Unless you’re Little Walter or Sonny Boy Williamson—and last time I checked, both those guys are dead—you should not play the harmonica. Then, to add insult to injury, he’s got an accordion. He’s got a harmonica and an accordion in the same song.

As a dueling piano player, make no mistake – I also hate this song. What’s worse is that my job description says that I’m pretty much expected to play this song every night. When I pull into a town I’ve never been to just to play a show, and that audience is full of people who have never seen a dueling piano show and never will again, the ONLY thing they can think of to request is Piano Man. They seem to be under the delusion that we can’t play a song unless it has piano in the original recording, and the first song they think of is that song, thinking that we’d love it because it epitomizes what we do.

Nope, just the opposite. Even people who have seen dueling pianos many times still pay me a measly dollar to play Piano Man, prompting many duelers to instill a $20 minimum for the song. For many reasons:

  1. We hate playing the damn thing
  2. If we played the song every time someone requested it, we would be playing it once an hour, not once a night (which is already too much)
  3. Someone just gave me $5 for Life On Mars, and even though there are only 3 people in the audience who will even recognize that song, I’d rather play that than the $1 Piano Man request, even if it will get a 95% audience reaction. I have lots of songs in my back pocket that get that same reaction that I’ll play for free if I need to bring the audience back into the show, and I don’t have to rely on a cliche, uninspired piece of musical ubiquity.

I always run into trouble when talking to older duelers about Piano Man (or Sweet Caroline or Don’t Stop Believing) because they invariably insist that “without these songs, we wouldn’t have a career”. I heartily disagree with that statement. Without Blurred Lines, people would have still thought Get Lucky was the song of the summer and wouldn’t have cared that they didn’t have Blurred Lines. Without Sweet Caroline, some other song would be the perceived slice of musical nostalgia. There is no shortage of songs that people embrace, so I owe these songs nothing. I owe my living to the fact that there is a music industry and the fact that the masses identify so strongly with whatever the industry puts out. But I don’t owe my living to any individual song. And I can do an entire night of dueling pianos without playing Piano Man, Journey, Van Morrison, Neil Diamond and Jerry Lee Lewis and still get the house rocking.

But Tesco, I did take slight offense to this comment:

  • The dueling piano bars are bullcrap.

I’m splitting hairs here, because I do almost entirely agree with what you have to say. But don’t think we’re not on your side. Piano bars were around long before Piano Man (or Billy Joel wouldn’t have shit to sing about in the first place) – dueling piano bars came shortly afterwards in the late 80s and may have relied on more mainstream hits like Piano Man and Sweet Home Alabama, but nowadays I rarely get a request for those songs. We aren’t intentionally perpetuating the popularity of Piano Man (at least I’m not). Infact I encourage the audience to request other songs every night. My job is to use nostalgia to create a unique experience for each audience. Sometimes I’ll flat out ask a patron what their first CD purchase was, or their first concert experience. That’s what builds the real connection with the audience, and that’s what I think any decent dueler should strive for. Duelers who rely on Piano Man to get the audience involved are going through the motions.

Some dueling piano bars may be bullcrap. Tesco, if you ever see me playing Piano Man, please don’t run out of the club, and please don’t push a dental drill into your ear. Instead, do me, yourself, and the entire audience a favor, and tip to have it stopped. I’ll play anything you want to hear (that I know how to play). Hell, I’ll play all of your song requests for the rest of the night if you did that for me. But in the end, if the audience insists on hearing it, then the dueling piano players are simply a casualty of the song’s popularity, not a cheerleader.

 

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