Billy Joel is one of the most successful American musicians to have ever existed. He is on the list of the top ten best-selling recording artists of all time. Joel has released around 13 albums, starting with Cold Spring Harbor in 1971 and, when one thinks of Long Island music in New York, one is inclined to think of Billy Joel; he embodies the spirit of New York, specifically, dimly-lit Italian restaurants that have been established through generations of families of Italian heritage.
It isn’t exactly fine-dining, per se, that Joel is associated with. This symbolic restaurant could very well serve bad food; it is the honesty, the sincerity and the detailed storytelling that often takes place in this kind of setting – over a glass of red wine – that Joel is often pictured in. There is a reason why Joel is colloquially and respectfully known as the piano man.
His second album, Piano Man, released in 1973, was Joel’s breakthrough record and it established him within the hearts and minds of most Americans as the entertainer, one who resides in the corner of the restaurant with a piano as he recounts the lives of innumerable clientele. While this imaginary-but-yet-real clientele are all strangers, Joel’s ability as a songwriter was the familiar ambience he created every night in the establishment.
This isn’t fiction, Joel did work for quite a time as a literal ‘piano man’ to pay his bills. While Piano Man ended up being highly successful, because of mismanagement and corruption, the album didn’t do what it was supposed to. “I had to get out of this horrible deal that I’d signed. I signed away everything – the copyrights, publishing, record royalties, everything,” Joel said about his relationship with Colombia Records according to Ultimate Classic Rock. “My first child. I gave it all away, and I said, ‘I’ve got to get out of this deal,’ and I hid in L.A. and I worked in a piano bar under the name Bill Martin.”
Joel described the characters from his defining song, “John was the bartender. Paul was this real estate guy who wanted to write the great American novel and Davey was a guy who was in the Navy.” Joel didn’t have to make up a story in the Piano Man, it was all real.
When the United States signed what was called the ‘Soviet-American Cultural Accord’ during the Geneva Summit in 1985, following Soviet leader Gorbachev’s Glasnost policy – a policy of openness – it was encouraged for more cultural inclusion in the Union.
Not unlike Paul McCartney’s musical stint in Russia later in 2003, Billy Joel’s trip to the Soviet Union represented a greater cultural exchange between the two global oppositional nations. It is the perfect example of music being a uniting force. Joel proceeded with his six-day tour in the Union which started in Moscow. The piano man’s tour was a cultural phenomenon as it was the very first Western rock musician to play in the Soviet Union.
During this time, Joel covered Bob Dylan’s ‘The Times They Are A-Changin”, which Joel felt was very appropriate, especially in the Union at the time. According to Rolling Stone, Joel said at one of his concerts before breaking into Dylan’s prophetic tune, “I have a feeling that what’s going on in your country right now is very much like the 1960s.”
“This song has been going around and around my head, since I’ve been here,” Joel said with his guitar around his torso, an unusual sight, considering that he was the ‘piano man’. Although the piano was awkwardly placed in front of him and his guitar, as Joel looked like a nervous wreck, he started playing the song.
Listen to Billy Joel’s rendition of the timeless Dylan song, below.