Entertainment LGBTQ

🏳️‍🌈 Man, What Are You Doing Here?

“Piano Man” is about a straight entertainer oblivious to the fact he’s playing in a gay bar.

People have theorized about this for a long time. But I can prove it.

“Piano Man,” of course, is Billy Joel’s signature song. It’s a clarion call for straight people. They stop what they’re doing when they hear the first few notes. By the time the harmonica licks begin, they’re on their feet. They belt out the entire song from memory, unironically, as if they were overcome with religious fervor.

I suppose it’s their “I Will Survive.”

I’m going to lay out my case in two parts: First, I’ll provide some background information and context. Then I’ll analyze the lyrics, focusing on each character named in the song. By the end, you’ll be convinced and will never hear the song the same way again.

This is part of my Gayskool project:
A new LGBTQ-themed post every day for Pride month.

The Early Seventies After Stonewall

Joel says he based “Piano Man” on his experiences playing in lounges in Los Angeles in the early 1970s. It was a transformational and challenging time for both straight and gay men.

Straight men had to ensure the horror of leisure suits. (Shudder.)

Gay men, on the other hand, had to reevaluate and reorient their lives after Stonewall broke all of the paradigms and conventions of dealing with society. No one knew how to navigate this new world. Freedom went hand-in-hand with fear. But at least we avoided the leisure suits.

In 2024, it’s hard to fathom the rapid and fundamental changes gay men experienced in the early ’70s. They saw things that would have been unimaginable just a few years earlier, including the first Pride parades.

Before Stonewall, LGBTQ activism was mainly cautious, reserved, and incremental. To be fair, it was a pragmatic and calculated approach led by realists who understood the politics and culture of the time. Stonewall ignited a new type of activism: We no longer wanted to be polite and non-threatening in the hopes that the majority would reward us with rights and dignity. We would go out and win rights and demand dignity. Gay is good was supplanted by Out of the closets and into the streets!

This new attitude changed the way many gay men socialized. They were done hiding in the dark and in the closet. A gay bar in San Francisco tore down walls (literally and figuratively) and installed windows. Think about what that meant! For the first time, gay men were willing to be seen publicly in a gay bar.

View of the Castro showing the Twin Peaks Lounge sign an a large Pride flag.
The Twin Peaks Lounge, a bar that opened in the 1930s on the corner of Castro and Market streets in San Francisco, installed street-facing windows in 1972. That made it the first gay bar in the world where people inside could be seen by passers-by.

We also stopped hiding when we turned out en masse for disco. Our celebrations were louder, bigger, more visible — and much more fabulous — than ever.

This is an incredible story, but I’ve left out an important part: Not everyone was ready to come out and get down. Many people had no option but to remain in the closet. Their livelihoods and very lives were on the line.

These folks couldn’t risk being spotted sipping cocktails in one of these new bars, or sweating under a mirror ball on an electrified dance floor. They needed to seek refuge in a familiar place where they would feel safe and comfortable.

Somwhere like a piano bar.

Meet the Customers and Staff

Listen carefully to “Piano Man” and you’ll notice that the customers:

  • Are all men
  • Are regulars
  • Aren’t happy

This would fit the cultural and historical context I’ve described above. The men at this bar feel life is passing them by. This is because they are locked out of the joy, excitement, and validation now open to so many others. They have always known the misery of exclusion from the straight world, and now they also had to deal with the weight of feeling left out of an exciting new gay world.

All they have is a bar they’ve patronized for years … where they feel welcome and secure … and where the clueless piano player won’t out them.

Unnamed Customer

There’s an old man sittin’ 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”

This customer feels out of place today, so he wants to be reminded of a time when the world made sense. I picture him as a WW2 veteran who found some degree of happiness and security in California after the war. He’s about 50 years old now, afraid to change, and envious of the young people who can enjoy the freedom and happiness he never experienced.

Two more points:

  • The younger man’s clothes may not have been his clothes. The Complimentary Spouse is older than I am, so every time he raids my closet, he’s wearing a younger man’s clothes.
  • I assume that he’s requesting a Judy Garland song.

John the Bartender

Now John at the bar is a friend of mine
He gets me my drinks for free
And he’s quick with a joke, or to light up your smoke
But there’s someplace that he’d rather be
He says, “Bill, I believe this is killing me”
As the smile ran away from his face
“Well, I’m sure that I could be a movie star
If I could get out of this place”

There are two things to unpack here.

First, John is hitting on the piano player. I know of what I speak. I’ve been hit on by bartenders. I’ve hit on bartenders. I’ve gotten a lot more than free drinks, flirty jokes, and a light from bartenders, if you catch my drift.

Second, John fantasizes about being a movie star but knows he’ll never be on a marquee. If we are to assume this bar is in Los Angeles (because the song is about Joel’s real-life experience as a piano player there), Hollywood is right down the road. So when John says, “if I could only get out of this place,” he’s not talking about somewhere on a map. The place he can’t escape from is the closet.


Now Paul is a real estate novelist
Who never had time for a wife

Two things here:

First, “Who never had time for a wife” — uh, duh. You don’t need gaydar to figure this one out.

Second, unless Paul writes novels about real estate (“Zen and the Art of Property Maintenance”?), he’s compartmentalizing his professional life (real estate) and his creative life (writing). Gay men learn how to compartmentalize early. It’s a survival skill that allows us to integrate with society without opening parts of our identity to judgment and ridicule. It also helps explain why Paul, like every other customer, is miserable.

The damaging part of learning to live your life in two parts, whether in reality or fantasy, cannot be underestimated. It is an infectious skill that you learned, one that would eventually spread beyond the bedroom of your life. Life wasn’t ever what it seemed on the surface. Nothing could be trusted for what it appeared to be. After all, you weren’t what you appeared to be. In learning to hide part of yourself, you lost the ability to trust anything or anyone fully. Without knowing it, you traded humane innocence for dry cynicism.

Alan Downs, “The Velvet Rage: Overcoming the Pain of Growing Up Gay in a Straight Man’s World.”


And he’s talkin’ with Davy, who’s still in the Navy
And probably will be for life

Davy is in the closet. If the military learns he is gay, he will be dishonorably discharged. Coming to a piano bar, instead of one of the new gay bars or a disco, minimizes his chance of being outed — which his how he’ll ensure he’ll be in the Navy for life.

Why stay in the Navy instead of pursuing a government or private sector job? In the 1970s, it didn’t matter who you worked for. Being outed most likely meant being fired.

Also: In the Navy, you can put your mind at ease.

The Waitress

And the waitress is practicing politics

There are two ways to interpret this:

  • The waitress is discussing politics. Since it’s the early ’70s, that means she’s talking about things like the Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam, and Watergate. These are not good topics to bring up if you want tips from uptight straight guys.
  • The waitress is playing politics. That means manipulation, gossip, alliances, and backstabbing. So. Much. Drama. And you know who loves drama?
Jenna Maroney, star of “The Rural Juror” and “Jackie Jormp-Jomp.”

The Manager

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

Stroking your talent’s ego isn’t a gay or straight thing. It’s just good management.

The Ending

The song ends with:

And they sit at the bar and put bread in my jar
And say, “Man, what are you doin’ here?

Are the customers asking a direct question? Or just dropping a hint? No matter how you interpret this last line, it’s clearly queerly obvious that the piano player is the only person who doesn’t know he’s in a gay bar.

“Piano Man,” like many songs, is open to interpretation. I have shared mine. Yours might be different. Who’s to say which one is correct?

Or, in other words …

You may be wrong, but you may be right.