It’d be fifteen years since I last heard it. But it’s irresistible and in the cosy chairs of the Pacific Dawn’s Promenade Bar we all sang along
It’s nine o’clock on a Saturday
A regular crowd shuffles in
There’s an old man sitting next to me
Making love to his tonic and gin
Chugging across the Coral Sea during our week I heard Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” about a dozen times, and often twice an evening. Kieran, a Welsh fellow who looks a little like the comedian Jimeon was our favourite performer, did a grand version, and indeed, the first airing was, with planned theatricality, at precisely nine o’clock on the Saturday.
Earlier, we’d endured a curious, scatting, jazz interpretation, complete with messy harmonica, by a young pianist. We also heard it a couple times on the blustery pool deck.
Although it’s about broken dreams the song rollicks along in 3/4 waltz time and demands those with refreshments to raise and swing them about like pre-fight pirates. It’s an amazing narrative, dominated by the stirring affection with which the barroom tragics: John, Paul, Davy and co are described.
It was his first hit, and in its fifth decade, still works magnificently. Just as “Fairytale of New York” always takes me to Christmas in London, and with “LA Woman” I’m driving in Santa Monica, “Piano Man” will endlessly transport me to that rousing place on the Pacific Dawn.
We squeeze onto a water-taxi in Port Vila and transit across Vanuatu’s harbour. It’s an attractive winter’s morning and we’re buoyant with sea spray and the promise of exploration. Rounding Iririki Island, the coast is speckled with dozens of half-sunken yachts, ghostly victims of 2015’s Cyclone Pam. Seeing these dead craft reminds me that idyllic Pacific atolls frequently turn hellish, and that people are really, really small.
Zig-zagging along the main street it’s clear that our massive ship disgorging a couple thousand folks is an event. Some load-up at a duty-free shop and then I see it, that most ubiquitous of Australian chains: Billabong. It speaks of the worst colonial toxicity; a symbol of Australia’s reptilian hegemony and doomed local aspiration. I find it troubling to visit a country which is economically obliged to try to sell me surf wear.
I’m hoping that somebody can help me with this. Is it true that “Reminiscing” by LRB features on each of Cruise Ship Classics: Volumes 1 – 12?
Yeah, I thought so.
I love regressing to boyish wonder and again finding it awesome that a plane like an A-380 can fly. The Pacific Dawn, is also a leviathan which, if dropped onto Footy Park, would flatten both sets of goal posts. Of course if this were during a 2011 Power home game, it’d scare the be-jesus out of the scattered punters and Kochie while possibly also tearing the tarps.
That our ship glides seaward across a rippling bay can appear, from our vantage point, over one-hundred feet above the sea, as the muscular act of a magical god.
Aside from the Promenade Bar my favourite place within this hydropolis was on the pool deck, with my Jonathan Franzen novel, and a crisp Peroni courtesy of everyone’s bestie: Bev Package. How could I not love being drenched in languid holiday rhythms and their drifting afternoons? Up there, our petty urgencies evaporate into brief irrelevance.
Each morning over the PA and in his Genoan tones our captain addressed the ship: “So, we are travelling north-east through the Coral Sea at eighteen knots. Later today we’ll cross the Tropic of Capricorn and by afternoon the winds should abate. There’s currently around four to five metre swells, and we’ve activated our stabilisers to give you greater comfort. It’s nineteen degrees centigrade and should reach a top of twenty-three. Up next, a 1973 singalong classic by Billy Joel.”
Trudging up the tropical hill to Our Lady of Lourdes Chapel on the eastern coast of Lifou the terrain and vegetation remind me of Singapore’s Pulau Ubin, but without the aggressive monkeys. It’s an energetic stroll across this member of the Loyalty Islands and the view is fetching. Inspired by the beauty and proximate godliness, Bazz and I exchange observations:
“Look out there. See that yacht. That belongs to Richard Branson’s butcher.”
“Sure. Did you know that Sister Janet Mead isn’t buried beside this chapel?”
“Have I told you that Leo Sayer has never toured here?”
We then gathered on the beach, and some confronted the cruel, blue water. Alex and I clambered up to the village market to buy him a coconut. As we came back down the rocky track I see my wife, crying and saying something, but it’s lost in the wind. I think: someone’s been stung by a stingray, or worse, someone’s lost their phone, or even worse, Tex Walker’s done his knee (again).
Bursting onto the seashore, the cruislings are gathered about my brother-in-law Richard and his girlfriend Jasmine. They’ve just become engaged. Months prior to this voyage, he’d bought a ring to make this their moment. There’s tears and hugs and laughter. Families are meant to get bigger. Ours just did.
And with this Lifou is changed. For us, it was just an anonymous islet, a previously unencountered paradise, but now it’s invested, and forever enchanted. Isn’t this what people should do? With love, drape their stories upon an innocent geography, and transmogrify the terrain into something wonderful and harmless and humanly sweet?
Billy Joel hasn’t released a new song since 1993, and like many musicians he peaked early. But how fantastic that his biggest tune was born of grinding slog in an LA piano bar. That this song about crushed dreams would make his come rapidly and unthinkably true is a joyful irony.
For most of us, going on a cruise ship was new, and “Piano Man” an old friend, a smiling stowaway, waiting to surprise us. It was excellent to catch up over a beer or two, and like the best of songs it became a unifying motif for us, on our little holiday.
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 feeling alright