Billy Joel's 5 Stages of Grief
Denial. Anger. Bargaining. Depression. Acceptance.
Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross introduced these Five Stages of Grief in her 1969 book, On Death and Dying. And though the theory was never fully embraced by the scientific community, it did take hold in the popular imagination. In the nearly five decades since its conception, the Kübler-Ross model has been applied not just to death, but to loss of all kinds — ultimately becoming a familiar trope in countless movies and TV shows.
Contrary to popular belief, the author herself never claimed that these five stages happen to everyone, nor that each person experiences them in a predictable order. Still, there’s something comforting about the notion that loss can be overcome, if only we’re patient enough to wait for that elusive fifth step.
At the risk of further watering down an already misunderstood concept, here again are the Five Stages of Grief: this time, told through the songs of the “Piano Man” himself, Mr. Billy Joel.
STAGE ONE: DENIAL
“Since in our unconscious mind we are all immortal, it is almost inconceivable for us to acknowledge that we too have to face death.” - Elizabeth Kübler-Ross (E.K.R.)
“An Innocent Man”
Stage one of the Kübler-Ross model is “Denial and Isolation.” The dying or grieving person refuses to accept their fate. Billy Joel’s protagonists are often similarly deluded, making claims listeners know are probably false.
On the title track of his 1983 album, An Innocent Man, Joel puts on a “nice guy” act that isn’t entirely convincing. The fact that he frames it in such legalistic terms sure doesn’t help matters (“I’m only willing to hear you cry / Because I am an innocent man”).
STAGE TWO: ANGER
“When the first stage of denial cannot be maintained any longer, it is replaced by feelings of anger, rage, envy, and resentment." - E.K.R.
“Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)”
There are few Billy Joel characters more resentful than Anthony, the protagonist of the hit song that later spawned a massively successful jukebox musical.
Anthony is openly bitter about the success of his formerly working class neighbors — or rather, the way they wear that success on their sleeves by purchasing expensive cars and second homes (“And it seems such a waste of time / If that's what it's all about / Mama, if that’s movin’ up then I’m movin’ out”).
Saltier than a bag of potato chips, that Anthony.
STAGE THREE: BARGAINING
“The third stage, the stage of bargaining, is less well known but equally helpful to the patient, though only for brief periods of time. If we have been unable to face the sad facts in the first period and have been angry at people and God in the second phase, maybe we can succeed in entering into some sort of an agreement which may postpone the inevitable happening.” - E.K.R.
“A Matter of Trust”
While the bargaining stage is most applicable to those who are actually dying, it’s not uncommon for grieving families to make silent deals — usually with God. Billy Joel, on the other hand, prefers to plead with his soon-to-be exes.
The opening lines of 1986’s “A Matter of Trust” spoil the ending —
“Some love is just a lie of the heart
The cold remains of what began with a passionate start
And they may not want it to end
But it will it's just a question of when”
Sure, Billy quickly attempts to reconcile (“But that won’t happen to us / Because it’s always been a matter of trust”) — it’s clear, though, that he’s in bargaining mode (“I know you have doubts / But for God’s sake, don’t shut me out”). And, despite the song’s upbeat style, it’s clear that a major letdown is in the narrator’s near future.
STAGE FOUR: DEPRESSION
“His numbness or stoicism, his anger and rage will soon be replaced with a sense of great loss.” - E.K.R.
There is certainly no shortage of melancholy entries in the Billy Joel catalog. Closing out side B of 1973’s Piano Man LP is the story of a depressed young addict who continually turns to his dealer, Captain Jack, for comfort.
If you need some cheering up after that song, might we recommend Billy Joel and actress Marlee Matlin singing to Oscar the Grouch?
STAGE FIVE: ACCEPTANCE
“If a patient has had enough time (i.e., not a sudden, unexpected death) and has been given some help in working through the previously described stages, he will reach a stage during which he is neither depressed nor angry about his ‘fate.’” - E.K.R.
“Famous Last Words”
According to Kübler-Ross, “acceptance” doesn’t necessarily equate to happiness. Then again, she was writing about dying patients. In a pop music landscape littered with tales of lingering heartache, a song about actual closure can be a breath of fresh air.
The closing track of 1993’s River of Dreams, “Famous Last Words” is about working up the courage to finally let go. In Joel’s case, this refers to his imminent plans to retire from songwriting. “The Piano Man” sings —
These are the last words I have to say
That's why this took so long to write
So far, Bill has kept his promise. While he’s continued to tour throughout the past two decades, he hasn’t penned any new lyrics (none that we know about, at least) ever since.
Of course, these are hardly the only Billy Joel songs that tackle the Five Stages of Grief. For the superfan and culturally curious alike, here are five more from the Piano Man’s catalog.
“Sometimes a Fantasy”
The narrator deals with his loneliness in a somewhat desperate way, dialing up a long-distance lover for phone sex. (“It’s just a fantasy / It’s not the real thing.”)
“We Didn’t Start the Fire”
A furious B.J. reacts to modern history’s great tragedies (“JFK, blown away / What else do I have to say?”). By the end of verse 5, when he’s screaming indignantly about the “Rock and Roller cola wars,” it’s pretty clear the singer’s rage has become...misplaced.
Joel’s most iconic track is a wistful reflection on his roots as a lounge singer. It’s also a HUGE bummer. Sure, ol’ Bill turned out okay...but what happened to those sad barflies who cheered him on in his salad days?
The protagonist is a blue collar underdog, chasing a rich girl (“You know I can’t afford to buy her pearls”). Still, they’re two very different people. Even if the “downtown man” does succeed in getting a first date, what will happen once the honeymoon phase is over?
“Say Goodbye to Hollywood”
While not exactly cheerful, “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” at least offers the promise of a fresh start in a different town. For Billy Joel, this meant a hero’s return to his native New York, following an unhappy three-year residency in Los Angeles.
You can watch this whole playlist here.