This song is based on a real person: a drug dealer who lived near Joel in Oyster Bay, New York. But, as the singer explained in a 1975 interview with ZigZag, the character "Captain Jack" was a composite of different kinds of people. Said Joel: "I was just sitting around one day looking out of the window wondering what I was going to write about, and kinda wrote about what was going on outside. I mean, Long Island is a suburb and it was about a suburban type of character. There's a lot of frustration living in the suburbs - you don't have an identity as you would if you came from the city or the country, there's city music and there's country music, but there's really no suburban music, you kinda copy the city. You have both influences pulling on you."
Joel considers this an anti-drug song, as he sings about how their users become apathetic and lifeless. Before playing the song at concerts, Joel has explained to the audience that the song is about spoiled, lazy, apathetic young college students who don't care about much other than partying and having sex; their family has money and paid for them to receive a good education, but they toss it away and don't care for anything except 'good ol' Captain Jack.
"I was puzzled as to why young, affluent suburban kids would go to score drugs from a guy in a housing project," said Joel. "How bad can life be where you have to get that junked out?" (thanks, Leon - Waterbury, CT)
While many songs contain references to masturbation (check out "She Bop
" or "Whip It
"), this is one of the few that actually uses the word "masturbate" in the lyrics. Joel says that his record company, Columbia, has never interfered with his music and made no effort to change it.
Before he recorded this song, Joel performed it at a showcase concert held at Sigma Sound Studios in Philadelphia, which was broadcast on the Philly radio station WMMR. The concert took place on April 15, 1972, when Joel was a little-known artist. WMMR was a "progressive rock" station whose format encouraged variety and discovery, so the concert was a boon for them as they introduced Joel to their audience. The station started playing the extracted version of "Captain Jack," and requests came pouring in for the song. This helped land Joel a contract with Columbia Records, where he remained for the rest of his career. Piano Man was Joel's first album with Columbia (he had released one previous solo album on the Family label) and it included this track. The album was released on November 9, 1973, long after Joel first started performing it.
In 2011, Columbia released an expanded version of the album containing the entire WMMR concert from 1972.
With marijuana references and a 7:15 running time, this song stayed off the playlists at most radio stations. Billy Joel is a prolific hitmaker, but many of his lesser-known songs became fan favorites even though they were not commercially successful. Many of these songs, including this one, appeared on Joel's 1981 live album Songs In The Attic.
When Howard Stern asked Joel in 2014 if he still enjoyed performing this song, the singer replied: "Sometimes. It's long. It's a long song. By the time I get to the part about the guy in swimming pool, I'm ready to have it over."
Joel added that he loves the piano break later in the song.
John Kalodner quoted Joel's explanation of this ballad about the "lost" affluent suburban youth in a review for Concert
magazine in 1974. Said Joel: "It's about coming out of the New York suburbs, but in my travels I have seen a lot of the same suburb all over the country. The song is sort of brutal, but sometimes it is good to be brutal and offend people - it keeps them on their toes." (Source John Kalodner-The Official Site
This was played at Hillary Clinton's official announcement for her Senate run in 2000. Her opponent, New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, claimed that by playing this she was supporting drug use. In a blatant case of political grandstanding, Giuliani called a news conference and read some of the song's more offensive lyrics. Clinton's people didn't mean to play the song: they played "New York State Of Mind
" but left Joel's Greatest Hits album on too long.