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Captain Jack by Billy Joel

Album: Piano ManReleased: 1973
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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).
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Comments: 52

I always thought this song was about heroin, man I was wrong.Jake - Kinnelon, Nj
Any chance all of you experts would just take the song for what its worth? A song... I think when people write songs they leave things open for others to take it any way they want. So everybody is right. Only Billy really knows what he really meant when he wrote this song. Maybe he meant all of the above or none of the above. Just a thought. BONEBone - Shelbvyville, In
I think of Captain Morgan and Jack Daniels. It has a little to about alcohol. To me I think its just about getting away for a while and taking a drug. Be it alcohol, marijuana, heroin, you name it.Drew - Buffalo, Ny
I think in some of the lyrics coming later in the song "They just found your father in the swimming pool/ and you guess you won't be going back to school anymore" really points to the anti-drug theory, because to me it could be perhaps telling about the effect drug-use has on all the people around you, including family.April - Nashville, Tn
When I first heard this song on Piano Man I knew that the melody was familiar but it took me quite a while to figure out that the music was used for an introduction to the "Bye Bye Love" dance number in "All That Jazz". This movie was made in 1979 but I can find no mention of Billy Joel when I look up the soundtrack. Weird, huh?Chris - East, Tx
I thought all along Captain Jack was the drink Captain Jack!!! Because whenever I drink Captain Jack it gets me high and takes me to my special island. It gets me by my troubles and makes me =).Lizz - Bridgeport, Ct
I think this is one of Billy Joel's most powerful songs, particularly so via the "Songs In the Attic" version. Richie Cannata pushes the organ into overdrive and Liberty Devitto practically demolishes the drums. My impression of this song is that it's an "anti-drug" song instead of a "pro-drug" song, as Joel paints a pretty bleak portait of a young man whose life seems to be pretty much in the toilet. I also think the emphasis he puts on the line "Captain Jack could make you die tonight" goes along with my theory. All the interpretations I have read here have been interesting so far.Jerry - Albany, Ny
I have any doubt that Rolling stones' Fool to cry was inspired on this song, (perhaps unintentional) they're musically very similar.Carlos - Pachuca, Mexico
Russell Farmer does a pretty kick-ass cover of this one.Jodi - London, On
i have an older friend he was in the studio when billy joel was recording it he ask billy what is the song about and he said about jacking off if you listen to the words hes clearily talking about jerkin off now i got my chance to meet mr joel and i enjoy his music but if you think its about a drug dealer or drugs its close cause sex is like a drug to some ok im not trying to be crude but its about jerking offSteve - Lancaster, Pa
you are all wrong captain jack was about masterbation it sounds funny but it is the sound is about boys masterbating when they cant get a dateSteve - Lancaster, Pa
Billy's addiction is to alcohol and cocaine, not as someone surmised to heroin, though he knew people who were. It is NOT slang for marijuana as someone suggested. He DOES change the lyric at the end of the song to "Capt. Jack could make you die tonight..." For verification look at the Youtube videos, he makes the change in every performance in the last refrain. For those who doubt Billy's addiction to cocaine, listen to the lyrics in "I've loved these days". I wish him well in sobriety. The song certainly has a strong duality to it, the power of the music behind the chorus is infectious, it's one reason when I play the album I don't let my little girl hear this song.Rachael - Fresno, Ca, Ca
this song pretty much describes me...well sorta...i'm sad all the time and this just feels right for my description.the few times it comes on my radio(i've only heard it twice)i lay in my bed and just stare..............Joshua - Kingston Springs, Tn
I'm from Oyster Bay, Long Island and Billy Joel is a great guy and friendly... But it is apparent that Billy Joel has been in and out of rehab through out the past 10-15 years and he even crashed into my girlfriends aunts house alittle over 2 years ago while driving drunk. This is not meant to bash billy or his musical talent but i think its kinda ignorant to think that Captain Jack is not about Billy's past drug addictions (hence why he told various sources different information on the meaning of captain Jack)Nick - Oyster Bay, Ny
As a teenager, I had the good fortune of living near a radio station (WMYK 93.7 in Moyack, NC) that played the full song -- only at night but that was good enough. I first heard it about a year after Janis Joplin died. It's ironic that it doesn't get more airplay, because this song did more to steer me clear of heroin than everything else put together. Thanks Billy.John - Ellicott City, Md
I heard this song a couple of years ago, and it just blew me away. I've been obsessed with Joel ever since. This is such an amazing song. It hits everyone with the same emotional duality. It's so depressing, yet you can't help but belt it out with a huge smile on your face.Keith - Bedford, Tx
Ok folks I have not read all the comments but I can tell you what this song is about. It is about an addict who gets no enjoyment out of life anymore because he is powerless over heroin. Captain jack was a slang for heroin in his town because of the drug dealer who supplied it. Instead of saying heroin we'll say captain jack to try to stay off the radar.Scott - New Bedford, Ma
I must say this song surley got a lot of comments for one that wasn't even charted.. not that I think charts mean much but still...Chuck - Houston, Tx
Definitely about Heroine... "Just a little push, and you'll be smiling." I can only assume that this means pushing the plunger on a needle.Shane - Washington, Dc
Captain Jack is my favorite Billy Joel song by far. I first heard this song about 5 years ago and during that period I was listening to it all the time. Very under appreciated song. I don't know why the classic rock stations don't play itMike - Hueytown , Al
I heard Billy Joel do this song well before it was commercial. He played in Rutgers College Center in Camden, NJ one afternoon in 1970 or 1971. He played before a crowd of under 100 students. He was a brash New York brat, but he was an excellent musician (not a good paino player), but a great lycarist and performer. He had brought a number of buddies and women with him. They were screaming for "Captain Jack" and he obliged. As a member of the college center board, I had the ability to ask him some question. One of which was, "Who is Captain Jack?" He said it was a person he knew in Long Island. End of answer. Billy Joel was not a talkative dude in 1970-71. I figured the Captain was a fisherman/drug dealerRatso - Atlantic City, Nj
I found this site because I was searching for the meaning of the reference "Captain Jack " in Billy Joel's song. I thought it might be slang (or a street name) for heroin. After reading all the comments, I would have to conclude, along with most people, that it is indeed a reference to heroin. It is the only explanation that makes sense. In my opinion, this is one of Billy Joel's most powerful songs; truly a classic.T.l. - N.y., Ny
A "one horse town" is simply a small town...just thought I'd clear that up.Paul - Cincinnati, Oh
Honestly, I had a feeling that the Captain Jack reference was indeed a code phrase for masturbation (jack off). A song about someone who has no life or friends, or girlfriend, so he uses masturbation as an escape.

But the dealer/heroin/one more push explanation clears it all up for me now.
Dave - New Orleans, La
I work for a liquor company and we have a Rum named Captain Calico Jack or Captain Jack. If you look at the history of Captain Calico Jack he was a Pirate Ship Captain in the carribean and he was famous for splitting a working relationship to go out on his own because of an argument over liquor (rum). He then went on to create his own crew including 2 women (which was unheard of) he always had rum and he was captured because his crew was so drunk they couldn't put up a fight. Maybe that's what joel was refering too.Jeremiah - Harrisburg, Pa
Yes, Cat in NYC is correct. Captain Jack doesn't mean pot at all, in any way. He says "So you play your albums, and you smoke your pot, and you meet your girlfriend in the parking lot. But still you ache for what you haven't got."

Therefore, he's reffering to the fact that pot isn't enough, it's just something else he happens to do.

And yes Casey in Dalton, GA, I know you're right about him changing the words, but it's from "Captain Jack will get you high tonight" to "Well now, Captain Jack COULD make you die tonight". It's about the last line, I believe and he gets really into to. It's very clear if you listen to it, and it makes complete sense.

This is a song about drug use. It's not pro or anti anything.

Stop over analyzing everything people.
Shannon - Hamilton, Oh
To stop some arguing, let's say that this person in the song does heroin and marijuana.Jonathan - Johnstown, Pa
When I heard this on the radio as a young teen, I thought Billy was saying masturbation was a terrible addiction too, along side heavy drug use. Although I never tried hard drugs, that line bothered my fragile eggshell mind for a while!Anthony - Nyc, Ny
For some reason, when I first heard the phrase "Captain Jack" it made me thi nk of jack Daniels. I don't know why, but this song is pretty bleak anyway.Stefanie - Rock Hill, Sc
I thought this song was about heroin addiction. Partly because of the "one horse town" lyric.John - Boston, Ma
No, Captain Jack is not slang for marijuana. The slang for marijuana is "pot." He mentions that in the song. This song has nothing to do with pot.The Cat - New York City, Ny
This song is sad.Johnny - Los Angeles, Ca
Phil, the Broadway show exists. It's called "Movin' Out."Dennis - Anchorage, Ak
Right on about "The Ballad of Billy The Kid". That song is flat-out awesome, especially the intro with the strings and piano implying the "clip clop" of horseshoes!! Maybe someday somebody will write a musical or play based on his music, because so much of it seems to be influenced by that "broadway" sound. I feel equally about "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant".Phill - Oakland, Ca
At the end, I'm 99% sure he changes the words from "Captain Jack will get you high tonight" to "Captain Jack could make you die tonight". You can check it out somewhere, but that's what I hear, and I'm even more sure now I know Joel says it's an anti-drug song.Casey - Dalton, Ga
The radio show where Captain Jack was used for publicity purposes took place on 4/15/72 on
WMMR-FM Philadelphia. However, Columbia records already took notice of Billy Joel at the Mar Y Sol Pop Festival in Puerto Rico, which took place on April 1, 1972. Billy played in rainy conditions, and earned some major standing ovations from the 100,000 people who were there.
Barry - New York, Nc
I worked as a substance abuse counselor...you're both right...alcohol is initially a stimulant, and then a depressant.Lara - Hackensack, Nj
From a 1982 Playboy interview with Billy Joel:

PLAYBOY: What was Captain Jack about?|

JOEL: I wrote it when drugs were in full flower. A lot of useless, wasted deaths. Friends of mine were killed. Drugs can be fun, but they can kill, too. Some guys who lived near me in Oyster Bay used to score smack from a guy called Captain Jack, although I didn't write it to necessarily mean heroin. I meant any kind of drug you have to take over and over again.
Jay - Jackson Hole, Wy
Phil, you are absolutely wrong about that. While Joel did experiment with drugs like many artists at the time he was not a "drug user" nor was he a heroin addict. Saying that could border on libel, but I'm sure no one really cares...The song is definetly not autobiographical because if you know anything about Joel's life none of it fits. Joel was raised by his mother and barely knew his father.Wil - Kc, Ks
Um. Joel was a drug user. This is no anti-drug song. Captain Jack is slang for and only heroin.
Joel is a needle junky.
" Just a little push and you'll be smiling."

And thats the facts, closet queens.
Phil - Chalmette, La
This song is about how when a person has problems in their life, how weed helps them through their problems and situations. This is true. I smoke weed everyday and it gets me through my problems. Excellent song!High - Ct, Ct
Captain Jack is a FABULOUS song, I just love it...it's definately my favorite Billy Joel!!! I can listen to it over and over again. I remember they used it in the show "Movin' Out", and I was really glad. I agree with Brendon, Captain Jack should be bigger than it is, along with the others he mentioned. "Piano Man" is a great song. But it's not all Billy does.Maureen - St. Louis, Mo
I agree with all of you. I think it's a great song and should have more recognition. I like, iven though, it's so bleak,s ad, and dreary. When I first heard the song, i could tell it was about drugs, because of some of the lines. But I also thought it was about Jack Daniels because of the "captain Jack" part.Stefanie Magura - Rock Hill, Sc
I was a young kid struggling with being gay and learning about the "Village" here in New York. This record was heard through every window on Christopher Street in the evenings. Every Bar, Record Shop and "Back Room Book Store" played this record. - Wonder if Mr. Joel ever had any idea how influential this one song has had on the Village culture? Another single equally compelling was Long John Baldry's "A Thrills A Thrill" - Capitol Records. Perhaps someday a compilation of that period and place will emerge.Ivan - Jersey City, Nj
AT in OC...alcohol is a depressant. You can get a "buzz," but the drug would technically get you "low." Soz dude.Brendon - Paxton, Il
I, too, heard that this is in reference to Jack Daniels. You can get high on alcohol, too, no?At - The O.c., Ca
You're exactly right, Nicoletta from NY.

Captain Jack, Ballad of Billy the Kid, Angry Young Man, and Big Man on Mulberry Street definitely need much more recognition. They're some of his greatest works, and no one gives a crap about them. You say "Billy Joel" and they instantly say "PIANO MAN!" Granted, Piano Man is a great song, but he sings much more.
Brendon - Paxton, Il
If this song is about Heroin use, the line where it says "but still your fingers gonna pick your nose" makes sense because anyone that use opiates knows about the "opiate ich" and your nose is always one of the first places that starts iching.
Also if it is about Heroin the line "another push and you'll be smilin'" makes sense if your shooting up.
But if the song is about a person "Captain Jack" the line about "another push and you'll be smilin'" makes sense in the way of a drug dealer being known as a "pusher". Anyway that is just my simple minded opiate induced ramblings. -AEIH
www.pompatical.blogspot.com
Pompatus - Hell, Tx
wow captain jack is one good song ...

even though he talks about masterbation its alright thats why most people listen to this song because when he sings .... "your sisters out, shes on a date, while you just sit at home and masterbate" that is a good line!
Lexi - Milford, Ct
I was next to positive that this was about Jack Daniels. Now it makes more sense as an anti-drug song. But who says apathy is a bad thing?Hac Barton - Las Vegas, Nv
i thought it was slang for heroine .. either way,it's one of joel's classic songs that should be given more recognition, such as "ballad of billy the kid" and "angry young man" -- in my opinion, these are of his best,but need to be looked at more since not many people know them.Nicoletta - Bronx, Ny
Captain Jack is also slang for marijuana.Matthew - New York, Ny