Surprises

Album: The Nylon Curtain (1982)
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Songfacts®:

  • Billy Joel wrote this in 1982 after getting in a motorcycle accident that injured both hands and put him in the hospital for weeks. The piano man underwent surgery for his broken wrist and crushed thumb but worried he'd never be able to play again. The incident left him traumatized but triggered the idea for a song about life's uncontrollable circumstances.

    "These things happen," Joel told Sirius XM in 2016. "You don't think something like that is going to happen to you and it does happen to you, and you kind of reevaluate a lot of things."
  • Joel was riding his 1978 Harley-Davidson in Huntington, Long Island, on April 15, 1982 when a woman ran a red light and barreled through the intersection where the singer had a green light. He braked hard, but collided with her car and flipped over it, landing on his back.

    Joel knew the dangers of his hobby, which is why he was wearing a helmet and riding leathers. Shortly before the crash, he gave an interview to Playboy where he likened motorcycle riding to playing "terror chess."

    "A motorcycle is an amusement-park ride. It's dangerous," he said. "Everybody out on the road is out to get you. A truck goes by and it can blow you right off the road. Cars are constantly pulling out in front of you like you're not a real vehicle. … You're constantly playing terror chess: 'What am I going to do if this guy does that?' It clears all the cobwebs out of your head. When you get off the bike, it's, 'Whew, I made it.'"
  • Joel's 1983 hit "You May Be Right," features a verse about his wild motorcycle exploits:

    Even rode my motorcycle in the rain
    And you told me not to drive
    But I made it home alive
    So you said that only proves that I'm insane


    He also wrote an unfinished tune called "The Motorcycle Song," about cruising down a familiar highway on his ride, that eventually turned into the bikeless track "All About Soul" on River Of Dreams.
  • The crash didn't curb Joel's enthusiasm for motorcycles. In 2010 he opened 20th Century Cycles, a bike shop and motorcycle museum, in his native Long Island.
  • This appears on Joel's eighth album, The Nylon Curtain, which deals with weightier themes like the fall of the steel industry ("Allentown") and the Vietnam War ("Goodnight Saigon"). It was nominated for Album of the Year at the 1983 Grammy Awards but lost to the Toto album Toto IV (featuring "Africa").

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