Speaking with Rolling Stone contributor Anthony DeCurtis, Mellencamp explained the song originated with, "a phone call from my mother, who said that the body of a 10-year-old girl who'd been raped and killed had been found not far from where my parents live."
The last verse, he added, "prays for forgiveness, because nobody could have done such a gruesome thing if they had been in their right mind. When you live out here in the middle of nowhere, it's easy to get lost."
"Piano Man" was inspired by Billy Joel's time playing at a piano bar in Los Angeles. The "real estate novelist" was a guy who always talked about writing a book, but spent all his spare time in the bar.