"An Innocent Man" – in a rhyme crime free zone

SongExpresso has a thing about Billy Joel. Hugely musical songs in varied styles and a way of using natural language that never makes you go “eh?” (though even he had a bad day at the office: “We didn’t start the fire”, seriously).

For sure this won’t be the only time we analyse one of his lyrics. But this one is chosen particularly for what it isn’t – if you listen to Honesty, A Matter of Trust, etc. etc. then you’ll hear this super flowing series of rhyme after rhyme which never sound forced and just support the song’s flow and message (#SongExpressoNirvana). But this one contains… in the verses, almost no rhymes.

It’s a bold choice. How he holds it together is with a very subtle rhyme scheme ABCD EFGD, plus the natural rhythm of the lyrics and the relaxed phrasing.


An Innocent Man  (http://www.billyjoel.com/music/innocent-man/innocent-man)

Some people stay far away from the door

If there’s a chance of it opening up

They hear a voice in the hall outside

And hope that it just passes by

No rhymes. So it sounds more like speech. Rhyming now could break the sincerity. But note also that as listeners we don’t care – there’s no moment where we yearn for a rhyme anywhere in the verse. And why “some people”? At the moment we don’t actually know who Billy’s character is speaking to, he might just be making a general observation. 

Some people live with the fear of a touch

And the anger of having been a fool

They will not listen to anyone

So nobody tells them a lie

This time we end on a rhyme with the last line of the previous verse. Perhaps we don’t even notice the rhyme – is it even necessary? It’s skillfully done and doesn’t sound forced. And it closes off this first section in a satisfying way – we’re not waiting for anything more. Also notice the use of senses and emotions we have been through – hearing, hoping, fear, touch, anger, listening. 

We can empathize and maybe recognise something here in ourselves; that’s also the power of NOT making this personal e.g. “I know you’ve lived with the fear” etc. That might be too direct and negative. Here, the criticism is gentle and seems full of understanding. I think this reflects generally Billy’s style in the romantic songs – he likes to speak straightforwardly in the voice of his “I” character addressing someone else – compare with “Honesty” – “Honesty is such a lonely word” (statement of fact, could be internal), but mostly what I need from you (definitely external and shows us that the whole thing is directed to the other character).

I know you’re only protecting yourself

I know you’re thinking of somebody else

Someone who hurt you

Still full of understanding and empathy – but now speaking directly to the “you” character – and placing the blame on the other (bad) lover. 

But I’m not above

Making up for the love

You’ve been denying you could ever feel

I’m not above doing anything

To restore your faith if I can

The “But” is really just a leading note and the beat falls on the “I’m” to emphasize the contrast with the bad lover. It also sounds like how we’d say it in real life “he may have been like that but I’m certainly not”. Natural language = #SongExpressoHappiness. And the repetition adds emphasis – I’m not above that, in fact I’m not above doing anything. 

The “above” is interesting – yes, it rhymes with love. But again we see Billy’s character being non-judgmental and trying to show that’s he’s not trying to be smug or better but just speaking with the benefit of experience.

Some people see through the eyes of the old

Before they ever get to look at the young

I’m only willing to hear you cry

Because I am an innocent man

Oh yes I am

Here we have a similar “Honesty” style phrase – we start with “Some people” but midway go to I and you, so it’s all one impassioned speech. And this is really nice stuff – more sense-based images (seeing, hearing); getting old prematurely and missing out on youth; crying (also part of the youth idea?) and innocent – again contrast with the bad (guilty) lover. It’s a great theme – it’s not just “I’m a good man” or “a better man” but “innocent” – and so it’s unfair to penalise me due to others’ mistakes. There is something pure and enduring about this statement – he’s not just innocent today but someone you can put your faith into. Faith and innocence (linked by our only rhyme in this two verse section – can and man) give us an almost biblical flavor.

Some people say they will never believe

Another promise they hear in the dark

Because they only remember too well

They heard somebody tell them before

Some people sleep all alone every night

Instead of taking a lover to bed

Some people find that’s it’s easier to hate

Than to wait anymore

More of the same? Almost. I think a promise in the dark is a great euphemism – we all know what it means without needing to be told. Although contrast this with taking a lover to bed – old bad lover gets a euphemism while future better lover doesn’t need to beat around the bush (so innocent in the sense of “not evil”, not in the sense of “chaste”). 

By the way, what’s the opposite of a lover – a hater? No, a promise breaker… 

Finally, the language retains the spoken tone and natural, poetic rhythm – you might miss the rhyme if you weren’t looking for it.

I know you don’t want to hear what I say

I know you’re gonna keep turning away

But I’ve been there and if I can survive

I can keep you alive

I’m not above going through it again

I’m not above being cool for a while

If you’re cruel to me I’ll understand

Change of pace. More poppy more upbeat – more rhymey. Not “some people” any more but “I” – what we’ve been doing is getting more and more personal as we’ve gone along. This is probably the “Braveheart moment” (“Will you fight with me?”). But not preachy – gets the objections out of the way first and then drops in the “I’ve been there” story. Get a pad and write down as many empathetic and patient concepts as you can… 

Some people run from a possible fight

Some people figure they can never win

And although this is a fight I can lose

The accused is an innocent man

Oh yes I am

An innocent man

You know you only hurt yourself out of spite

I guess you’d rather be a martyr tonight

That’s your decision

But I’m not below

Anybody I know

If there’s a chance of resurrecting a love

I’m not above going back to the start

To find out where the heartache began


Some people hope for a miracle cure

Some people just accept the world as it is

But I’m not willing to lay down and die

Because I am an innocent man


I am an innocent man

Oh yes I am

An innocent man

I could go on but have gone on enough. But note the sheer length of the lyrics – minimal repetition and great content every time. I think the lack of rhymes enables this – the ear can take more. It’s almost two songs in one – the soft (empathetic) part then an upbeat (passionate) part. That’s an occasional SongExpresso technique by the way, when stuck – knitting together two or more fragments – obviously they have to work thematically but can effectively deliver a change of mood and elevate a song out of a rut.

So, takeaways:

  • Rhyme scheme – or non-rhyme: I think the ear does expect a rhyme sometimes: songs rhyme. But when you’ve got a lot to say, consider ditching the rhyme and really saying it with freedom. Of course, don’t also lose the poetry and rhythm…
  • Point of view: Think of different ways to say things. Do you ever feel your lyric might be a bit “preachy”? (I have one that builds up to a finale which incites the audience to “Enjoy each day while it’s here!” – ugh, definitely in need of a double-shot of my own medicine). If we take a cue from Billy, we can try out some different ways to say it, either to make it less personal: “Like people say, enjoy each day” or more personal: “You made me realise that I should enjoy each day”. Already a bit better.
  • Meshing two fragments: If we write every day and build up a catalogue of song ideas, adding one into another song may be a gift for a change of pace, pre-chorus, bridge. (Tip: they probably don’t fit together just like that – it’s essential to adapt and meld and not create SongFrankenstein).
  • Lists: If you have a good title or starting idea then build on that. Mind-mapping or just listing is great for this. Look in the dictionary and all the other forms of the word, or in the thesaurus: e.g.:


innocent‘ also found in these entries:

above reproach – above suspicion – angelic – artless – benign – blameless – boyish – callow – candid – chaste – child – childish – childlike – clean – clear – cleared – credulous – excusable – guiltless – inexperienced – modest – naive – natural – pure – safe – simple – sinless – tasteless – unsure – unsuspecting – unsuspecting – untarnished – with clean hands

Some great ideas there already.

Let me know what you think, especially if you are a fellow Billy fan…

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