Billy Joel – The Stranger – Classic Music Review

Two disparate threads came together to inspire me to review this album. The first was my assertion in my review of Marquee Moon that Billy Joel’s The Stranger helped make New York City cool again after a dismal decade. That statement earned The Stranger a cell in my Excel spreadsheet of review possibilities, under the “Maybe” column.

The second thread took a while to fully manifest itself but originated on the flight to Ireland to escape the continental heatpocalypse. I frequently use flight time to study my spreadsheet and figure out what I’m going to do next, and I noticed that The Stranger was still in the “Maybe” column, right where I’d left it. I had a Mary Tyler Moore moment—the one in the introductory credits where she’s in a supermarket and can’t decide whether to put the meat in the shopping cart or put it back. Mary put the meat in the cart; I was still standing there trying to decide when the plane landed in Dublin.

I think my aversion to doing a Billy Joel review had something to do with Christie Brinkley. It’s bad enough when pop stars become obscenely wealthy, but when they marry other obscenely wealthy celebrities, it’s usually game over for me.

As we rode the train down to Cork, I couldn’t figure out if I was being petty or had a valid reason for avoiding contact with Billy. Fortunately, Irish Rail has Wi-Fi (Aer Lingus didn’t) so I looked up Billy Joel on Wikipedia. There I learned about his profound disdain for Donald Trump, thereby canceling the supermodel hangup. I eventually navigated over to The Stranger, where I saw something I’d never seen on a Wikipedia page:

WOW! If there were Billy Joel fans willing to put up with what Andrew D. Crews described as “an inherently unstable design, subject to frequent mechanical problems, and missing the basic advantages of conventional tape machines: namely fast forward and reverse . . . ” I figured the guy must have had something.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

*****

Despite his status as one of the most successful pop-rock artists in history, I’ve rarely crossed paths with Billy Joel. Due to a bout of temporary insanity during the 70s, my father automatically dismissed any and all music coming out of New York. A passionate native San Franciscan, he was pissed off that both Bill Graham and Jann Wenner set up shop in the Big Apple and had to take it out on somebody, so he took it out on Patti Smith, the New York Dolls, the Ramones, Television and Billy Joel. He has none of their records, so I never heard any of those artists inside the home. I did not encounter Patti Smith, the New York Dolls or Television until much later, but I knew the Ramones from my immersion in punk culture and heard a few Billy Joel songs when they appeared on the muzak track in restaurants and shopping centers. It was mostly soft stuff and I wasn’t really into the soft stuff.

None of my friends are Billy Joel fans either, so I’ve pretty much lived a Billy-less life. The first time I ever heard The Stranger in its entirety was right after my review of Marquee Moon, earlier this year. I’ve learned not to trust first-listen impressions, but I liked enough of what I heard to add it to my spreadsheet. I don’t know how I knew about his marriage to Christie Brinkley but my best guess is that their divorce in the mid-90s was splattered all over the covers of those awful tabloids at grocery store checkout stands along with alien sex rituals and Hillary-is-a-lesbian rumors.

One thing I knew about Billy Joel before I read any biographical information was that he was a Baby Boomer and a Beatles fan. The giveaway was that most of the Billy Joel tunes I heard in the background were melodic love songs, which told me that the Beatles were part of his life’s soundtrack, ergo, he had to be a Baby Boomer. My detective skills were validated when I read this excerpt from his Wikipedia page:

Influenced by early rock and roll and rhythm and blues artists, including groups such as The Beatles, The Everly Brothers and Elvis Presley, Joel favored tightly structured pop melodies and down-to-earth songwriting. After seeing The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, Joel decided to pursue a career in music. In an interview he said of the group’s effect on him: “That one performance changed my life … Up to that moment I’d never considered playing rock as a career. And when I saw four guys who didn’t look like they’d come out of the Hollywood star mill, who played their own songs and instruments, and especially because you could see this look in John Lennon’s face – and he looked like he was always saying: ‘Fuck you!’ — I said: ‘I know these guys, I can relate to these guys, I am these guys. This is what I’m going to do — play in a rock band.”

Further solidifying his Baby Boomer status, I also learned that he grew up in a real Levitt home on Long Island and one of his motivations for forming his first band was to get laid. Based on this information, I am certain that Billy will be one of the first inductees into the Baby Boomer Hall of Fame if they ever get around to building one.

*****

When I first listened to The Stranger, what I absolutely loved was Billy’s piano. It wasn’t so much his technique or the nimbleness of his fingers—he’s a damned fine pianist—but the beautiful clarity that came out through my headphones. We can thank producer Phil Ramone for that exquisite natural sound, and in passing, we can thank George Martin for declining Billy’s request to produce the album. Billy wanted to record with his touring band because they brought more life to the party but Martin heard their rougher sound as a detriment and wanted to use session players instead—you know, the guys who are “not paid to think, just play” in Ray Davies’ memorable condemnation. Billy put his foot down, waved goodbye to George Martin and made one of the best decisions of his life by hiring Phil Ramone to produce The Stranger—and Billy’s next five albums.

By 1977 I think George Martin had officially become an old fart living on his reputation, for his dismissal of the band’s talents tells me he needed to get his hearing checked. Though Billy and Phil did bring in session players for parts of the album, the more I listened to the album, the more I appreciated the core band. In Richie Cannata, Billy had a guy who had been playing music since the age of four and had mastered several instruments in the meantime (album credits: organ, tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone, clarinet, flute, tuba(!)). The rhythm section of Doug Stegmeyer (bass) and Liberty DeVitto (drums) more than redeem themselves on the album with their inventiveness and spot-on tightness.

The only thing that puzzled me about the musical side of the ledger was the very limited use of vocal harmonies—not something I would have expected from a guy who calls himself a fan of the Beatles and Everly Brothers. On the plus side, the harmonies really stand out because of their rarity, but there are a few spots where I think harmony would have a nice addition.

The aspect of the album that most disturbed me on my first take had to do with the lyrics. “What’s with all the clichés?” I wondered in my head. “And why all that nostalgic crap?”

Well, that’s why I make such a big deal out of listening to an album again and again and again: first impressions usually suck. I said “yuck” when I heard those trite nuggets of wisdom but after listening carefully, it hit me that Billy was turning those clichés upside down. As for his nostalgic leanings, I realized that Billy wasn’t trying to capitalize on the 70s hunger for the good old days but urging his listening audience to rethink their attachments to a past that wasn’t all that glorious and to cultural habits that had grown stale. I’m sure that many backward-oriented people bought the record because they were sure that Billy was on their side, but you can’t blame Billy Joel for unintentionally profiting from human stupidity.

Having cleansed my mind of supermodel prejudice and purged my memory banks of erroneous first impressions, I will now proceed with the review. Thank you for your patience.

*****

After his previous effort Turnstiles failed to crack the Billboard 100, Columbia was all set to dump Billy if he didn’t produce a winner. From that perspective, “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)” was Billy’s way of saying, “Fuck you, guys—I ain’t goin’ anywhere.”

What a dazzling opener!

The build in the first verse is like carefully opening a thoughtfully-packaged gift and finding a delightful surprise inside. The assertive beat that opens the song is rock-solid with its staccato rhythms from piano and guitar set to double time while bass, drums and lead guitar follow the baseline rhythm, loading up the song with immediate and appealing tension—a tension further enhanced by the song’s minor key (Dm). Billy enters the scene after a few bars, and once we realize he’s going to tell us a story, we unconsciously sit back a bit in the virtual easy chair to take it all in, enjoying his confident, in-his-stride vocal and the splash of vocal harmony on the third line:

Anthony works in the grocery store
Savin’ his pennies for someday
Mama Leone left a note on the door
She said, “Sonny, move out to the country”

Billy then proceeds to yank us out of the easy chair with seven thrilling seconds of auditory sensory overload:

Ah, but working too hard can you give you a heart attack-ACK-ACK-ACK-ACK-ACK (you oughtta know by know/you oughtta know by now)

The cascade of sound in those seven seconds was brilliantly constructed, from the multi-layered swirl of Billy’s lead and background vocals to the gradual rise in volume and echo over a brief moment of stop time in the ACK-ACK-ACK-ACK-ACK segment. What I can’t figure out is why I find those seven seconds so incredibly pleasurable—shit, the guy is not only talking about a heart attack but captured what the onset of a heart attack must feel like with onomatopoeic brilliance. Let’s keep going and maybe I’ll figure it out along the way.

The verse ends with a couplet that brings us to the main theme: the emptiness of the American Dream. The music in the chorus is cued by a nice upward piano run that leads to a dramatic shift to half-time:

Who needs a house out in Hackensack
Is that what you get for your money?

It seems such a waste of time
If that’s what it’s all about
Mama if that’s movin’ up
Then I’m movin’ out
I’m movin’ out

Verse two shifts from the perspective of the son of Italian immigrants to your typical Irish cop who moonlights as a bartender. This verse deals with Sergeant O’ Leary’s pursuit of what was at one time an essential component of the American Dream—a “luxury” automobile. Though I haven’t been in the States for over five years, I’m pretty sure that “You are what you drive” still applies:

He’s tradin’ in his Chevy for a Cadillac (ack, ack, ack, ack, ack)
You oughta know by now
And if he can’t drive
With a broken back
At least he can polish the fenders

Wow. The last time I saw an American working on or polishing a car was Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino. While the specifics of this verse may not have quite the impact today that it did in the 70s, when the middle class was still a large segment of the American population and your average joe might have been able to finance such an upgrade, Billy’s point is still valid. Is it really worth sacrificing so much of your life in the pursuit of status-raising material goods? Is that what the American Dream is all about?

In the last truncated verse, Billy brings into question the financial wisdom of such an effort, since the more you make, the higher your tax bracket (“You can pay Uncle Sam with the overtime/Is that all you get for your money”). The closing chorus represents an emphatic rejection of the equation that the pursuit of happiness equals the pursuit of material trappings:

If that’s what you have in mind
If that’s what it’s all about
If that’s movin’ up, then I’m movin’ out

The fade to “Movin’ Out” is simply one of the greatest fades ever (and according to the backstory, the band was having so much fun they kept playing for several minutes beyond the fade out). What makes it so cool is the still-satisfying sound of a muscle car revving up and taking off. According to Songfacts:

Billy Joel told USA Today on July 9, 2008: “In the song, there’s the sound of a car peeling out. That was (bassist) Doug Stegmeyer’s car, who at the time had a ’60s-era Corvette. He took his little tape machine in the car and hung the microphone out the rear end, and started burning rubber, screeching away from his house.

I know that muscle cars have bad-ass internal combustion engines, get terrible mileage and are climate change disasters, but that growl still makes my heart go bumpety-bump. In the end, I think what I like about the seven-second thrill and the muscle car are just that—I love thrilling and creative arrangements, and “Movin’ Out” delivers.

I feel obligated to mention one more aspect of “Movin’ Out” that applies to most of the songs on the album. Wanna play it at home on your gee-tar? Sure! All you have to do is learn THIRTY CHORDS, including old standbys like Caug/E, Aaug/C# and A7sus4/C#. Easy peasy!

I bring this up because when I first searched for “billy joel chords . . .” one of the suggestions that popped up was “easy billy joel guitar chords” indicating the existence of a sizeable group of guitarists looking for simplified chord charts. Well, folks, you’re going to run into that kind of challenge frequently when the song is written on a piano, where you can pull off complex chords by moving a finger or two on either or both hands while the other fingers stay put. Here’s a tip to help you avoid permanent damage to your hand muscles from trying to distort them into the impossible shapes demanded by a guitar in standard tuning: 1.) Play the chords in arpeggio style; 2. Learn Doug Stegmeyer’s bass part; 3: Mimic that bass part on the lowest note in the base chord. So, if you’re playing a C major and Doug goes C-B-A, move your third finger down the fifth string accordingly. Sometimes that won’t fit exactly what Billy’s doing, but it will be good enough to wow the crowd at your next open mic performance!

This was a public service announcement from altrockchick.com. 

Listen to “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)” on YouTube. 

In the title track, Billy explores the alter ego and how we keep the dark side hidden from friends and lovers. His accurate observation that “Although we share so many secrets, there are some we never tell” becomes somewhat ironic when you learn that the inspiration for the song came from Billy’s attempt at suicide at the age of twenty-one. There is nothing in the song that would give you the slightest hint that he tried to meet his maker by drinking a bottle of furniture polish; most of the song deals with the existence of the alter ego and a few tips on how to deal with one’s shadow. He only relates one personal incident involving a relationship with a woman, and that story falls firmly on the vague side.

So, it would seem that Billy was keeping secrets from the listening audience. Some may call him a hypocrite for not giving us a peak at his inner stranger, but personally, I’m really glad he decided not to go there. The song would have turned into a self-indulgent mess of no use to anyone. It’s enough that he admitted the presence of his dark side, allowing the listeners to reflect on their own experience with the alter ego.

“The Stranger” is bookended by passages where Billy whistles, and if you’re a regular reader, you know that there are few sounds on earth that give me as much pleasure as human whistling. This isn’t the jaunty kind of whistling you hear on “I Was Kaiser Bill’s Batman” (one of my favorite songs ever), but whistling with a strong noir flavor, accompanied by superb after-hours smoky bar piano in the lonesome key of E minor. I’m not particularly enamored with the music in between the bookends; the lead guitar comes on way too strong and the funky beat in the verses doesn’t complement the mood established in the intro. The lyrics don’t really tell us anything we don’t already know and Billy neglects to state the obvious—it takes time to build the trust necessary to share our deepest, darkest secrets with lovers and friends. That’s just common sense in a world where “judge not that ye not be judged” is not universal behavior.

Billy resisted adding “Just the Way You Are” to the album, describing this song he penned for his first wife as a “gloppy ballad.” The band didn’t think much of it either, thinking it was a “chick song.” There are two conflicting stories about how it made the cut. The tale most frequently cited has Phil Ramone playing the song for Linda Rondstadt and Phoebe Snow; they loved the song and then the three of them ganged up on Billy until he gave in. The alternative narrative has to do with more mundane considerations—without “Just the Way You Are,” there wasn’t enough material to fill the album.

The sorta good news is that “Just You Way the Are” became Billy’s first gold single and won two Grammies. The bad news (from his perspective) is that “Just the Way You Are” and other gloppy ballads he recorded led the public and several critics to file Billy’s music under “soft rock,” a label he felt was unfair.

Hmm. Sounds like Billy’s “stranger” is the guy who writes gloppy ballads.

I think he should have taken his own advice and embraced his gloppy stranger. He wouldn’t have written gloppy ballads if he didn’t enjoy composing pretty melodies and writing love song lyrics. Maybe if he’d listened to McCartney’s “Silly Love Songs” a thousand times, he would have gotten over his hangup and moved on.

There are some nice sentiments in “Just the Way You Are,” but you can pretty much find most of them in the valentine rack at the Hallmark Store. Apparently there was a feminist hoo-hah about lyrics that suggested Billy was a control freak; Billy responded by saying “No, no, no. Don’t go changing to try and please me.” Unfortunately he forgot about a line that appears later in the song that lends the feminist argument more credence: “I need to know that you will always be/The same old someone that I knew.” I’m 100% sure that Billy Joel isn’t a misogynist (see below), but I’ve noticed that sometimes he gets a little lazy with the lyrics.

As for me, I loathe the song—and if I ever get married, there is no fucking way in hell that “Just the Way You Are” will find its way onto the DJ’s playlist. In the interest of full disclosure, my favorite “love song” is The Foo Fighters’ “Everlong”. I guess I’m just not a Hallmark kind of girl.

But I’m not here to bury Billy Joel, but to praise the hell out of him for “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant.” Here’s what he told USA Today about the song’s origins (via Songfacts):

Joel outlined to USA Today how the Beatles inspired this song: “I had always admired the B-side of Abbey Road, which was essentially a bunch of songs strung together by (producer) George Martin. What happened was The Beatles didn’t have completely finished songs or wholly fleshed-out ideas, and George said, ‘What have you got?’ John said, ‘Well I got this,’ and Paul said, ‘I got that.’ They all sat around and went, ‘Hmm, we can put this together and that’ll fit in there.’ And that’s pretty much what I did.”

Putting aside the fact that the “suite” in Abbey Road does not take up the entire B-side, Billy isn’t giving himself enough credit. The “suite” in Abbey Road has zero thematic coherence; the package is merely a grab bag of fragments that the Beatles were too lazy to finish so they handed the mess over to George Martin to give it a deceptive gloss and a few dramatic effects. By contrast, in “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,” Billy Joel weaved three disparate fragments into a coherent, meaningful narrative marked by compositional unity.

Argue all you want, but unless you can prove that Polythene Pam is the broad who came in through the bathroom window and explain why she chose to do that—or whether the guy carrying the weight is conclusively either the Sun King or Mr. Mustard and exactly what that weight is—or what all that crap has to do to with the equation (the love you take = the love you make)—get out of my face.

The setting for the suite is an old-world Italian place on West 57th Street, Fontana di Trevi (now closed), across the street from Carnegie Hall. While Billy told USA Today that “Sometimes you would have a hard time getting a table,” once the concert crowd cleared out and the waiters could relax a bit, it was probably a good place to meet up with a friend for dinner and conversation. In this case, the restaurant has particular significance for two old friends who haven’t seen each other for a while and want to hook up in a warm, welcoming, familiar place—a place they’ve designated as “our Italian restaurant.”

A bottle of white, a bottle of red
Perhaps a bottle of rose instead
We’ll get a table near the street
In our old familiar place
You and I, face to face

A bottle of red, a bottle of white
It all depends upon your appetite
I’ll meet you any time you want
In our Italian Restaurant

The music opens with Billy playing the base melody—a phrase that immediately brings the crowd to its feet in live performances (see link below). The chords in this passage are quite simple (F, Bb, C, Am) but Billy’s marvelous touch brings out a sweet melancholy echoed in Dominic Cortese’s supporting accordion. The choice of accordion highlights one of the essential features of the arrangement—the meaning of the song is derived from both the lyrics and the instruments:

Jim Boyer, who mixed the track, said this is one of the mixes he’s most proud of. He explained the process in producer Phil Ramone’s 2007 book, Making Records: The Scenes Behind The Music: “Generally we used as little EQ as possible when mixing ‘Scenes From An Italian Restaurant.’ Consequently, the bass and drums are focused and tight, and the cymbals ring without being harsh. Each instrument occupies a meaningful spot in the mix; more importantly, the mix possesses the requisite clarity, spaciousness, and movement.” (via Songfacts)

Old world Italian restaurant – accordion – got it.

Verse complete, Billy raises the volume to cue a transition, the drama enhanced by DeVitto’s shimmery cymbals. The build is a nice set-up for Richie Cannata’s tenor sax solo, and if there’s one sound I associate with “a night in New York,” it’s the sexy grit of a tenor sax. Billy defined this transition as a time shift in his Masterclass concert (see link below) and the music does make an interesting flip with a complementary key change from F to Bb, initially employing the F-Bb-C pattern of the original key but giving Richie a broader palette with access to Eb and G#. His final run involves a nicely-executed shift to the dissonant-in-context D major chord, paving the way to the song’s second section in G major.

The tempo jumps here from relaxed to a bit over moderate, a change intensified by Billy’s staccato piano. This section captures what friends do when they haven’t seen each other in a while—they catch up.

Things are okay with me these days
Got a good job, got a good office
Got a new wife, got a new life
And the family’s fine

We lost touch long ago
You lost weight I did not know
You could ever look so nice after
So much time

There’s more going on here than just small talk. “Got a new wife” foreshadows events that will unfold in the third segment, “The Ballad of Brenda and Eddie.” I’d also venture to guess that most of the small talk is pure bullshit, as everyone caught in the rat race tells you things are great even when they’re not. The lack of detail tells me that the guy has a garden-variety job that pays the bills and offers little in the way of fulfillment—but you have to keep up appearances! The second verse sounds like Friend A wants to make a move on Friend B; then again, it could be just a meaningless compliment in the category of “say something nice.”

Whether he really doesn’t want to go into detail about a boring life or committed a faux pas by making a premature pass, it’s obvious he wants to change the subject and move to the safer ground of the good old days.

Do you remember those days hanging out
At the village green
Engineer boots, leather jackets
And tight blue jeans
You drop a dime in the box
Play a song about New Orleans
Cold beer, hot lights
My sweet romantic teenage nights

Right on cue, the band travels to Dixieland, led by Richie Cannata’s fluid runs on soprano sax. We’re about to transition to “The Ballad of Brenda and Eddie,” but before we leave, I want to emphasize that the trip down Nostalgia Lane isn’t just about changing the direction of a conversation—it’s also the perfect set-up for the thematic punch line that follows.

We remain in G major for the next transition, where Billy ramps up the speed with his left hand driving the rhythm while his right hand flies and flutters over a descending melodic line. It’s a fairly brief but remarkable demonstration of piano mastery that gives way to the steady rock beat of the third section. The music here is marked by the perfectly executed quick cuts at the end of the verse lines—D down to C with a “pow pow” from DeVitto.

It’s not difficult to imagine that the talk about the good old days ended with one of the diners leaning over and whispering, “Hey, did you hear about Brenda and Eddie?” Now, Billy knows that his listeners don’t know dick about Brenda and Eddie, so imagine the camera moving in for a close-up on Billy so he can break the third wall and supply us with the backstory.

Brenda and Eddie were the popular steadies
And the king and the queen of the prom
Riding around with the car top down and the radio on
Nobody looked any finer
Or was more of a hit at the Parkway Diner
We never knew we could want more than that out of life
Surely Brenda and Eddie would always know how to survive

Hmm. This appears to be pure Happy Days stuff except for that one revealing line: We never knew we could want more than that out of life. Most teenagers are incredibly naïve about the “real world.” Few schools teach the fundamentals of adult survival (finances, job hunting, etc.), and too many financially secure but doting parents who want to give their children everything interfere with the process of learning about the real world by taking care of expenses or making connections for them. On the other hand, it’s fair to say that most teenagers find all that real-world stuff boring as hell. Why bother with that stuff when you’ve got all that action going down at the Parkway Diner?

And young love conquers everything . . . doesn’t it?

Brenda and Eddie were still going steady in the summer of ’75
When they decided the marriage would be at the end of July
Everyone said they were crazy
Brenda you know that you’re much too lazy
And Eddie could never afford to live that kind of life
But there we were wavin’ Brenda and Eddie goodbye

“Still going steady” implies a teenage marriage—late teen, but still teen. The odds weren’t great—a third to one-half of teenage marriages end early—but hey, “Surely Brenda and Eddie would always know how to survive.” They certainly must have impressed their friends with their home decoration choices—choices that cry out, “Yep, we’re in the ’70s, alright!”

They got an apartment with deep pile carpets
And a couple of paintings from Sears
A big waterbed that they bought
With the bread they had saved for a couple of years

Huh. I had no idea that Sears trafficked in fine art. Dogs playing poker, perhaps? Unfortunately, Brenda and Eddie found out that they had to pay for all that stuff and the real world dropped into their lives to give them a big whack upside their heads:

But they started to fight when the money got tight
And they just didn’t count on the tears

Brenda and Eddie soon became another statistic in the annals of failed teenage marriages. Their first instinct was to try to reconnect with the good old days, but there wasn’t a chance in hell that strategy would pay off:

Well, they lived for a while in a very nice style
But it’s always the same in the end
They got a divorce as a matter of course
And they parted the closest of friends
Then the king and the queen went back to the green
But you can never go back there again

Brenda and Eddie had had it already by the summer of ’75
From the high to the low to the end of the show for the rest of their lives
They couldn’t go back to the greasers
The best they could do was pick up the pieces
We always knew they would both find a way to get by

While it’s nice Brenda and Eddie remained friends and that their peers still believed in them, it’s sad that all they have to look forward to is “getting by.” We should forgive them for their initial post-divorce instincts to recapture their glorious past, for they shared that desire with millions of Americans who wanted to re-create the world of American Graffiti. And as we all know, the desire to turn back to a mythic past can become a trap that blocks forward progress (and quite ugly if the mythic past is all about white folk being in control). As we wave goodbye to Brenda and Eddie, we’re left with a clear and succinct message: Yes, we had a great time in the good old days but we all have to learn to move the fuck on. 

The signal for the outro comes in the form of a descending figure (to bring us back to the present day) followed by suitably grand orchestration that evokes a well-earned “Yeah, yeah, yeah!” from Billy. The strings fade and we hear Billy’s piano reiterating the opening theme, followed by a closing verse in our Italian restaurant. My ears detected a difference between the published lyrics and what Billy actually sings:

  • Published: “A bottle of red, a bottle of white.”
  • Heard: “A bottle of reds, a bottle of whites.”

Was Billy referring to downers and uppers or using reds/whites to denote wine options? The first reference would make sense in the drug-crazed America of the 70s, but the second seems a better fit in the context of song and story. What absolutely fits in the compositional structure is a reprise of Richie Cannata’s tenor sax solo, the perfect way to close this exceptionally well-constructed and superbly performed masterpiece.

Listen to “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” (Live from Long Island) on YouTube.

Listen to Billy Joel’s Masterclass Concert 2001, Pt. 9 of 12 “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant-Transitions”

It’s fortunate that at this point in the proceedings the compact disc was still a few years away and listeners had to get their butts out of their seats to turn the LP over, giving them a few precious moments to let “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” sink in before engaging with the next track. “Vienna” represents a change in scenery and mood and is more than deserving of the listener’s complete attention.

The song opens with a nod to Kurt Weill’s music for Threepenny Opera with appropriate dissonance emanating from a C-F# move defying the Bb tonic, a sort of musical “gateway to Europe.” After that very brief introduction, we settle into more familiar musical territory with a complementary shift to the key of G minor; Billy pretty much stays within the boundaries of Bb and G minor throughout verse and chorus but uses dissonant chords like D9 and F# major to add a touch of unresolved tension before returning to the tonic. Technical gibberish aside, the chord pattern is full of interest and lends itself perfectly to the beautifully-constructed melody.

Now to the backstory. Billy’s father was born in Nuremberg, a classical pianist and businessman who left Germany to escape Nazi persecution and eventually wound up in the Bronx, where Billy was born. When Billy’s parents divorced in 1957, his father returned to Europe because he felt Americans were uneducated and materialistic. The city he chose as his new home was Vienna.

Billy visited his father in Vienna and received a lesson in cultural differences that made quite an impression on him. In an interview with the Springfield Republican he talked about the visit and how it provided the inspiration for “Vienna”:

I tracked him down and went to visit him. I wanted to get some insight into how he thought. He was a very European man and didn’t have an easy time of it in America. We were walking in the city and I remember seeing an old lady sweeping the street and I said “Dad it’s kind of sad that that poor old woman has to do that kind of work.” He said “No, she has a job, she feels useful, she has a place in our society.” I realized they don’t throw old people away like we tend to do here in the States. They allow for people who are aged to have a useful place in the scheme of things and I thought y’know that’s a good metaphor for someone my age to consider. You don’t have to squeeze your whole life into your 20s and 30s trying to make it, trying to achieve that American dream, getting in the rat race and killing yourself. You have a whole life to live. I kind of used “Vienna” as a metaphor, there is a reason for being old, a purpose.

Billy also told Howard Stern that “Vienna” was also a vehicle for dealing with his feelings toward his father. The lyrics certainly sound like Billy is receiving some fatherly advice, though I was unable to find any confirmation of that hypothesis. According to the article, Billy visited his father in his early twenties when he was working hard to build a career in music—ambitious, probably headstrong and deeply concerned he was going to blow his shot at the big time. Whether the lyrics are based on his father’s advice or his own self-evaluation, the observations ring true:

Slow down, you crazy child
You’re so ambitious for a juvenile
But then if you’re so smart, tell me
Why are you still so afraid?

Where’s the fire, what’s the hurry about?
You’d better cool it off before you burn it out
You’ve got so much to do
And only so many hours in a day

But you know that when the truth is told
That you can get what you want or you can just get old
You’re gonna kick off before you even get halfway through
When will you realize, Vienna waits for you?

Unfortunately, this remains one of Billy Joel’s most timeless songs. The fire really started raging in the late 20th century when the technology that was supposed to free us from excessive labor combined with the widespread demand for immediate gratification to transform work into a 24/7 experience for many people. Vacations became “working vacations” where you still had to respond at all hours of the day to texts and emails invariably labeled “important” but were really just CYA bullshit (an American colleague of mine described “vacation” as “working in a nicer place with a spa”). And while the pandemic allowed many people to work from home, there was no rest for the weary, according to this article from Forbes:

A 2021 study reported that nearly half of remote employees were working past midnight during the pandemic lockdown because they couldn’t get everything done:

  • 48% of remote employees reported working past midnight. Generation Z remote employees were the most likely to work past midnight (54%), while Baby Boomers were the least likely (34%).
  • Non-managers’ primary reason for working late was not being able to finish their work during the day (43%), while managers’ primary reason for working late was freelancing or working a side job (36%).
  • Millennials were the most likely to want to continue working at night (67%) and to consider working at night a perk (50%).

I’ve never been so ashamed of my generation. A perk? That’s definitely worth an oh-for-fucks-sake or two.

The Viennese attitude towards life and work is common in most of Europe and the advent of 24/7 work is viewed as a fundamental threat to our way of life. The French have made it illegal for employers to contact employees after working hours and several other EU members are considering similar bans. Americans often bitch about Europeans being lackadaisical about work but the truth is “urgent” rarely equals “important” and what’s important to most Europeans is spending time with friends and family and trying to enjoy life. Europeans fully embrace the notion that “working too hard can you give you a heart attack-ACK-ACK-ACK-ACK-ACK.”

I hereby propose that employers everywhere be required to post this verse from “Vienna” in lunchrooms, conference rooms and in email headers:

Slow down, you crazy child
And take the phone off the hook and disappear for awhile
It’s all right, you can afford to lose a day or two
When will you realize, Vienna waits for you?

Listen to “Vienna” on YouTube.

Billy explains how “Only the Good Die Young” evolved from a reggae tune to a shuffle rock classic in Masterclass Concert #9 (link below), but what initially struck me about the song was that his attempt to get a Catholic high school girl to cede her virginity to him became a Herculean task that ended up in failure. Conveniently and with great foresight, I had stashed a parochial school graduate nearby, so I picked up the phone and gave him a ring.

“Hey, Dad!”

“Hey, sunshine!”

“When you were in high school were the Catholic girls in their parochial school hardcore virgins?”

There was a moment of silence, then a laugh so loud I had to move my iPhone away from my ear.

“Are you kidding? Everybody knew if you wanted to get laid, just follow the girls in the uniforms.”

Since I think my father and Billy Joel are comparably attractive, I think there might have been a temporary religio-cultural schism between the West Coast and the East Coast in the mid-60s. They don’t call it “Babylon by the Bay” for nothin’!

“Only the Good Die Young” qualifies as an absolute gas, a song that ignites an overwhelming desire to follow the boys in the band and clap your hands on the beat. The arrangement is pretty straightforward—no reason to muck up a rocker!—and I absolutely love the high-string guitar and Richie’s growling sax solo. Billy doesn’t have to act to stay in character, as his creative pleading for a good time was grounded in reality. Yes, Virginia, there was a real Virginia (Callaghan) and Billy had a mad crush on the girl. What’s interesting is that he doesn’t tiptoe around what he believes is the fundamental issue. In his mind, the Catholic Church is to blame for reigning in Virginia’s libido, and he spices his argument with specific references to the sacred relics and rituals of the Vatican: “Well, they showed you a statue, told you to pray/They built you a temple and locked you away,” “The stained-glass curtain you’re hiding behind/Never lets in the sun,” “You didn’t count on me/When you were counting on your rosary.” Ironically, the phrase “only the good die young” in this context applies to the spiritual death resulting from the repression of natural human desires. Billy told American Songwriter, “When I wrote ‘Only the Good Die Young’, the point of the song wasn’t so much anti-Catholic as pro-lust.”

Well, that’s not how the Church interpreted it and archbishops across the country campaigned to get the song banned from radio, thereby ensuring its popularity—a story Billy relates with great relish in the Masterclass Concert. Though Virginia never bought the argument that “You Catholic girls start much too late,” let the record show that Billy accepted his defeat and declined the opportunity to become a stalker.

Listen to Billy Joel’s Masterclass Concert 2001, Pt. 8 of 12 “Only the Good Die Young”.

Listen to “Only the Good Die Young” on YouTube.

Uh, oh . . . another ballad. Okay, you can’t pass on this one like you did with Marvin Gaye’s “Wholy Holy,” so Ari, put on your goddamn headphones and get it over with.

Hey . . . this isn’t gloppy! She likes it! Ari likes it!

Though Billy tired of “She’s Always a Woman” and stopped performing it live (certainly understandable due to the divorce), this ode to his first wife Elizabeth Weber is a perfectly lovely song that celebrates her right to ignore traditional expectations of female behavior. The graceful 6/8 rhythm and arpeggiated piano chords are easily replicated on acoustic guitar (hooray!), as Billy wrote the song with Gordon Lightfoot in mind.

The first verse (and the rest of the song for that matter) appears to be quite off-putting unless you understand the context. Elizabeth Weber was also Billy’s manager, which meant she had to navigate her way through the endless webs of sexism and misogyny in the music business.  The verse isn’t about how she interacts with her husband—it’s about her negotiating style with dismissive assholes:

She can kill with a smile, she can wound with her eyes
And she can ruin your faith with her casual lies
And she only reveals what she wants you to see
She hides like a child but she’s always a woman to me

This is a strong woman “who can take you or leave you,” who is smart enough to “ask for the truth but she’ll never believe you.” She “steals like a thief” because it’s her job to do the best she can for her client. From Billy’s standpoint, she’s doing a helluva job and if her adversaries can’t take it—that’s on them:

And she’ll promise you more than the garden of Eden
Then she’ll carelessly cut you and laugh while you’re bleeding
But she’ll bring out the best and the worst you can be
Blame it all on yourself ’cause she’s always a woman to me

At that time (and still to this day in too many places), women with ambitions and drive were ridiculed as “acting like men” and “dykes,” hence the counter-argument, “she’s always a woman to me.” I would have added a line to the effect, “And if you can’t handle a strong woman, then you’re a dickless wonder,” but Billy was wise to leave such sentiments on the drawing board.

Listen to “She’s Always a Woman” on YouTube.

By this time in the proceedings, I realized that one of the main themes of The Stranger is pressure—both self-induced and expectation-imposed. The theme is certainly present in “Vienna,” but Anthony, Seargent O’Leary, Brenda, Eddie and Virginia are all subject to some form of pressure—to make it, to keep up appearances, to restrain oneself. The character in “Get It Right the First Time” doesn’t have the smooth-talking skills of more successful Lotharios and proceeds to work himself into a frenzy because he believes he has to hit a homer on his first at-bat:

I’m not much good at conversation
I was never much too good at comin’ on real strong
If all it takes is inspiration
Then I might have just what it takes
If I don’t make no bad mistakes and I get it right the first time
That’s the main thing
Can’t afford to let it pass
You get it right the next time that’s not the same thing
Gonna make the first time last

There’s no problem with the characterization; the problem is that the story goes nowhere. On the plus side, what Billy called an “almost a funk, disco beat” allows Liberty DeVitto to show his stuff, giving one of his strongest performances on the record.

“Everybody Has a Dream” was written long before The Stranger and was originally a folk song. Billy thought it was a good idea to end the album with something more gospel-like a la Joe Cocker. “It just felt like a great way to sum up the album, sort of a gospel celebration.”

I respectfully disagree. Putting aside the color clash between “Only the Good Die Young” and gospel—and the nicking of Thoreau in the opening line—I don’t think the song belongs on the album at all. The music has a completely different feel than the rest of the songs on the album, and the lyrics are even weaker than those of “Just the Way You Are.” “Vienna” would have made for a much stronger closing statement—and much more in keeping with the overall theme of dealing with life’s pressures.

*****

Usually I have no idea how over half the albums on “Best Albums of All-Time” lists wound up there, but I have absolutely no quarrel with The Stranger earning that designation—it’s a great album that has clearly stood the test of time. Based on a very limited sample—The Stranger, some casual listening to tracks on his other albums and videos of his live performances—my take is that Billy Joel is a fabulous musician who cares deeply about his music, has a warm and engaging onstage presence and is one of the rare examples of a successful musician who hasn’t forgotten where he came from. I’d like to learn more about his development as a musician—and I’m very curious about his classical compositions—so I don’t think I’ll be waving Billy goodbye anytime soon.

Stay tuned!

 

3 responses

  1. I’ve always dreaded that you would review Billy Joel and trash him, so when I saw his name come up I thought, “Oh shit!” Then I was pleasantly surprised that you gave this album a positive review–and I learned some things by reading it, as I always do from your reviews.

    When I was about 12 years old, I got a copy of The Stranger from an aunt who had bought it for “Just The Way You Are” only to find that the album as a whole was too loud for her taste. I liked it so much that I bought up all of his other albums during my teenage years. Too bad that Billy went off the rails with An Innocent Man. That retro stuff always struck me as a waste of his talent, and nothing he did after that interested me either.

    I appreciate you giving more context for “She’s Always A Woman.” I had heard that he wrote it about his wife, and I knew that she was his manager, but I hadn’t thought of the lyrics in terms of her role as manager. It makes a lot more sense that way.

    I unequivocally love “Just The Way You Are” but agree with you that “Everybody Has A Dream” is not a great choice for the closer.

    If you review another Billy Joel album, The Nylon Curtain would be a natural choice because it is probably his most ambitious album in terms of lyrics. I like the earlier albums too. One of the things that set Billy Joel apart, I think, was that his lyrics were more adult-themed than almost anybody else’s. He viewed rebellion with a skeptical eye (never more than in “The Angry Young Man”), and he always seemed to be wondering what one does next, after all of the excitement of youth fades away. Also, I find his straightforward lyrics to be refreshing, though as you note, he likes to put his own twist on familiar themes.

    1. Thanks for the tips on An Innocent Man and The Nylon Curtain. I haven’t heard much of his pre-Stranger stuff except “Piano Man,” which I like very much. As for “Just the Way You Are,” I will concede it has a lovely melody and he sings it well, but it’s just not my kind of thing. I do understand its appeal, though. Cheers!

  2. Great review, thank you!
    Agree re Nylon Curtain, I’ve always thought Allentown is a particularly good song. More thoughts on work and identity, the line about the American flag is pretty out there for a mainstream artist I’d say. Probably went under the radar!

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