Monday, March 20, 2017

Reflections On...The Stranger

When “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)” is your least favorite song on an album, it has to be a monster disc. Billy Joel’s The Stranger is one of the greatest records to ever be released in my lifetime. I’ve never compiled a personal top ten list of albums in my life, but if I did, I am sure that The Stranger would be on it. The record was released when Joel was hitting his stride as a musician and challenging himself to create the greatest music he could. It was also the breakthrough album that made him a household name.

My earliest memories of listening to The Stranger come from a time when I would have dance competitions with my sister as we listened to the album on my mother’s 8-Track stereo system. Yes, this was in the same house where I fell in love with Bob Seger’s Night Moves. My sister and I would pick an album to listen to after dinner and we had a “dance off.” The only problem was we were the only judges, so we always gave ourselves perfect scores and graded the other as far less than perfect. One of the albums we played a lot for these competitions was The Stranger. 52nd Street, Night Moves, and the soundtrack to Grease were other albums we loved to use for these dance contests.

I can remember being petrified of the album cover to The Stranger. I mean, at a young age, who wouldn’t be? Looking at it now, much older and mature in life, that album cover still freaks me out. Billy Joel, dressed in a suit, is sitting on a bed, staring at a creepy theater mask that is lying on a pillow. Full compliments to whomever thought up the cover design. It is certainly a memorable one. More important than the alarming album cover and dance competitions however was the music contained on the record. Even at a tender age, the music spoke to me.

“She’s Always a Woman” was a song that reminded me of a girl I had a huge crush on in my neighborhood. Anytime I heard that song, I thought of her immediately and went into some strange daze. A stupid grin would appear on my face and all movement would stop as I thought of my crush. Even back then young Ryo was a budding romantic. I don’t remember the girl’s name anymore, but if I close my eyes and listen to “She’s Always a Woman” I can still see her face in my mind. That’s the power of those young early crushes---they never go away. And that’s also the power of music, it can transport you back to any time in your life.

As my adolescence evolved, The Stranger was put away and forgotten for a long period of time. I wouldn’t truly revisit the album until I was in high school. Occasionally, I would hear “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)” on the radio and turn up the volume, but I didn’t even purchase my own copy of The Stranger until I was a freshman.

During my sophomore year of high school, “Vienna” played a significantly powerful part in my life. It was during this time of my teenaged youth that my mother and step-father were going through an ugly divorce, my sister and I were barely speaking to one another, and I was still trying to figure out my place in the world and where exactly I fit in. I had a few friends, but I was far from the Mr. Popularity that I desperately wanted to be. To add to those complications, I had discovered girls in a big, big way. Unfortunately, girls had yet to discover me, which was evident whenever I tried to engage them. 

I grew full of uncertainty and self-doubt. A teenager with low self-esteem and lots of doubt is a volatile combination to say the least. Fortunately, I was able to see a youth therapist during this dark period. He was a fantastic counselor and able to connect with me on a deep level. It was nice to have someone to visit on a regular basis, discuss the problems I was having that I couldn’t (or wouldn’t) discuss with my parents and get positive encouragement to work through the issues I was having. Shortly after being turned down by the latest lust of my life, Jen, I grew into a deep depression. What was wrong with me that all the girls I liked didn’t reciprocate the same feelings? I was just ready to give up on life. Talking through this depression with my counselor one evening, he brought up the song “Vienna” and asked if I knew it. I did know the song, and by that time I owned my own copy on cassette, but I never really paid much attention to that particular tune. He told me to go home and play “Vienna” a few times and really listen to the lyrics.

I took his advice and listened to “Vienna” on a regular basis over the next couple of weeks. The words in the music spoke to me as they had never before. Most likely because I was actually listening to them for the first time. The opening lines of “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?” slapped me right in the face. The later lyrics of “Slow down, you’re doing fine, you can’t be everything you want to be before your time” really drove the point home. I was trying too hard to make life happen instead of letting it develop around me. “Vienna” would be a theme song for me for the next few months and really helped to ground me and see life from a new perspective, one that I had never noticed before.

Winter breaks and summer months were fabulous as a teenager because they provided an opportunity to visit my father. He lived in Florida with my three half-brothers and I loved to visit them all. I especially enjoyed having time with my Dad. Our relationship was an odd one, mostly because my father was an alcoholic, but he did his best to love me in the way that he could. There were many a night when we would put “Only The Good Die Young” on the stereo at full blast and let it rip. We would play the song multiple times over and just jam out, singing as loud as we could as my brothers laughed at us for being so goofy. Those are some of my most cherished memories of my father and me.

“The Stranger” and “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” are two songs that I really got into while in high school. My high school years were the start of my journey into music discovery, as I tried to absorb different styles and types of music to find what would shape me and stay with me. In addition to the hair metal, hard rock, and modern pop hits of the day, I was discovering classic rock music. Billy Joel quickly became one of my favorite classic rock artists, and The Stranger became one of my favorite classic rock albums.

During this journey of discovery, I found “The Stranger” to be a different piece of music that struck me as brilliant. The opening piano riff followed by the lonely whistling made the song stand out. When the first verse kicks in with guitar and drums, the listener is hooked. As with most songs on the album, “The Stranger” has lyrics designed to make the listener think and analyze. As a young man with plenty of free time on my hands I liked to think and analyze. This album provided me with plenty of opportunity.

“Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” is one of the greatest “story” songs ever recorded. The tale of Brenda and Eddie from darling high school sweethearts to their eventual collapse is one that most failed young lovers can relate to. It is a fantastic song that stands the test of time. Even today, young listeners could relate to “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” and clearly see the picture Billy Joel painted in the song. Over 40 years later, this song still holds up.

Whenever I am feeling down, or just uncertain, I find myself revisiting this record. The Stranger seems to take me back to a safer place in my life. Even though I was young and full of drama and chaos, there are grand memories there. The Stranger helps to remind me what I’ve been through and overcome and serves as a confidence builder about what is yet to come. Having been through so much in life already, I am weathered and can handle anything that comes my way. And if I need to center myself, just for a moment, I can put this album on and ease myself back to calm. It’s always been an important record to me. From dance competitions, to young crushes, to centering and grounding myself, The Stranger has been a constant in my life. I imagine that it will continue to be so even well into my golden years.

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