I was a KISS guy; those of you who have been around for a bit know that, and I was only a KISS guy. I turned 11 in 1977 and Steve turned 15, so we had to have been listening to some pop and rock radio by then, but I don’t recall much of it. I’m sure I was hearing some stuff I liked, but when I was allowed to buy my own 8-tracks from the beloved Columbia House, KISS was all I wanted, and KISS was all I got.
It was probably about ’76 when Steve started bringing home rock and roll. He would have been 14 then, and arena rock, theater rock, naturally attracted him. The first Boston album was released in ’76 and the second ’78–I didn’t realize what an insanely long period that was between albums back then–and I know we had the first one for a long time before the second one was released.
In ’77, he brought home Styx’s The Grand Illusion and Kansas’s Leftoverture–released late in ’76–and there was some jazzier rock like The Doobies, Chicago, and Steely Dan.
Bruce wouldn’t come until the end of the decade, nor would The Eagles, REO, Zeppelin, the Stones, Alan Parsons, Genesis, Supertramp, Jay Ferguson, Tycoon, The Kinks, or The Clash. All of that came from like ’79 to ’81, and all of that other stuff came in ’76 and ’77.
And then, right in the middle of it all, there was Billy Joel’s The Stranger.
Noting those three great factors on how we look at music–time, place, context–it is easy to see how people from different places, from different eras especially, can claim their favorite Billy Joel album to be his best, as he has such strong output throughout his career. I gotta tell you though, I can’t imagine thinking that any other album would be better than The Stranger, no matter where I was born, or when, or what situation I was born into.
And talk about your story songs; “Movin’ Out,” “Scenes from an Italian Restuarant,” and “Only the Good Die Young” are all here. And talk about your love songs and ballads: “She’s Always a Woman,” “Vienna,” and “Just the Way You Are” are all present, this last winning Grammy awards for both Song and Record of the Year.
And then you have the title track, which, as insane as it is to think or to say, might be the best of the whole bunch.
Still, for me the greatness of an album is better judged by looking at its lower points, and this one’s shine quite well. The other two tracks that are my least favorite, and neither of them is anywhere close to being a bad song. “Get it Right the First Time” could have been a hit if it had been released as a single, and “Everybody Has a Dream,” while it isn’t my favorite number is strong enough, and does what it is designed to do well enough, that it’s a favorite for many people.
And that is where I went today when it was time to stop listening to Tom Petty. I can’t remember which song drew me there; it might have been “Vienna.” That would have been more likely back in the day, but over the years my affinities for “The Stranger” have grown, and there’s no reason to think there’d be any reason to be drawn there for any song other than the one about the “Italian Restaurant,” and every time something leads me to stick “Movin’ Out” in that side room where we stick the songs we think have been played so much to have become cliche–sandwiched right between “Stairway” and “Crazy Train”–somebody plays that b again, and it smacks me in the face for forgetting to respect it.
The is so much album here. There is so much of a man’s soul, his passion, his perspective, his hopes and fears and laughs and tears, his faith and doubt, his joy and his pain.
A lot of the time in those days we picked up an album–perhaps by someone whose previous work we knew and perhaps not–and we would look for a singer/songwriter, even before those two words were so slash mark juxtaposed perhaps. Other times, we went looking for nothing in particular and that is what we found, a person who could take the pieces of his or her life and look at it in a way that lets us know that; time, place, and context aside; it doesn’t look much different than ours.
That’s where I was with this album, I think. But I didn’t know it. I just knew I liked the stories.
And Billy came to mind today because, like Tom Petty, I’ve never seen him in concert, and, well, none of us are getting any younger.
God bless ya, Billy Joel; you did many things remarkable many times, but when you and that group of folks that George Martin didn’t want to work with set to do this album, you did something that was as magical as anything of its time, something that helped to point us to a path that was going to get us further along.
And it’s good to see you here.