Graded on a Curve:
Billy Joel,
The Stranger

If I don’t like this album, it’s not because I don’t like but this album. No, I don’t like it because it provokes flashbacks of one of the more distressing episodes of my traumatic adolescence. You see, the year it came out I presented it to my first ever girlfriend on her birthday. Less than a week later, she dumped me.

I would like to be able to report I handled her rejection with dignity and aplomb. Instead I went out and got smashing drunk for the first time in my life, and came to the next morning on a moldy mattress in the garage of some kid I didn’t know from Adam. Let’s just call him The Stranger.

Trauma aside, I rather liked Billy Joel’s The Stranger when it came out in 1977. I thought it, in fact, quite the sophisticated work of art. Greenhorn that I was–I grew up amidst pig farms in a small town with one traffic light in the sticks of South Central Pennsylvania–I considered it “worldly,” and if there was one thing I aspired to, it was worldliness.

Take “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant.” Not only had I never been inside an Italian restaurant, I couldn’t have told you where to even find an Italian restaurant, unless you counted the Pizza Hut in nearby Gettysburg or the greasy, hole-the-wall pizza joint next to the 7-11 at the northern limits of my hometown. Mr. Piano Man, on the other hand, seemed to know everything there was to know about Italian restaurants. Urbane fellow that he was, he even knew that wine came in both red and white. What a revelation! I thought it only came in Boone’s Farm Strawberry.

And if that’s not enough to prove Billy’s a man of the world there’s a song on The Stranger called “Vienna,” which at the time I thought was in Italy. It’s quite the classy number, too; opens up just like a piano étude. And then there’s the title track, which he may well have swiped from Albert Camus and how intellectual is that? True, the only lines I could relate back in the day were the ones that went, “Then I came home to a woman/That I could not recognize/When I pressed her for a reason/She refused to even answer.” Heartbroken swain that I was, I know exactly what he was talking about.

Like all your really hip sophisticate types Billy knows how to charm the ladies, as he proves on the lovely “Just Like a Woman.” It may not stand up to Bob Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman,” but it’s haunting and comes complete with a great sax break and I cried every time I heard it for a solid year because it made me think about the girl I’d loved and lost, damn her to hell. He also works his romantic magic in “Just the Way You Are,” with its jazzy feel and background vocals that come straight outta 10cc’s “I’m Not in Love.” And get this: Billy swears it came to him in a dream!

But if you’re thinking Billy sounds all grown up on The Stranger, you’re wrong. He’s also a snotty punk degenerate, as he demonstrates on “Only the Good Die Young,” the basic rhetorical thrust of which is “you’re going to lose your virginity to somebody, so why not make that somebody me”? Doesn’t much see the point of bustin’ his hump for the legal tender, either–as he sings on “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song),” all it’ll get you is a heart attack ack ack ack.

As for final two songs on the B side, they’re filler. I wasn’t even going to listen to “Everybody Has a Dream” given its shit title, but then I remembered I get paid to listen to songs with shit titles. So I put the needle down, noted the ghastly church organ and unctuous gospel choir, and promptly hurled the LP out the window. I don’t get paid that much.

The Stranger will always remind me of an episode that I would much sooner forget, and I still can’t look at its cover without twinge of whinging self-pity. It will also always remind me of a creative variant on male masturbatory act and a novel I’ve never quite understood. But the music on it is pretty good. And I say that knowing that plenty of people hate Billy Joel. Kinda makes me feel like starting a 12-Step group for closeted Joel fans.

Step One: Admitted that we were powerless over the Piano Man, and that our listening habits were abhorrent to most cool people.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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