She’s Always Woman:
Billy Joel has been there with me during Middle School as my friends and I embarrassingly sang “Piña Colada” on our walks home, and any day we got caught in the rain. By my side, he trudged on through Highschool with me as I rocked out on the air piano to “Piano Man”, mostly on days when were all in the mood for a melody. He’s also walked the streets with me on my city endeavors, and the head banging trips I’d have to take on Public Transit to Chinatown or on the Riverside. Some folks like to get away, take a holiday, and when listening to “New York State of Mind”, I would get so entranced, that I could’ve accidently taken the Greyhound on the Hudson River line for all I knew. However, Billy Joel was only his top hits to me during these accounts, nothing more.
All was changed when my father left the TV on after he finished listening to another one of his Phil Collins marathons.
(PSA: who is also another musician who I would gladly give my Kidney to if ever needed)
It was on those long forgotten, oddly numbered, Music Choice channels where I heard that instant and distinct drum, saxaphone and guitar tune. This unfortunately caused me to run into the living room, half screaming and half singing “Anthony works in the grocery store”, possibly terrifying the neighbors, alongside Billy Joel in “Moving Out”. It was all fun and games until after, I heard one of the most hauntingly beautiful piano sounds, followed by an even more eerie and melodic whistle. Before I had time to process “The Stranger”, the song picked up with a fierce beat that ultimately transitioned into an almost full on hard-rock melody, only to end my entrancement with that original whistle and piano tune again. It was too late by then, I had fallen in love with this album, and boy did I fall hard.
Joel is noted to have gained influence from early rock’n’roll and rhythm/blues artists, like The Beatles and The Four Seasons. Therefore, while Turnstiles is considered to be Joel’s “growing up” album after having left California and returning to New York City, The Stranger includes lyrical and instrumental pieces that stirs the soul, while simultaneously tugging on the heart strings of many. As his fifth studio album, far surpassing the moderate chart successes of past albums in the mid 70’s, Joel exclusively wrote all of the material, alongside Phil Ramone (introduced by Columbia Records) who is credited for adding the innovative production methods and twists to most of the unique song compositions found within the album. The whistling melody in “ The Stranger” was actually originally planned to be played by a clarinet, however, it was thanks to Mr. Ramone who convinced Joel to use the whistle tune, after having performed it for Mr. Joel in rehearsal. Having reached #3 on the pop charts and covered by many artists, including Frank Sinatra, “Just The Way You Are” was actually a painful reminder of Joel’s past wife, interestingly leaving him with uncertainties on whether or not the song should’ve been included in the album. “She’s Always a Woman”, another one of my favorites, is a lovely “waltz”, played with a “deep and melodic” piano line, and is described as a love song about a “modern woman with quarks and flaws”.
Now while the whistle bit may have originally hypnotized me in “The Stranger”, alongside the stunning, swoon-inducing, voice of Joel in “She’s Always a Woman”, it is the beginning piano tune and the powerfully moving lyrics in “Vienna” that still unmeasurably captivates me with every listen to this day. As of no surprise to me, in a 2008 New York Times article, Joel cited Vienna as one of his two favorite songs, along with “Summer, Highland Falls” as well. Found on The Stranger album’s second side, “Vienna” was said to have been inspired by Joel’s brother, Alexander Joel, but also by his father who Mr. Joel had actually gone to Vienna in order to visit.
“Why did I pick Vienna to use as a metaphor for the rest of your life? … Vienna, for a long time was the crossroads. During the Cold War, between the Eastern Bloc, the Warsaw Pact nations and the NATO countries was the city of Vienna… Vienna was always the crossroads – between the Ottoman Empire and the Holy Roman Empire. So the metaphor of Vienna has the meaning of a crossroad. It was a place where cultures co-mingled”
In the interview, he continues on to mention that after observing an elderly woman cleaning up the streets of Vienna with a strong purpose in mind, he was inspired for new lyrical piece. Acording to Billy Joel, as compared to the elderly who are put in homes or devalued in our Western side of the country, he won’t have to worry as much about getting old if it’s within Vienna. Joel stated that he can still have a use in this world even in his old age because Vienna will always be waiting for him, as it was for that elderly woman he noticed and admired. It’s difficult to find the words that properly describe the meanings of reassurance and weight this song holds for me. However, I am profoundly thankful to have such a beautifully poetic view of a place, one I’ve never set foot on, and one of which feels like a distant home within my mind that I long to visit.
Having now collected a bit of a large collection and array of different music genres in my arsenal throughout the years, very few songs genuinely move me. To the right listener, “Vienna” is one of those songs that can significantly shape the way in which you view the world. Through Billy Joel’s experiences and hardships in his life that has led to creation of the pure quality in his music, and the success he’s reached, I was able to gain influence in the forms of music that I searched for and was inspired by later in life. Ranging from classic artists/bands like Billy Idol, Metallica, the Bee Gees, Bill Withers to new artists like Keane, Kid Cudi, Muse, Ben Howard and many more to come, Joel has paved the Yellow Brick Road for me in the never-ending pursuit of powerful music from soul-bearing, heart-on-their-sleeve wearing artists.
-Cindy W. Rodriguez
Disclaimer: You will play this album or select songs on repeat for a few days. However, these side effects are completely normal. If you don’t experience these symptoms, please schedule an appointment with your local PCP for a routine Ear Examination as soon as possible.