Posted on November 26, 2011 at 9:32 pm

Billy Joel’s LP The Stranger was released at the end of September, 1977, and I’d guess it made its way to our house in Rockland County about two months later, presumably because my mom or dad was into “Just The Way You Are” or “She’s Always A Woman.” (They didn’t buy many records when I was a kid; in fact, the only other one I can recall showing up around this time was Barbra Streisand’s Greatest Hits Volume 2.) Which means that my life was changed some time around the beginning of 1978, although I don’t remember any specific moment of discovery; at some point, I just started listening to The Stranger and never stopped.

I’m not sure it’s my favorite Billy Joel album (that’s probably 52nd Street) and I don’t even know if it’s the best collection of his songwriting (I might vote for The Nylon Curtain), but to me, it’s the most elemental, definable, quintessential LP he ever released, sort of the ur-Billy. And in terms of me looking back to figure out how I turned into the songwriter I am now, I think that The Stranger – with its warring impulses of blue-collar rock versus Tin Pan Alley sophistication, art-rock ambition versus Baroque intimacy, slick and polished production versus rambunctious and ragged playing – comes closest to predicting the kind of work I ended up doing and loving.

For the last couple of months, I’ve been deep in writing three different shows, spitting out songs as quickly as I can. When I went down to my studio yesterday to write yet another piece for The Bridges of Madison County, I felt that I needed a break; I needed, if only for a minute, to engage with some music that wasn’t my own. And so, having already reckoned with two of my musical heroes on this blog (Paul Simon and Stephen Sondheim), I thought that perhaps the time had come to reckon with Billy Joel, and maybe even to try and connect with not just one song but in fact an entire artistic statement.

Who knows whether I’m going to follow through and finish this, but my plan is to record every song on The Stranger, in order; me singing and playing everything. I don’t want to spend much time on any given track, it’s really more about following an initial impulse that springs up based on thirty-four years of living and breathing this material. I’m less interested in my own performance than in the musical give-and-take I feel when confronting these iconic creations. And since my GarageBand setup is fairly primitive, I’m not going to go nuts about the audio quality.

“Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)” is actually a tricky one to start with. For a variety of reasons, it’s not my favorite track on the album – it’s the sloppiest lyric (in the first verse, “some day” is supposed to rhyme with “country” and wind up with “money”; for a writer as meticulous as Joel usually is, this is mystifying), it doesn’t have a bridge, there’s that whole “Cadillac-ac-ac-ac-ac” thing which I couldn’t do without feeling like an idiot… But most significantly, there’s the “attitude” thing. The fans know what I mean, and so do the detractors. What creeps into Billy Joel’s work from time to time is a snarl, an assertion that he’s “hard” or “street,” an insistence that he is a real Rock guy. (The legendary rock critic Robert Christgau refers to it as the “spoiled brat” thing, and while I don’t agree with Christgau much, that’s a pretty accurate assessment.) His anger is genuine, and I recognize a kindred rage even without having met the guy, but the songs in which he expressed that anger by “rocking out” feel, to me at least, considerably less honest than when he writes more sophisticated or gentle music. It’s not that “Movin’ Out” or “You May Be Right” or “Pressure” aren’t good songs; they’re very well realized and smartly constructed pieces of craftsmanship. But they don’t resonate for me the way so much of his other work does, and trying to find that resonance is part of what this project is about. It was a challenge to find my own way to that attitude, my own organically honest version of the “spoiled brat” thing, but I think I got there eventually, and in so doing, I gained a different perspective on the song. It’s not just a wry lyric, it’s also a real groove, and ultimately it was a lot of fun putting this together.

I don’t sing as high as Billy does, so I took the song down a minor third; and I sped the tempo up considerably. Ultimately, it ended up having a kind of Latin feel, and I also think that the handclaps lend it a kind of “Slip Kid” vibe (we’ll get to my Pete Townshend obsession another year).

So here’s the first of my attempts to reckon with The Stranger and, by extension, to reckon with the work of possibly my most direct and obvious influence. I’m hoping that this “conversation” with Billy Joel’s work ends up reverberating in unexpected ways through my own writing.

Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)
Music and lyric by Billy Joel (1977)
Jason Robert Brown: piano, percussion and vocal
Recorded at Casa JRB, Los Angeles, CA, 11/25/11

Follow me on Twitter, if you have nothing better to do with your valuable time. I’ll alert you there as to when the next track is ready (probably in a couple of weeks).
UPDATE: The next track is now posted here!