Song of the Day #316: ‘Vienna’ – Billy Joel

thestrangerIn the words of Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights, “This is it. This is the one they’ll remember me for.” Of course he was talking about a porn film, but I imagine Billy Joel feels the same way about his 1977 classic The Stranger.

The album contains only nine songs but just about every one is a classic. The first seven are undeniably so: ‘Movin’ Out,’ ‘The Stranger,’ ‘Just the Way You Are,’ ‘Scenes From and Italian Restaurant,’ Vienna,’ ‘Only the Good Die Young’ and ‘She’s Always a Woman.’ But the less ubiquitous final two tracks — ‘Get it Right the First Time’ and ‘Everybody Has a Dream’ — are just as strong.

‘Just the Way You Are’ gets knocked around a bit for being overly sentimental and MOR, but how many modern songwriters can say they’ve written a new standard that’s been covered by as many different people as that one?

This album was my family’s introduction to Billy Joel. Though I was only five at the time and don’t remember this incident, it is family lore that my mother came home one day and announced that she’d heard a great new artist named Billy Joe who we had to check out. The rest is history.

The Stranger contains two tracks that usually vie for the title of my favorite Billy Joel song ever — ‘Scenes From an Italian Restaurant’ and ‘Vienna.’ They are very different, the three-part jazz-pop suite of ‘Scenes’ in stark contrast to the straightforward earnestness of ‘Vienna,’ and together they sum up the range of Joel’s talent quite nicely.

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?
Where’s the fire, what’s the hurry about?
You better cool it off before you burn it out
You got so much to do and only
So many hours in a day

But you know that when the truth is told
That you can get what you want
Or you can just get old
You’re gonna kick off before you even get halfway through
When will you realize…Vienna waits for you

Slow down you’re doing fine
You can’t be everything you want to be
Before your time
Although it’s so romantic on the borderline tonight
Too bad but it’s the life you lead
You’re so ahead of yourself
That you forgot what you need
Though you can see when you’re wrong
You know you can’t always see when you’re right

You got your passion you got your pride
But don’t you know that only fools are satisfied?
Dream on but don’t imagine they’ll all come true
When will you realize
Vienna waits for you

Slow down you crazy child
Take the phone off the hook and disappear for a while
It’s alright you can afford to lose a day or two
When will you realize…
Vienna waits for you.

And you know that when the truth is told
That you can get what you want
Or you can just get old
You’re gonna kick off before you even get halfway through

Why don’t you realize…Vienna waits for you
When will you realize…Vienna waits for you

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4 thoughts on “Song of the Day #316: ‘Vienna’ – Billy Joel

  1. Amy says:

    First, I win :) (Dana and I had debated over which song you’d choose from this album)

    Second, thank you. I needed this song this morning. I only have so many hours in a day, and it’s good to be reminded of that from time to time.

    There is no better song to remind me of that fact that this one. Not only is this my favorite Billy Joel song, but it’s one of a handful of my favorite songs ever. Surely, it’s the simplicity of its reassuring message that most speaks to me, along with Joel’s plaintive delivery and, what is that? – an accordian creating that “Vienna” sound in there?

    The thing is – when I listen to this song, even though there is no promise that I will ever get to “Vienna” – despite the fact that I believe Joel that it will wait for me, I no longer care. Vienna ceases to be the point. Taking the phone off the hook and disappearing for a while seems enough. And he manages to accomplish this while presenting the contradictory philosophy in the SAME SONG – He tells me to slow down, that I’m doing fine, then asks if I realize that only fools are satisfied? Am I doing fine or am I a fool? Again – by the time the song is finished – I don’t care. I feel better :)

    Maybe Up’s Ellie was listening to this song as she finally put her scrapbook together all those years later. I find it a poignant image.

  2. Dana says:

    Yes, Amy wins:)…I was betting you would pick “She’s Always A Woman” so you could talk about the controversy surrounding the song with the accusations of misogynism. My second choice was Only the Good Die Young, which also had criticism coming from the Catholic church. It’s interesting how times have changed, as I doubt these songs would stir any controversy today, as it generally takes Eminem rapping about raping his own mother or killing his wife in front of his son to raise the temperature on public outcry.

    Anyway, there is not much more I can say about this album or this song that hasn’t already been said. As for the seemingly conflicting message of the song, I don’t see it that way at all. The unmotivated “fool” with no ambition doesn’t need to be told to slow down—it is rather the passion driven artist, or the “A” type personality who must seek the balance to appreciate the quieter moments and the simpler pleasures of life.

    The message reminds me of a similar sentiment I once heard to the effect that a person on his death bed rarely bemoans not having worked harder or more hours, but instead is saddened by not spending more time with family, traveling more, etc..More recently, Russell in the wonderful film Up captured this sentiment beautifully when he talks about missing his dad, recalling “like just sitting on the curb, I counting the blue cars, he counting the red ones. It’s the boring stuff I remember the most.”

    While nobody would ever mistake me for an “A” type personality:), I have always tried to live the philosophy of Vienna. As I spend my day fervently completing a motion for summary judgment that is due today, I look forward to spending my birthday weekend taking the phone off the hook and disappearing to the sanctuary of my backyard (weather permitting) joined by friends and family who I love.

    I recognize that Vienna will wait for me.

  3. pegclifton says:

    This is one of my favorite albums ever, and we still own the vinyl that we bought all those years ago when I “discovered Billy Joe”. I am moved by all of your comments, and know that Vienna waits for all of you.

  4. Kerrie says:

    Maybe it was because I read the comments first, but listening to this song today (one of my favorites, too, by the way), made me cry like a baby. There is always so much going on and it never feels like I can afford to lose a day or two. Now that classes are over, it feels more possible, but usually I’m frantic. The message of the song is not lost on me…
    So, as I, too, enter my birthday weekend, I’d like to propose a toast (if you will) to Vienna waiting for all of us. Maybe some day we can plan a group trip… :-)

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