For my group of friends in high school, Billy Joel’s “The Stranger” was THE album. We all knew every word to every song by heart; we all owned multiple copies because there was some kind of manufacturing defect that sooner or later created a skip near the end of “Just the Way You Are,” same spot for all of us, we talked about writing a letter to the record company but we never got around to it. At the lunch table where we sat, hangers-on to the sports clique who’d banded and bonded into our own group, we discussed which was the best song (“Scenes from an Italian Restaurant”) and which the worst (“Get It Right the First Time,” what was he thinking?)  and how Billy’s father actually lived in Vienna so what did that mean in relation to the song and whether it was a mistake that the “bottle of white, bottle of red” section at the end of “Italian Restaurant” was sung so differently than at the beginning. (One of my friends had strong opinions about that.) For those of us who were lucky enough to have girlfriends, “Just the Way You Are” was our song.

Later, after we turned 18 and were able to drink and have parties (we were not among the cool kids who’d started going to parties in our early teens) we would put the album on at the end of these parties and sing along, do rock star moves into fist microphones, use pool cues for guitars, crash against each other and punch our arms in the air as we harmonized “only the good..die young!”

One Christmas break we were all home, hanging out in a bar early on a weeknight, when we started chatting with another group of guys from high school. We sort of knew them individually, through classes or sports, but we didn’t know they hung out together, had no idea they’d banded and bonded too. Perhaps they had no idea we had.

Anyway, they invited us to come to one of their houses, someone’s parents were away on a Christmas week cruise, so we said sure and made a quick liquor store stop (a six-pack each was the accepted per-person unit then) and headed over. It was strained at first, a party with no girls and eight guys half of whom didn’t know each other that well, but there was a foosball table in this kid’s basement and we had our beers and he had a pretty good record collection and eventually we found ourselves having a good time.

They were having a good time too and sometime a little past midnight one of the guys from the other group shushed everyone and pulled out a record. They all seemed to know what was going on; they lined up on one side of the basement, and then the music started and suddenly they were all playing air piano and air guitar and bopping their heads like maniacs and then they came in really close as though sharing a microphone and began to sing:

     Sirens are screaming and the fires are howling
     Way down in the valley tonight…

By the end of the song they were screaming about being torn and twisted at the foot of a burning bike and being bats out of hell. Even though we were all drunk it was still a little horrifying to watch but they didn’t seem to care if we were watching. They caught their breaths during the spoken intro to the next song but joined right in again when the vocal came around.

“Noose,” my friend Abb whispered over to me (it was our thing to refer to each other by the first syllable of our last names, that mine happened to be a death rope only added to the hilarity), “Noose, Meatloaf is their Joel!”

There was wonder in his voice, like it had never occurred to him that someone else could have the same connection to the music we had, and maybe a little resentment too, like it had never occurred to him that someone else could have the same connection to the music we had. Thinking back, I like to think there was also a recognition of what a gift this was, is.     

Billy Joel The Stranger HIGH RESOLUTION COVER ART