I can’t believe this album affected me so much. I was only one when it came out, but this album cover and its title song left me with a fear that will live on forever.
Looking back on Billy Joel, one would not equate the feeling of fear with this man nor his music. Maybe melancholy and sentimentality, but not fear. With that said, the album, The Stranger, is one that I would liken to Billy’s dark period. Even as I am older, the spookiness is obvious. First, the cover of the album is not something a young child should ever see. It shows Billy on a unkept bed looking down on a disembodied, sort of realistic mask of the female persuation on a pillow. I think this vision was the catalyst for my nightmare fantasy. Mr. Joel trumps that phantom image with the most haunting audio born, from the title song, The Stranger.
This necromancer begins with whistling. Not cheerful whistling, which is mostly the case in the world of whistling, but a lonely whistle that seems to come out of the dark and echo off jagged buildings of a misty alley where perhaps Jack the Ripper is lurking. The whistling was all I needed to hear before I would go into hysterics.
I remember sitting in a late 1970s apartment of one of my mom’s friends. I can vaguely visualize a gold metal and glass shelf and the lights were kind of yellow (there’s a Steeley Dan aura here). I somehow recall hearing the frightful whistling of The Stranger and then everything fades to black. I know I cried. I think my mom had to come get me or made her friend change the song…I’m not sure if my Stranger song fear was known at that time.
Now it may seem that I never got past the whistling part of Billy Joel’s ominous opus and I have to admit, I didn’t get past it for awhile, but other parts of The Stranger are unsettling as well. After the eerie whistling, hell bound demon guitars burst into a wail that could accompany the spidery dance of dainty limbed devils with pointy hooves. And if that isn’t enough, Billy, in his new york state of mind and accent, sings about “Tha Strang-yah” with a wicked tone. There is a part in this song (the bridge?) where he goes all light and high, but I didn’t let it fool me, I knew that in the end the stranger would be there to kick me right between the eyes.
I wish I could say that as I got a little older, things evened out a bit and I was able to get over the evil lurking behind this album, but that’s not how this story goes. I had been potty trained for a few years, but my grandmother was complaining to my mom that I kept wetting myself instead of using the bathroom. She told my mom that when she asked me why I wasn’t using the bathroom all I would say is that The Stranger was in there. At the time, my mom had no clue as to what I was talking about. Finally it occured to them to ask me who The Stranger was. My grandmother had a vase in her bathroom that was a ceramic lady’s head adorned with a hat and a hole in the top of her head for fake flowers (my grandma was a kid in the depression — buy something that lasts). The scariest thing about the lady head vase was that her eyes were closed. You never knew when she might open them. In the shadows of my occult memory I remember staring at the faux painted talisman waiting for her to open her eyes wide as if to say, “Aha! I caught you!” My most demented thought was that she was whispering (no, not whistling) through those hardened lips. All while maintaining her sleeping frozen facade in an attempt to lull me into a false sense of security.
Upon the knowledge of my horror, my sweet Grams promptly took The Stranger lady vase out of the bathroom and I was free to use the bathroom without having the bejesus scared out of me. Years later, I was in her downstairs pantry my grandfather made for her and behind some canned sweet pickles was The Stranger lady vase and her mysterious eyelids. It startled me for a second and I laughed it off, but I was still a little creeped out that she was still in the house.