Thursday, April 25, 2013

V is for Vienna

As we come nearer to the end of the alphabet, I hope it's not surprising to see me bend the rules of my theme more often.  This post isn't really about an artist, but about just one singular work, the song "Vienna" by Billy Joel.  That whole album, 1977's The Stranger, really is one of his best, but this post isn't about that, either.

I think this song is worthy of my "creative weirdness" tag because of both its music (it has a demented hurdy-gurdy kind of opening; Billy likened the chords to those of creepy Kurt Weil) and the lyrics.  Oh, those lyrics...
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?
Pretty much every line is an epigram.  When I first heard the song as a teenager, I was a bit confused by the way Joel alternated between irony and sincerity in the lyrics. There are places where he seems to mock the person he is addressing ("You know that when the truth is told, that you can get what you want or you can just get old") then later he makes it clear that kind of Type A thinking is just no damn good for you in the long run.  Don't I know it.

In an interview, Joel talked about visiting his long-lost father in Vienna, and seeing so many old people working in shops, sweeping sidewalks, and so on.  His dad told him that the elderly were valued there, and they're given things to do so they still feel useful.  That stuck with the young Piano Man, who kept this city in the back of his mind for years as a place that he could always return to when he was old...
You've got your passion, you've 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?
I kind of got a similar impression when I heard the song as a teen, but being a sci-fi/fantasy geek, I associated Vienna with Valinor, the mythical western paradise that J.R.R. Tolkien's elves sought out when they grew tired of their Type A lives in Middle Earth. :-)

But I suppose the deepest impression this song had on me was (don't laugh now) from an episode of the TV sitcom Taxi that was built around it.  The episode, appropriately titled Vienna Waits, was kind of a shocker at the time.  In the 70s, it was pretty rare to see true character development in an ongoing comedy series.  Sure, M*A*S*H's Henry Blake could die; kids could grow up and go to college, and so on, but it was usually obvious that there were "real world" reasons for the changes (actors wanting to leave, etc).  But major changes just because the story demands it?  So rare.

In the episode, platonic friends Alex and Elaine go on an impulsive trip to Europe, with Billy Joel's song playing in the background several times throughout.  There are ups and downs, and they form a much deeper bond than they'd ever had back home.  I think the writers realized that to end it there would be cheating the audience out of something special, so... they didn't end it there.  (I won't say any more to avoid too much of a spoiler.)

Anyway, this song just catapults me to a contemplative place whenever I hear it.  Play on, Mr. Joel!
Slow down, you crazy child,
and take the phone off the hook and disappear for a while.

It's all right, you can afford to lose a day or two.
When will you realize, Vienna waits for you?


  1. I think a Vienna coffee house circa 1900 would also be a great place to meet the sort of interesting people who would qualify for your A-Z list.

    Great post!

    1. Thanks! This makes me think of a familiar, bearded figure, lounging at a table. Leaning over to the person at the next table, saying "Zo... you had ze dream about cigars again, didst tu...?"

    2. Okay, I had tears in my eyes when I got to the end of the post because of what this song means to me and then I read your answer to Squid and I'm like, 'erase! erase!'

      Very hard to keep the original emotional response in its pristine state when hearing you do a 'Viennese' accent, Cyg.

    3. You should hear me do Schwarzenegger.

      But please, I'd like to know what the song means to you. Start a new comment sub-thread as if this one didn't exist...

  2. The Vienna fin de siecle coffee house scene played a huge role in Selden Edwards' The Little Book.

    Billy Joel has always impressed me as being one of the more thoughtful music acts. My appreciation was encouraged by my brother's obsession, so I had many occasions to listen to him.

    1. I hadn't heard of Selden Edwards before -- wow, getting a book published 30 years after starting to toil over it! The concept sounds pretty cool, too.

  3. Okay. Well, mostly this is a song that got me through some rough patches years ago when I was querying Music Major. That's when I first heard it, in 2010. I listened to it a lot. I mean a lot a lot. To the point where now just the opening trill on the piano is enough to feel tugs in opposing motions in my chest.

    I don't think of the lyrics as being alternately ironic and sincere. I think of them as being (pause) like a tousle to the hair, maybe? Kind of affectionate. I didn't know the meaning behind Vienna at all so was free to interpret it however I wished and so Vienna became a sort of Elysian field. Like no matter how challenging and heartbreaking things got on the road there, a victory, even if it was one the me that started the path was unable to recognize by the time I arrived, was waiting no matter what.

    It was like I told my mom once. Sometime we feel like the things that happen in life are this message of despair. Things are gonna suck and there's nothing we can do that's gonna change that. I felt like God told me one day, I have something extraordinarily, mind-blowing good in store for you and there's nothing you can do that's gonna change that.

    It's humbling. Because we want to retain agency. We want to fight. We want to push, scream, kick, make things happen, channel change, mold the universe.


    Vienna waits for you.

    1. I want to fight and mold. I know enough to see beyond temporary bouts of despair, but I'm also still waiting for that Word -- from above? from within? from the Mauve Zone? -- that sees even further.

      Maybe I'm waiting for Vienna.

    2. Vienna is liminal -- for the purposes of this exchange. It's the space between fighting and, for utter lack of a better word, surrender. It's neither. It's something else.

      Growing up in church, it was all about being a sinfested worm and bowing your face to the ground. There's a sense in which that is bullshit. There is glorious fighting and molding and clashing to be done. Bu there is also the Word.