Billy Joel didn’t have the easiest relationship with his father. Born in Nuremberg in 1923, Howard fled Europe with his family to escape the Nazis, marrying Billy’s mother Rosalind after they first met while working on a production of The Pirates of Penzeance in New York in 1942. Billy was born in 1949, growing up in a household filled with music.
“My father was my idol as a pianist as a kid, because he was classically trained and could read music,” Joel once said. “He would come home from work at General Electric and take Chopin and Bartok pieces and work through them laboriously; this was his entertainment. He could interpret them and make them sound as good as anything that was being played on WQXR radio or the records. But he thought he was never good enough; he never gave himself any slack. He said, ‘I’m a hack, I can’t play, I’m just doing it for me.’ And he’d say, ‘This is how I make my living in America: I work for G.E., and everything is plastic, American plastic.’”
Joel’s parents split up when he was eight, his dad moving back to Europe. The two men lost touch until Joel was in his early 20s, discovering that his father was living in Austria, “which I thought was kinda bizarre,” Joel later told an audience. “Because he left Germany in the first place because of this guy named Hitler — and he ends up going to the same place where Hitler hung out all those years.” But Howard loved his new life — he had remarried and had another son — and seemed happy to leave America and Billy behind. Howard would live out the rest of his days in Vienna. “He was never really happy because he didn’t become a musician,” Joel said the year after his dad died.
When Billy Joel is asked to name his favorites of his own songs, “Vienna” is often cited. This might strike some as odd. It was never a hit. It was never even a single. But it’s become beloved, not just by Joel. When the musician was on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert in 2017 and talked about “Vienna,” Colbert said it was his favorite. “I tend to like the album tracks, not the ones that are the hit singles,” Joel said during the interview, later noting, “We give the audience a choice [at my shows]: ‘You want “Vienna” [or] you want “Just the Way You Are”?’ They pick ‘Vienna.’”
The song is all over TikTok. It gets memed on Twitter. And it’s his most popular track on Spotify. Released in 1977 and inspired by a trip to see his father, “Vienna” has emerged as one of his most enduring tunes, a happy fate considering that Joel can be awfully dismissive of his big hits. (In a 2008 New York Times interview, he wrote off “Just the Way You Are” as merely “a wedding song.”) But I think one of the reasons why people respond to “Vienna” is that, unlike something like “Piano Man,” it hasn’t been shoved down our throats for the entirety of our lives. “Vienna” feels like something you get to discover on your own and then claim for yourself. A lot of Billy Joel’s songs are stories. “Vienna” has many narratives going on inside it.
Growing up, Joel and his dad disagreed about music. “My father was completely disparaging of pop music; he thought it was crap,” Joel told Billboard in 1994. “Popular music for him stopped when he got to the Big Band era.” It was a house that played a lot of Beethoven, whom he’s called the greatest composer ever, but he also loved the Beatles. “If there’s anybody I’ve modeled myself after, it’s Paul McCartney,” Joel said in a 1978 New York Times profile. “And it’s never been picked up on. I see critics compare me to Elton John, I see Harry Chapin, and I go ‘No, no, it’s McCartney.’”
He never considered himself a good-looking guy, proudly parading his blue-collar roots. He worked a lot of shit jobs, which gave him an appreciation for how everyday people respond to musicians. “[Those terrible jobs] gave me this amazing insight into how elitist a lot of people [in] music are,” he said in that same Times piece. “Most people aren’t pop stars; most people aren’t celebrities, and there’s this deification of people like that which I think is totally misplaced. I have a real cynicism about this whole star thing. I don’t think I’m so special — I just do what I do. I put myself down onstage, I kid around. I’ve read where that ‘cheapens my persona.’ But I do it because I want to de-myth-ify myself. ‘Hey, I’m a human being, just like the rest of you.’”
Joel’s stock-in-trade were songs about regular folks, a track like “Piano Man” chronicling the saga of a humble piano player and the ordinary people who populate the club where he performs. He’d had some success with his early records, but when it came time to make what would become 1977’s The Stranger, there was pressure on him to deliver the sort of hit album that would take him to the next level — otherwise, his label was probably going to drop him. Initially, Joel considered working with George Martin, the producer who’d helped sculpt the Beatles’ albums. But Martin didn’t want to record The Stranger with Joel’s longtime band, which was a dealbreaker for Joel. “Here I am passing on George Martin producing my album,” Joel would later recall. “So you gotta imagine a little red pencil going through my name on the record-company roster: ‘This guy’s nuts.’”
Instead, he went with Phil Ramone, who had produced Paul Simon’s 1975 Grammy-winning record Still Crazy After All These Years. “The role I played was kind of like the captain of the team,” Ramone said. “I doled out punishments — it was a crazy, lunatic group. There were times I’d throw out [ideas] and they’d say, ‘No way.’ They all had great opinions.”
In the mid-1970s, Joel represented a pleasing (or perhaps derivative) melding of several popular styles. He was a New York singer-songwriter who was more rock and Tin Pan Alley than the folk artists of Southern California. He had an air of sophistication that wasn’t as brainy as Paul Simon. He was jazzy without being as intricate as Steely Dan. He was more polished than Bruce Springsteen. Comparisons to Elton John were inevitable — they both played piano — but Joel had more of a love for classical music than John did. If you were a fan of those other artists, you probably would end up liking Billy Joel, too. “I’m a sponge for all kinds of stuff, I suppose,” he told the Times in 1978, later adding, “When people say I’m a perfect imitator, I say, ‘Who isn’t?’ You all come out of a certain era and make your little changes.”
But The Stranger was a catchy, more muscular collection of songs than any he’d written to that point, with Ramone bolstering the sound so that it felt timeless and dynamic. “Just the Way You Are” was a soft-rock anthem, “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)” was a song of youthful rebellion, “Only the Good Die Young” sported a cheeky sense of humor in a tale about Joel trying to sleep with a strict Catholic gal, and “She’s Always a Woman” was a tasteful piano ballad. The tracks were often written from the perspective of fictional characters, but Ramone pushed Joel to be vulnerable and to put more of himself into the vocals. “I would say, ‘When is Billy Joel going to show up?’” Ramone said in 2008. “You have to adapt [the character] to you.”
Littered with Top 40 hits, The Stranger peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard charts, winning two Grammys for “Just the Way You Are.” The album cemented Joel’s commercial standing, paving the way for a series of smash records well into the next decade. The Stranger also featured “Vienna,” which was the opening cut on the record’s second side. (It was also the B-side to “Just the Way You Are.”) The album flaunted Joel’s growing musical ambitions, perhaps most notably on the suite-like “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant,” a drama in three acts about old friends catching up and a high-school romance that wasn’t built to last. That song’s cinematic, genre-switching flair was accomplished and showy, but “Vienna” was its more muted counterpart, referencing the style of German composer Kurt Weill.
“The beginning of it and the end … is very Kurt Weill,” Joel would later say. “That kind of sick, middle-European, kinky, decadent thing.” A bit of accordion during the bridge gave the song an added sense of cosmopolitan brio. As for the lyrics, they were sung from the perspective of an older person advising a young listener.
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’d better cool it off before you burn it out
You’ve 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
Kick off before you even get halfway through
When will you realize
Vienna waits for you?
The relationship between the two characters in “Vienna” isn’t clear, but the singer wants to warn the younger person to appreciate life, not get so caught up in what he or she “should” have accomplished up to this point.
Slow down, you’re doin’ fine
You can’t be everything you wanna be
Before your time
Although it’s so romantic
On the borderline tonight, 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’ve got your passion
You’ve got your pride
But don’t you know
That only fools are satisfied?
But don’t imagine they’ll all come true
When will you realize
Vienna waits for you?
The verses came to Joel in the early 1970s when he toured Europe for the first time. As part of the trip, he wanted to try to make contact with his absent father. “I was looking for him,” Joel admitted. “I knew he had worked at a corporation in the States. I put the word out to the European subsidiaries and I got word back just as I was leaving to go back to the States. I got word that my father was working in an office in Vienna, Austria. I said, ‘Oh my God, he’s alive.’”
Howard sent money back to his American family when Joel was a boy, but father and son hadn’t spoken in more than a decade. Joel wasn’t sure how his dad would receive him. “I wanted to get some insight into how he thought,” he continued. “He was a very European man and didn’t have an easy time of it in America.” During their visit, the inspiration for “Vienna” hit him. “We were walking in the city and I remember seeing an old lady sweeping the street, and I said, ‘Dad, it’s kind of sad that that poor old woman has to do that kind of work.’ He said, ‘No, she has a job, she feels useful, she has a place in our society.’”
Joel was struck by his father’s observation. “I realized they don’t throw old people away like we tend to do here in the States,” the musician said. “They allow for people who are aged to have a useful place in the scheme of things, and I thought, ‘Y’know, that’s a good metaphor for someone my age to consider. You don’t have to squeeze your whole life into your 20s and 30s trying to make it, trying to achieve that American dream, getting in the rat race and killing yourself. You have a whole life to live. … [T]here is a reason for being old, a purpose.’”
For those unfamiliar with that backstory to “Vienna,” “When will you realize / Vienna waits for you?” might have seemed either ominous or romantic. Is Vienna a final destination to fear? Is it Heaven on earth? Is it something to look forward to? Or some sort of metaphorical purgatory? Joel intended it to be reassuring, an interesting position from a man who had devoted his life to becoming a musician, striving for the dream that his father let go by the wayside.
Joel followed up The Stranger with 52nd Street, which won the Grammy for Album of the Year. From there, he started working in a more focused, concept-driven way, fashioning a rock album (Glass Houses), a “State of the Baby Boomer” album (The Nylon Curtain) and a record that paid homage to the pre-rock era (An Innocent Man). He got divorced, married Christie Brinkley, got divorced again, and sold a ton of records. (Want to know how many? In a 2017 piece in The Atlantic, writer Adam Chandler notes that Joel has “sold more records in the United States than either Michael Jackson or Madonna.”)
The superstar hasn’t made a traditional pop record in nearly 30 years, and yet he still regularly sells out Madison Square Garden and is touring this summer. “One minute, I’m Mussolini, up onstage in front of 20,000 screaming people,” Joel observed in 2014. “And then, a few minutes later, I’m just another schmuck stuck in traffic on the highway.” When Joel was on Late Show, Colbert asked why he stopped releasing new material. Joel responded, “I thought I’d had my say. … I put out 12 albums, and how many albums the Beatles put out? 12 albums, right?” Colbert pointed out that Elton John, Joel’s old touring partner, suggested Joel should put out more albums. “Yeah, well, I told him he should put out less albums,” Joel quipped.
What’s funny, though, is that a song like “Vienna” has allowed Joel to, essentially, put out “new” music. The song has been part of his live show since the late 1970s, but despite never being a radio staple, it embedded itself in the culture in other ways. In modern times, that was chiefly through 13 Going on 30, the 2004 Jennifer Garner romantic comedy in which she plays an awkward teenager who, à la Tom Hanks in Big, longs to be a grownup. In one crucial scene, Garner’s adult character (who still has the soul of her teenage self) returns to her childhood home, with “Vienna” playing on the soundtrack to underscore her realization that maybe she shouldn’t have wished to fast-forward through her life.
In 2018, Vulture asked Joel to explain how “Vienna” had become such a sensation. “It took a good 15 to 20 years,” he replied. “I know it was in 13 Going on 30 with Jennifer Garner — that’s a movie that was popular with girls, and girls are who most of the enthusiasm for the song comes from. Beyond that, I’m not sure. It’s a coming-of-age song: ‘Slow down, you crazy child.’ So I guess it resonates with younger people.”
Joel’s comment might sound sexist, but there actually seems to be some truth to it. While you can certainly find men on social media reacting to “Vienna,” it definitely feels like the majority of posts are from young women. A common theme is them listening to “Vienna” in order to get emotional — or to remind themselves to take a breath and recognize that they have a whole life ahead of them. And 13 Going on 30 appears to have been the catalyst for many of these women’s fixation with the song. (In fact, when Christa B. Allen, the actress who played the younger version of Garner’s character, turned 30 herself last year, she did a series of videos about 13 Going on 30 that she titled “Vienna.”) Whether to elicit tears or bring a little comfort, “Vienna” waits for them.
After all those years apart, Joel subsequently forged a bond with his dad, whose son with his new family, Alexander, is a conductor. In that 1994 Billboard profile, Joel talked about the father he’d known growing up: “[H]e had a European sense of humor, which was very cynical, very sarcastic, very dark,” he said. “He would talk to me as if he was talking to someone his own age; he wouldn’t talk in a very condescending way, as parents do with young children. I didn’t always understand what he was talking about, but I thought I was being treated in a special way. And I remember him saying once that ‘life is a cesspool,’ which is a heavy thing to say to a young kid.” Appropriate, perhaps, for a son known for his combative personality — a performer taken to ending his shows in the 1980s with a defiant “Don’t take shit from anyone!”
Joel has performed on stage with his dad, who gave up on a music career in his youth. “The possibility was there,” Howard told Billboard, “but my father wanted me to do something serious. I became an engineer because that’s what he wanted. In those days, you did what the old man told you to do.” When Howard died on March 7, 2011, it seemed to profoundly affect Billy. Four days before Howard’s passing, his son’s website had publicized the arrival of The Book of Joel, a memoir that Billy was set to release in June. But in late March, Joel put out a statement announcing that the project had been shelved: “It took working on writing a book to make me realize that I’m not all that interested in talking about the past, and that the best expression of my life and its ups and downs has been and remains my music.”
But there were whispers that Howard’s death was a bigger factor than Joel was letting on. The New York Daily News reported, “Though Joel was estranged from his father, [a] source says, he was unable to attend the funeral because he is still recovering from double hip-replacement surgery in November.”
Whether or not Billy and Howard were actually estranged, some wondered if the aborted memoir would detail his relationship with his dad. But when Vulture asked him about Howard and that “life is a cesspool” comment, Joel sounded sympathetic to his father. “I don’t think hearing that [comment] colored my perspective [as a kid] but it did stick with me,” he said. Later, Joel added, “It’s sad — my old man got the shaft from life. His father was rich, and the Nazis took it all away. Then he had a kid who got rich and he couldn’t enjoy that either because he was too sick. My dad had tough times.”
In 2019, Joel participated in a video touting Vienna tourism, talking about the city’s rich history, his song “Vienna” and the fact that Austria’s capital was where Beethoven made his name. “My father was a pianist, and he would play Beethoven pieces on the piano at home,” Joel recalled. “My mother would play the Beethoven recordings on our record player. From early on, I always knew about Beethoven, felt Beethoven, heard Beethoven.” A love of Beethoven was something Joel and his dad would always share.
It’s been about 50 years since Joel reconnected with his father, walking around Vienna pondering the value of living to a ripe old age, not getting so wrapped up in the idea of being on an eternal treadmill trying to be a success. “It’s all right / You can afford to lose a day or two,” he sings on “Vienna.” You have to wonder if “Vienna” has ended up, for Joel, to be as much about his dad, who passed on the chance to have the life he’d really wanted. Joel became the superstar, although he was always blunt in his criticism of his own work. “I never felt like I was as good as I wanted to be,” he told Vulture. “My bar was Beethoven. … I remember reading a quote from Neil Diamond where he said that he’d forgiven himself for not being Beethoven. I read that and went, ‘That’s my problem: I haven’t.’ But I did the best I could. I don’t think I coasted.”
Joel’s big hits often come at you in all-caps. The ballads and the bangers both go for the jugular, shameless in their pursuit of your undivided attention. As a result, they can be exhausting. But “Vienna” is something different. It doesn’t grab you by the lapels — it’s elegant and restrained. It doesn’t feel like a single — it feels too modest by Joel’s often overblown standards, like an afterthought or an aside. Maybe that’s why it sneaks up on people. It sounds like Billy Joel, but it also doesn’t.
Did Joel conceive “Vienna” as his dad singing to him? Or Joel singing to himself? He wasn’t yet 30 when The Stranger came out, changing his life forever. There were still so many years to go. He got married for a fourth time in 2015, becoming a father for the third time two years later. He’s battled alcoholism and health issues. He’s known tough times. And now there are people in their 20s all over the world listening to “Vienna,” remembering that they’re young and that they don’t have to have everything figured out. Joel wrote them a song, but he didn’t tell them the ending: You never have that stuff figured out.