As Fogelberg tells it on his official website, the song is totally autobiographical. He was visiting family back home in Peoria, Illinois in the mid-'70s when he ran into an old girlfriend at a convenience store.
After Fogelberg's death from prostate cancer in 2007, the woman who he wrote the song about came forward with her story. Her name is Jill Greulich, and she and Fogelberg dated in high school when she was Jill Anderson. As she explained to the Peoria Journal Star in a December 22, 2007 article, they were part of the Woodruff High School class of 1969, but went to different colleges. After college, Jill got married and moved to Chicago, and Dan went to Colorado to pursue music. On Christmas Eve, they were each back in Peoria with their families when Jill went out for egg nog and Dan was dispatched to find whipping cream for Irish coffee. The only place open was a convenience store at the top of Abington Hill, at Frye Avenue and Prospect Road, and that's where they had their encounter. They bought a six pack of beer and drank it in her car for two hours while they talked.
Five years later, Jill heard "Same Old Lang Syne" on the radio while driving to work, but she kept quiet about it, as Fogelberg also refused to reveal her identity. Her main concern was that coming forward would disrupt Fogelberg's marriage.
Looking at the lyrics, Jill says there are two inaccuracies: She has green eyes, not blue, and her husband was not an architect - he was a physical education teacher, and it's unlikely Fogelberg knew his profession anyway. Regarding the line, "She would have liked to say she loved the man, but she didn't like to lie," Jill won't talk about it, but she had divorced her husband by the time the song was released.
The single was released about eight months ahead of the album, which was certified double platinum. The Innocent Age
is a concept album consisting of a song cycle describing the many stages of life from cradle to grave.
"Auld Lang Syne
" is a traditional song that is often sung on New Year's Eve. That's the reference in the title.
The melody phrase at the beginning of each verse ("Met my old lover at the grocery store...") was taken by Fogelberg from Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture." (To get the effect, just sing that lyric twice, slightly speeded up. Maybe add a few fireworks explosions for good measure.) This song is one of several Pop tunes that have phrases or entire melodies ripped off from classical composers - Paul Simon's "American Tune" (from J.S. Bach), Billy Joel's "This Night" (from Beethoven), among others.
When Fogelberg started writing this song, he considered it "a joke," essentially laughing at himself as he looked back on the fateful encounter at the convenience store. When he finished the song, he realized it was an important one so he saved it for his album The Innocent Age. It ended up being his best-known song, exemplifying the gentle but very emotional stories his lyrics portrayed.
In late 2007, Fogelberg died at age 56 due to prostate cancer.
Fogelberg performed this song long before he recorded it, including at benefit shows for Colorado senator Gary Hart, who would later be a top presidential candidate before getting caught in a sex scandal.
In 2008, Abingdon Street in Peoria, which was the location of the convenience store where the events of this song took place, was designated "Fogelberg Parkway" in honor of the singer.
This was released as a single in December 1980. Fogelberg's record company expected the album to follow soon after, but the singer had an epiphany when he sat down to sequence it on New Year's Eve: it should be a double album with a "song cycle" starting with nostalgia and coming up to the present. Fogelberg spent another six months writing new songs.
When "Same Old Lang Syne" peaked on the Hot 100 at #9 in February 1981, there was no album for fans to rush out to buy, which drove the record company nuts. Finally, the album emerged in August with "Lang Syne" the last song on the first disc. The wait was worth it: Three more singles were released, each making the US Top 20, and the album sold over two million copies.
Smooth jazz giant Michael Brecker played soprano saxophone on this song. His part is featured in the ending, and is an improvised, jazzy snippet of the classic holiday tune "Auld Lang Syne." Brecker died of leukemia (a blood cancer) in January of 2007 at age 57.