“Better to illuminate than merely to shine, to deliver to others contemplated truths than merely to contemplate.” ~ St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae II-II q. 188 a. 6 co.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Soichin' for Sumthin': Billy Joel's Dip in the River

I took off two months from blogging in order to move. Now I'm back at it with a post that I did not see coming. I have a list of topics that I can hardly wait to tackle, but the surprise ideas are really fun, too. Billy Joel's 1993 hit "The River of Dreams" came out 21 years ago today and the artist's current US tour just wrapped up. So the time is right. Let us go down to the river together.


The first time I ever listened to Billy Joel on purpose was last week. I was a little kid when he was really popular and my parents were decidedly not fans, preferring instead the likes of Tom Petty and Dire Straits. Thus, my only brushes with Joel were in high school when my boyfriend memorized "We Didn't Start the Fire" and summertime in college after every single shift at P.F. Chang's when my drive home inexplicably coincided with "Piano Man" being played on the radio. (I still smell soy sauce whenever I hear that song.)

But I accidentally quoted him to a friend which inspired her to send me this audio clip (included below) in which Joel describes the inspiration behind "The River of Dreams." Full disclosure: I don't love this song and I mostly think about The Lion King as I listen to it. Yet this monologue is perfect fodder for my blog (the relevant part starts at 3:09):

This is my favorite kind of thing. God comes to us even when we're not looking for Him and sprinkles the seeds of "good infection," as C.S. Lewis called it. Billy Joel was raised in a non-practicing Jewish family and occasionally attended Catholic Mass with his friends when he was a kid. At the age of 11, he was baptized in a Church of Christ (Hat tip to Wikipedia). Bingo. What's the "something sacred I lost"? There it isbaptismal grace. He says repeatedly in the lyrics and in interviews about the song that he doesn't know what it is, but it's clear that he has a deeply felt sense of it. And it's even more clear that the sacred thing is to be found in the visuals that haunt his imagination: they are Biblical, and they are specifically Baptismal.

Joel knows that he is preoccupied with something beyond him, beyond his comprehension. I think that is what fuels his desire to add a chant preface to the song. He says he wrote a lyric about a man who has lost his faith and wanted to translate it into Latin. He knows that Latin has a special place in religious worship. But because it is not something that he himself practices, he calls this impulse "pretentious." He's reaching out and up to something beyond, and then loses heart at the thought that it is not for him. He's not that kind of guy. He doesn't want to pose as if he is. He doesn't want to be ridiculed by those that know him. So he drops it.

I noticed the same thing going on with him in this video from his 1993 Saturday Night Live appearance. While singing "River of Dreams," he pronounces the lyric comically: "I was soichin' for somethin'," as if to say, I'm not taking this too seriously"God knows I'm not a spiritual man," and all that. His body language throughout the video betrays the same attitude. Also, he avoids most of the high notes from the original recording as if he's slightly embarrassed of them. But, as if to compensate for this timidity, he shows off his musical cred by playing a few very challenging classical pieces between practice takes. He is the Piano Man, after all.

Similarly, in the interview clip, he says that he did not want to write a song with three chords. It's been done to death and again he is worried about his imageabout being original. Again I think of Lewis:
Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it (Mere Christianity).
Happily, Billy Joel's apprehension is defeated by truth. This idea really came to him. He really had a dream that showed him these things and inspired these words. He must tell that story. I love that an experience in real watersinging in the showercontributes so much to the development of the song. The shower seems to function as a figment of the very thing that he has lost and has been searching for. It mortifies his self-consciousness in order to let the truth of the experience shine through him. He even uses the language of death to describe it. As he was lathering up and listening to the echo, he overcame his embarrassment over the triteness of the three-chord progression and pretentiousness of a non-spiritual man writing a spiritual song: "I was a dead duck." In another interview, he says, "I was toast." The song transcended him. It made itself known. It was a good song with a very good message. Ultimately, its goodness came from God. "All that is good comes from God" (James 1:17). As Joel puts it, "I got religion in the shower! I don't know what happened!" 

 And so, in spite of the artist himself, "River of Dreams" came to be. He says, "I didn't know why I was writing the things I was writing. But if you're a writer and you get an idea, heygo with it, you know?" What a great way to describe Divine inspiration. The word "get" even implies a giver. His prefession of atheism seems a little rocky at this point. At the end of the audio clip, Joel says,
It was this spiritual... thing. And I mean those things happen all the time. I know they happen with artists. Artists can kinda tune into that sometimes, even though we don't know we're tuning into it we're there. We have our hands in something and we don't know what it is. But there's an awful lot of spirituality to it.
Isn't this awesome? Here is Billy Joel struggling to articulate Tolkien's much more developed idea of the artist as "subcreator." When I learned that model Christy Brinkley"ex number two at the time"painted the artwork for the album, I wondered if there might be more glimmers of God shining through the artist...

As Joel rightly says, "A river is a religious icon." (This one happens to be from my family's own Little Oratory.)  But did Brinkley deliberately render her husband's "stream of consciousness" as a religious icon? That's what it looks like! But again, at least according to this interview that she gave, the artist does not fully grasp what she was inspired to create. Consider the similarities between these two images. First of all, Billy Joel's shoulders and head fit the shape of the Jordan River. Next, the trees and mountains are basically in the same place. John the Baptist seems to be mirrored by the leopard. Angels attend nearby and the placement of the bright orb (the moon?) is very near the placement of the Holy Spirit, both streaming light upon the subject. The colors are all very similar, yet somewhat inverted. Finallyand I may be going too far heredo you see how much the facial features of Billy Joel resemble the torso of Christ?? Whoa! God seems to be calling very loudly to these two, "Get thee to a baptistry!" Or, at least in the case of Billy Joel or someone else who has already been baptized, get thee to a confessional in order to enjoy the Sacrament of baptismal renewal. It is there that Joel, Brinkley, and all of us can find and have restored the "sumthin' sacred" we've lost: the state of grace. 

The last stanza of the song begins:
I'm not sure about a life after this / God knows I've never been a spiritual man
Baptized by the fire, I wade into the river / That runs to the promised land
One Christ-haunted night, Billy Joel waded in. Will he follow the river where it runs? Will he continue to dip into these cleansing waters in one way or another for however many years he has left to live? He says in the middle of the song, "I hope it doesn't take the rest of my life / Until I find what it is that I've been looking for." Let us meet him in that hope by praying for this wayfaring artist. Our prayers can move mountains, perhaps the very "mountains of faith" that Joel saw in his dream. And while we're praying for him, we can reach out to those friends and family members of ours who love his music and share the audio clip. Let us cry out in the wilderness the immortal words of Delmar from O Brother, Where Art Thou?, "Come on in, boys. The water is fine."


One final comment: Though it does not appear in the official lyrics, Billy Joel always sings the word "Gloria" on top of the music as the song fades out. This is an homage to an old doo-wop song; but I like to think that it is also Joel's way of squeezing in a bit of that "pretentious" Ambrosian chant after all. I see you winking, Piano Man.


If you liked this post, I recommend two earlier ones that I wrote about music (Arcade Fire, Mumford & Sons) which rely heavily on an excellent lecture, "Three Chords and the Desire for Truth: Rock 'n' Roll and the Search for the Infinite." I also have this post which is similarly about Baptismal themes in music. Finally, this video from Harvard Sailing Team humorously illustrates how hard it is to talk about music. As always, I'd love to hear from you!


  1. YEs!! You're back!! Keep writing, girl!! Billy Joel is entrenched in my childhood and memory. WHen I was in 3rd grade I received my very first alarm clock radio.. IT was pink and had a rainbow on it. I finally could listen to music whenever I wanted! I turned it on for the first time and started bouncing up and down on my bed to "We didn't start the fire." My brother and I love to sing harmonies to his songs.. You have to listen to the song "And So It Goes."

    1. This is also a family favorite... https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LVlDSzbrH5M

  2. Maybe next you can speak about Bono's "Still haven't found what Im looking for"/

    1. It would certainly be the same theme! "Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee, O Lord."

  3. First heard his music when turning fifty. Never cared much for T.V. or radio, especially secular. Things change. Perhaps I was in purgatory, but I prayed then and since becoming Catholic for this gifted song writer. I do intend to continue. Thank you for shedding some understanding on the man. Someone prayed me into the faith, she will only know when her reward is given.

  4. I guess I never saw his lyrics as too pius. Especially the one where he mocks Catholicism and tries to talk a young girl out of her virginity.

    Come out Virginia, don't let me wait.
    You Catholic girls start much too late.
    Aw, but sooner or later it comes down to fate.
    I might as well be the one.

    Well, they showed you a statue, told you to pray.
    They built you a temple and locked you away.
    Aw, but they never told you the price that you pay
    for things that you might have done.
    So come on Virginia, show me a sign.
    Send up a signal, I'll throw you the line.
    The stained-glass curtain you're hiding behind
    never lets in the sun.
    Darlin', only the good die young.

    I tell ya,
    only the good die young.
    Only the good die young.

    You got a nice white dress and a party on your confirmation.
    You got a brand new soul,
    mmm, and a cross of gold.
    But Virginia, they didn't give you quite enough information.
    You didn't count on me
    when you were counting on your rosary.

    They say there's a heaven for those who will wait.
    Some say it's better, but I say it ain't.
    I'd rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints,
    the sinners are much more fun.

    1. Yes, this is clearly a bad song and it is party why my parents never listened to Joel's music. But it doesn't change the fact that God still spoke to him that night when we was inspired to write "River of Dreams." God calls us out of darkness. The question is whether or not Billy Joel with recognize that call before it's too late, and that's where we, the praying Church Militant, come in.

    2. His response to God not only requires the affirmation of positive things but the renunciation of negative things. Does he still affirm, perform, and make money off this song--Only the good die young? Or is he only being sentimental over "River of Dreams."

    3. I doubt that was just being sentimental in "River of Dreams" because he didn't want to write the song and he felt compelled to do so. Yes, ultimately he must renounce evil and choose the good, but in the meantime I think faithful Christians should get excited about things like this monologue of his and band together to pray for the full conversion of wayfaring (as I called him in the post) souls.

  5. I am usually disappointed when researching celebrity "religious beliefs". I've noticed Billy Joel being touted on several celebrity atheist lists. Believe me, I pray these artist do ultimately discover that God can truly be found in the beauty of their works (Joel seems to be alluding to this in the interview that was posted) I pray that their doubt is just a small bump in their journey. (BTW...Bruce Springsteen seems to be coming back around to the faith he was brought up in)

  6. Funny how your feelings about the afterlife and religion change as you draw closer to your own mortality. Too bad some have to come to the feelings after decades of decadence and the influence of young minds. Better late than never, I suppose.

  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. Another great post, Katy! Your analysis of the song is spot on. So are observations of the cover art. I never noticed it before, but you’re exactly right. Your article prompted me consider the transformation in my own assessment of the quality of Billy Joel’s music. The results are the observations that follow, which turned out to be longer than I wanted.
    I was still a fan of Billy Joel when this song came out, but back then I regarded it as inferior to his older songs, which I think was the general consensus among longtime fans, and I haven’t thought of it much since. Hearing it now, though, I like it much better, especially in light of your analysis as well as the story of the songs genesis.
    I heard “Big Shot” on the radio a few weeks ago, a song that is considered one of the old Billy Joel classics. I was kind of shocked to realize what I never noticed before regarding his music, namely the way in which he juxtaposes his melodies with such bitterly resentful lyrics. I think this is a consistent feature of his songs. I suppose when I was a teenager I admired him because he seemed feisty and “real,” but I’m sure a big part of his success was in appealing to whatever frustrations and resentments I was harboring. At this point in my life they seem spiteful in an ugly way that doesn’t jive so well with the beauty that he often achieves in his music.
    Rene Girard (heard of him?) once noted that our contemporary culture is “permeated with masochism.” I wasn’t sure what he meant when I first came across that idea, but I think I have come to realize that there are lots of ways in which this is true. Perhaps the most familiar form taken by contemporary masochism is our popular culture’s devotion to singing songs and dancing ecstatically to expressions of resentment and spite. Billy Joel is one example among many, but it seems to me that the earliest of Billy Joel’s lyrics must be near the high-water mark of the masochism of their time (and “She’s Always a Woman to Me” is a high-water mark among his songs). But the sickness has progressed. By now popular songs have moved beyond anger and resentment to open aggression and cruelty.
    The presence of this kind of masochism has become a kind of criterion for being taken seriously nowadays as an artist. Anyone who does not regard human life as pointless is likely to be dismissed as insignificant and uninformed, and may very well provoke the rancorous mockery of a contemporary culture determined to confirm its own desperation. How many times have we seen child stars mark their transition to “adult seriousness” by appearing in “edgy” roles that glamorize some form of degradation? I wonder if a fear that his joyful song would make him seem less than serious as an artist motivated what you describe of the 1993 Saturday Night Live rendition.
    There’s a wonderful hymn titled “Songs of Thankfulness and Praise” that is often sung on the feasts of the Epiphany and the Baptism of the Lord. It’s a beautiful expression of the Christian’s gratitude for the goodness of God, his work of salvation in Christ, and all that is. It’s wonderful see that Billy Joel managed to add at least one thankful song of praise to his corpus. Maybe that’s where the spontaneous inspiration for the song came from. A hopefulness long suppressed within him finally insisted on being heard.