Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Day Billy Joel Met God in the Shower...

Billy Joel met God in the shower- I'm absolutely sure of it. So then how is it that the man who himself readily admits that the whole experience of writing the "River of Dreams" was a "spiritual" epiphany, claim, as he has in interviews, that he is definitively an atheist? This is a great question. However, before I get into all of that, I would first like to consider the substance of the following interview (of which there is a lot).

According to Mr. Joel, he wrote the song "Lullabye" and "River of Dreams" at the same time as a kind of way of satisfying his daughter's philosophical curiosity, a daughter who was naturally inclined to ask these type of questions around bedtime. Joel doesn't go into detail concerning the precise nature of these questions, but one can easily surmise that they involve death and what comes afterwards. And this makes perfect sense, especially considering the fact that sleep is a kind of human foreshadowing of that fearful event. Therefore, the song Lullabye seeks to allay, in a most poetic way, his daughter's fears and anxieties about sleep, death, etc., promising her that he will "never leave her", and assuring her, implicitly, that they will both live on together even after death.

But this is, ironically, where Joel's atheism, as well as his artistic talent, meet up in an extremely powerful way. After all, art is at its best when it maintains an element of mystery (it's good to leave a little to the imagination). Thus, paradoxically by not promising her heaven literally, he says something that one could argue is even more heavenly; "Some day we'll all be gone, but lullabies go on and on. They never die, that's how you and I will be…" Now if there is no heaven, then this statement is obviously a bunch of pious nonsense, but if there is something beyond the veil, then a lullaby is an incredibly exquisite metaphor for a father seeking to deliver his precious daughter [peacefully] into the arms of the Great Hereafter.

The song "River of Dreams", which follows Lullabye, seems to be a kind of conclusion to the former narrative. It is an attempt, if you will, to describe that boundless realm that lies beyond the sleep of death (or at least sleep in general). In the interview one gets the keen sense of just how disturbed Mr. Joel is by the manner in which these two pieces of music fell into his lap- not simply because their content was "spiritual" in nature- but because he realizes that he was little more than a stenographer in the process of creating them. In fact, he seems downright annoyed by the fact- as he explains- that he felt the need to translate them into Latin and Greek, as if this were some kind of sacred work (sarcasm emphasized); "Get the f*** out of here," he says, "Is this not the most pretentious crap you've ever heard". And yet... the music continues to woo him and draw him in, in spite of all his skeptical misgivings.

The next thing you know he finds himself writing the lyrics of what would eventually become the incredibly popular "River of Dreams", a song about someone losing their faith, and ultimately finding it again. The song itself is so self-explanatory that it feels painfully redundant to even examine what the lyrics mean. Suffice to say, the song is a metaphor for life, a description of this strange pilgrimage we are all on, with all of its unconquerable mysteries, not to mention the many questions we have about our eternal destiny; "We all end in the ocean, we all start in the streams…". But what's most fascinating to me about the lyrics is the metaphor he uses surrounding his propensity for "sleep walking." In spite of his professed atheism, Mr. Joel keeps "sleep walking" back to the land of vision and faith- that mysterious reservoir from which, throughout his career, he has managed to obtain all of his inexplicable creative energy. He then goes on to comment about how "tired" he is of this inevitable nighttime excursion; "I hope it doesn't take until the end of my life to find what it is that I'm looking for." Oh my goodness, Billy! You are answering your own question! You lay out the whole thing, then you say "I don't know about life after this, God knows I've never been a spiritual man". And then you leave us with this doozy; "Baptized by fire, I wade into the river that is running to the Promised Land." I mean really? Do you hear yourself?

"I know I'm searching for something, something so undefined, that it can only be seen, by the eyes of the blind." Actually, I think you've got the "blind" part pretty well down, a pair of eyes to see what is right in front of your face might really be what is warranted here! And by the way, the whole thing seems to be pretty well defined to me. Indeed, he kind of reminds me of me looking unsuccessfully in the refrigerator for the milk when it is all too frequently right in front of me.

And as if to conclude the interview in the most ironical fashion possible, he talks about how he really did not want to write the song at first. Why? Because essentially he knew that it would become a religious song! I am reminded of Einstein rejecting the "Big Bang" theory because he feared it's religious implications. Nevertheless, in this whole process, Mr. Joel makes one tragic error. Instead of hiding under his bed, he goes straight to the shower to get it out of his system. Note to self: if you want to get rid of God, avoid water at all costs (says the entire host of hell).

Apparently, upon reaching the shower, the music becomes totally infectious. And so standing there amidst that sacred tiled cathedral, he found himself singing some combination of Gospel, Doo-Wop, the Lion Sleeps Tonight, and sacred polyphony; "I got religion in the shower… it was a spiritual thing". In another interview, he actually says he went there to "wash it away," only to discover that it had gained further momentum (see previous paragraph for avoidance of said problem). Indeed, the state of affairs is so hilarious that it practically calls to mind some combination of the 70s film "Oh God" (yes, there was a shower scene in that one as well), and the prophet Jeremiah angrily promising to never speak of God again.

"But if I say "I will not remember him, or speak in his name anymore," his word is like a fire, shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot" (Jeremiah 20:9). The song even fades out with the words "gloria...". It's almost as if Mr. Joel is experiencing some form of spiritual Tourrette's, praising God in spite of himself. The point is anyone listening to this interview, coupled with the music, cannot help seeing what Mr. Joel himself apparently cannot (or will not). Billy Joel met God in the shower that day (as awkward as that may sound), and from the sound of it, it seems he has met Him there on any number of occasions. Yet on this particular one, it seems he not only met God there, but God answered the burning question that had haunted him for so many years (viz. why do I go walking in the land of the spirit, when I am not spiritual at all).

But all of this begs the most important question of all. If God is real, then how can a man "meet God", as Joel apparently has, and not acknowledge His existence? I think the interview, once again, lends tremendous insight into this mystery. While God is clearly "wooing" Mr. Joel (using the very thing he loves the most), he is not forcing Himself on him. And while Joel seems to suspect this, he nevertheless appears to have an aversion to the whole idea. One might even say that he finds God irresistible, but would prefer in reality not to. Yet how can this be? It's simple. Religion is a bunch of "pretentious crap" (remember "Only the Good Die Young"). Joel has spent the majority of his adult life being too cool for religion, and now he's supposed to fall prostrate before a God that propagates this nonsense? That would totally kill his cool guy persona! Equally challenging, is the inevitable lifestyle change that would have to follow. Hence, in some ways it is perfectly understandable that one might be tempted to rationalize these events, as opposed to allowing one's self to be changed by them.

In fairness to Mr. Joel, he would not be the first musician to do this. John Lennon (yes it is true), briefly flirted with conversion to Christianity, but YOKO quickly put a stop to that (much like she did with the Beatles). Apparently, she even told John Lennon that if he converted people would laugh at him. And she was probably right! Some like to complain that if God would simply make the truth more evident then people would believe more (i.e. if God would do his "job", then we might do our own). However, the truth is more complicated than that. The fact is not everyone wants to believe the truth even when it is presented to them. In the Old Testament, God on the mountain of Moriah gives us a prime example of human ambivalence to divine power. The people of Israel perceive that God is on the mountain, and they actually tell Moses that they don't want God speaking to them because they are utterly afraid of Him (Exodus 20: 18-19). That's the point, we "can't handle the Truth" all at once, so what does God do, he approaches us as gently and meekly as possible through our own personal affections and experience (as he did in the case of Joel). We are like untamed animals that get scared off by even the most gentle. Thus, if we will not even permit God to approach us through the things that we love the most, how can He even begin to approach us at all?    

And while the story need not end in this way, for the moment (at least) it appears to have the contours of a tragedy. For it is very clear from these events that God loves Billy Joel dearly. What is equally clear is that Billy Joel loves the gift of music which has been bestowed upon him by God. The missing piece appears to be Mr. Joel's willingness to acknowledge the source of that gift. However, the problem isn't that God is waiting with arms crossed for Billy Joel to thank him (as if God were that petty), but rather that God is gently trying to give Billy the answers, through his preferred medium, but Mr. Joel will not accept them. Indeed, Joel seems stuck in the river of dreams, unwilling to get into that indomitable ark of Reality, and now the flood waters seem to be rising up to his neck. Hence, there is only one question that remains: will he let the river overtake him, or will he reach out to the One who in times past has been described as a Fisher of Men? I would submit to Mr. Joel that he shouldn't be too snobbish about the hand that is extended to him, simply because, if it were left up to him, he would have chosen an entirely different one.


  1. A great piece, Sean. I pray that God doesn't give up on Joel (nor on me!).

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