Billy Joel’s rock hit “Only the Good Die Young” is the pro-premarital sex song many Christians and conservatives love to hate. Missed amidst the consternation, though, is perhaps the greatest lyric in all of rock and roll. It’s about forgiveness and humility with a dose of accountability as it challenges listeners to consider one of Christ’s hardest commands.
“Only the Good Die Young” came out in 1977 when I was a freshman in high school not far from Joel’s home in Oyster Bay, Long Island. The upbeat, sassy song, fueled by controversy, quickly soared to the 24th spot on Billboard’s Hot 100.
Kids loved it. Adults reviled it. And it drove the Catholic Church crazy.
In early 1978, the Catholic Archdiocese of New York ripped the song, saying it “ridicules Christian morality.” Other dioceses followed suit. It was even banned by Catholic college Seton Hall’s radio station. In 1991, Joel’s invitation to deliver the commencement speech at Jesuit Fairfield University in Connecticut was nearly rescinded over his alleged anti-Catholic bias.
By today’s standards, however, the song is quite tame. Look no further than Cardi B’s “W.A.P.” for lyrics that raise the bar several standard deviations beyond Joel’s offense threshold. But at the time, a rock and roller pining for sex with a virginal high schooler was too much for the gatekeepers of morality.
Joel starts the song by jumping headfirst into the deep end of the offense pool:
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
As if Joel’s opening splash weren’t enough, he checks all the stink-bomb-in-the-sanctuary boxes, invoking statues, gold crosses, souls, stained glass, prayer and, God forbid, white confirmation dresses. Having gotten the adults properly lathered up, Joel pivots from gentle mockery to a magnificent rhetorical question:
[Y]our mother told you all that I could give you was a reputation
Aw, she never cared for me
But did she ever say a prayer for me?
That last line eluded my consciousness for nearly 40 years, despite having sung it at the top of my lungs countless times, first as a teen and later as a parent with my children. To say it was an oversight is a gross understatement. Fixated on the boppy melody and naughty notions, I missed the elephant in the room. My only comfort is that everyone else seemed to have missed it, too.
Whether people agree with it or not, most are aware that the Bible forbids premarital sex. How many realize it also commands us to pray: to pray constantly, and especially to pray for our persecutors?
Joel was obviously aware. A Jew by birth who went to a Catholic church as a youth, Joel channeled scripture quite well, however subtle the reference is in the song.
Scripture is riddled with commands to pray, especially for our persecutors: Leviticus chapter 19 says, “You shall not take vengeance … but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Paul in his first letter to the Thessalonians encourages us to “pray without ceasing.”
Christ himself sets an extraordinarily high bar for his followers. In Matthew chapter 5, the seminal “Sermon on the Mount”, he commands: “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…”
Joel knows that his challenge to traditional morals causes Virginia’s mother significant heartburn, so he appeals to her better angels to live the Bible in the face of persecution. We don’t know her private prayers, although Joel implies that he got more stink-eye than compassion from her.
About the same time, I realized the power of Joel’s question in “Only the Good Die Young,” I was struggling with ill feelings for someone who had betrayed me. I needed a tool to overcome my anger and with Joel’s melodic encouragement turned to prayer for respite. It was not just generic prayer, but prayer for the offender and for the softening of my heart.
Every negative thought about this person was met with a silent Hail Mary, a prayer of forgiveness, and a plea that I could remove the log from my own eye. Eventually, anger turned to peace and mountains became molehills. We are friends to this day.
Billy Joel’s music has long rocked my body and touched my heart. With my late discovery of the powerful message within “Only the Good Die Young” – the need to pray and forgive – Joel has touched my soul as well.