Behind the Song: Billy Joel, “Only The Good Die Young”

Yes, dear readers, there was a Virginia. Billy Joel based his 1977 song “Only The Good Die Young” on an actual high school crush named Virginia Callahan. After Joel wrote the song about this Catholic girl’s reluctance to enjoy some lustful moments instead of praying all the time, he asked his drummer for his input. “I showed the song to Liberty (Devitto), who’s Catholic,” Joel recalls in the liner notes to a 2008 rerelease of The Stranger. “He said, ‘Well, it’s true.’”

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DeVitto was also partially responsible for the song’s irrepressibly jaunty rhythm, all because he wasn’t particularly fond of Joel’s initial idea to play it as reggae. “He came up with this shuffle, and I thought, ‘What about a straight 4/4 walk against that shuffle,” Joel remembered. “The Beatles used to do that. It’s kind of a rub, but it worked.”

Indeed, it did. “Only The Good Die Young” stands pretty tall amongst Billy Joel’s vast catalog of hits, one of his signature songs that never lose their luster. And while Joel may have received some assistance at the song’s inception, his songwriting and performing skills are ultimately what put it across. It’s easy to take his hits for granted, because they seem so effortless. It’s only when you start to pick a song like this apart that the craft involved emerges.

Cover Story: Billy Joel Restarts The Fire

First of all, Joel’s gift for melody and his respect for matching the perfect lyrics to the tune and meter, skills that arguably are unrivaled by anybody in pop music with the exception of Paul McCartney, really shine here. There’s not a wasted moment in the song, not a syllable that’s out of place. That kind of pristine construction  is what makes “Only The Good Die Young” so instantly memorable.

The narrator lays out his case to Virginia with conviction and flair. He shoots down the teachings of her religious leaders, suggesting that they might be holding something back from their catechism: “But they never told you the price that you pay/For things that you might have done.” Joel even uses Catholic architecture to prove his point: “The stained-glass curtain you’re hiding behind/Never lets in the sun.”

All along, you get the feeling that the narrator knows he’s fighting a losing battle, with even Virginia’s family lining up against him: “You say your mother told you all that I could give you was a reputation.” Still, he’s not falling for the promise of some far-off heaven when earthly delights are well within his reach: “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/And only the good die young.”

Some religious groups reacted strongly to the song upon its release for perceived slights, but “Only The Good Die Young” is way too benign to have caused such a ruckus. After all, there’s no indication in the song that Virginia ever gives this would-be romancer the time of day despite all his pleadings. Besides, Joel never seems to be knocking Catholicism so much as saying that there is a way to enjoy life’s pleasures and still, to paraphrase one of his future songs, keep the faith.

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