'Only the Good Die Young' is one of the rockingest songs on Billy Joel's landmark album 'The Stranger,' which was released 40 years ago this week. But if it hadn't been for his drummer, the anthem to horny teenagers would probably be considered the most racist track in Joel's otherwise illustrious discography.
According to the Piano Man, the song was originally conceived as a reggae number. And Joel intended to sing the lyrics in a faux Jamaican accent. Yep, a twenty-something white dude from the birthplace of Theodore Roosevelt wanted to sing like he was from the home of Bob Marley.
Luckily drummer Liberty DeVitto stepped in and saved the song as well as Joel's reputation. "'Why are you singing like that? The closest you've been to Jamaica is the Long Island Rail Road!'" Joel later recalled DeVitto saying when he tried recording the track his way. And when Billy tried to press on with his vision for the tune, his drummer threatened to walk out of the studio. "He threw his sticks at me and went, 'I hate reggae,'" Joel added.
So he revised the arrangement into the song we know and love today...unless you're one of the diehard Catholics who felt the lyrics were slamming their religion. The song's sixth verse pretty much sums up their point:
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
Joel didn't help matters out by explaining that the song "wasn't so much anti-Catholic as pro-lust." So he didn't win them over, but at least he gave those sinners something to laugh about.
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