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The Joelist Book of The Dead, pt. 1, “Lullaby (Goodnight, My Angel)”

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In regards to belief in an Afterlife, my spiritual path has always been a rocky one. I grew up fearing hell, constantly panicked about the Rapture. As a teen, I toyed with the idea of converting to Judaism, as all young Catholic girls do. Then I turned to Celtic Paganism and Witchcraft for a long ass time, but that eventually fizzled out, too, and I returned to the Catholic church with the same enthusiasm with which I renew my state I.D..

When my grandfather died in 2011, my entire world was ripped from its foundations. He was my father more than my grandfather, and I felt a keen and paralyzing sense of my own mortality. I went to church religiously (har har), but as my depression deepened, all I was doing was praying to feel something other than my grief. I became more and more disillusioned with platitudes about heaven, until one day when my grandmother mentioned seeing my grandfather again in heaven, something in my head snapped. I realized in that moment that it didn’t matter if I would eventually see my dead loved ones again; I wouldn’t see them here, and here was where I wanted them to be. So, I wasn’t going to believe in anything.

Cut to June of this year, and my sudden Joelist revelation. As I meditated on the lyrics of Billy Joel’s songs, I began to feel a deep dissatisfaction with my lack of belief in a life after death. I’d done extensive research into the existence of past lives, and I’d heard far too many anecdotes about dead loved ones communicating from the beyond. I grew up in a haunted house, for god’s sake, and I continue to be fascinated with the concept of thought, how it forms and were it comes from. I could no longer accept that death is the end, but having no answers, and constantly fixating on death and suicide, was driving me literally crazy.

A couple months ago, while listening to River of Dreams, I had another Joelist Revelation. It slowly dawned on me that the last four songs on the album, “Lullaby (Good Night, My Angel),” “The River of Dreams,” “Two Thousand Years,” and “Famous Last Words” were, to my mind, all one song. Or, now that I think about it, a movement in the overall symphony of the album. I’ve begun thinking of this section of the album as the Joelist “Book of The Dead.” When I started researching the actual Book of The Dead, I learned that some versions dated to the late Ptolemaic period break up the text into four parts. To my shock, I found that the last four songs, in order, make up a very similar theme.

I’m not sure if it’s intentional, but it seems like it would be a pretty unusual coincidence. I’d love to know if it was, but I don’t really want to be the person who writes to Billy Joel to tell him that I worship him as a god, for obvious reasons relating to personal protection orders. So for now, I’ll have to be content with my analysis of the songs.

Of course, my analysis of the songs could be completely wrong, but as all religions are founded on the human interpretations of the whims of their gods, so is Joelism formed by my imperfect human meditations on the words of my mortal god.

The first part of the four-part Joelist Book of The Dead“Lullaby (Goodnight, My Angel)” is, on the surface, a father’s meditation on the nature of his love for his child. And maybe the surface meaning is all that was intended. But on further analysis, the narration goes deeper; the father singing to his child is either dying, or already dead.

Goodnight, my angel
Time to close your eyes
And save these questions for another day
I think I know what you’ve been asking me
I think you know what I’ve been trying to say

No matter how old or young we are, people have the same understanding of death. That is to say, none at all. We have no idea what lies beyond, only anecdotes and beliefs with no proof of what awaits us on the other side. If we imagine ourselves as the child in the song, we know the questions they’re asking. If we take on the father role, we understand that there are no effortless answers. In the next line:

I promised I would never leave you

is a promise all parents want to make to their child, and all children wish dearly to believe. That the father figure goes on to assure the child:

And you should always know
Wherever you may go
No matter where you are
I never will be far away

It is an assurance of an eternal life in which that promise can be kept, even as the father figure passes from this life to the next in the following lines:

Goodnight, my angel
Now it’s time to sleep
And still so many things I want to say

Thought the father can’t impart any further wisdom to the child, he can remind them to cherish memories of the past and continue to learn from them:

Remember all the songs you sang for me
When we went sailing on an emerald bay
And like a boat out on the ocean
I’m rocking you to sleep

The nautical imagery echoes the journey by boat described in various chapters of the Ptolemaic Book of The Dead, as well.

The water’s dark
And deep inside this ancient heart
You’ll always be a part of me

The theme of water as a spirit source in relation to the soul continues in the next part, “The River of Dreams,” and seems to represent the theory of a universal or collective conscious. The child will always be a part of the father, even in death, as he crosses over the river of consciousness and into a realm of spiritual knowledge.

That part will make a lot more sense after my analysis of “The River of Dreams,” but it’s worth noting here.

Goodnight, my angel
Now it’s time to dream
And dream how wonderful your life will be

The child will go on without the parent, to a future that can only be imagined. These lines book-end the passage about memory; while we learn from the past, we shape our futures.

Someday your child may cry
And if you sing this lullabye
Then in your heart
There will always be a part of me

The connection between the father and child will remain after death, in the form of memory. The bond between them lends the father immortality, as the lullaby will create the same bond between the child and their future children.

Someday we’ll all be gone
But lullabyes go on and on…
They never die
That’s how you
And I
Will be

On a broader scale, the song describes an ongoing relationship between the living and the dead, constructed of the memories one makes over their lifetime. This doesn’t have to be a loving bond between a parent and a child. This is just an example of one kind of legacy after death. Even the most forgotten person has an existence in memory, either theirs or a sliver of someone else’s. As a part of the collective consciousness (the “opposite side” of the “River of Dreams” I’ll discuss in the next post), a soul can never be truly forgotten, and will always have ties to the mortal world, no matter how small.

This isn’t the easiest song for me to write about. Our lingering love for the dead is a source of joy, but also pain. And while we all prepare to one day move on to the next phase of consciousness, it’s hard to imagine parting with the people and things we love. The lyrics are a source of comfort for me, in that it reminds me that though my grandfather is gone, he still exists, just as everyone continues to exist after death. But it also inspires grief on a literal level; though my grandfather was my father-figure, a rejected child is always a rejected child, no matter how old they are. I always have a moment of, “Why couldn’t my father love me?” when I’m listening to it. Still, it’s an important part of the spiritual text I am making up for my new religion, so you take the good with the bad, I guess.

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  1. earthed_angel

    I’m not very familiar with these Billy Joel songs, though I <3 his music a lot. It seems, from what you've excerpted here, that the father is the one dying and assuring his child (like parents do) that they aren't really gone, that the child should remember the good times and the lullabyes. This makes me weepy because my dad died when I was kinda young and it's comforting to think he's nearby no matter where I am.
    But that's the beauty of religious texts, isn't it. 🙂 Open for interpretation. Really looking forward to reading more about your Joelist Revelations.

    November 13, 2014
  2. Laura

    I hadn’t listened to this song in probably a decade, long before I became a parent. Thanks for getting me to listen to it again. The song (and your exegesis of it) made me think about a problem that I don’t know how to deal with – now that my daughter is old enough to think about these things, she sometimes says stuff that makes me want to reply, “don’t worry, I’ll always… (fill in the blank )”. But actually none of that is true, and it can’t be true, because I’m going to die someday, and probably before her.

    Some people turn to God because they want something in their life that will always be there, that can never be taken away from them. But I like the idea that if something becomes a part of you then it can never be taken away from you, as long as you exist – and you can continue to exist as long as you make yourself a part of someone else. I’m not sure how to communicate that to my 4 year old, but maybe I’ll start by playing this song for her…

    November 13, 2014
  3. Angelee

    I can one hundred percent get behind worshipping Billy Joel as a god, or at least regarding him as a prophet.
    (I saw him in concert with Elton John one year for my birthday, and it was certainly what I’d call a religious experience)
    My own idea of god is so abstract and flexible that Joelism fits neatly inside. I’ll be reading and re-reading this post for the next while, absorbing and assimilating. Thank you, I love it.

    November 13, 2014
  4. Candy Apple
    Candy Apple

    I always thought this song was about Billy’s divorce from Christie Brinkley (which happened right around the time the song was written). It reads like a parent trying to explain to a child why mommy and daddy are breaking up.

    I like your interpretation, but I think it’s his explanation to Alexa.

    November 13, 2014
  5. Candy Apple
    Candy Apple

    I always thought this song was about Billy’s divorce from Christie Brinkley (which happened right around the time the song was written). It reads like a parent trying to explain to a child why mommy and daddy are breaking up.

    I like your interpretation, but I think it’s his explanation to Alexa that although Dad’s moving out, he won’t be gone from her life completely.

    November 13, 2014
  6. Cressida

    This song hits me right in the feels.
    That aside, I like your conceptualization of the last four songs as an interrelated suite, and look forward to seeing how the other three songs relate.

    November 15, 2014
  7. Me

    I’ve always been sad to think that nobody goes to visit the grave, but I’m not sure if it’s because I truly think that person is around the grave itself. I think I think of them as being in some room, somewhere, looking at us, kinda like those police interrogation rooms, where you can see in, but now out.
    I grew up Catholic, and I still consider myself Catholic, but I don’t really remember being really immersed in the religion, so my view of Heaven and Hell have been taken form religion maybe, but made up by my own imagination?
    Anyway, not too long ago I started thinking about one particular gravesite we visit, of an old family friend, but he’s buried kinda far from where I live and since I’ve started working the visits are less, and I thought of Bleach (the manga), and how some hollows came to be because they felt abandoned by their loved ones, and I wondered for some time if our friend might be feeling abandoned. It was not a nice feeling.
    I guess a part of me does feel like whoever it is, is still hanging out close enough to know what we are doing.

    November 18, 2014
  8. Julia Snyder
    Julia Snyder

    This has always been one of my favorite Billy Joel songs! Now looking at it the way you have brought me to, I love it even more. I think there are a great many ways we communicate with our loved ones who have passed, and ways they speak to us. we just have to be open to it. I recommend Roberta Grimes, she has a book called The Fun of Staying in Touch. A great read on communication like this, her site is I have to go listen to this song now!!!

    December 4, 2014
  9. Fer

    This is beautiful and, sharing a personal issues, it heals my heart. Yes, heal. I’ve recently lost somebody and this words (the song and yours) makes me feel with a little hope about all that happened. One last thing I like to add is thank you, for sharing because you don’t know how helpful your words have been.

    March 17, 2016

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