Song: The River of Dreams
Album: River of Dreams (1993)
Back in September of 1993, right around the time River of Dreams was released, I got a job at a toy store in a local mall. For those of you from Long Island it was the long gone Playworld Toys at the still standing Sunrise Mall in Massapequa Park. It wasn’t a great job but I was in college and had limited options; the hours were flexible and the $5.25 an hour I made stocking the shelves paid for my books, meals, bus fare and record purchases. I was 19 years old and I felt like I pretty much had everything figured out as long as you didn’t ask me why I didn’t have a car or why I dressed like a flamboyant hobo.
The job itself was pretty easy but it had one drawback: the in store music was a single tape that played on a loop. When I first started it was all kids music, which was tiresome but easy to ignore. That was soon replaced with holiday music which I could hardly hear when the store was packed with shoppers. After the 1993 holiday season the music changed to a 60 minute long collection of contemporary and classic pop hits featuring Billy Joel’ “The River of Dreams.”
As a 19 year old I wasn’t a fan of Billy Joel but my dislike hadn’t become as strong as it would later become. He was just one of a number of artists that I mostly ignored. All through the winter and spring of 1994 I marked the hours by the number of times I heard that tape play and every time “The River of Dreams” came around I hated it.
To be fair to the song, I feel like I need to point out a few things:
1. I was hearing it through a toy store intercom which is maybe the worst imaginable way to hear a song.
2. I was 19 years old, and that is a terrible age for making decisions about anything. In retrospect I believe every decision I made at age 19 was wrong.
3. Somehow, I convinced myself that song “The River of Dreams” was written by Paul Simon. I don’t know where this idea came from but I believed it to be true and as a result I thought of “The River of Dreams” as a Paul Simon song done in what I though of at the time as a pastiche of Paul Simon’s style.
In my teenage brain this last fact meant that Billy Joel was done; reduced to performing cover songs and not even making them his own. If there is an exact moment when my chosen ignorance of Billy Joel turned to active dislike it happened during one of those shifts at the toy store.
Of course, I can tell now that I was a teenage dope, looking for things to be angry about. With 19 more years of perspective I can now say that my rejection of Billy Joel was just part of a larger dislike for looming shadow of baby boomer generation, or put more bluntly: I was a teenager and I resented my parents and their generation; Billy Joel became the poster boy for that resentment. Eventually I grew up got over my issues but I never went back to give Billy Joel a chance until this year.
Back in January I saw “The River of Dreams” looming on the horizon as the moment of truth in this project but my feelings changed to pro Billy Joel long ago so this is now more of an exclamation mark on this whole year because today I know that Billy Joel not only wrote this song, but I also know that the sound of “The River of Dreams” is well within Billy Joel’s comfort zone. He had been utilizing the elements that appear in this song for years.
Contrary to what I believed at 19, this isn’t a dumb pop song. “The River of Dreams” is a complex examination of faith, trust and insecurity filled with biblical imagery disguised as a sweet pop song. In short this song is exactly what I have come to love about Billy Joel and his work. Nobody serves up worry with a candy coating quite like Billy Joel can.
This song is as close this record comes to vintage Billy Joel and it also contains a small moment that knocks me out. About halfway through the song there is an instrumental section; over the churning rhythm of the song Billy Joel goes off into a piano interlude that sounds both perfectly in step with the song and somehow from another place. It’s like a small burst of happiness to cut through the deceptively dark nature of the song. It also sounds to me like he is just cutting loose and having fun in this moment. Billy Joel may have been nearing the end of an era when he was recording this song but you can’t hear it in this instrumental break.