Billy Joel Exposes Me

March 23, 2008 at 3:57 pm 10 comments

Recently I heard Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” again.  It had been quite some time since I had listened to it.  I struggled singing along, but I hit my stride around Sally Ride (for real– I didn’t pick that because it rhymed).

Anyway, when I heard “Childen of Thalidomide”, I realized I wouldn’t have known what that was in 1989 when Billy Joel first released this song.  In fact, I don’t think I had any conscious knowledge of thalidomide until 11 years later when I read a Discover magazine article on the drug.

So I thought it would be neat to look at the full lyrics of the song and color-code all the items I learned about in the two decades after its release.  So I got me the lyrics, started reading, and my activity backfired something awful!  Instead of revealing how much I have learned since Billy Joel released the song, I uncovered that I’m still pretty clueless. 

It’s humbling, but below is my color-coded lyrics list (verses only).  Blue indicates stuff I think I learned about after the song was popular.  Red indicates stuff that I just learned today via Wikipedia’s list of the historical references in the song.

Harry Truman, Doris Day, Red China, Johnnie Ray
South Pacific, Walter Winchell, Joe DiMaggio

Joe McCarthy, Richard Nixon, Studebaker, television
North Korea, South Korea, Marilyn Monroe

Rosenbergs, H-Bomb, Sugar Ray, Panmunjom
Brando, “The King and I”, and “The Catcher in the Rye”

Eisenhower, vaccine, England’s got a new queen
Marciano, Liberace, Santayana goodbye

Josef Stalin, Malenkov, Nasser and Prokofiev
Rockefeller, Campanella, Communist Bloc

Roy Cohn, Juan Peron, Toscanini, Dacron
Dien Bien Phu Falls
, Rock Around the Clock

Einstein, James Dean, Brooklyn’s got a winning team
Davy Crockett, Peter Pan, Elvis Presley, Disneyland

Bardot, Budapest, Alabama, Khrushchev
Princess Grace, Peyton Place, Trouble in the Suez

Little Rock, Pasternak, Mickey Mantle, Kerouac
Sputnik, Chou En-Lai, Bridge On The River Kwai

Lebanon, Charles de Gaulle, California Baseball,
Starkwether, Homicide, Children of Thalidomide

Buddy Holly, Ben Hur, Space Monkey, Mafia
Hula Hoops, Castro, Edsel is a no-go

U2, Syngman Rhee, payola and Kennedy
Chubby Checker, Psycho, Belgians in the Congo

Hemingway, Eichmann, Stranger in a Strange Land,
Dylan, Berlin, Bay of Pigs invasion

Lawrence of Arabia, British Beatlemania
Ole Miss, John Glenn, Liston beats Patterson

Pope Paul, Malcolm X, British Politician sex
J.F.K. blown away, what else do I have to say

Birth control, Ho Chi Minh, Richard Nixon back again
Moonshot, Woodstock, Watergate, punk rock

Begin, Reagan, Palestine, Terror on the airline
Ayatollah’s in Iran, Russians in Afghanistan

Wheel of Fortune, Sally Ride, heavy metal, suicide
Foreign debts, homeless Vets, AIDS, Crack, Bernie Goetz

Hypodermics on the shores, China’s under martial law
Rock and Roller cola wars, I can’t take it anymore

Some Notes:
With “Malcolm X”, I may have heard of him in 1989, but I really did not have a full understanding of the man until I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which by the way– everyone should read. 

“Begin”— Ha!  This whole time I though Joel meant that Ronald Reagan’s term was beginning. 

Entry filed under: Billy Joel.

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10 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Clint  |  March 23, 2008 at 5:52 pm

    1) And I guess this song was 13 years later, so you managed to 1-up nofx by 2 yrs: “I’m a thalidamide…I’m a thalidamide…I’m a thalidamide…child”

    2) WordPress can do text in different colors?

  • 2. Carolyn  |  March 23, 2008 at 7:08 pm

    I knew about Khrushchev from when we watched Car 54, Where Are You? I asked Mom what the line “Khrushchev’s due at Idlewild!” meant.

  • 3. Clint  |  March 23, 2008 at 7:53 pm

    I knew about him possibly from the Sting song “Russians”, which I still really like, haha.
    Wikpedia entry for the song

  • 4. Scott  |  March 23, 2008 at 8:56 pm

    I was listening to U2 for many years before that song, but that is probably because my older brother was a fan.

    I rally can’t say much because my list would probably be mostly red. I know of most of the names, but I probably could not tell you the significance of them.

    I didi enjoy all the pictues in the flash movie at the bottom of the wiki page..

    All hail wikipedia!

  • 5. tgaw  |  March 23, 2008 at 10:29 pm

    @Clint – So… even though I routinely sing along to that song (bonus track of Disc 1 on “45 or 46 Songs That Were Not Good Enough for Our Other Albums”, I didn’t realize what they were actually saying until you typed it up. So if I had to color-code that song– it would have been red. 🙂

    @Clint– Yes, WordPress can do colors. In your toolbar when writing a post, the far right icon is “Show/Hide Advanced Toolbar”. When yous how it, you have some font options including color.

    @Carolyn – Wow, I remember watching Car 54, Where Are You? but have no recollection of that line. BUT, it seems to me that you had a lot of inquiries to Mom about stuff you’ve seen on TV. The first time I ever heard the word menstruation in everyday, non-health class, context was from you. We were watching TV and an ad for maxipads came on and you asked Mom, “Are those for menstruation”. Now, I am all too familiar with that word. 🙂

    @Scott – WOW– that Flash video was pretty awesome. Thanks for pointing it out. Also, I’m glad to hear someone else’s list would be mostly red.

  • 6. Clint  |  March 24, 2008 at 8:21 am

    Vicky: )))))))

  • 7. TGAW  |  March 24, 2008 at 8:24 am

    Bah! And I made that mistake in my very first sentence.

  • 8. Sheer  |  March 25, 2008 at 7:48 pm

    Wow – you never read Stranger in a Strange Land? For good or bad, that book – and the Moon Is A Harsh Mistress – have been coloring my ideas about life for most of my adult life.

    Somewhere floating around the net there’s a version of the song that has links for every single event. You’ve probably already found it.

    I do love ‘We didn’t start the fire’. And I always wonder.. what comes next?

  • 9. Sheer  |  March 25, 2008 at 7:52 pm

    p.s. I’ve thought for a long time it would be fun to do a cover of this song taking it up to 2007.

  • 10. Clint  |  March 25, 2008 at 10:40 pm

    That’s a good idea, Sheer.


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