Monday, January 3, 2011

Billy Joel—Talking ‘Bout My Generation

On the first day of 2011, I was in my car, listening to the radio, when I heard Billy Joel’s song “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”

I was shocked to realize I hadn’t heard this song in maybe a decade. (It was released in 1989, when Billy Joel was 40.)

I was also surprised that, after all these years, I still could identify nearly every one of the dozens of names and places he mentions in a brilliant list of events and people that filled the lives his generation—the baby boomers.

In the news as 2011 dawned was the grim fact that the baby boomers, who have started turning 65 by the thousands every day,  may discover they’ve outlived  their  pensions and their social security payments, so they had better not retire just yet.

Because I was born in 1941, I’m too old to be a real baby boomer. (My younger brother qualifies.)  And because I will be turning seventy in February, 2011 is a year when I’ll be thinking about and writing a lot about getting old.  Because when you turn 70, there’s no way you can keep on thinking of yourself as middle-aged.  And you can’t help pondering, especially when you wake up in the middle of the night, the stage of life that comes next.   That would be dying.

Maybe Gail Sheehy will write a book, like “Passages”, on “How to Plan and Organize a Good Death”.  (I apologize for being so morbid, but my mother died at 74.  May of my husband’s relatives lived to well past 90, so he makes fun of me and my generally gloomy outlook.)  But let’s face it, our generation, which invented teenagers and rock ’n’ roll, does everything by the book.  And we need a guide to what comes next.

  When I learned that I was pregnant for the first time, I walked out of the doctor’s office and into a bookstore and bought several books on being pregnant—even though women since the beginning of time have been  having babies without reading a how-to book about it.

Anyway, hearing Billy Joel’s song made me realize that my children now in their thirties, who are very smart and  well-informed, probably wouldn’t recognize 50 percent of the names in that song. 

Billy Joel writes very clever lyrics (and his piano playing always fills me with envy).  I started to muse about how much more intelligent, funny and pertinent were some of the songwriters of my generation compared to what you hear today.   (That's just my opinion.  I'm sure Generation Y or whatever is current would disagree.) Take Paul Simon, Billy Joel, and of course John Lennon.  Leonard Cohen.  Judy Collins. Who writes lyrics like that today?  Lady Gaga?

Anyway, so you can share my trip down memory lane, I’m pasting below the lyrics to “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”  See how any of them you can identify.  Now who’s going to write a similar list for our kids’ generation?

We Didn't Start The Fire
   ------Billy Joel

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

We didn't start the fire
It was always burning
Since the world's been turning
We didn't start the fire
No we didn't light it
But we tried to fight it

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

We didn't start the fire
It was always burning
Since the world's been turning
We didn't start the fire
No we didn't light it
But we tried to fight it

Little Rock, Pasternak, Mickey Mantle, Kerouac
Sputnik, Zhou Enlai, Bridge On The River Kwai

Lebanon, Charles de Gaulle, California Baseball,
Starkweather 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

We didn't start the fire
It was always burning
Since the world's been turning
We didn't start the fire
No we didn't light it
But we tried to fight it

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

We didn't start the fire
It was always burning since the world's been turning.
We didn't start the fire
But when we are gone
It will still burn on, and on, and on, and on...

1 comment:

Kyle said...

This is a great song and so full of history. When I was in high school, as a part of my gifted humanities class, we studied the lyrics to this song and others ("American Pie" was another one, and still a favorite of mine) as a part of our class. I am really grateful to have been exposed to these classics and to have studied the meanings and history behind them.