We Didn’t Start The Fire
Song: We Didn’t Start The Fire
Album: Storm Front
In the spring of 1989, about six months before “We Didn’t Start The Fire” was released as the first single from Storm Front I moved from my hometown of Copiague, NY to nearby Levittown, not far from where Billy Joel grew up. At the time I was not aware that this move signaled a downturn in my family’s fortunes or that it would be the first in a series of events that would change my life.
Prior to moving my mother and her then husband (a good dude who I will talk about more if I ever undertake A Year of The Grateful Dead) took the unusual step of putting our living arrangement up to a vote. The choices were: renting another place in my hometown or moving to Levittown. Neither I or my siblings had been to Levittown but we didn’t have much going for us where we were so we unanimously choose to leave town. This turned out to be a mistake, for me at least.
To put it mildly, things didn’t go as well as I hoped in my new town and school. At he time I thought that all of the kids were jerks and this may have been the case but I’m willing to bet I was something of a weird asshole as a teenager who didn’t exactly give people a chance to be my friend out of some stupid fear of rejection. Those who did notice me were bullies I soon found myself very unhappy and as a result began acting out. I managed to complete the 9th grade and then spent the summer actively not making friends, which took real effort in the prototypical suburban community. By the time 10th grade rolled around in September I was prepared for a long unhappy year as “the weird kid” but a few weeks into the year I was granted an unexpected reprieve. I was invited to leave.
One day I found myself having a long conversation with a school administrator about how I thought the school and everyone it it were jerks. I complained that when I reported that I was being bullied the year before I was told to basically stop making myself a target and to try to fit in. Again I was advised to simply try harder to make friends and basically stop being a wierdo. My response was to tell them to go fuck themselves. This was when my parents were called in.
The school suggested I might be happier if I left. Wasn’t there another school I could attend? Actually there was, my father still lived in Copiague; I could go home again and a few days later I did.
My father and his wife (a great lady I will talk about if I ever undertake A Year of Drunkenly Singing Along To The Radio) took me in and enrolled me back at my old school. It was during my first week there that I first heard “We Didn’t Start The Fire” and saw the video.
When I moved into my father’s place I was 15, he was 34 and hadn’t been a full time parent for nine years. We both had some adjusting to do because I don’t think either of us knew what to expect from one another. He had been used to being a weekend father (and a very good one who never once missed a weekend with his kids) and I was used to the relative easygoing nature of my mother. As a result both of us had to cut back on our bad behavior and we had to learn to talk to one another.
For most of my life my father has two topics of conversation: The New York Mets and the New York Jets, that was good enough for the weekends but it wouldn’t get us though more than a few days. This is where “We Didn’t Start the Fire” come in. I am a total dork when it comes to history especially US history and my father was too. It helped that we both had the same gift of retaining every piece of trivial information we ever learned. As my father once proudly said to a friend: “I know everything and whatever I don’t know, my son knows.”
When the “Storm Front” album was released in October and this song was making it’s way up the charts my father decided to turn it into a daily history lesson making sure I knew what every fact and name in the song referred to and why it was important.
My father wasn’t the only one who saw the song as a teaching opportunity. By late 1989 schools across America, including mine, began to incorporate the song into the curriculum. When I returned to History class following the holiday break I discovered that the bulletin board was now covered by a Billy Joel branded timeline that broke down the lyrics year by year. Thanks to lengthy conversations with my father I could already speak with some authority on post WWII history. It may seem like a small thing but it mattered to me, the previous year had been difficult on me and my family. My life had been changed and now I was making inroads with my father and feeling like I was smart about something. That was better than feeling like a weird kid who was asked to leave school.
My experience with the song was not unique in terms of learning about history because I’m certain has helped a lot of students. In this sense “We Didn’t Start The Fire” was something of a cultural phenomenon, It’s a solid introduction to world events between 1949-1989 and it covers it all in four minutes. But how does it hold up as a song?
Listening to it today, with the knowledge I now have of the rest of the Billy Joel catalog it feels like it doesn’t belong. “We Didn’t Start The Fire” sounds like something written to win a bet; it’s like he was given a list of names and events and told to make a song. It’s impressive that he pulled it off but it’s a trick, not a Billy Joel song. There’s no melody to speak of and the sometimes shouted and staccato vocals sound grating to my ears today. The song also sounds big, which is appropriate for something covering 40 years of history but not what I’ve come to expect from a Billy Joel record. This big sound may be producer Mick Jones’ influence. It succeeded in getting the song to the top of the charts and helped sell millions of records but it’s essentially a glorified novelty song.
Billy Joel himself has said that this one is a nightmare to perform live, because missing one word throws the whole thing off. I’m sure he was happy when enough time had passed to take this one out of the live set list.
The story about the first time Will was kicked out of high school, wrapped in a Billy Joel song.
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