I love list songs, and 30 years ago, the Number One Song the first week of December was Billy Joel‘s We Didn’t Start The Fire, which is a perfect example. Its lyrics are rapid-fire refrences to more than 100 headline events between 1949, the year of Joel’s birth, and 1989, when the song was released as a single from his album Storm Front. It was nominated for the Grammy Award for Record of the Year.
When Joel had just turned 40 years old, he met a 21-year-old who said: “It’s a terrible time to be 21!” Joel replied to him:
“Yeah, I remember when I was 21 – I thought it was an awful time and we had Vietnam, and drug problems, and civil rights problems and everything seemed to be awful.”
The 21-year old kid replied:
“But it’s different for you. You were a kid in the 1950s and everybody knows that nothing happened in the 1950s“.
Joel countered with:
“Wait a minute, didn’t you hear of the Korean War or the Suez Canal Crisis?”
Those headlines became the seed of the lyrics for the song. Joel later said that he wasn’t crazy about melodic content of his song:
“Take a song like ‘We Didn’t Start The Fire.’ It’s really not much of a song… If you take the melody by itself, terrible. Like a dentist drill.”
Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old climate crisis activist, who deserves to be the Time magazine Person of the Year, told the world this summer: “Our house is on fire!”. I wonder if she knows who started it?
Coming in at just under five minutes, We Didn’t Start The Fire chronicles 40 years of headlines and pop culture. It works as both an earworm and a time capsule. There are 117 headlines, and 59 notable people mentioned in the song. Only five are still alive today. All of them remain relevant; many have been featured on #BornThisDay.
Harry Truman (1884-1975), President of the United States from 1945 to 1953, whose low-key attempt to purchase Greenland made the news again this past summer.
We lost Gay Icon Doris Day this spring, gone at 97 years old. She was cremated with no funeral, memorial or grave site.
Gay singer Johnnie Ray (b. 1927) died in 1990 and is buried in Oregon, where I live.
Gossip columnist Walter Winchell (b. 1897) died in Los Angeles in 1972, and Joe DiMaggio (b. 1914), died in Florida in 1999. Winchell wrote about the conspiracy surrounding the affair of Marilyn Monroe and Robert F. Kennedy and her possible murder-disguised-as-a-suicide; DiMaggio as Monroe’s second husband. He barred any Kennedys from attending her funeral in 1962 and had red roses delivered to her grave three times a week for 20 years.
Despicable Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy (b. 1908) died of hepatitis in 1957 but left America with McCarthyism, which lives on in Mitch McConnell. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed in 1953 for alleged Russian espionage.
Boxing great Sugar Ray Robinson (b.1921) died of diabetes in 1989.
Omnisexual Marlon Brando (b.1924) was a truly great American actor and he remains an ultimate Pop Culture Icon. He was taken in 2004 at 80; his ashes were scattered in Death Valley.
A good old-fashioned Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower was President from 1953 to 1961. A hero of World War II, Ike signed the Civil Rights Act of 1957, and he commissioned Area 51 where the government stores aliens. He would hate today’s GOP.
Elizabeth Windsor (b.1926) as Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth, she is the longest-lived and longest-reigning British monarch, as well as the world’s longest-serving female head of state, oldest living monarch, longest-reigning current monarch, and the oldest and longest-serving current head of state. Someone should make a television series about her.
Sexy, undefeated heavyweight champion boxer Rocky Marciano (b.1923) died in a plane crash in 1969.
Pop Icon, barely closeted queer Władziu Valentino Liberace (b.1919) was taken by the plague in 1987. There is a terrific film about him Behind The Candelabra (2013), streaming on HBO.
Philosopher- writer George Santayana (b.1863) died in1952. He is remembered today for his aphorism: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it“.
Joseph Stalin (b.1878) leader in the USSR and the Communist party until his death in 1953. He lives in in the spirit of mentally unstable dictatorships and campaign of genocide. Georgy Malenkov (b. 1902) followed Stalin, but a few weeks later Nikita Khrushchev (1894) took over and Malenkov was sent to Siberia.
Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918) was charismatic Cold War president of Egypt, who led the 1952 overthrow of the monarchy and introduced far-reaching reforms. He figures in The Spy, a 2019 series on Netflix.
Sergei Prokofiev (b. 1891) was a composer born in Ukraine. He died in Moscow on the same day in 1957 as Stalin. Arturo Toscanini (b.1867), an acclaimed Italian conductor, died the same year.
The grandsons of the wealthiest American of the era, Republicans Nelson Rockefeller (b.1908) and infamous playboy Winthrop Rockefeller (b.1902) concurrently served as governors of New York and Arkansas, respectively, the only two brothers to do so until George W. and Jeb! Bush in Texas and Florida, respectively in the 1990s.
Roy Campanella (b.1921) played for the Dodgers when they were in Brooklyn. He was paralyzed in a car accident in 1958 and died in 1993. He is buried in the same cemetery as Liberace.
Friend and fixer to our current POTUS, lawyer Roy Cohn (b.1927) was chief counsel to Joe McCarthy and the prosecutor at the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Cohn died of AIDS-related complications in 1986 and was buried in Queens. Today he is probably best known as a character in Tony Kushner‘s masterpiece Angels In America. Cohn is played by Al Pacino in the 2003 film version and by Nathan Lane the 2018 Broadway revivial. Pacino won an Emmy and Lane won a Tony Award for playing Cohn. Where’s My Roy Cohn? (2019) is documentary named for a Trump quote.
Juan Perón (1875) has his own fascist political legacy as leader of Argentina from 1946 to 1955, when he was overthrown in a coup d’état, and then from October 1973 until his death in 1974. In 1987, his tomb was desecrated; his hands were stolen and held for a ransom that was never paid.
Theoretical physicist and Pop Culture Icon Albert Einstein (b. 1879) died of an aneurysm in 1955. His brain was dissected and dispersed to various pathologists.
Gay actor, Cultural Icon James Dean (b.1931) died in a car crash in 1955, just as his career was taking off. He was found at fault for speeding, which was called into question by new information 60 years later from an officer who was on the scene.
Some believe singer and ultimate Pop Icon Elvis Presley (b. 1935) died in 1977; he is probably buried at Graceland in Memphis, although he is spotted in public. To this day, Presley remains the bestselling solo artist, with one billion in sales.
Living in Saint-Tropez, actor-sex symbol Brigitte Bardot is known not just for the dazzle of her celebrity but of her love for animals. She turned 85 in September.
Actor Grace Kelly (1929) died of brain injuries at the Monaco hospital later named for her, following a car accident in 1982. She was just 53 years old.
Boris Pasternak (1890) is famous for Doctor Zhivago (1957), a novel that takes place between the Russian Revolution of 1905 and the Second World War. It was rejected for publication in the USSR and the manuscript had to be secretly smuggled to Italy for publication. Pasternak won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958, an event that enraged the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. In 2014, the Washington Post revealed that release of Dr. Zhivago was part of a CIA mission.
Baseball Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle (b.1931) died in 1995 from complications from alcoholism. Handsome Beat writer Jack Kerouac (b. 1922) died in 1969, the result of longtime alcohol abuse. He was an object of Roy Cohn’s scorn.
Zhou Enlai (b.1989), Mao pal and first Premier of The People’s Republic of China, died of cancer in 1976.
Former French president Charles de Gaulle (b.1890) was a WW II hero. He died suddenly in 1970 while watching the evening news. His eponymous airport is Europe’s busiest.
19-year-old Charles Starkweather (b.1938) committed eleven murders during one week in 1958. He was executed in 1959, yet lives on in Terrance Malick‘s brilliant, beautiful Badlands and Bruce Springsteen‘s Nebraska.
Buddy Holly (b.1936) was killed in a airplane crash on the day the music died, February 3, 1959. He’s buried in Lubbock, Texas, where he’s commemorated by a 750-pound sculpture of his trademark glasses.
Cuban revolutionary Fidel Castro (b.1926) died in Havana in 2016. Syngman Rhee (b.1875) was the first president of South Korea He died in exile in Hawaii in 1965. John F. Kennedy (b.1917) was elected president in 1960, and was assassinated in 1963.
Chubby Checker‘s The Twist was named the biggest hit of all time by Billboard in 2008. He was born Ernest Evans in 1941 and currently lives in Philadelphia.
Literary giant and Cultural Icon Ernest Hemingway, receiver of the Nobel and Pulitzer Prizes died by suicide in 1961 and is buried in Ketchum, Idaho. The next year, nasty Nazi Adolf Eichmann was hanged for war crimes in Israel.
78-year-old Bob Dylan lives in Malibu and continues his Never Ending Tour with shows scheduled nearly nightly until the end of the year.
John Glenn (b.1921) is remembered for being the first American to orbit the Earth, and not really remembered for his failed Democratic presidential run in 1984. In 1998 Glenn flew in space again at 77 years old.
Sonny Liston (b.1932) was a heavyweight boxing champion with mafia ties who died of a drug overdose in Las Vegas in 1970. Floyd Patterson (b.1925) twice reigned as the world heavyweight champion. Liston beat him in a famous match in 1962, died in 2006.
Pope Paul VI (1897) left this world in 1978. He is remembered today for his shoe collection and his 1968 declaration that birth control was intrinsically wrong.
Civil rights leader Malcolm X (born El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz in 1926) wan American Muslim cleric was a popular figure, and was assassinated in 1965. In the wake of his murder, friends and followers founded the Black Panther Party.
British Secretary of State John Profumo (b.1915) had a brief affair in 1963 with 19-year-old model Christine Keeler, who was having an affair with a Russian diplomat at the same time. Their trust led to Cold War hysteria and the resignation of several members of Parliament, including the prime minister. Purfumo bit the big one in 2006. Keeler died on this day in 2017.
Vietnam leader Ho Chi Minh (b.1890) died of heart failure during the Vietnam War in 1969. His embalmed body is on display in his memorial in Hanoi.
Republican Presidents Richard M. Nixon (b.1913) and Ronald W. Reagan (b. 1911) died ten years apart, in 1994 and 2004, and are buried at their respective presidential libraries in California.
Former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin (b.1913) died in 1992 and is buried in Jerusalem. Ayatollah Sayyid Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini (b.1902) died of a heart attack in Tehran in 1995, where his coffin was torn apart and his death shroud torn into relics by a mob that had gathered to view his corpse.
Gay astronaut and first American woman in space Sally Ride (b.1951) took that final ride to the next dimension in 2012.
In 1984, Bernhard Goetz (b.1947), “the Subway Vigilante” shot four black teenagers on a New York City subway with an unregistered revolver then fled the scene. Goetz was acquitted at trial. His crime began a nation dialogue on gun violence v. self-defense. He lives in the same Union Square apartment he did at the time of the trial, and the conversation about gun violence goes on and on.
We Didn’t Start The Fire was knocked out of the Number One spot by Another Day In Paradise, a Phil Collins ode to homelessness.