Saturday, February 23, 2013

Still Putting Out the Fire

By JccKeith

Here it is Friday again and as promised, I will be continuing the dissection or explanation that is, of Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start the Fire.  The majority of the song was explained last Friday in  Tonight I will be finishing up the remaining stanzas.

A reminder of the song:

Video Property of and Copyright Sony 1989

The rest of the lyrics beginning with the chorus:
Full Lyrics can be found at

Hemingway, Eichmann...
Dylan, Berlin...
... Liston beats Patterson

Pope Paul, Malcolm X...
... what else do I have to say


Hemingway refers to Ernest Hemingway the famous author and hot mess of a guy.  See my post on Hemingway:

Eichmann refers to Otto Adolf Eichmann the German Nazi SS-officer responsible for organizing the holocaust.  He was put in charge of figuring out a way to deport Jewish people to concentration camps for extermination.  He was tried for his crimes against humanity in 1962, found guilty and hanged.  Good riddens.

Stranger in a Strange Land is a 1961 satirical science fiction novel by Robert Heinlein about a man raised on Mars by Martians who then comes to Earth.  It resembles The Jungle Book except that the young man was raised by Martians rather than by wolves.

Dylan refers to Bob Dylan an American singer and song writer.  He became very popular in the 1960s and was seen by many as the voice of both the civil rights and anti-war movements due to songs such as Blowin in the Wind and The Times They Are A Changin.

Berlin in this specific reference, based on the times of the other references above, refers to the building of the Berlin Wall.  Escalating problems between Cold War forces in August 1961 resulted in East Germany beginning the building of the Berlin Wall between East and West Berlin along with similar separations around West Berlin.  This culminated in the famous tank standoff at Checkpoint Charlie in October 1961.  West Berlin was officially a separate part of West Germany with its own legal status.  East Berlin was officially a part of East Germany.

Bay of Pigs Invasion – In August 1960 President Eisenhower approved the funding of an antirevolutionary militia trained by the CIA whose purpose was to deal with the problems with Cuba and its recent revolution.  In January 1961 J.F.K. became president of the US and was informed and approved the invasion of Cuba’s Bay of Pigs with the intention to overthrow the revolutionary leftist government of Cuba.  In April 1961, the CIA trained militia known as Brigade 2506 left Guantanamo and invaded Cuba at the Bay of Pigs.  They were overthrown within three days by Cuban armed forces under command of Prime Minister Fidel Castro. 

Lawrence of Arabia is a 1962 British ‘epic’ film about the life of T.E. Lawrence.  It was widely popular and touted by many to be among the greatest and most influential film in cinema history.  Peter O’toole starred in the film in case you were wondering. 

British Beetlemania was the bizarre occurrence where in the British people became paranoid that beetles were taking over their country.  They believed the beetles had been outfitted with mini cameras spying on the British people for the Soviets.  Alright, that’s not entirely true.  In fact, none of that is true.  Beetlemania is how it was spelled in the lyrics I found online.  It is really Beatlemania and refers to the obsession of so many people with the British rock band the Beatles in the 1960s. 

Ole Miss is a nickname for the University of Mississippi which as previously mentioned was front page news in 1962 due to the opposition to admission of black students.  James Meredith in 1962 became the first black student to attend Ole Miss.

John Glenn flew the Frienship 7 mission in February 1962. Friendship 7 was part of the Mercury-Atlas project by NASA.  The MA6 project was the first successful mission by NASA to place an astronaut in orbit.  John Glenn was the first American to orbit the Earth and third person in space.  It was a big deal. 

Liston beats Patterson is about a fight, a boxing match to be exact.  This guy Floyd Patterson was the heavyweight title holder and the only guy to ever regain the heavyweight title.  He won it, lost it and then won it back again which pretty much means he was a great boxer.  Then he fought Sonny Liston at Comiskey Park in Chicago in September 1962.  In a stunning upset, Liston kicked some tail and defeated Patterson.  To illustrate how monumental the nation found this fight I will share a quote, “To watch Liston overcome Patterson in tapes of their fights,” wrote Joyce Carol Oates, “is to watch the defeat of ‘civilization’ by something so elemental and primitive it cannot be named…”

Pope Paul – well this one is a toughie, I guess.  I doubt it refers to Pope Paul I because he reigned supreme from May 757 to June 767 when he died.  So yeah, I’m thinking he had very little to do with the 1960s. 

Let’s skip ahead a millennium and a few centuries shall we?  Pope Paul II was not supreme ruler of the Catholic church until 1978 so I don’t think it refers to him either since from what I remember from my school years 1978 is quite a ways after the 1960s. 

My best guess is Billy is actually referring to Pope Paul VI who held the office of Pope from 1963 to 1978 when oddly enough he died and Pope Paul II was elected to Pope.  Either my math is really bad or something doesn’t make sense about that.  How does Pope Paul VI come before Pope Paul II?  Unless that is, Pope Paul II is an immortal or perhaps a vampire in which case he was alive long before Pope Paul VI.  Yeah, that must be it.

Now, Pope Paul VI was important in the 1960s because he got together with a bunch of Archbishops, a Vicar Capitular, probably some Auxiliary Archbishops and some other important peeps to complete the Second Vatican Council from 1962 to 1965 – that’s a long time to hold a council but I’m sure they took a few breaks.

Malcolm X was a Muslim minister and human rights activist.  Born Malcolm Little, he was also known as El-Hajj Malik El Shabazz.  He went to prison for a while where he became a member of the Nation of Islam.  

When he left prison in 1952 he became a leader who taught the idea of black supremacy and separation of blacks and whites.  Many say he preached racism and violence.  After a while, he got fed up and left the Nation of Islam in 1964.  He traveled to the Middle East and Africa then returned to the US.   When he got back he started Muslim Mosque, Inc and Organization of Afro-American Unity.  Then in 1965 he was assassinated by three members of the Nation of Islam. He is considered to be one of the most influential African Americans in history.

British Politician Sex is a scandal involving you guessed it, a British politician and sex.  It happened in 1963 and was actually dubbed the Profumo Affair.  This guy named John Profumo was in the 1960s the Secretary of State for War in a big time conservative British government.  He was married.  Then he went and had an affair with Christine Keeler who depending on what source you use was either a party girl or a hooker.  Doesn’t matter.  What mattered was he got caught and lied about it to the House of Commons when they called him out on it. He tried to pull the old, ‘that’s my story and I’m stickin to it’ routine.  They didn’t buy it for a minute.  It didn’t help matters that this Keeler woman was the known mistress of an alleged Soviet spy.  Game over, Profumo was forced to resign in disgrace.

J.F.K  is an acronym for the phrase “Just F*#@ing Kidding. 
O.k. it’s not.  Joel actually says JFK blown away.  J.F.K. was US president number 35, John F. Kennedy.  He was very popular, everybody liked him and the nation was just in love with the guy and his family.  He did some things, made some groundbreaking decisions and made quite a few inspirational and well remembered speeches.  Then he was assassinated in November 1963 while in a motorcade.  It was awful, the nation mourned its loss and there was a lot of speculation on who actually shot him, what group was behind the person who shot him and whether bullets are magic.

What else do I have to say?  I think what Billy is trying to impart in this phrase is that you should have gotten the point by now.  It doesn’t matter what time period you grew up in because historic, incredible events that change things forever happen all the time.

Back to the Song Lyrics:


Birth Control, Ho Chi Minh, Richard Nixon...
... China’s under martial law
Rock and Roll... I can’t take it anymore


Birth Control is about well, preventing pregnancy.  Birth control, the pill that is, is seen as the symbol for the sexual revolution of the 1960s.  The 1960s were a time of great change in civil rights including the rights of women. The 1960s saw an increase in people having sex outside of marriage.  Until the 60s women were less likely to have sex outside of marriage for fear of getting pregnant and then having an illegitimate child.  

The social stigma for this was severe.  Birth control changed all that and allowed people to be more promiscuous and free in relation to sex.  Do not misunderstand me.  I am not saying birth control leads to promiscuity.  I am saying it just allows people a choice. 

Ho Chi Minh
Ho Chi Minh was a Vietnamese communist revolutionary who ended up being Prime Minister from 1945-1955.  He was president from 1945-1969.  Technically, he stepped down from power in 1955 but retained his title and served as a figurehead.  He was a key figure in the formation of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and the Viet Cong.  After the Geneva Accords in 1954 set to deal with the war and violence and problems in Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh officially moved his people to the North and established North Vietnam under communist rule and the rest of the people who were anti-communist established South Vietnam.    

So the stage was set for the Vietnam War which I won’t get into because we all know about it.  Most importantly, during Minh’s rule any people opposing him were exiled to gulags or concentration camps where they were worked to death or starved or died of untreated medical problems.  Many were simply executed.  Minh wanted a united communist Vietnam.

Richard Nixon back again – Nixon ran for president in 1960 but lost to JFK.  He ran again later and became the 37th President of the US.

Moonshot is the story of America’s race to the moon.  Deals with the Apollo 11 mission which put astronauts on the moon.

Woodstock  - In 1969 Woodstock was this huge music festival that was the biggest shin dig  ever, totally epic.

Watergate was the scandal in 1970 involving a break-in to the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Complex in D.C.  The scandal led to the resignation of Richard Nixon.

Punk rock is a music genre which started in the 1970s.  The music was loud, short, fast and typically anti-establishment. 

Begin – yeah, I don’t really know what this one means unless it indicates he is moving from the 1970s to the 1980s.

Reagan – Ronald Reagan was the 40th President of the US and served from 1981-1989.  Prior to that he was a Governor and before that an actor.

Palestine in the 1970s was considered a non-state entity although the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) was officially recognized as the sole representative of the Palestine people.  At the time, Israel was occupying what the PLO designated as Palestinian territories in 1967.  This was a big problem as Israel did not want to give up the land and the Palestinians wanted their lands.  Palestine was declared a sovereign state by the PLO in November 1988.

Terror on the airline – In the 1970s and 1980s terrorists were hijacking a lot of planes and it became a worldwide concern.

Ayatollah’s In Iran – Ayatollah was elected president of Iran in 1981 and he vowed to eliminate deviation, liberalism and American influenced leftism.  He ruled the country with an iron fist and suppressed all forms of opposition and insurrection with terror and death.  He led Iran through the Iraq-Iran wars in the 1980s.

Russians in Afghanistan – the war lasted from 1979-1989 and consisted of Russian led Afghans fighting against multinational insurgent groups receiving training in Pakistan and China and funding from the US, United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia.

Wheel of Fortune was originally a daytime game show from 1975-1991 and began as a night time show in 1983.  It’s a game show where players spin a wheel to see what their prize or misfortune will be then guess single letters to help them solve a puzzle.

Sally Ride was an American physicist and astronaut.  In 1983 she became the first woman in space.

Heavy metal suicide – In the 1980s there were a lot of ridiculous lawsuits against heavy metal rock bands claiming their music resulted in kids committing suicide.  Heavy metal was seen by many as ‘the devil’s music.’

Foreign debts is exactly what it says, a debt to someone of another country.  Generally foreign debts refer to money one country owes to another.  It can also be money one country owes to outside creditors such as banks, world organizations and the like.

Homeless vets – again this is exactly what it says, there are many people returning from active duty who come home to the US to find no support.  This became a major outrage in the 1980s when people became more aware of the plight of vets and their struggles to make it in society after service in the military.

AIDS this is an acronym for Aquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome.  AIDS is the eventual progression of an infection with the HIV virus.  During the 1980s is when AIDS became noticed as an epidemic.  It was first clinically diagnosed in the United States in 1981.

Crack is a freebase and cheaper form of cocaine.  It first made an appearance in the poor areas of New York, Los Angeles and Miami in 1984 and 1985.

Bernie Goetz became a symbol in New York of the frustration over increasing crime rates in the 1980s.  He became this symbol by shooting four men who tried to mug him on the subway.  He was tried and convicted for illegal possession of a firearm.

Hypodermics on the shore refers to what is known as the Syringe Tide where loads of medical waste, including hypodermic needles, washed up on a 50 mile stretch of the Jersey Shore in 1987-1988.  Gross.

China’s under martial law refers to China declaring martial law in response to the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 by students in Beijing.  Martial law was declared and soldiers with assault rifles and tanks were unleashed upon the students.  Thousands were injured.  The government defended its actions by declaring the millions gathered in the square as a counterrevolutionary riot.

Rock and Roll – refers to the changing once again of rock music in the 1980s.

Cola wars refers to the legendary battle for supremacy between cola giants Coca Cola and Pepsi.

Then Billy Joel says he can’t take it anymore and continues to repeat the chorus 4X.  So there you have it, the history of the world between the 1940s and 1980s as told by Billy Joel. 


  1. And what did you take from all that research?

  2. Well I walked away with a sore neck and lower back pain from sitting hunched over the computer for so many hours. Other than that, being the history buff that I am I was surprised to learn a few things. I had never heard of Bernie Goetz and I was definitely not up to speed on the various Pope Pauls.