September 26, 2012

Billy Joel Teaches History

Doris Day

Suggestively, I’m listening to ‘She’s Got a Way’ while writing this.   Could there be a Billy Joel song to suit the mood of every historic event mentioned in ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’ or is that too meta? 

Doris Day - born Doris Mary Ann Kappelhoff in Cincinnati, Ohio - is an iconic American actress, singer, and animal rights activist.  She has an extensive filmography but titles such as Pillow Talk (for which she was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar in 1959), Calamity Jane, and The Man Who Knew Too Much are as widely recognized as co-stars like James Stewart and Rock Hudson.  Her self-titled TV show ran from 1968 to 1973 (and earned her a Golden Globe nomination for Best TV Star - Female in 1969).  Weirdly she also earned something called a Sour Apple for Least Cooperative Actress at the Golden Apples Awards three separate times.  Still, it seemed nothing could dampen her appeal and at the height of her fame she was ranked the number one female box office star of the time. 

She was as known for her singing as for her acting and hit tunes such as ‘Que Sera Sera’, ‘Sentimental Journey’, ‘It’s Magic’, and ‘Secret Love’ earned her a place in the Grammy Hall of Fame.  At one point in a single year of her early singing career she had five Top Ten hits on the Billboard Hall of Fame.  I mean!

Doris Day and Rock Hudson.  Of Hudson, her three-time co-star, she would later reminisce: "I asked, 'Who's with me in Pillow Talk?' They said, 'Rock.' That struck me as funny. That's a name?"
The cheerful musicals she frequently starred in and her sunny California blonde looks contributed to her image as the quintessential all-American girl next door and seemed to foster a perpetual virginal stereotype about her.  In ‘Look At Me, I’m Sandra Dee’ from Grease, she is referenced in the lyrics “Watch it! Hey I'm Doris Day / I was not brought up that way / Won't come across, even Rock Hudson lost / His heart to Doris Day” which seems to tidily sum up how the public saw her.  Things were not so sunnily pure in reality, however, as she survived four marriages - one of which was abusive, three of which ended in divorce, and one of which ended with a devastating death - being thrown into debt by an unscrupulous business partner, and the loss of her only son Terry. 

Interested in animal rights activism her whole life, when she more or less retired from acting after The Doris Day Show she focused her attention full time on the welfare of animals.  She is responsible for founding the Doris Day Animal League, an animal advocacy group based in Washington DC, which merged with The Humane Society in 2006. 

There are some fun facts (or even “facts”) about Doris Day floating around on the interwebs, too. 
  • She turned down the role of Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate for ‘moral’ reasons.
  • She is mentioned in ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go Go’ by Wham: “ You take the grey skies out of my way / You make the sun shine brighter than Doris Day”.
  • She voted for George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential election.
  • She has a fear of flying.
  • Her nickname is ‘Clara Bixby’.
In 1951 Doris Day was in a movie called Storm Warning.  In 1989 Billy Joel released his album ‘Storm Front’ which contained the single ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’.  In which he name drops Doris. 

September 24, 2012

Billy Joel Teaches History

Harry Truman

I think it’s important to be absolutely transparent about this process.  So right away I need to tell you I’m listening to ‘I Go to Extremes’ while writing this.  It was Harry Truman’s favorite song.  No it wasn’t.  Harry S. Truman (1884 - 1872) was the 33rd President of the United States of America so he pre-dated Billy Joel by a lot.  Nonetheless Billy Joel felt strongly enough about Harry Truman to open ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’ with him.  In fashion shows the opening and closing looks are often the most noted, thus big name models frequently wear them.  I’m just saying... if this were Zac Posen’s Spring/Summer 2013 show, Harry Truman would be Naomi Campbell. 

I will just let that image sit with you for a moment.  Along with this one:

Lauren Bacall and Harry Truman.  I don't know where this photo came from or who owns it but it is amazing. 
Some of the many things Harry S Truman did before he became the 33rd POTUS include serving as an officer in the First World War, marrying Elizabeth (Bess) Wallace in 1919, fathering daughter Mary Margaret, being elected presiding judge for the County Court of eastern Jackson County (Missouri) in 1926, winning the 1934 US Senate seat for Missouri, and spearheading the ‘Truman Committee’ to fight waste and corruption in the Second World War.

In 1944 Truman was chosen to be Franklin Roosevelt’s running mate and in January 20, 1945 he was sworn in as Vice President.
On April 12, 1945, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt passed away. Offering his consolation to the widowed Eleanor Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman asked, "Is there anything I can do for you?" Mrs. Roosevelt responded, "Is there anything we can do for you? For you are the one in trouble now."  (From 'Eleanor & Harry: The Correspondence of Eleanor Roosevelt and Harry S Truman')
The official White House biography of Harry Truman notes that "as President, Truman made some of the most crucial decisions in history".  In August 1945 Truman authorized the use of atomic weapons against Japan after the Japanese turned down the Potsdam Declaration. On August 6, 1945 the atomic bomb Little Boy was dropped on Hiroshima and on August 9, 1945 the atomic bomb Fat Man was dropped on Nagasaki. The Japanese agreed to surrender on August 14 and Eleanor Roosevelt noted that Truman had "made the only decision he could".

Truman strongly supported creation of the United Nations and instituted the 'Marshall Plan' which was designed to assist with the rebuilding of post-war Europe. He also signed the National Security Act of 1947 which, among other things, created the CIA and the National Security Council.

You can't trust everything you read.
During the 1948 presidential election, Truman strongly backed civil rights and issued Executive Order 9981 which racially integrated the US Armed Services.  His second term in office saw him announce the detonation of the first US hydrogen bomb on January 7, 1953, offer strong support to NATO, and intervene in the Chinese Civil War in June of 1950.  On June 25, 1950 the North Korean People's Army invaded South Korea, precipitating the Korean War.  Early victories led to an unfortunate stalemate at the 38th parallel. General MacArthur wanted to attack Chinese supply bases north of the Yalu but Truman rejected the plan and, when it later leaked to the press, fired MacArthur. The least politically popular move of his career would prove to be the firing of MacArthur. Truman's approval rating plummeted and he endured impeachment calls.

In 1948 Truman had ordered a controversial addition to the White House: a balcony known as the 'Truman Balcony'.  It soon proved the only stable part of a deteriorating House and when the White House was subsequently closed for extensive interior renovations, the Truman family moved across the street to Blair House.  It was at Blair House where, on November 1, 1950, Puerto Rican nationalists attempted to assassinate Truman.

In 1953 Truman retired and returned home to Independence, Missouri.  Today, in Independence, you can hire a Billy Joel tribute act to perform at your special event - even one held, perhaps, at the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum. 

There are some, quite frankly, awesome quotes attributed to Truman.
“My choice early in life was either to be a piano player in a whorehouse or a politician. And to tell the truth, there’s hardly any difference.”

“If you can't convince them, confuse them.”

“Fame is a vapor, popularity is an accident, riches take wings, those who cheer today may curse tomorrow and only one thing endures - character.”

September 23, 2012

Billy Joel Teaches History

I have always believed I would have retained a lot more of what I was taught in school if everything had been set to music. My ability to memorize song lyrics is baffling and, in most cases, useless. But if physics theories had been sung by New Kids On The Block... well, I might be a genius today.

Of course some songs do teach you things. One of the most thorough pop examples in relatively recent history is Billy Joel's 'We Didn't Start The Fire' which walks you through the major events of the 20th century up until the point Joel wrote the song. It doesn't explain the events or give any context but memorizing those lyrics gives you an intense rundown on a fairly active little segment of history. And while listening to the song in a fit of nostalgia in 2010 I came up with the idea of expanding my mind by way of historical readings via Billy Joel. Basically I decided to research every single thing mentioned in 'We Didn't Start The Fire' and blog about my findings. It would tidily combine pop culture, music, and learning in one handy package. Which - as apparently only Sesame Street, Maria Von Trapp, and Billy Joel understand - is really the key to knowledge retention.

It was derailed by personal life events.  But it's a solid idea so I'm picking it back up, dusting it off, and making it my fall/winter 2012 project.  Billy Joel Teaches History, ladies and gentleman.

The first step: Writing out the song in it's entirety.  (You may read the lyrics at the end of this post or, if you have any respect for popular culture at all, sing them from memory now.)

During this phase I realized two very important things. Firstly, the trouble wasn't in the sewers. The trouble was in the Suez. So it's not a reference to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It's the Suez Canal. Secondly, there aren't Belgians in the condo. The Belgians were in the Congo. I suppose either way constitutes some sort of invasion but Belgians in the condo strongly suggests waffles and I suspect the reference is slightly more pressing than breakfast.

Having thus cleared up minor confusion, I am armed with accurate lyrics and the power of the internet. Let the history lesson commence!


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

Joseph 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, Krushchev
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, Chou En-Lai, "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

U-2, 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
JFK, blown away, what else do I have to say

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

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
But when we are gone
Will it still burn on, and on, and on, and on...