As 16-year-old activist Greta Thunberg catalyzes a worldwide youth movement around the climate crisis, her rallying cry is, “Our house is on fire.” But does she know who started it?
Sept. 27 marks the 30th anniversary of Billy Joel’s Cold War history lesson, “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” In under five minutes, the single chronicles nearly a half-century of headline news and pop culture, from Joel’s birth year, 1949, to the recording of his 1989 album, “Storm Front.” It earned Joel a Grammy nomination and topped the Billboard Hot 100. Since, it’s been counted among “The 50 Worst Songs Ever” by Blender magazine, and Joel himself has denounced it as a melodic aberration. Whatever your take on its musical value, there’s no arguing “We Didn’t Start the Fire” is an earworm and a time capsule — giving listeners, baby-boomers and beyond, a tip-of-the-iceberg run-through of contemporary American history.
To keep that curiosity burning, here’s a check-in on the 59 people referenced across the track’s 117 headlines, in order (more or less) of mention in the song. Only five of those luminaries are still alive today. Many are as relevant as ever.
1) Thirty-third U.S. President Harry Truman was laid to rest in 1972 at his presidential library in Independence, MO., and he was back in the news last month for his own low-key attempt to purchase Greenland.
2) Doris Day died this spring at age 97. She didn’t like to talk about death — she was cremated with no funeral, memorial or grave site.
3) Johnnie Ray died in 1990 and is buried in Oregon. His name hasn’t really come up since Portishead sampled his “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” (1959) on “Biscuit” from 1994’s “Dummy.”
4) Pioneering gossip columnist Walter Winchell (who died in Los Angeles in 1972) and (5) Joe DiMaggio (who died in Florida in ’99) both feature in the new podcast “Who Killed (6) Marilyn Monroe”: Winchell as the newspaperman who serialized the conspiracy surrounding her affair with Bobby Kennedy and her subsequent possible murder-disguised-as-a-suicide; DiMaggio as Monroe’s second husband, who barred all Kennedys from attending her 1962 funeral, and had a half-dozen red roses delivered to her grave in L.A. three times a week for 20 years.
7) Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy died of hepatitis in 1957 but left America with McCarthyism — a frequent topic of discussion in the Trump era, by everyone from Whoopi Goldberg to, ironically, Mitch McConnell. 8 and 9) Related, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were controversially executed in 1953 for alleged Russian espionage.
10) Sugar Ray Robinson, the “greatest boxer of all time,” died of diabetes in 1989 and is buried in L.A.
11) Eight-time Academy Award-winner Marlon Brando passed away in 2004; his ashes were scattered in Tahiti and Death Valley.
12) 34th President Dwight D. Eisenhower‘s legacy lives on in many ways, not limited to his signing of 1957’s Civil Rights Act or his commissioning Area 51 — which was stormed last Friday by thousands of alien enthusiasts.
13) As her kingdom is torn apart by the great Brexit debate, Queen Elizabeth II quietly awaits her 94th birthday.
14) Undefeated heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano died in a plane crash at age 45 in 1969 and was buried in Florida.
15) Singer and television star Władziu Valentino Liberace contracted AIDS and died of pneumonia in L.A. in 1987.
16) Philosopher and writer George Santayana died Sept. 26, 1952. His legacy is carried forward by his often misattributed aphorisms, e.g., “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
17) Joseph Stalin, who led the Soviet Union and the Communist party until his death in 1953, is remembered for his mentally unstable dictatorship and campaign of genocide. (18) Georgy Malenkov followed Stalin, but for just a matter of weeks before being ousted by (19) Nikita Khrushchev and banished to manage a power station in Kazakhstan.
20) The story of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt’s charismatic Cold War president, lays the groundwork for Netflix’s new historical drama “The Spy,” starring Sacha Baron Cohen.
21) Sergei Prokofiev, a Soviet composer born in Ukraine, turned out some good operas before passing away in Moscow on the same day as Stalin in ’53. 22) Arturo Toscanini, an acclaimed Italian conductor, died in 1957; he is buried in Milan.
23 and 24) Grandsons of wealthiest American of all time John D. Rockefeller, Nelson and infamous drinker and playboy Winthrop Rockefeller concurrently served as governors (in New York and Arkansas, respectively) — the only two brothers to do so until George W. and Jeb Bush in the late ’90s (in Texas and Florida, respectively). Winrock, as he was known, died in Palm Springs in 1973; his ashes were scattered on his Arkansas family farm.
25) Revered catcher Roy “Campy” Campanella played for the Brooklyn Dodgers until he was paralyzed in a car accident in 1958. He died in 1993 and appeared on a U.S. postage stamp in 2006. He’s buried in the same Los Angeles cemetery as Liberace.
26) Lawyer and power-broker-from-the-dark-side Roy Cohn was chief counsel to McCarthy, and friend and fixer to Donald Trump. Cohn died of AIDS-related complications in 1986 and was buried in Queens; a new documentary, “Where’s My Roy Cohn?,” named for a reported Trump quote, studies his modern-day influence. (27) Juan Peron’s political legacy is also as formative as ever. He died in 1974. In ’87, his tomb was desecrated; his hands were stolen and held for a ransom that was never paid. In 2006, his body was moved to a mausoleum at his former summer house in Buenos Aires where it now rests — without hands.
28) After he died of an aneurysm in 1955, Albert Einstein’s ashes were scattered at Princeton, but his brain was dissected and dispersed to various pathologists and a physics museum in Philadelphia.
29) James Dean died in 1955 in a traffic accident and was laid to rest near his childhood home in Indiana. 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.
30) Some believe Elvis Presley died in 1977; in which case, he is probably buried at Graceland in Memphis.
31) Living in Saint-Tropez, actress Brigitte Bardot published her memoir in April — not on the glitter of celebrity but of her ardent love for animals. She turns 85 on Sept. 28.
32) Princess Grace Kelly died of brain injuries at the Monaco hospital later named for her, following a car accident in 1982.
33) In 2014, the Washington Post revived how the release of poet-novelist Boris Pasternak’s “Dr. Zhivago” was part of a CIA mission.
34) Baseball Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle died in 1995 and is buried in Dallas.
35) Beatnik writer Jack Kerouac died in 1969 and is buried in Lowell, Mass.
36) Zhou Enlai, Mao supporter and first Premier of China, died of bladder cancer in 1976; his ashes were scattered near his birthplace.
37) World War II hero and former French president Charles de Gaulle is buried in northeastern France. His eponymous airport is mainland Europe’s busiest.
38) 19-year-old Charles Starkweather committed eleven murders over the course of a week in 1958, in the company of his 14-year-old girlfriend. He was sentenced to death — the last execution in Nebraska until 1994 — and buried there the following year. He lives on in Terrance Malick’s “Badlands” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska.”
39) Buddy Holly was killed in a plane crash on “the day the music died” — Feb. 3, 1959. He’s buried in his hometown of Lubbock, Texas, where he’s commemorated by a 750-pound sculpture of his trademark glasses.
40) Cuban Communist revolutionary Fidel Castro died in Havana in 2016; his ashes are interred in Santiago de Cuba. (41) Syngman Rhee, the first president of South Korea, died in exile in Hawaii in 1965. (42) John F. Kennedy was elected president in 1960, assassinated in 1963 and is buried at Arlington cemetery.
43) “The Twist,” by Ernest “Chubby Checker” Evans, was named the biggest hit of all time by Billboard in 2008. He lives in Philadelphia.
44) Nobel and Pulitzer prize-winning literary giant Ernest Hemingway died by suicide in 1961 and was buried in Ketchum, Idaho. (45) The following year, Nazi kingpin Adolf Eichmann was hanged for war crimes by a tribunal in Israel. His ashes were scattered in the Mediterranean by a navy patrol boat.
46) 78-year-old Bob Dylan lives in Malibu and continues his “Never Ending Tour” with shows scheduled nearly nightly this October and November.
47) John Glenn died in Columbus, Ohio, in 2016; he is remembered for being the first American to orbit the Earth, and not so remembered for his failed Democratic presidential run in 1984.
48) Sonny Liston was a notorious heavyweight champion with mafia ties who died of a supposed drug overdose in Las Vegas in 1970 and was buried in Scottsdale, Ariz. (49) Floyd Patterson, whom Liston beat in a famous match in ’62, died in 2006 and was buried in New Paltz, N.Y.
50) Pope Paul VI was interred at the Vatican after his death in 1978. He’s best remembered today for his 1968 declaration that birth control was “intrinsically wrong.”
51) Civil rights leader Malcolm X was assassinated at the Audubon Ballroom in New York in 1965 and buried in Hartsdale, N.Y. In the wake of his murder, friends and followers founded the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense.
52) In 1963, British Secretary of State John Profumo had a brief affair with 19-year-old model Christine Keeler, who had a simultaneous affair with a Russian diplomat. The risky tryst led to Cold War hysteria and the resignation of various members of Parliament, including the prime minister. A BBC drama on the affairs and tribulations of Keeler — who died ten years after Profumo, in 2016 — just wrapped production.
53) Vietnam Prime Minister and President Ho Chi Minh died of heart failure during the Vietnam War in ’69; he wanted to be cremated, but his embalmed body remains on display in his memorial mausoleum in Hanoi.
54 and 55) Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan died ten years apart, in ‘94 and 2004, and are buried at their respective presidential libraries in Yorba Linda and Simi Valley.
56) Former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin was buried in Jerusalem in 1992. (57) Ayatollah Khomeini died of a heart attack in Tehran in 1995, where his coffin was splintered, his body knocked to the ground and his death shroud torn into relics by crowds mobbing to view his corpse.
58) Physicist, astronaut and first American woman in space Sally Ride died in 2012 and was buried near her hometown in Santa Monica.
59) In 1984, NYC “subway vigilante” Bernhard Goetz shot four black teenagers with an unregistered revolver in a purported mugging on the 2 train, then fled the scene. The crime and Goetz’s ensuing trial — in which he was acquitted — became a flash point for discourse on gun violence and self-defense. He lives today in the same Union Square apartment building he did at the time of the trial, and the conversation about gun violence rages on.