118 People, Events and Things Name-Checked in Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” Complete With Comic Book Connections
116. Hypodermics on the shore
In 1987, residents living along the beaches of Connecticut, New York and New Jersey started noticing something strange: raw garbage and medical waste, including hypodermic syringes, washing up on their shores.
As beaches closed and coastal towns struggled with the sudden drop in tourism, officials traced the source of the waste to the Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island. The city of New York City was ordered to pay $1 million for clean-up; no reparations were paid to business owners on the Jersey Shore for lost revenue, which was estimated to total $1 billion that summer alone.
The “syringe tide” led to changes in the way medical waste was handled. In 1989, a two-year program called the Medical Waste Tracking Act came into effect to address the illegal dumping of biohazardous waste (the EPA handed responsibility for managing medical waste to state health departments in 1991).
More broadly, it was one of several high-profile issues in the late ’80s that drew attention to the state of the planet. While concern for the environment goes back decades, the Reagan era’s rollback of environmental protections sparked a backlash that was fuelled by incidents like the syringe tide, which even the most ardent anti-environment types had to admit was pretty gross.
Several international treaties were signed in the late 1980s and 1990s with the goal of fixing some of the damage that humans have done to the planet. One of the biggest of these was the Montreal Protocol, an agreement to phase out the production of substances responsible for depleting the Earth’s ozone layer.
I’ll see your syringe and raise you an old Studebaker. Here’s Superman taking the clean-up of Metropolis Harbor into his own hands, from the 1991 pro-environment one-shot Superman For Earth.
Printed on recycled paper, the story finds Superman battling pollution in and around Metropolis after a heart-to-heart with his fiancee… but he soon starts to wonder how much even he can do alone to save an entire planet.
117. China’s under martial law
On June 4, 1989, Chinese troops storm through Tienanmen Square in the centre of Beijing, killing and arresting thousands of pro-democracy protesters. The government’s brutal assault on its citizens shocked the West and brought denunciations and sanctions from Western nations, including the United States.
The protests weren’t the first time that Chinese students agitated for change. Protests erupted in 1986 as part of a wider dissatisfaction within China’s intellectual circles that the country’s authoritarian government was stifling human rights and threatening economic development. In response, the government cracked down on protests, and it seemed to work for a while.
When former Party leader Hu Yaobang — a proponent of transparency and political reform — died in April 1989, his death inspired thousands to gather in mourning. Those gatherings led to larger demonstrations and demands for (among other things) greater press freedoms and an end to restrictions on public demonstrations.
In May 1989, nearly a million Chinese crowded into central Beijing to protest for greater democracy. For nearly three weeks, the protesters kept up daily vigils while they marched and chanted. Western reporters captured much of the drama for the rest of the world.
The government declared martial law on May 20, sending up to 250,000 troops to the capital to restore order. On June 4, those troops fired indiscriminately into the crowds. While tens of thousands tried to escape, other protesters fought back by stoning the attacking troops and setting fire to military vehicles. Reporters and Western diplomats on the scene estimated that at least 300 — and perhaps thousands more — had been killed and as many as 10,000 arrested.
The savagery of the Chinese government’s response to protest shocked the world. As the U.S. Congress voted to impose economic sanctions against China, demonstrations broke out at Chinese embassies and consulates around the globe. While mentions of the Tienanmen Square massacre are heavily censored in China to this day, the reforms undertaken within the Chinese Communist Party in its aftermath suggest party officials were keenly aware of the event’s impact on their country’s international reputation.
Finding a Chinese comic mentioning the massacre can be a challenge given the resources the Chinese government has invested in preventing its people from talking about it. But there are a few out there — take 2010’s A Chinese Life, created by Li Kunwu and co-authored by French trade diplomat Philippe Autier.
The 600-page book took five years to complete and its English translation was released in 2012 by the UK’s SelfMadeHero. A portion of the book features Li and Autier themselves arguing about how to portray “6/4,” which is how the Chinese refer to the events of that day.
From SelfMadeHero: “Already a modern classic, this distinctively stylish masterpiece of design chronicles the rise and legacy of Chairman Mao Zedong and his sweeping, often cataclysmic vision for the most populous country on the planet. Li Kunwu witnessed this extraordinary period at first hand, and here intertwines the experiences of his family and neighbours, his friends and rivals, his colleagues and compatriots, in a visionary account of ‘interesting times.'”
118. Rock and roller cola wars
On January 27, 1984, Michael Jackson is rushed to hospital for second-degree burns to his head after his hair catches fire during a freak filming accident. The 25-year-old King of Pop was singing his hit song “Billie Jean” while filming a Pepsi commercial in Los Angeles when the special effects went terribly wrong. Three thousand fans saw a pyrotechnics display erupt behind the superstar, showering him in sparks and setting fire to his hair.
Although Jackson seemed to take the injuries in stride — one witness said he was reassuring people even as he was taken away on a stretcher — biographers would later cite the accident as a serious turning point in the singer’s life, leading to the dependence on painkiller medication that would contribute to his early death.
Fortunately, Jackson’s injuries were the only ones documented in the Great Cola Wars. Because if the war gods had really wanted to take aim at a few more singers, they had plenty to choose from. Signing up for Pepsi were Jackson, Madonna, David Bowie, Tina Turner, Ray Charles and Britney Spears, while over on Coca-Cola’s front lines stood Elton John, Paula Abdul, New Kids on the Block, Whitney Houston, New Edition and Christina Aguilera.
For decades, Pepsi played second fiddle to Coca-Cola in the marketplace, but that started to change in the 1970s beginning with the Pepsi Challenge, a series of ads in which people were asked to choose their preferred cola in blind taste tests. (No surprise, they always picked Pepsi.) As the ’80s dawned and MTV culture took root, Pepsi moved fast to corner the youth market with a new slogan (“The choice of a new generation”) and adding some of the biggest music stars to its roster of celebrity endorsers.
Seeing its market share shrink because of Pepsi’s aggressive marketing and a growing consumer demand for less sugary drinks, Coca-Cola changed its formula and launched New Coke on April 23, 1985. It… did not go as planned.
You know what Coca-Cola should have gone with instead? SUPERHEROES, of course! Here’s their Super Bowl ad from 2016:
Or… if you’re a Pepsi fan, how about your own superhero? Pepsiman was developed by Pepsi’s Japanese corporate branch in the 1990s; much like Springfield’s famous Duffman, his chief super-power is to show up with the right kind of refreshment just as someone expresses a desire for it.
“I can’t take it anymore!”
So what does it all mean, gang? Why did Billy Joel write a song that rattled through 118 people, places and events from 20th-century history and end it by yelling “I can’t take it anymore”…?
Joel has said he was inspired to write the song — which he admits isn’t one of his favorites, and not just because it’s hard remembering all the lyrics when performing live — when he was turning 40. He was talking with a friend of Sean Lennon (John’s son) who complained that the late 1980s was a terrible time to be 21, and when Joel replied that his generation also had to deal with stressful stuff, the younger man dismissed Joel’s claims because everyone knows nothing bad happened in the Fifties.
So Joel sat down and wrote a song that was basically a five-minute history lesson covering highlights starting at the year of his birth (1949) to 1989. The line “it was always burning” is a not-so-subtle reference to the fact that no matter how crazy life may seem today, it has always been crazy and will continue to be crazy as long as time continues to exist.
That much we can suss out looking at the lyrics. But what is the “it” that the song’s narrator says he can’t take anymore?
Is it the relentless march of time?
The fact that younger generations always seem to think life was easier in the “old days”?
The frustration in seeing people commit to the same actions over and over despite history showing them why that isn’t a good idea?
The amnesia we folks in the present tend to put on ourselves as a way of forgetting the embarrassing stuff we believed or supported in the past?
The unsettling tendency of modern media to render all events around us — from the murders of citizens by their own governments to news about which singer is selling soft drinks this week — on the same level, confusing the important with the trivial to the point where we’re not sure what matters anymore?
Your guess is as good as mine. All I know is when we are gone, it will still burn on and on and on and on…