“We Didn’t Start the Fire”


Yeah, this song is pretty reviled.  Billy Joel tries to summarize four decades of history in roughly four minutes.  As an accurate portrayal of the complexities and contradictions of the second half of the twentieth century, it fails miserably.  (The 1970s especially get the short shrift, summarized with “Watergate, Punk Rock.”  Yeah, that’s it.)  As a catchy trip down memory lane for Baby Boomers, it does okay.  I’ve always kind of liked it.  Some of Joel’s choices of historical events are interesting; they reveal much more about what events and people mattered to him than anything else.  (I’m a little curious about why the “Starkweather homicide” stuck out to him.)

The video is notable for a weirdly cast Marlee Matlin as the teenage daughter and some cool period sets and decorations.  And while the history isn’t perfect, he at least gets the timeline correct.

Why am I bringing up history?  Because today was my first day volunteering at the Historical Society of Long Beach.  It was fun.  I learned a little about their cataloguing system and got to chat with some visitors.  (It was a nice, if unseasonably warm, day and I know people were out enjoying the weather.)  I spent the afternoon surrounded by some of Long Beach’s lovely architectural history in the form of a number of houses designed by Miner Smith.  Hurry down there if you want to see that exhibit, because it’s coming down after next Friday.

“C’Etait Toi (You Were the One)”


This post was inspired in part by a comment from Stacie over at Gemini Girl in a Random World.  I like giving credit where it’s due.

I am hopelessly monolingual.  In spite of a year of high school French, roughly the equivalent of two years of German, and a lifelong residence in Southern California, I am fluent only in English.  I know some random words and phrases.  I can be polite in French, German and Spanish (say please, thank you, you’re welcome).  I can order beer in Spanish.  I can count at least to five (so, I could theoretically order five beers in Spanish).  Beyond that, I’m pretty darn useless, multi-linguistically speaking.

Which is why it makes perfect sense that I love music in other languages.  From “99 Luftballons”  to Los Lobos’ traditional songs, I really enjoy hearing how musicians express themselves in words I don’t have any hope of understanding.  It’s not really the words that matter in music, no matter how much emphasis I personally put on lyrics.  It’s the feeling behind the words that matters most, and if that feeling is genuine, anyone can understand the meaning.

I also enjoy it when the singer does the heavy translating for me, when they sing words in both English and another language.  One of my personal running jokes is that all the French I know comes from songs, which is actually not that far off.  (One thing I actually do remember from high school French is that “Aloutte” is a really sadistic little song.)  Paul McCartney sang about “Michelle, my belle.”  And Billy Joel declared “C’Etait Toi”

I understand every word in this song, because Mr. Joel kindly sang the same lyrics in both languages for me.  (I’m pretty sure he had to have someone translate it for him; Billy Joel has never struck me as particularly linguistically gifted.  Although I could be wrong.  Feel free to correct me if you know anything about his ability to speak any other languages.)  It’s kind of hard to put a finger on the emotions behind this song though.  The words say it’s a break-up song, but the music seems light, almost cheerful.  I know this kind of masking is a well-used technique, but it doesn’t feel like anything is being hidden from the listener.  Joel’s not that manipulative, anyway.  He’s a straightforward kind of songwriter.  The lightness comes in part from the choice of instruments, including a lovely accordion in the background.  But it also comes from a kind of self-deprecating awareness that Joel is magnificent at.  One of his saving graces as both a songwriter and a human being is that he knows exactly how difficult he is to deal with, and he refuses to shy away from it.  He might be prone to maudlin sentiment and melodrama, but he’s not stupid.  And he won’t tell his audience lies: “I’m looking for comfort that I can take from someone else.  But after all, there is no one that can save me from myself.  You were the only one.”  That’s something that needs no translation, no matter what language the words are in.



This week is Mental Illness Awareness Week in the U.S. (click here for more info).  Mental Illness is still far too stigmatized and discriminated against around the world.  What many people don’t seem to realize is that mental illness is just as much a result of biology and genetics as any other illness.  What little I know (I am no expert on any illness; I just like to learn about things) tells me that most “mental” illnesses have more to do with things like brain chemistry, hormones, and electrical impulses gone awry.  Those on the outside have a tendency to blame the patient for their illness, thinking that it ought to be as simple as telling yourself not to feel that way anymore.  If it were that simple, there would be no such thing as mental illness.

For the record, I am not seriously mentally ill (no matter how often it seems like I am).  I have benefitted from group and individual therapy in the past; I am considering seeking out therapy in the near future. I have a touch of OCD and some anxiety/anger issues which I am trying to decipher and overcome through my own research, but I might want professional input in the future.  Personally, I think everyone would benefit from some therapy.  I also think everyone has a touch of OCD, it just manifests in different ways for everyone.  For some people, problems like the ones I’m dealing with present little or no problem in their day-to-day lives; for others, it is debilitating.

I imagine the world for seriously mentally ill people sometimes feels a little bit like the world in this video.  Everything is chaotic and out of control.  Sounds are too loud, lights are too bright, and people are either indifferent or hostile.  I remember seeing this video as a kid and not really understanding it.  I saw it again after many years, after I had some idea that maybe I wasn’t quite right in the head, and realized it made perfect sense to me.  The horrible feeling of stress and fear that follows you everywhere, tainting your relationships and your ability to maintain the calm-but-cheerful facade we’re all expected to present to the world (does anyone really want a truthful answer when they ask “How are you?”).  Things blur together, or become magnified and amplified to unbearable levels.  It’s just so much easier to check out than have to keep pretending you’re all right.

Stop feeling like you have to pretend you’re all right.  No one is really “all right.”  Everyone has some phobia or irrational fear.  Everyone feels the racing heart and shakes of an anxiety attack.  Everyone lies awake at 3 AM imagining all the catastrophes that might befall them in the daylight.  Everyone feels pressure.

Everyone has some kind of mental illness.  We’re all in the same boat, so maybe it’s time we threw out the life preservers for our brothers and sisters who’ve fallen overboard.