Well actually, truth be told, he did. Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start the Fire was my first real introduction to American history. I learned all the words while at school, and vowed that one day I would find out what it was all about. I suppose in a sense, Billy Joel is thus responsible for my American Odyssey. After 10 years in higher education, I have indeed discovered the significance of “Moonshot, Woodstock, Watergate, and Punk Rock,” and the song remains dear to my heart. Last year when my boyfriend revealed he did not know it, I reacted with shock and horror. All Americans, I assumed, would surely learn this along with The Star Spangled Banner and America The Beautiful. We were in Cape Cod at the time, and I made him listen to it on repeat for the remainder of our journey. He is now a Billy connoisseur.
As a historian of the 1950s, the irony that the song begins in 1949 is not lost on me. Perhaps I subconsciously took the idea that all history worth studying begins postwar from Billy. Moreover I think the song reflects my interest in cultural history and American Studies as “Davy Crockett, Peter Pan, Elvis Presley, Disneyland” are deemed as important as the Communist Block, and Juan Peron.
This Summer I got to see Billy in concert for the first time, and while he didn’t actually play We Didn’t Start the Fire seeing him at Fenway Park marked an important step in my American Dream, taking it full circle from a schoolgirl listening in England to a twentysomething living in Boston.
My Mum organized fantastic seats on the pitch for my boyfriend, her and me. Unfortunately, however, my boyfriend was sick so my Mum and I headed to Fenway to embark on our first foray into the world of ticket touts. Almost as soon as we picked up our tickets we met Joe, a large fan wearing a pink cowboy hat with silver trim and a big smile on his face. He offered us $50 for our $140 ticket, we said no but he gave us his number in case. We continued to wander round the outside of Fenway, seeking out touts who offered us a range of very low prices for our prime location ticket. Unsurprisingly ticket touts proved to be rather unsavory characters who treated my Mum and I like we were prime idiots. After dealing with one particularly offensive character, who looked like your classic seedy mediocre Hollywood villain with a worn black leather coat, greasy hair, a deep-set frown, and permanent sneer, Joe the cowboy bounced around the corner and agreed to buy our ticket for $70. Although we lost money we were relieved to sell the ticket, and escape the world of seedy ticket touts with South Boston accents. Joe was thrilled, and immediately told us he worked for Duran Duran and could get us tickets any time we wanted. This was clearly a lie. As he told us his email address and explained that the aol.com in it stood for America Online we began to doubt whether giving the tickets to a true fan was a good idea. Our fears intensified as he told us he never sits down but likes to run around the stadium. We had just sold our prime location ticket to Tigger in a cowboy hat.
We politely declined Joe’s offer of a beer with his buddies and went into the Stadium. With a pretzel and a margarita in hand we walked onto the pitch and found our fantastic seats. My Mum had never been to Fenway before and we enjoyed taking in the sights and sounds of the stadium. Almost as soon as we sat down we became aware of trouble to the left of us. Two angry, oversized women sitting in the seats next to us demanded to see our tickets. Angry Woman Number One tried to snatch our tickets from Mum’s hand, and barked at us questioning how we had paid $140 for tickets in the same area she had paid over a $1000. Hardly our fault. Her touted tickets, it seemed, were fake and security were keen to remove her. Angry Women Numbers One and Two were not so keen to leave. Angry Woman Number Two nearly knocked a staff member over as she tried to reason with her. The idea of adding our cowboy friend to the mix did not exactly bode well for a good concert experience. Thankfully a relative of Angry One and Two eventually came to get them, promising that he was in discussion with the President of the Red Sox for new seats. Good luck with that I thought, but at least they were gone. Even better, instead of Cowboy Joe a friend of his arrived to take the seat just as Billy came on stage.
We did not sit down for the entire show. While there was no We Didn’t Start the Fire we were hardly short changed. Billy played 24 of his own songs including Scenes From an Italian Restaurant (my Mum’s favorite), River of Dreams, Allentown, Always a Woman. He also treated us to renditions of Take Me Out to the Ballgame, and Sweet Caroline, which drove the crowd wild, and afforded my Mum her first chance to join in with the iconic “So Good, So Good, So Good!” The stage lights were spectacular, and Billy had a relaxed and friendly stage demeanor, cracking jokes and engaging with the familiar Red Sox Yankees rivalry. Even though he had given away his ticket, Cowboy Joe put in several appearances. He bounded over, catapulting himself into our seats with the awkwardness of an overweight, overenthusiastic human cannon to declare that he loved us. The feeling was not mutual.
By the encore I could barely make a sound, the past three hours of euphoric screaming and singing had left me hoarse. But still we got song after song of impeccable Rock and Roll: Uptown Girl, Still Rock and Roll, Big Shot, You May Be Right, and Only the Good Die Young. Zac Brown of the Zac Brown Band joined him for You May Be Right, and the country contingent in the crowd, myself included, went wild. There are moments in life where you wish you could stop time. My Mum and I jumping up and down, arms round each other, belting out Uptown Girl is one of them. If I could print that moment it would a Polaroid of my American Dream. The chances of that schoolgirl who listened to Billy making it to America were slim to none, but I am one of the blessed few who did. Thank you Billy.