Fulfilling the dreams of hosts Katie Puckrik and Tom Fordyce, Billy Joel guest stars in the current episode of the duo’s Joel-themed "We Didn’t Start the Fire: The History Podcast," dedicated to the stories behind each entity namechecked in the singer-songwriter’s 1989 No. 1 hit.
"The only thing I’ve heard about that song from people is, ‘I hate that song!’ " the Hicksville-raised Joel, 72, said with jocular bewilderment. "Some people hate that song. It’s one of the most hated things I ever wrote," he said, having long acknowledged he himself dislikes the melody, frequently comparing it to a buzzing mosquito. Regardless, "I don’t get the hate. I mean, I hate the music because it’s not good but I think the lyrics are fairly clever. … But some people just hate that thing."
As Joel has long recounted, he wrote the song — a lyrical compendium of headliner topics from his birth year of 1949 to 1989 — after a studio visit by then-teenaged Sean Lennon, son of The Beatles’ John Lennon,, and a friend of Sean Lennon's who had turned 21. The youths were unaware of much significant American history in that time period, so, Joel reiterates in the podcast, "I thought, ‘Y’know what? Let me just see if I can write from memory the headlines that happened during my lifetime," newly adding, "Some people think that I wrote it as an apologia for being a baby boomer … That was not my intention at all."
He answered questions about the song, confirming that the Rockefeller named in it is New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and not, as the hosts thought, brother Winthrop Rockefeller, a fellow politician and philanthropist who endured a highly public divorce. Joel also revealed why he mentioned boxers Sonny Liston, Floyd Patterson and Sugar Ray Robinson but not Muhammad Ali, whom he called "iconic. Maybe the most famous boxer that ever lived," explaining, "I wanted to [include Ali], but I don’t think there was something that rhymed at that moment. … You can’t fit everything in."
Joel said, with a chuckle, of performing the song in concert: "It’s scary! Because if you mess up one lyric, it’s a train wreck. It actually happened to me — I was in Toronto, we were playing and I got to a verse … and then I forgot, I went blank" and mumbled some gibberish. "And the audience, you could see the audience doing, ‘Huh?!’ … And you can’t fake it. You can’t pick it up. Once you drop the word, you’re dead, it’s gone, it’s over. … I said, ‘Stop the music … I’m sorry, I screwed that up. But at least you got to hear an authentic rock ‘n’ roll screw-up. Because we’re not on tape, folks, this is live.’ … And I started all over again. We went right back into it and I got through it."
Concluding his half-hour visit to the 39-minute podcast, Joel delighted the hosts by saying, in answer to their query, that he’d be open to returning.