The “We Didn’t Start The Fire” Longevity Infographic

Ben Zotto
Ben Zotto
May 16 · 2 min read

Thirty years on, four figures from Billy Joel’s history-a-thon are still with us.

All I ever really knew about Doris Day was that she was right after Harry Truman in the opening lyric of Billy Joel’s 1989 laundry list blitz “We Didn’t Start The Fire”. So when I saw the news that she died this week at the remarkable age of 97, I was a bit surprised to realize that she had still been with us. (Sorry Doris!!)

I wondered: was anyone else from the song still around? After all, most of the content was anchored in the 1950s, and the song itself is three decades old (!) this year. It turns out, Doris Day was a member of a shrinking club, but there remain four named people who are still, thankfully, with us.

Here is a timeline chart of the lives of every named person in the song’s lyric, presented in order of their mention, as of May 2019:

The list is limited to the specific figures referenced by name. Birth and death dates from Wikipedia. The release of the song itself is represented by the vertical black bar at 1989. Chart © Ben Zotto 2019.

All hail the blessed longevity of genuine treasures Chubby Checker, Bob Dylan, and Brigitte Bardot! Somewhat less of an enthusiastic shout-out to Bernie Goetz, the NYC subway vigilante from the 1980s. 😬

Honorable mention goes to Queen Elizabeth II, not quite name checked but referenced via “England’s got a new queen” — on the throne since 1952!

Fun Fact: From Sally Ride’s birth on May 26, 1951, until George Santayana’s death at 88 the following September 26 (1952), all of the people in the chart above were alive simultaneously. Billy Joel was a toddler then.

P.S. Billy really phoned it in after writing detailed verses covering the 1950s and early 60s; the whole of the 70s is just two lines and then a smattering of 80s references and he’s out. Rock and roller cola wars, I can’t take it anymore!