The Years of Billy Joel's 'We Didn't Start The Fire' - 1964-1989 (Part 3) Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Years of Billy Joel's 'We Didn't Start The Fire' - 1964-1989 (Part 3)

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Title Page | 1949 | 1950 | 1951 | 1952 | 1953 | 1954 | 1955 | 1956 | 1957 | 1958 | 1959 | 1960 | 1961 | 1962 | 1963 | 1964-1989 (Part 1) | 1964-1989 (Part 2) | 1964-1989 (Part 3)
Foreign Debts, Homeless Vets
AIDS, Crack, Bernie Goetz,
Hypodermics on the Shore,
China's Under Martial Law,
Rock and Roller Cola Wars

With a tremendous climax, Billy Joel storms out of the song, leaving the backing band to echo the chorus over and over. A significant comment on the increasing negativity of global history, perhaps? Or just a fine end to a fine rock song?

Foreign Debts

Although the United States' level of foreign debt has fluctuated over the decades since the nation's birth, during the 1980s 'Reaganomics' started a trend of higher and higher obligations to foreign creditors that continues into the 21st Century.

The United States has struggled with debt since before they were united. The colonies ran up nearly $250 million in debt to finance the war for independence. In the 1790s, the fledgling government devised a way of managing the national debt, and began the business of growing their country. Debt is commonly measured by comparing the amount of debt to the amount of the Gross National Product (GNP), and when the debt management plan was adopted in 1791 the national debt was about 40% of the GNP1.

By the time World War I began, the US had become a creditor to other nations, and the foreign debt was balanced out by the amount of foreign credit owed to the US government. By this formula the US enjoyed a surplus for many years until the 1970s when the national debt flirted with breaking even.

When Ronald Reagan became President in 1980, the nation's debt/GNP ratio was 33%. The policies of the Reagan Administration paired tax cuts with increased defence spending and refusal to cut spending elsewhere, causing foreign debt to soar. When President Reagan left office in 1988 the debt/GNP ratio was 53%, the highest in US history.

Homeless Vets

Based on a study in nearly 200 cities, the number of homeless people in the US tripled between 1981 and 19892. More startling is that more than a quarter of the nation's homeless - as many as a third, even - are veterans.

Homeless veterans have served in many wars and military efforts, but nearly half of them were active servicemen in the Vietnam era. Late Vietnam and post-Vietnam veterans show higher rates of mental illness and substance addiction making it harder for them to maintain jobs and secure affordable housing. There is no evidence linking homeless rates among veterans to combat service (in fact the number of homeless combat veterans is lower than the number of homeless non-combat veterans), but it is speculated that recruitment patterns may have played a role in the large numbers of homeless from this period.

In addition to the obstacles faced by all homeless: shortage of affordable housing, inability to access healthcare, no family or support networks and lack of sufficient income, veterans face even more challenges. Many suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in addition to some variety of substance abuse, and although the majority of homeless are single men, most homeless aid goes to families or single women with children.

The US Department of Veterans Affairs (the VA) estimates that today there are nearly 300,000 homeless veterans on any given night, and more than 500,000 homeless during some point in the course of a year. Half of these veterans have substance abuse problems, 45% suffer mental illness. The VA began offering homeless services in 1987, and is now the largest provider of homeless services in the US. Although they help more than 100,000 veterans a year, they are still only reaching less than 20% of veterans in need. VA services include outreach, medical referrals, rehabilitation, employment assistance and housing assistance.


In the late 1960s, immunologists were happy that they had all the world's major infectious diseases under control. They had neglected to take into account two major factors:

  • Firstly, bacteria and viruses mutate. Rapidly. The common cold is uncurable because the virus that causes it mutates so rapidly as to change every time it manifests itself. Successful mutations of bacteria are immune to antibiotics and therefore are high-risk infections once again.

  • Scientists really know frighteningly little about the world we live in. There are many uncharted parts of Africa and South America where diseases dangerous to human beings may lurk. Lassa fever, one of the most contagious and deadly diseases on Earth was unsuspected until 1969. Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) went entirely unnoticed until the early 1980s...

It is thought that AIDS was originally transmitted to human beings from monkeys. It can then be passed on from human to human through cell fluid contact. It was, and is, completely incurable, and generally kills within ten years of infection by depressing the body's natural immune system to almost zero activity.

The most important implication in the Western World when AIDS was discovered was that of unprotected sex. The 'free love' message of the sixties had yet to die down, and many youths indulged, often with an embarrassing lack of knowledge of protection. Because AIDS has a near 100% transmission rate from unprotected sex, there were naturally fears of a widespread outbreak, although with huge public-awareness campaigns this has hopefully been averted.


What's all that about then?

About life, if you get caught peddling, especially within spitting distance of a school. Up to seven just for possession.


Maybe not. It's classified Class A by the Misuse of Drugs Act, 1971. Which means it's illegal.

I actually meant 'what is it?'

Well it's a derivative of charlie...

...Croker? George? Watts? And the Chocolate Factory?

Crikey, where have you been? Coke...the real thing.

But it don't come in red tins, right?

No it doesn't. It comes in little polythene bags, or paper sachets. Allegedly. But the white lines, snow, the stuff that certain celebrity sports stars have claimed to guzzle, isn't crack; it's cocaine, or rather cocaine hydrochloride, a salt prepared from the leaf of the Erythroxylon coca bush, autochthonous to the Andes. You know Peru, Bolivia, blah, blah, blah. You know what, Geography isn't exactly the important thing here. Anyway, chewing the leaves is an ancient custom of the Incas to protect against fatigue and altitude sickness. Things have moved on. Crack is the next stage.

So how do you make it?

It'd be irresponsible to prescribe a recipe right here; this a family website. But basically it's a purification process. Crack is a smokable form of cocaine, achieved by heating the cocaine hydrochloride with sodium bicarbonate (household baking soda), which frees the cocaine base from its salt. When the resulting brown nuggets are crushed up and toked, the residue of the baking soda crackles as it burns. Hence the name.

And the benefit?

If you can call it a benefit, inhalation into the lungs provides a much speedier way for the drug to enter the bloodstream than injecting (oddly enough) or snorting the untreated product. Within ten minutes, crack intoxication will provoke feelings of euphoria, omnipotence and a boundless sense of energy. It's a powerful central nervous system stimulant. According to William Burroughs, 'A brain loaded with cocaine is like a crazy pinball machine, whose blue and red lamps flash on and off in an electric orgasm'. Get the idea? But then, after the rush, you crash. Hard. And then suffer intense cravings for another high.

You don't think it's big and clever then?

Ooh no. Apart from the risk of a lengthy spell in prison, you run the risk of succumbing to a powerful psychological addiction. You'll mess your body up too. The physical toll prolonged users suffer includes serious weight loss and reduced resistance against infections, sleeping disorders, exhaustion and heart tremors. That's if you don't bankrupt yourself first.

The bottom line then?

Just say no.

Bernie Goetz

On a cold December night in 1984, Bernard Goetz and three young black men met each other in a rather deserted Subway car in New York City. The last thing that all of the parties involved in the events that transpired agree on is that is that Goetz was riding the Subway alone when the four black youths approached him. Goetz claimed that the four youths threatened him with the business end of a screwdriver and demanded that he hand over his money. The youths contended that they were merely 'panhandling' to get some money so they could play video games.

To many people in New York, and all over the world, what Goetz did next was way out of line, even if a mugging was going on. He pulled out a gun and shot all four of the youths in what he called 'self defence.' One of the youths, Darryl Cabbey, was paralyzed for life and suffered brain damage as well.

For more than three years, New Yorkers were engrossed in the saga of 'The Subway Vigilante.' The case was a contentious one and at the time, it seemed that everyone had an opinion about it.

In general, conservatives called him a hero who was protecting himself in the face of a violent threat; just as, they said, any American has the right to do when threatened with a deadly weapon, like a screwdriver.

Liberals were outraged at the idea of a man taking the law into his own hands in such a deadly way. They were further incensed that he was doing it to protect a mere $53 (according to both the youth and Goetz, that is all they asked for).

After an eight-and-a-half-month trial, Goetz was acquitted of attempted murder and assault. He was found guilty of criminal possession of an unlicensed weapon for which he spent a total of 250 days in jail.

Cabbey, however, brought a civil suit against Goetz. He was awarded $43m: $18m for past and future pain and suffering and $25m in punitive damages. Goetz declared bankruptcy shortly after the judgment.

Goetz after the Trial

Goetz has never shown any remorse for his actions. In a 1994 interview with The Toronto Star he said 'If you're injured, paralyzed or whatever while committing a violent crime against me, that's not my fault.'

He even acknowledged that he thought about gouging out the eyes of one of his injured 'attackers' with his keys and said that the attack 'should be looked on as a public service'.

Goetz is now a vegetarian activist, working with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals , and espousing his Buddhist views about why animals shouldn't be food for humans. He told The Washington (DC) Times that had he not been a meat eater at the time of the shooting, it would never have happened because of the 'good karma' attached to vegetarianism.

In 2001, Goetz campaigned for Mayor of New York City. His platform was based on a call for vegetarian meals in the city's public schools. In fact, other than that, he was so happy with the administration of then Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Goetz said that he would offer Giuliani a job as his right-hand man if he won the election.

Goetz received 1,049 votes out of 1,520,443 cast.

Hypodermics on the Shore

Vacationing on the New Jersey Shore has long been a tradition for many New York families. In the summer of 1988, however, the beaches became contaminated by a growing volume of assorted garbage. Commonplace garbage such as beer cans and styrofoam containers were mixed with more ominous objects including sullied tampons, bloodstained bandages, and, especially, used hypodermic needles. Given the concern over AIDS and drug use at the time, this incident was considered a terrible lapse of government responsibility.

Police officials searched for months before coming up with the culprit. As it turned out, New York municipal garbage was being shipped out by the millions of tons in barges and dumped 106 nautical miles out in the Atlantic Ocean. Usually the Gulf Stream pushed the majority of it to the north, where it would sink (relatively) harmlessly to the ocean floor. Some freak change in the current patterns in 1988 apparently brought a portion of the city's garbarge drifting back to its own backyard. Although little is now heard and one might assume the problem has been solved, anecdotal evidence at least suggests that hypodermics on the Jersey Shore are still a regular occurrence.

China's Under Martial Law

Tiananmen Square doesn't fit very easily into a rhyming scheme, but that's the more memorable name for what Billy Joel is hinting at here. The image of the man standing in front of the tank armed with nothing more than a carrier bag full of shopping is regularly cited as one of the defining pictures of recent decades, and the protest and its repression have had a profound effect on China's development.

For a number of weeks, students and other activists had been occupying the square to mark the death of a pro-reform member of the Communist Party hierarchy and to call for greater freedom and democracy. Things gradually got tenser and tenser, and a kind of paralysis set in, until Zhao Ziyang, the moderate Secretary-General who had earlier tried to resolve the situation peacefully, lost out to the hardliners. Rather than pass by the more traditional tear gas or water cannon, they opted to go directly for the tanks and troops option, and on the night of 4 June, 1989, they moved into the square.

Carnage ensued both in and around the square - in fact according to the Chinese regime no-one was actually killed on the square, but rather on the side streets around it. This, however, is unlikely to have been of much comfort to those who lost a limb or their life. The exact casualty numbers are unknown, but are certainly in the range of hundreds killed and at least a thousand injured.

Fifteen years on, and in a world where China has joined the WTO, and is lobbying to be allowed to purchase arms from the EU countries, the cynical might ask what relevance does Tiananmen square still have? Well for the 24 people who are still in prison as a result of their actions in 1989, it is still having a major impact on their lives. For the families and friends of those killed, the search for justice revolves not so much around punishing those responsible, which is implausible, but at least having the events reclassified from a 'necessary repression of a counter-revolutionary insurrection' to something a little more balanced.

And the situation of freedom, democracy and human rights in China? Things have improved a little, but as the Hong Kong pro-democracy activists and the Tibetans are well aware, nobody could rule out a re-run further south or west...After all, the hardliners and their inheritance are largely still in control. The tactic of offering greater economic freedom while retaining political control is holding for the moment, but Tiananmen square reminds us that while you may not be able to buy free speech with your credit card, many people will still give everything they have to have access to it.

Rock and Roller Cola Wars

Coca-Cola and Pepsi have always been at war with one another. Around 1933, Coca-Cola declined an opportunity to buy out its little rival Pepsi and they were instead taken over by Roger Enrico. The Enrico family were much later to bring in the music icon Michael Jackson to shake things up and sing Pepsi to success. The war between Coca-Cola and Pepsi took place mainly over the media air waves, with the newspaper, radio and TV being put to good use in order to promote the sales of the two products.

Pepsi was born in 1898, Coke was born in 1886 and both had their fair share of ups and downs: Pepsi went bankrupt but didn't lose its cool and battled on; Coca-Cola changed its recipe and brought out New Coke in 1985, which was so unpopular it nearly brought Coca-Cola to an end. Diet Coke was also (temporarily) shelved quietly without media intervention in the year 1970. So, in the 1980s, when both products needed a re-vamp, it was also thought that the products would sell better if famous faces endorsed them. In 1983 Michael Jackson was signed up to an advertising deal with Pepsi and by 1984, the thrilling Michael Jackson television adverts emerged.

Whereas Coca-Cola have sold a wholesome, 'real people' image, Pepsi have considered to pay rock stars huge amounts of money to endorse their products. This, contrarily, has led to some unwanted media attention. Michael Jackson, it is reported, accidentally set his hair on fire while making the advert, and subsequent mishaps on the 'Pepsi Stage' have haunted the Spice Girls and Britney Spears; the press jumped on this and labelled it 'The Pepsi Curse'.

Coca-Cola and Pepsi are still on the market today and they continue to compete in sales of drinks, their primary concern being to please their paying customers. They also continue to litter the media with adverts and there has also been concern in what degree of effect the products have on their customers, particular young people who are regularly labelled as being 'overweight'.

1This means that the total of what the government owed to creditors was equal to 40 percent of the government's income or product.2Studies conducted in 1991 measured the number of homeless shelter beds in a city divided by that city's population.3In the UK about £3.50, depending on the exchange rate.

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