by Jochen Markhorst
- Red River Shore (1997) part 1: She wrote me a letter
- Red River Shore (1997) part 2: The importance of capturing spontaneity
- Red River Shore part 3: Pretty angels all flying in a row
- Red River Shore (1997) part 4: I got a gal named Sue
- Red River Shore (1997) part 5: Mom says the pills must be working
- Red River Shore (1997): part 6; Misery is but the shadow of happiness
- Red River Shore (1997) part 7: Please try to make it rhyme
VIII He is no one
Well I’m a stranger here in a strange land But I know this is where I belong
According to legend, Sean Lennon, John and Yoko’s son, triggered the song. In 1989, Sean visits Billy Joel in the studio, they got talking and Sean complains about the misery of our time, AIDS and wars and crises, and how hard it is to be 21 in this day and age. Ah yes, says Joel, we felt the same when we were 21. “Yeah, but at least when you were a kid,” counters Sean, “you grew up in the fifties, when nothing happened.” Do you really believe that, asks the Piano Man in surprise. Korean War, the Hungarian Uprising, the Little Rock Nine… a lot of stuff happened. I don’t know anything about it, Sean answers. I have to write about this, Joel thinks, I have to explain to Sean’s generation that this kind of epic struggle is of all times.
“The chain of news events and personalities came easily—mostly they just spilled out of my memory as fast as I could scribble them down,” says Billy. “I had a chord progression that originally belonged to a country song I was trying to write, and I sandwiched the words into those chords—‘Harry Truman, Doris Day,’ okay, so far so good—but then I didn’t know what to call the song, and therefore what words to use in the chorus.”
Something with “fire”, anyway. Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner drops by the studio these same days and disapproves of both Dancing Through the Fire (“that sucks”) and Waltzing Through The Fire. In the end, Jann thinks “We Didn’t Start The Fire” is cool. The lyrics are a recapitulation of 118 events, loaded names, controversial films and influential books, interspersed with the now-familiar chorus, and it becomes a No. 1 hit. Not really one of Joel’s great masterpieces, but at least more sincere and exciting than the bland “The Fires Of Time” by The Bellamy Brothers.
Looking back, Billy Joel himself is not too proud of the song either;
“Even I realized I hated the melody. It was horrendous, as I said at the time; it was like a droning mosquito. What does the song really mean? Is it an apologia for the baby boomers? No, it’s not. It’s just a song that says the world’s a mess. It’s always been a mess, it’s always going to be a mess.”
(Fred Schruers – Billy Joel. The Definitive Biography, 2014)
Still, the song has a value. The Scholastic Weekly uses the lyrics as a teaching aid, and indeed, Sean Lennon’s generation now does see the 1950s a bit more nuanced, with less rose-tinted glasses.
And just like in “The Fires Of Time”, Dylan comes along in “We Didn’t Start The Fire” as a historical landmark;
Hemingway, Eichmann, "Stranger in a Strange Land" Dylan, Berlin, Bay of Pigs invasion "Lawrence of Arabia", British Beatlemania Ole Miss, John Glenn, Liston beats Patterson Pope Paul, Malcolm X, British politician sex JFK – blown away, what else do I have to say?
… when Joel, in his – almost chronological – enumeration, has arrived at the 1960s. Between Hemingway’s suicide, the Eichmann trial, the construction of the Berlin Wall and the Bay of Pigs Invasion – so we are in 1961, the year Dylan scored his record deal. And the year in which the infamous “Stranger In A Strange Land” was published, the overwhelming socio- critical science fiction novel by Robert Heinlein. Bowie didn’t like it (“It was a staggeringly, awesomely trite book”), but the novel is on the bookshelf of the front fighters from the sixties scenes, as David McGowan shows in his wonderful book Weird Scenes Inside The Canyon (2020). Zappa is a fan, as are Gene Clark, Grace Slick, Charles Manson, Jim Morrison and David Crosby, to name but a few. Heinlein himself lives in Laurel Canyon (at 8775 Lookout Mountain Avenue) during those years, and not only his book, but he, personally, too lingers at the crossroads of revolution, hippie rock, avant garde and Hollywood.
It seems that Dylan is thinking of Heinlein’s protagonist Valentine Michael Smith when he opens the sixth verse of his “Red River Shore” with the overused expression stranger in a strange land. The phrase itself, of course, has been around for 27 centuries or so (already spoken by Moses in Exodus 2:22, “And she bare him a son, and he called his name Gershom: for he said, I have been a stranger in a strange land”, and Moses probably didn’t get it from himself either), and is almost always used as Moses intended: to express displacement, literal non-home-ness and consequent discomfort. The feeling that even Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula fears (“But a stranger in a strange land, he is no one”), the feeling that Mark Twain’s Chinese alter ego Ah Song Hi incorporates into a letter home with words that we also hear in Dylan’s “I Was Young When I Left Home”: “I was to begin life a stranger in a strange land, without a friend, or a penny, or any clothes but those I had on my back” (Not a shirt on my back, not a penny on my name, sings He-who-never-wrote-a-letter-to-his-home in Dylan’s song). Madonna (“Wash All Over Me”), Herman Melville, Pete Townshend, U2, journalists, Robbie Robertson (in the beautiful, atmospheric Lanois production “Somewhere Down The Crazy River”), Albert Camus and Sophocles… the expression is used gladly and often in all times in all corners of the cultural spectrum – and always to express that something or someone does not belong here.
But Heinlein’s protagonist in Stranger In A Strange Land, Michael Smith, is a stranger who, as Dylan says, knows that this is where he belongs, here, on Earth. Michael is born aboard a spaceship on its way to Mars. The landing fails fatally and baby Michael is the only survivor. Raised by Martians, he is discovered twenty-five years later by a next, this time successful, Mars expedition and taken back to Earth. He belongs here – but remains an alien. About the situation Mowgli finds himself in when he goes to the village, how Tarzan feels like Lord Greystoke, the state of mind of the civilised savage John in Brave New World and of the surveyor K. in Kafka’s The Castle: “But I know this is where I belong”.
It is a beautiful, both poetic and Kafkaesque situation sketch, stranger here in a strange land, but I know this is where I belong. Uncanny and frustrating, meaningless and indeterminate; it is the existentialist version of an unrequited love – like the love for a girl from the Red River shore.
To be continued. Next up: Red River Shore part 9: A floating nothing
Jochen is a regular reviewer of Dylan’s work on Untold. His books, in English, Dutch and German, are available via Amazon both in paperback and on Kindle:
- Blood on the Tracks: Dylan’s Masterpiece in Blue
- Blonde On Blonde: Bob Dylan’s mercurial masterpiece
- Where Are You Tonight? Bob Dylan’s hushed-up classic from 1978
- Desolation Row: Bob Dylan’s poetic letter from 1965
- Basement Tapes: Bob Dylan’s Summer of 1967
- Mississippi: Bob Dylan’s midlife masterpiece
- Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits
- John Wesley Harding: Bob Dylan meets Kafka in Nashville
- Tombstone Blues b/w Jet Pilot: Dylan’s lookin’ for the fuse
- Street-Legal: Bob Dylan’s unpolished gem from 1978
- Bringing It All Back Home: Bob Dylan’s 2nd Big Bang
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