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Landlord allegedly sets his own apartment on fire while ‘blaring’ Billy Joel’s list song ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’

Travis Lee Carlson appears inset against the building he allegedly set on fire

Travis Lee Carlson, inset, and the building he owns, which he allegedly set on fire in May 2023. (Screengrab via KBJR; St. Louis County Jail)

A Minnesota landlord allegedly set fire to his property last week to the tune of a well-known Billy Joel song with “fire” in the title.

Travis Lee Carlson, 37, stands accused of one count of arson in the first degree over the May 18 inferno in Duluth, an industrious, medium-sized port city near the Wisconsin border.

Officers arrived at the duplex apartment building on West Fourth Street just after 4 a.m. on the day in question, according to court documents obtained by Minneapolis-based NBC affiliate KARE.

Carlson was charged Tuesday in State District Court, according to the Duluth News Tribune. In comments to the paper, St. Louis County prosecutor Vicky Wanta said there may be “some mental health or drug-related concerns regarding the defendant’s behavior.”

As first responders arrived to fight the blaze, Carlson allegedly played the Billy Joel song “We Didn’t Start The Fire.”

The song itself is not about an actual fire.

It is a metaphor that refers to the wheels of time insofar as the history of the modern world is governed by newsworthy events that are typically bad, violent, and depressing.

The lyrics to the song during the verses are simply several rhyming names, places, and events that form a chain of flashing images that the author argues have mediated the 20th century via ever-present crises.

The metaphor is employed in the chorus when he sings: “We didn’t start the fire/It was always burning/Since the world’s been turning/We didn’t start the fire/No, we didn’t light it/But we tried to fight it.”

According to Joel, he was inspired to write the song when John Lennon’s son, Sean Lennon, complained about the turmoil of the 1980s and said he wished that he had grown up in the 1950s when “nothing happened,” Rolling Stone reports.

The song was released in September 1989 and became a number-one hit single on the Billboard Hot 100. And it was allegedly “blaring” in Minnesota last week from the upper apartment where the fire was, according to the criminal complaint obtained by various local media outlets.

Carlson also allegedly woke up one of the tenants of the building when he was “smashing glass and breaking things” immediately before the fire, the criminal complaint alleges.

After some 20 minutes of this alleged destruction, the landlord reportedly knocked on the tenant’s door and told him: “the house is on fire.”

A little after 3:30 that morning, a neighbor called 911 to say that he saw Carlson wearing a helmet and smashing his windows. The neighbor reported that the landlord went in and out of his apartment and underneath his truck, holding a gas can until he saw what he described as “a flash like a fireball come from the upstairs apartment.”

Investigators allegedly found a hole drilled into the gas tank of Carlson’s truck, a drill laying adjacent to that hole, lids to gas cans near the truck, green-lined traces of a burned accelerant throughout his apartment, and several wires pulled from an electrical panel in the basement, local NBC/CBS affiliate KBJR reports.

Three people and one cat lived in the apartment building. The residents were not injured by the fire, authorities said, and neither were firefighters. The tenants are, however, displaced and are receiving help from the Red Cross, the News Tribune reported.

The defendant was arrested the next day with fresh burns on his arms and legs, various media outlets reported, citing police.

Carlson is detained in the Saint Louis County Jail on a $75,000 bond.

Law&Crime reached out to a representative for Billy Joel about this story.

“We have no comment,” the singer-songwriter’s representative said.

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