Thursday, April 9, 2015

A long, long time ago ...

Seems Don Mclean is still rather cagey as to the meaning behind the lyrics of American Pie, other than to say he painted a rather gloomy picture of the music world ten years after the death of Buddy Holley.  The manuscript sold for $1.2 million at a Christie's auction.  One assumes there are notes in the margins that offer clues to the various couplets that have beguiled listeners for decades.

The song vaulted to the top of the US and UK charts back in 1972, and has lingered on radio stations ever since, in part because of the death of subsequent musicians that had DJ's often playing this song in eulogy. Madonna reprised the song in 2001, much to the chagrin of devoted fans who couldn't believe McLean actually sold her the rights to the song.  Not only did he grant her the opportunity to cover his song, but praised her rendition as "sensual and mystical."  (sigh)

McLean frames the song within the context of a high school homecoming weekend replete with football game, marching band and sock hop, which he appears to set in 1959, even if the plane crashed in February, which is basketball not football season.  However, the marching band is important to him.  The song speaks of unrequited love for a girl going out with another guy, blaming his ill luck on the deaths of his favorite musicians.  What's a lonely broncing buck to do but drive his Chevy to the levee and drink his whiskey in rye, only to find the levee dry.  This sense of emptiness sits with us throughout the song, yet the buoyant rhythm keeps us thinking everything will turn out all right in the end.

There is a second time line, ten years later, allowing Don to give us an entirely different set of impressions of the tumultuous decade that followed.  McLean probes quite a few things in the song, including the elusive nature of God, which eventually led him toward evangelism, much like Bob Dylan, who plays an important role in this song.  Just about everyone was trying to be like Bob Dylan, who had become the personification of American folk music in the 60s.  By the 70s, Dylan had shifted gears leaving the folkies very upset, including Pete Seeger, who McLean also idolized.  Maybe Don was trying to capture some of those emotions in the torrent of verses that allude to a fracturing society where music is no longer clear cut, but has drifted into a "purple haze," made famous in the San Francisco music scene.  There are references to the Beatles as well, which had similarly drifted into this drug-induced culture.

There are also political references, the most obvious of which is his allusion to communism, in "Lenin read a book of Marx."  Many young Americans were flirting with socialist ideas.  McLean doesn't seem to cast judgement though, instead noting that anarchy prevailed at the football game when "the marching band refused to yield."  One has to assume they were playing a tribute to his fallen rock-and-roll idols, as "we all got up to dance."  Unfortunately, order was soon restored. Nixon perhaps?   He blends past and present together seamlessly in the lyrics so that we are not quite sure which is which.

Then comes verse 4, where McLean takes up the Rolling Stones' song, Sympathy for the Devil, which celebrated an altered view of society.  The Stones relished becoming the bad boys of Rock and Roll.  McLean seems to have stronger feelings about this.  Satan has lurked in his lyrics as a manipulator of events, maybe even the plane crash.  He saw "Satan laughing with delight."  Had Satan taken over music as well?

He brings the song down in the end, finishing on a very somber note, meeting "a girl who sang the blues," and "asked her for some happy news," but "she just smiled and turned away." This could be a tribute to Billie Holiday, who also died in 1959 from cirrhosis of the liver.  She was handcuffed on her death bed, having been charged with drug possession.  There was no happiness left in the world.

And in the streets, the children screamed,
The lovers cried and the poets dreamed,
But not a word was spoken,
The church bells all were broken.

Was all this too much for him?  Apparently, Don had struggled as a folk musician and found himself in danger of losing his contract with United Artists.  His first album, Tapestry, had been a bust, with only one song, Castles in the Air, getting any air play.  American Pie not only saved him, but gave the music studio its biggest hit.  Of course, he had no way of knowing this when he wrote the song.  The lament takes on a suicidal quality, much like J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, which no doubt he read.  It turned out to be one of those pleasant ironies where fortunes turn on the fate of a song.

How much McLean's religious leanings figure into the song is anyone's guess.  Glenn Beck took a stab at it a few years back, offering his divinely inspired interpretation of the song for his born-again followers.  If anything, McLean seemed to be questioning the role of God in the deaths of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper.  McLean saw them as a rock-and-roll "holy trinity," at least in the context of the song, asking "can music save your mortal soul?"

It is the blend of pop and spirituality that has captured the imagination of so many listeners, not to mention the bouncy if repetitive musical phrasing that stretches the song out for over 8 minutes.  Apparently, McLean meant it as a show tune in a similar sense as Arlo Guthrie's Alice's Restaurant, released five years before.  American Pie isn't as timely as Alice's Restaurant, which was penned at the height of the Vietnam War, but it does offer an interesting view of the same era.

In the end, the song is an updated version of The Everly Brothers' Bye Bye Love, from the same time as Buddy Holly.  Fortunately, Phil and Don had been spared that ill-fated year.  Don McLean had turned a sad love ballad into a song mourning the loss of a generation of music.  There would be no return.

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