….A long, long time ago….
Singer/song-writer, Don McLean penned one of the most recognizable songs ever recorded. American Pie is part of our musical and American lexicon. Not only does the song lament the change in music with the passing of Buddy Holly, but it catalogues the changes and additional “deaths” of music through the decade of the ’60s. There is a real dichotomy in this era. The mutation of music in the 1960s provided revolutionary new sounds, electric music and much different attitudes. While many would look at this as positive progression, many also mourned the loss of the music of the past, as well as the innonence of the time.
American Pie, Don McLean
McLean has never commented extensively on the meaning of the song, preferring to let the aire of mystique remain. When asked what the song means, he generally gives the elusive answer of “It means I’ll never have to work again” or “It’s the story of America”.
For my personal experience, I spent many a high school night memorizing every word of every verse, rewinding my cassette recorder over and over again to get every word. On the way home after a night out, my friends and I would pop the tape into the car cassette player and passionately belt out the lyrics. I imagine that American Pie has been a staple on playlists across America for the last 35 years.
Perhaps the most eloquent explanation of American Pie is the original Rolling Stone review from ’72 by Lester Bangs:
Don McLean’s “American Pie” has ripped out of nowhere and taken the country by storm both in its album and truncated single versions. It took exactly two weeks to shoot to the top of the charts, everybody I know has been talking excitedly about it since first hearing, and, even more surprisingly, it has united listeners of musical persuasions as diverse as Black Sabbath and Phil Ochs in unbridled enthusiasm for both its message and it musical qualities.
All of which is not so surprising once you’ve heard it, because it is a brilliant song, a metaphor for the death and rebirth of rock that’s at once complex and immediately accessible. For the last couple of years critics and audience alike have been talking about the Death of Rock, or at least the fragmentation of all our 1967 dreams of anthemic unity. And, inevitably, somebody has written a song about it. About Dylan, Buddy Holly, the Beatles, Stones, Byrds, Janis and others. About where we’ve been, the rush of exhilaration we felt at the pinnacle, and the present sense of despair. Don McLean has taken all this and set it down in language that has unmistakable impact the first time you hear it, and leaves you rubbing your chin–”Just what did that line mean?”–with further listenings because you know it’s all about something you’ve felt and lived through. A very 1967ish song, in fact, in the way it makes you dig for deeper meaning, but not the least bit mawkish.
It opens with a slow, mournful sequence about reading the headlines about the deaths of Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper while delivering papers as a child, then into the chorus: “Bye bye, Miss American Pie/Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry/Them good ole boys were drinkin’ whiskey and rye/And sayin’ this’ll be the day that I die.” Then all at once it rears up and charges through the years in a giddy rush: “I was a lonely teenage bronckin’ buck/With a pink carnation and a pickup truck,” the “Book of Love,” sock hops in the gym and puppy jealousy, and then into the heart of the myth, where Dylan is a Jester “in a coat he borrowed from James Dean,” laughing at the king “in a voice that came from you and me.”
The halcyon days of Sgt. Pepper are brilliantly caught: “The half-time air was sweet perfume/As the Sergeants played a marching tune,” but suddenly the Jester is on the sidelines in a cast, the stage is taken by Jack Flash (“Fire is the devil’s only friend”), and Altamont, the Angels and the despairing resentment the Stones left many fans with pass in a dark panorama. Finally coming down to the levee again, where the good old boys are draining the bottles and talking as if it’s all over, as they did when the plane bearing “The Father, Son and the Holy Ghost” fell and as they will again and again through the years. It’s just the old Calvinist sense of impending apocalypse and perdition, but they’re good old boys anyway and we can’t resent them because we too “believe in rock ‘n’ roll/And [that] music can save your moral soul.” Because they’re us.
“American Pie” is a song of the year, and its music is just as strong as those lyrics, propelled with special resonance by the piano of Paul Griffin, who played with the Jester when his myth was at pinnacle. The single version is considerably shorter than that on the album, and I only wish that I could recommend the latter unhesitatingly. Unfortunately, the eight-minute hit is the only tune of real substance and vitality on it; the rest is given over to a series of moody, rather bland songs stereo-typically deriving from the Sixties folk tradition and the current proliferation of songwriters specializing in introspective, watery poeticizings. Shucks, I almost wonder from struggling to keep my attention on them whether “American Pie” won’t be the only important song Don McLean will ever write. But maybe that’s being premature and petty; because he did write it, and we needed it, did we ever. If you’ve ever cried because of a rock & roll band or album, or lain awake nights wondering or sat up talking through the dawn about Our Music and what it all means and where it’s all going and why, if you’ve ever kicked off your shoes to dance or wished you had the chance, if you ever believed in Rock & Roll, you’ve got to have this album. (RS 100)
I have to disagree with Lester on the rest of McLean’s American Pie album. There are several great tracks on this album, with Vincent (Starry, Starry Night) as a particularly compelling song about artist Vincent Van Gogh.
Vincent (Starry, Starry Night), Don McLean
Don McLean was friends with folk legends The Weavers, as well as Pete Seeger and briefly attended Villanova with Jim Croce. McLean’s style is very much in the vein of old-time singer/songwriters with tunes that are easy on the ear and hard on the mind. His songs MEAN something. They’re not catchy and snazzy, they are deep.
A young girl named Lori Lieberman attended one of Don McLean’s performances and was so touched by it that she wrote a poem, entitled Killing Me Softly with His Blues. Composers Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel later turned that poem into a song immortalized by Roberta Flack as Killing Me Softly.
Killing Me Softly, Roberta Flack
It was later re-mixed and covered by The Fugees.
MUSIC MAVEN Trivia: Lori Lieberman went on to provide music for the critically acclaimed Schoolhouse Rock…”I’m just a bill, only a bill…”
NOTE: I refuse to post covers of American Pie, as among those that attempted it, the Madonna and The Brady Bunch (a kid you not) versions are hideous. Garth Brooks does a minimally decent rendition but it doesn’t come close to Don McLean.
Don McLean immortalized the great Buddy Holly, paying apt homage to the legend’s musical importance and ensuring Holly is known to new generations. American Pie is proof that songs with meaning, songs than resonate with listeners, are recognized, treasured and endure forever.
Tune in tomorrow for the next installment in The Day the Music Died series. Until then, if you’re so inclined, take a look at Music Maven’s take on American Pie‘s lyrics, verse by verse.
Click here for Music Maven’s Lyric Interpretation of American Pie