Friday, March 2, 2012

Getting "American Pie"


I just sent this draft to The Lincoln Eagle.

Getting "American Pie"
Mitchell Langbert, Ph.D.

Don McLean is a New Yorker from the Town of Rye in Westchester County. According to his Website, he graduated from Iona College in New Rochelle and sang at the CaffĂ© Lena in Saratoga Springs.   He received a grant to sing in the Hudson River Troubadour Project, and he then became Pete Seeger's disciple.  In 1972 his "American Pie" jumped to number one on the charts for four weeks.  Last year I realized that most of my students at Brooklyn College hadn't heard "American Pie."  If you haven't, it's on YouTube.  For the past 40 years Baby Boomers have puzzled over its meaning.  In 1972, my English professor remarked that he couldn't get it.

McLean's Catholicism explains "American Pie." (His mother was an Italian-American and his father was Scottish, but the McLeans also had connections to Ireland.) Just as the Irish remember Henry VIII's takeover of Ireland in the 1530s and Cromwell's invasion in 1649, so McLean laments the 1960s British invasion--of The Beatles and The Stones--following the deaths of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens ("La Bamba"), and Jiles Perry Richardson, the Big Bopper ("Chantilly Lace"), in a February 3, 1959 plane crash--"the day," McLean says, "the music died." Valens was only 17 and was already a certified genius. At 22, Holly had produced songs like "That'll Be the Day," "Not Fade Away," "Peggy Sue," and "Everyday."  The Beatles named themselves after Buddy Holly and the Crickets; The Stones have performed "Not Fade Away" more than six hundred times. Sheryl Crow's version reached number 78 in 2007, and James Taylor recorded it in 2008.  What would have happened if Holly had lived? Would there have been a British invasion, and, even if so, would it have been long lived?

What irritated McLean about the British invasion--besides a healthy dose of American nationalism--was the anti-Christian tack that The Beatles and The Stones had taken.  Recall that in 1966 John Lennon, in an interview with Maureen Cleave of The London Evening Standard, said of The Beatles, "We're more popular than Jesus now."  Then, The Stones released "Sympathy for the Devil."

The reason McLean made "American Pie" hard to understand is that in 1971 it would have been professional suicide for him to openly attack The Stones, The Beatles, and Bob Dylan.  As a religious Catholic he was doing just that.

"American Pie," then, has three levels of meaning.  In addition to McLean's rejection of the British invasion ("I miss American pie") and outrage at the anti-Christian turn rock took in the Sixties, there are personal and political levels that cloak McLean's rejection of rock.  "American Pie" can refer to American music, to a girlfriend who rejected McLean, or to America and its social problems of the "ten years" we were on our own following the day the music died, from 1959 to 1969.  The political level involves the social traumas of the 1960s and the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Robert F. Kennedy.  Consider the lines near the end of the song: 

And the three men I admire most
-The Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost-
They caught the last train for the coast
The day the music died

McLean says that February 3, 1959 was the day the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost caught the last train to the coast because Holly's death meant the dominance of Lennon's and Jagger's contempt for Christianity.   It also, though, is an allusion to events surrounding the crash.  For the fourth act on the Winter Dance Party tour that appeared at Clear Lake Iowa's Surf Ballroom on February 3rd was Dion and the Belmonts.  Dion and the Belmonts did not fly out of Clear Lake, and they were the only act to survive.  Ten years later, around the same time that the Hell's Angels murdered a member of the audience at The Stones' Altamont concert (No angel born in Hell/Could break that Satan's spell) Dion released his classic folk hit, "Abraham, Martin, and John," about the assassinations of Lincoln, King, and Kennedy--the three men many admire most.

Two of the chorus lines, "Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry/And them good old boys were drinking whiskey and rye/Singing This'll be the day that I die" can be interpreted on two levels.  Some commentators say the second line is really "And them good old boys were drinking whiskey in Rye" because McLean was singing about bars he used to drink at in Rye and New Rochelle. When McLean went to Iona Preparatory School in the '60s and to Iona College, the Levee was a New Rochelle bar. Since then its name has changed to the Beechmont.   But at the same time, a famous Chevrolet commercial from the 1950s featuring Dinah Shore referred to driving a Chevy along the levee ("See the USA in Your Chevrolet…/America's the greatest land of all/On a highway or road along the levee…").  The line "This'll be the day that I die" refers to Buddy Holly's 1957 hit "That'll Be the Day" ("That'll be the day that I die").   

Once the meaning of "Miss American Pie" as "Bye, bye, I miss American music" is in place, the religious references and the references to the dark side of rock also fall into place.  The verses concerning the Byrds, Janis Joplin's death from heroin, and the violence at Altamont are all references to the decline of rock due to drugs and violence following the plane crash and the British invasion. 

McLean's ambivalence about Bob Dylan is part of the story.  McLean refers to Dylan as "the jester." Dylan is an American, but while he was laid up from a motorcycle accident in Woodstock ("with the jester on the sidelines in a cast"), Dylan was in the middle of a transition from folk to rock.  In 1966, prior to the crash, one of Dylan's first performances that included rock was at the Manchester Free Trade Hall, which is often called his Royal Albert Hall concert. He wore flamboyant Mod clothes of that period. The audience booed when he switched to electric guitar. Dylan may have stolen Elvis's (the King's) crown, and McLean sarcastically calls it a thorny crown because Elvis represented the start of the rock star-as-god phenomenon for which McLean has contempt.  Moreover, in McLean's view it's questionable whether Bob Dylan's rock was any good:

When the jester sang for the king and queen
In a coat he borrowed from James Dean
And a voice that came from you and me
Oh and while the king was looking down
The jester stole his thorny crown
The courtroom was adjourned
No verdict was returned

The song's next-to-last verse suggests that, to McLean, Mick Jagger represented the ultimate decay of rock ("So come on, Jack be nimble, Jack be quick/Jack Flash sat on a candle stick/…My hands were clenched in fists of rage/No angel born in hell/Could break that Satan's spell"), and that the ultimate outcome in the final verse is the death of Janis Joplin.  

Perhaps McLean was prophetic. What has happened to rock since 1971 has been more extreme: punk, heavy metal, rap, and hip hop all extol drugs and violence.  Acts like Justin Bieber are commercialized bubblegum rock.  Bye, bye American culture.