Desert Island Singles (Tag-Team Edition): “American Pie” by Don McLean (1971)Posted: August 12, 2013
Scott: Note too that McLean released this song in 1971, not even twenty years into “the rock era.” Rock had already been pronounced dead and irrelevant multiple times by then and somehow it kept, and keeps, coming back. In the words of Huey Lewis and The News, the old boy may be barely breathing but the heart of rock’n’roll is still beating.
Alan: McLean’s lyrics were full of imagery. Even if you didn’t understand their meaning, you could derive some sort of meaning from them. As Scott lays out in the next paragraph, McLean intimated in the song’s introduction that the sense of urgency and surface joy that music brought was shattered when the events of the fateful day in question occurred. All of a sudden, it wasn’t enough to be moved by a melody or the sway of the beat. Now, one had to consider the implications of the reality that songwriters captured and dissected in their musical bottles. One had to understand that the game of pop songwriting had changed, and that the rules were being rewritten, because the day the music died was going to have a lasting effect on the current generation and generations to come.
Verse 1: “A long, long time ago, I can still remember..”
Scott: McLean sets the table. He describes the early days of rock’n’roll and the happiness he felt listening to it, inspiring him to become a rocker someday. Then came the plane crash that took those three lives. It was the first note of tragedy in the nascent rock world, and gave McLean (and many others) a sense of impermanence in this new music they loved. Maybe good things come to an end, or at least change.
Chorus: “So bye, bye, Miss American Pie..”
Scott: Rock’n’roll was and is iconic, as American as apple pie and Chevys, and imbued with all sorts of warm and fuzzy nostalgia. But the levee is dry, the song goes on, and the good old boys are singing “this’ll be the day that I die” (a reference to a Buddy Holly song). It must be all over, right? Nope. Unlike Beck I side with Billy Joel, who sang that the good old days weren’t all that good and tomorrow’s not as bad as it seems. And here’s where McLean’s folkie roots surface. It’s a standard motif in folk music to set up a recurring image in the chorus, to revisit and tie together the threads of the song. “This’ll be the day that I die,” they sing, but it doesn’t die: it comes back for more and more verses.
Alan: Although it is certainly at least commentary and analysis wrapped up in the conventions of pop songwriting, it does so because it is first and foremost a rock or pop (take your pick) song angling for a position in the charts, and a chance to attach itself to one of Billboard Magazine’s famous bullets, riding its coattails all the way up to number one for four weeks in 1972. It felt like, and indeed was, a hit record, and it’s no doubt that its writer and record company had hopes for such an eventuality. Meaning is good and it’s important but you’ve got to sell those records, kids, or the meaning will dissipate and mean nothing. The meaning in this song, thanks to the song’s success on the charts and at radio, had legs. And I’m with Billy Joel, too. The best was yet to come.
Verse 2: “Did you write the Book of Love…”
Scott: Some backstory from McLean. He writes about the communal quality of early rock’n’roll, and how it guided him and so many others through the years of adolescent angst. The pink carnation and the pickup truck is an allusion to Marty Robbins’ “A White Sport Coat And A Pink Carnation.” Being out of luck in teenage romance, or at any age, can feel like “the day the music died.” And, paradoxically, the music can indeed save your mortal soul.
Alan: Or can it? McLean dives in to the celestial plane and wonders about faith. Do you believe in the word as written in the holy text? Do you believe that music can “save your mortal soul?” And, perhaps more importantly, “Can you teach me how to dance real slow?” Because that’s the most important thing, really: and as anyone who has logged hours upon hours at school dances can tell you, you’d better be able to sway to the music or you’ll end up a wallflower. Nevertheless, and not for the last time in this song, the bottom falls out on love—the boy in love, all dressed to the nines and shiny and stout, has nowhere to go because the music has died. There is, however, hope.
Verse 3: “Now for ten years we’ve been on our own..”
Scott: Ten years, more or less, since rock began to change. Bob Dylan the jester challenged Elvis Presley the king (and who was the queen?) for relevancy in this new era. While Elvis and his contemporaries were “looking down,” modifying their style for a maturing audience, Dylan “stole his crown.” The quartet that practiced in the park while Lennon read a book on Marx are pretty self-explanatory. And we sang dirges in the dark for JFK and the optimism of The New Frontier. But the music still didn’t die.
Alan: The sun had set on the Beatles’ reign on the charts and the souls of the young only two years before, but in seemingly an instant the playing field had changed. New and perhaps more vital musical voices, trading as nothing less than prophets, took hold of the scene and reached out to remold the minds of the masses. Things were changing fast and listeners looked to their favorite disc jockeys and artists and friends and parents, even, for clues to the new direction. Some ears were tuned to music as only a passing diversion, but those who were caught up in the search for a deeper meaning looked well inside McLean’s pen for a hint of what was happening and what was soon to come.