Desert Island Singles (Tag-Team Edition): “American Pie” by Don McLean (1971)Posted: August 12, 2013
Verse 4: “Helter skelter, in a summer swelter..”
Scott: The Summer Of Love was a time of social experimentation, through drug use and otherwise. Folk rock and psychedelia landed south “on the grass”, and the halftime air was “sweet perfume.” Other performers carried the mantle of the jester, on the sidelines in a cast (Dylan was in a serious motorcycle accident in 1966 and retired briefly from music). Musicians began to question and challenge the Vietnam War and militarism and regimentation for the first time. Social ills were revealed, and it was thought that rock would lose its audience for pointing out these things.
Alan: And some of the audience did indeed retire from the horse race partially due to disinterest (not every pair of ears wanted to hear about society’s ills), but also because some of them only listened to music for the simple fun of it. And that was where “American Pie” really excelled: one didn’t have to search for meaning in its lyrics if one didn’t want to. I believe that McLean would have been happy either way. But the search for meaning was ultimately preordained, because once disc jockeys started analyzing the lyrics on the air during their shows, the impact that the song had on listeners grew exponentially. And those listeners who were in a position to bond with their friends and acquaintances could certainly be taken higher, onto a higher plane of existence. It was a matter of personal choice as to where you took this monster of a song and how you applied its myriad messages to your well being.
Verse 5: “And there we were, all in one place..”
Scott: The Generation Lost In Space could have been a reference to Woodstock, but later McLean makes reference to the Altamont rock festival where the Hell’s Angels killed an audience member while the Stones performed “Under My Thumb.” Rock became harder and got edgier, more dangerous. Could it be the end? No, not quite.
Alan: In fact, it was only the beginning. Everything about music had changed. People started looking for meaning in the actual notes that formed the melodies of their favorite songs. It was a new world where one could find the secret to the universe even in an Archies record, if one so desired.
Verse 6: “I met a girl who sang the blues..”
Scott: This verse was McLean’s statement of the current state of rock music at the beginning of the 70s. The girl was almost certainly Janis Joplin, one of many stars who died suddenly and tragically. The sacred store referred to Fillmore East and West, the two premier rock venues which closed. Rock did a u-turn from its harder edge: teen idols and soft-rock became the order of the day, and the messages of equality and challenging the social norms were passé (“Not a word was spoken/The church bells all were broken”). And the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, catching the last train for the coast? “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
Alan: McLean might have been suggesting that the game that was afoot was well and indeed over: that, as a done deal, there was nowhere left to go for answers. Yet the song ends on a hopeful note, in that time-honored way that rock and pop music has of matching down bound lyrics to happy music. As the last chorus is sung, and the boys are still holding their lively wake for the end of meaning as they know it, the effect is curiously positive. McLean isn’t shining his spotlight on the sadness of the day, but is saying that the best is yet to come: that “this’ll be the day that I die,” but it will also be the day that I, and music, will be reborn.
Scott: The music didn’t die after all. Far from it. There’s been four decades of rock music since then, and McLean could easily have written twelve more verses. Imagine what he would have done with disco, new wave, hip hop, and grunge.
Alan: He would likely have made the case that the only thing that is written in stone is that change is inevitable, and through every genre of music to come, and every musical sadness to transpire, there will be the initial thought that it is all over, but, really, it is only just beginning.
The Chevy is a metaphor for the vessel that takes you “there,” wherever there is. It’s immaterial whether “there” is a new understanding of society, or simply the favored catalog of a new popular rock or pop group that has no aspersions other than to keep the beat going through that long night. It is always a personal choice and, thanks to McLean’s keen observational creation, it is one that will always be married to the art of popular song.