Inside "American Pie," Pop Music's Longest Allegory
Rocks Off has always been a fan of symbolism, hidden meanings and puzzles in general, so besides Raymond Chandler, Stephen King and Larry McMurtry, our favorite form of "lit-rah-chah" is allegorical stuff like George Orwell's Animal Farm, William Golding's Lord of the Flies and Edgar Allan Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death." And when it comes to music, Don McLean's "American Pie" has been keeping people like us busy for years.
Besides lending its name to those Stifler movies - something we're sure McLean is very proud of - "American Pie" has been covered by Madonna and (much less catastrophically) Garth Brooks, was named one of the 20th century's Top 5 songs in a poll conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Recording Industry Association of America, and has supposedly been played more than three million times on the radio.
Rocks Off estimates we have heard about 50,000 of those three million times, so since McLean is playing Dosey Doe in the Woodlands Saturday night, we thought we'd put on our lit-crit caps and run down McLean's myriad allusions in his eight-and-a-half-minute song. It begins with the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and Beaumont's J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson (and could easily have killed Waylon Jennings instead of the Bopper) in February 1959, and doesn't stop until it has covered the entire history of rock and roll up to about 1970 and a good bit of '60s social history besides.
We've been wanting to do this for a while, but we're hardly first. In fact, online discussion of "American Pie" may date back to the Internet's horseless-carriage days. "The roots of this posting are in the 'Great American Pie' Usenet discussion of 1983," writes Rich Kulawiec in his introduction to the "Pie" page at faqs.org. "Much of it comes from wombat's (the original wombat, not me) posting in net.music on June 16, 1985."
A long, long time ago... I can still remember How that music used to make me smile. And I knew if I had my chance That I could make those people dance And, maybe, they'd be happy for a while.
But February made me shiver With every paper I'd deliver. Bad news on the doorstep; I couldn't take one more step.
I can't remember if I cried When I read about his widowed bride, But something touched me deep inside The day the music died.
McLean's opening touches on his childhood job as a paperboy; he learned of Holly's plane crash on his morning route. The "widowed bride" is Maria Elena Santiago-Holly, who now lives in Dallas. McLean coined the phrase "The Day the Music Died," which has now been borrowed for half a dozen book titles, himself.
So bye bye, miss American pie. Drove my Chevy to the levee, But the levee was dry. And them good old boys were drinkin' whiskey and rye Singin', "this'll be the day that I die. "this'll be the day that I die."
"American Pie" is generally taken as a reference to either rock and roll itself or apple pie, Either one fits the song's overall theme of lost innocence, for McLean, rock and roll and the nation itself. Chevrolet commercials in the 1950s featured the line "On a highway or a road along a levee/ Life is completer in a Chevy." "This'll be the day that I die" comes almost word-for-word from Holly's hit "That'll Be the Day."
Did you write the book of love, And do you have faith in God above, If the Bible tells you so? Do you believe in rock 'n roll, Can music save your mortal soul, And can you teach me how to dance real slow?
Well, I know that you're in love with him `cause I saw you dancin' in the gym. You both kicked off your shoes. Man, I dig those rhythm and blues.
I was a lonely teenage broncin' buck With a pink carnation and a pickup truck, But I knew I was out of luck The day the music died.
Doo-woppers the Monotones had a big hit with "Who Wrote the Book of Love?" in 1957, a time when sock hops were very popular with teenagers - as was, more and more, rhythm and blues and, less and less, the Bible.
Now for ten years we've been on our own And moss grows fat on a rollin' stone, But that's not how it used to be. 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. And while Lennon read a book of Marx, The quartet practiced in the park, And we sang dirges in the dark The day the music died.
One funny reading of the "moss grows fat on a rolling stone" line is that it's about Mick Jagger's skin-tight stagewear. The jester is almost universally taken to be Bob Dylan, due to his flippant attitude toward the music business and the press and abundant of references to jesters, clowns and fools in his lyrics ("Like a Rolling Stone," "All Along the Watchtower.") The James Dean line refers to his jacket on the cover of 1963's The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan.
Some people think McLean is actually talking about Vladimir Lenin, but it's probably John since the ex-Beatle's socialism- and atheism-friendly "Imagine" came out about a year before "American Pie." "The quartet practiced in the park" is thought to be a reference to the Beatles' Shea Stadium concert, and the king is, of course, almost certainly Elvis.
Helter skelter in a summer swelter. The birds flew off with a fallout shelter, Eight miles high and falling fast. It landed foul on the grass. The players tried for a forward pass, With the jester on the sidelines in a cast.
Now the halftime air was sweet perfume While the sergeants played a marching tune. We all got up to dance, Oh, but we never got the chance! `cause the players tried to take the field; The marching band refused to yield. Do you recall what was revealed The day the music died?
"Helter Skelter" = more Beatles/the Manson Family murders in August 1969; Helter Skelter is the title of prosecuting attorney Vincent Bugliosi's 1974 memoir about the killings and subsequent trial. "Eight Miles High" = The Byrds ("fallout shelter," besides its literal meaning, was '60s slang for rehab). "Jester on the sidelines" = Dylan's 1966 motorcycle accident.
The sergeants' marching tune is generally translated into Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Thus McLean's marching-band/football-team standoff could thus be seen as all-American pastimes like sports losing their appeal to young people in favor of countercultural pursuits like drugs, free love and psychedelic music. Or the chaos of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Maybe.
Oh, and there we were all in one place, A generation lost in space With no time left to start again. So come on: jack be nimble, jack be quick! Jack flash sat on a candlestick Cause fire is the devil's only friend.
Oh, and as I watched him on the stage My hands were clenched in fists of rage. No angel born in hell Could break that Satan's spell. And as the flames climbed high into the night To light the sacrificial rite, I saw Satan laughing with delight The day the music died.
Here come the Stones: "Jumpin' Jack Flash" (obvious) and Altamont ("the flames climbed high into the night"). More adventurous interpretations have suggested that "fire is the devil's only friend" refers to the space race, with fire and candlesticks representing rockets and Russia as the devil. Who else doesn't miss the Cold War?
I met a girl who sang the blues And I asked her for some happy news, But she just smiled and turned away. I went down to the sacred store Where I'd heard the music years before, But the man there said the music wouldn't play.
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. 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.
Who else could that girl be besides Port Arthur's own pearl, Janis Joplin? Besides threading one more Biblical allusion into the song, the father/son/Holy Ghost line is much more vague: The commenters on Songfacts throw out both Holly, Valens and the Big Bopper and JFK, Bobby Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whose assassinations defined the '60s as much as Dylan, the Beatles and the Stones. Understanding American Pie's Jim Fann speculates the line could be about the three surviving Crickets.
REPEAT CHORUS TWICE
McLean, by the way, once interpreted "American Pie" this way in a note to The Straight Dope's Cecil Adams: "Long ago I realized that songwriters should make their statements and move on, maintaining a dignified silence."
Well, that was fun. The next time Bob Dylan comes through Houston, Rocks Off will tackle "Desolation Row."
That'll be the day...