Lyric of the Week: “American Pie,” By Don McLean

Written by July 2nd, 2012 at 1:00 am


Ah, the 1950s. The golden age of hot rods, soda fountains, suburban homes and rock & roll. With World War II and the Great Depression fading into the past, Americans spent the decade enjoying some of the most prosperous years their nation had ever faced. Never before had the wealth of the country been shared by so many people.

It’s this version of America — the innocent, happy place depicted in doo-wop songs and Norman Rockwell paintings — that Don McLean eulogizes in “American Pie.” Actually, it’s the death of that place, represented by the demise of three early rock & roll stars, that seems to interest him the most. Written in the early 1970s, “American Pie” bids a sad farewell to a time long, long gone.

Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper died on February 3,1959, during the second week of a midwestern tour. The boys had just wrapped up a performance in Clear Lake, Iowa, and their next gig was scheduled for Moorhead, MN, more than 350 miles away. No one was looking forward to the trip. It was freezing outside, and Holly’s drummer had been hospitalized by a bad case of frostbite, thanks to a broken heater inside their tour bus. Desperate to avoid another long, cold drive, Holly hired a small Bonanza plane to fly him and two other passengers to Minnesota. Valens and the Big Bopper took the remaining seats.

Everyone knows the rest of the story. The pilot was young, the hour was late, and the weather was bad. Minutes after takeoff, the plane crashed into a frozen cornfield at 170 miles per hour and skidded for nearly 600 feet, turning end over end. All four occupants died, hopefully instantly. There were 11 months left in the year, but for most people, that was the day the 1950s officially ended. It was the end of an era, the demise of a smooth-sailing decade that would soon be replaced by the turbulent sixties. It was the day the music died.

“American Pie” unfolds like a story, right down to the fairytale-ish opening line (“A long, long time ago…”). Every verse is a new chapter, and McLean pulls double-duty as the main character and narrator. At the beginning, he’s your typical American teenager, concerned with little more than music, girls, and his morning paper route. When February 3 comes along, though, McLean finds himself delivering bad news to every doorstep. He loses his innocence that morning. “I knew I was out of luck the day the music died,” he sings in the second verse, using the rest of the song to explain how America lost its own innocence in that crash, too.

As the song moves into its third verse, McLean whisks us away to the end of the 1960s. Things in America have become more complicated since 1959, and the state of popular music has been volatile, too. Using double entendres, puns and a few inside jokes, he paints the picture of a topsy-turvy decade dominated by the Stones (“Moss grows fat on a rolling stone”) and Bob Dylan (“The jester sang for the king and queen in a coat he borrowed from James Dean,” a reference to the jacket worn on the cover of The Freewheeling Bob Dylan), two artists whose music always reflected the times in which they were living. Back when Buddy Holly was around, rock & roll artists just wanted to “make those people dance, and maybe they’d be happy for awhile.” In McLean’s present-day ‘70s, things aren’t so simple.

The climax arrives during the fifth verse, where McLean turns the Altamont Speedway Free Festival into some sort of apocalyptic event. The real Altamont Festival featured the Rolling Stones, the Hells Angels and the death of concertgoer Meredith Hunter, but the “American Pie” Altamont is even more sinister, with Satan laughing from the stage as the innocent 1950s literally burn to the ground.

That’s one interpretation, at least. Don McLean refuses to talk about the song, and his eight-and-a-half minute salute to America’s golden age asks more questions than it answers. Only McLean knows what it’s really about, meaning he gets to have his American pie and eat it, too. The rest of us can only guess.

* * * *

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

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”

Did you write the book of love
And do you have faith in God above
If the Bible tells you so?
Now do you believe in rock and 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

I started singin’ bye-bye, Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry
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”

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 Lenin read a book on Marx
A quartet practiced in the park
And we sang dirges in the dark
The day the music died

We were singin’ bye-bye, Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry
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”

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?

We started singin’ bye-bye, Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry
Them good old boys were drinkin’ whiskey and rye
And singin’ “This’ll be the day that I die
This’ll be the day that I die”

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

He was singin’ bye-bye, Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry
Them good old boys were drinkin’ whiskey and rye
And singin’ “This’ll be the day that I die
This’ll be the day that I die”

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

And they were singin’ 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”

They were singin’ bye-bye, Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry
Them good old boys were drinkin’ whiskey and rye
And singin’ “This’ll be the day that I die”

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