marți, 16 martie 2010

Don McLean’s “American Pie”- a possible explanation of lyrics

The Day The Music Died

What Does It All Mean.....Buddy?
by Kool Karl 

One of the most enigmatic songs of all times is Don McLean’s “American Pie”. Until recently it was also the longest song available on karaoke. In most KJ libraries, including mine, it is still the longest song. Is this another long-winded desultory philippic or did Don just have a lot to say. And what’s it all mean? Well let's look at one interpretation of that song....mine.
Don dedicated the album "American Pie" to Buddy Holly. Why?....Don refuses to explain it, (speculation is good for sales). Don did license the movie “American Pie” to use his copyrighted title though it has nothing to do with his song. Don has often said "what American Pie really means is that I will never have to work again if I don't want to". The symbols used by McLean often have more than one meaning, and have had many interpretations. At this late date no interpretation is totally original, nor is this one. The comments on Rock and Roll are all mine. This may be as close as anyone’s idea of what the song means (and is not sanctioned by Don McLean). This interpretation suggests that the song is a tribute to Buddy Holly, one of the original pioneers of rock and roll, and a commentary on how rock and roll music has changed in the years since his death. It also describes Don’s personal search for truth, justice and the American way, in the music of that time.
.......... (Verse 1)
.......... A long, long time ago...
Once upon a time...kinda’ like a fairytale. Buddy Holly died in 1959. The album "American Pie" was released in 1971; the song reached number one in the U.S. in 1972. McLean has acknowledged the connection between his song and Holly, and seems quite pleased that people have recognized that, and for all the speculation and publicity it has created.
.......... I can still remember how
.......... That music used to make me smile.
50’s rock was happy upbeat (flappy) music that Don loved.
.......... And I knew if I had my chance,
.......... That I could make those people dance,
.......... And maybe they'd be happy for a while.
Early rock and roll provided dance music for various social events. It would seem that his life up to that point had been happy and simple but this is no longer the case. McLean expresses his desire to become a successful rock musician and singer, and alludes to a life-long search for happiness.
.......... But February made me shiver,
Buddy Holly died on February 3, 1959 in a plane crash in Iowa during a snowstorm.
........... With every paper I'd deliver,
Don McLean's job before becoming a full-time singer/songwriter was being a paperboy, which he was in 1959 at the age of 13.
.......... Bad news on the doorstep...
.......... I couldn't take one more step.
The news was a shock to him when he cut open a bundle of papers and saw the headline. Buddy Holly had been his idol.
.......... I can't remember if I cried
.......... When I read about his widowed bride
Holly's recent bride was pregnant at the time. Not long after this, she had a miscarriage. Holly never had any children.
.......... But something touched me deep inside,
.......... The day the music died.
The same plane crash that killed Buddy Holly also took the lives of Richie Valens ("La Bamba") and The Big Bopper ("Chantilly Lace"). Since all three were so prominent in popular music at the time, February 3, 1959, became known as "The Day The Music Died". This had a major influence on McLean’s life and this song has shaped who and where he is today professionally and financially.
.......... So...
.......... (Refrain)
.......... Bye bye Miss American Pie,
Miss American Pie is rock and roll music. But also refers to the simple innocent and uncomplicated American way of life in the 50’s before drugs, cold war, Vietnam and protests. Also Don McLean dated a Miss America candidate (unconfirmed...and I don’t know if he got any “pie”).
.......... Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry
The Levee was a bar near Don McLean’s home town. This can also refer to middle America and the loss of its value system. Chevy is an all American car that rhymes with levee.
.......... Them good ol' boys were drinkin' whiskey and rye
What good ol’ boys drink! And rye rhymes with die.
.......... Singing "This'll be the day that I die,
.......... This'll be the day that I die."
Holly's biggest hit was "That'll be the Day"; containing the line "That'll be the day that I die". This is a main theme in Don’s song.
.......... (Verse 2)
.......... Did you write the book of love,
.......... And do you have faith in God above,
.......... If the Bible tells you so?
"The Book of Love" by the Monotones was a hit in 1958. Also the Bible is sometimes referred to as “The book of love.” In 1955, Don Cornell wrote a song entitled "The Bible Tells Me So". And There's also an old Sunday School song that goes: "Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so" These lines begin the spiritual references in the song where Don is equating rock and roll to religion. Rock has become a spiritual influence on American youth. These songs also reflect the gospel music influence as one of the root music forms of rock, along with Pop, Rhythm & Blues and Country Western.
.......... Now do you believe in rock 'n roll?
.......... Can music save your mortal soul?
The Lovin' Spoonful had a hit in 1965 with John Sebastian's "Do you Believe in Magic?". The song has the lines: "Do you believe in magic" and "It's like trying to tell a stranger 'bout rock and roll." Literally do you believe in rock and roll as a new religion. Again a spiritual reference.
.......... And can you teach me how to dance real slow?
Dancing slow was an important part of early rock and roll dances but declined in importance through the 60's as the music became less danceable with the influx of folk rock, art rock, and political protest songs. These lines may describe a failed teenage love affair.
.......... Well I know you're in love with him
.......... 'Cause I saw you dancing in the gym
In the 50’s dancing was an expression of love, and much more serious than it is today. Slow dancing was a form of socially acceptable public “vertical making out”.
.......... You both kicked off your shoes
A reference to "sock hops". Leather soled street shoes damage wooden basketball floors, so dancers had to take off their shoes.
.......... Man, I dig those rhythm 'n' blues
Before the popularity of rock and roll, music, like much else in the U. S., was highly segregated. The popular music of black performers for largely black audiences was called, first, "race music," later rhythm and blues. Elvis, Little Richard and Chuck Berry all had R&B influences in their music and backgrounds. Holly, who came from a C&W background, absorbed R&B from these other rock artists. It was the music form that rock borrowed most heavily from. Blues artist Muddy Waters wrote the song “The Blues Had a Baby”. One line goes “they named the baby rock and roll”.
.......... I was a lonely teenage broncin' buck
.......... With a pink carnation and a pickup truck
.......... But I knew that I was out of luck
"A White Sport Coat (And a Pink Carnation)", was a hit for Marty Robbins in 1957. The pickup truck is a symbol of sexual independence. But he still needs the magic of rock and roll.
.......... The day the music died
.......... I started singing...
.......... Refrain
.......... (Verse 3)
.......... Now for ten years we've been on our own
The day the music died, the crash killing rock’s top stars, was in 1959. McLean was writing this song in the late 60's. Do the math.
.......... And moss grows fat on a rolling stone
.......... But that's not how it used to be
Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" (1965) was his first big folk rock hit (many think the cord progression in this song was copied from Richie Valen’s “La Bamba”). He had been writing songs about love, family and contentment while staying at home and raking in royalties (he didn't tour again until ‘75). This was quite a change from the earlier, angrier Dylan. Bob’s justification for this was “It’s really hard to be a bitter millionaire”. This can also refer to the Rolling Stones who Don seems to think sold out and were seduced by the “dark side”. The Stones started out as Buddy Holly followers as were the Beatles, singing Holly songs. It can also refer to the general stagnation in rock in the early sixties.
.......... When the jester sang for the King and Queen
The jester is Dylan, a main influence in rock to this day. Dylan sang with Pete Seeger and Joan Baez at the Newport folk festival in ‘63 where he was hailed as the new star of folk music. Don sees Dylan leaving his (adopted) folk roots and creating the new form of folk rock as selling out also. Dylan actually started out as a rock musician and even played for a short time with a band that replaced Holly on the 58/59 Rock & Roll winter tour. Alternate ideas are that king and queen refer to the Kennedys or Elvis Presley & Little Richard.
.......... In a coat he borrowed from James Dean
In the movie "Rebel Without a Cause", James Dean has a red windbreaker that holds symbolic meaning throughout the film. On the cover of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan album, Dylan is wearing a red windbreaker, and is posed in a street scene similar to a well-known picture of James Dean. This was Dylan’s break-through album, with such well known songs as "Blowin' in the Wind" and "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall." He was an expert at borrowing whatever cultural persona he wanted as he continually reinvented himself throughout his career. Today he is the most imitated writer and singer in the history of rock. Dylan’s style of folk rock has resurfaced as “alternative rock” which took over mainstream music in the mid to late 90’s, as opposed to “white bubblegum rap” which appears in top 40 music today. My only question is: does this make the performers “bubblegum (w)rappers?”
.......... And a voice that came from you and me
Bob Dylan's later musical roots are in American folk music, with people like Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. Dylan befriended Guthrie, visiting him in the hospital often, before Guthrie died. Folk music is by definition the music of the people, hence it "...came from you and me".
.......... Oh, and while the King was looking down
.......... The jester stole his thorny crown
A reference to Seeger and/or Elvis's decline and Dylan's ascendance. The thorny crown is a reference to the price of fame, also another religious symbol. Is Dylan the savior of rock or a sacrificial lamb to be crucified? Dylan has said that he wanted to be as famous as Elvis, one of his early idols.
.......... The courtroom was adjourned, No verdict was returned.
Of the different competing factions in rock at this time, none predominated.
.......... And while Lennon read a book on Marx,
Literally, John Lennon reading about Karl Marx; figuratively, the introduction of radical politics into the music of the Beatles. A cute Marx and Lenin wordplay. This begins the rise of the Beatles as the top rock group.
.......... The quartet practiced in the park
The Beatles at the Candlestick Park concert or Shea Stadium. They were soon to be the leading influence in rock. Also a possible reference to the Weavers. McLean had become friends with Lee Hays of the Weavers in the early 60's, and was well acquainted with Pete Seeger. Lee Hays arranged most of the songs on the American Pie album with Don.
.......... And we sang dirges in the dark
A "dirge" is a funeral or mourning song, meant literally...or is a reference to some of the new "art rock" groups which played long dirge-like pieces not suitable for dancing.
.......... The day the music died. We were singing...
.......... Refrain
.......... (Verse 4)
.......... Helter Skelter in a summer swelter
"Helter Skelter" is a Beatles song that appears on the White album. "Summer swelter" is a reference to the "Summer of Love" or to the "long hot summer" of Watts.
.......... The birds flew off with the fallout shelter
.......... Eight miles high and falling fast
The Byrd's "Eight Miles High" was on their late 1966 release "Fifth Dimension." It was one of the first records to be widely banned because of supposedly drug-oriented lyrics. Fallout shelter is slang for a drug rehab clinic. During their short career the Byrds became a major influence in folk rock.
.......... It landed foul on the grass
One of the Byrds was busted for possession of marijuana. Several other rock stars were arrested for drug use in this period as drugs become a serious problem in society and are reflected in the rock culture of the times.
.......... The players tried for a forward pass
A football metaphor about the Rolling Stones, they tried to surpass the Beatles, which really didn't happen until the Beatles broke up. Though good friends, the Beatles and Stones were rivals to be the top popular rock group of the era. McLean uses football metaphors in this section, similar to his use of religious metaphors, as he describes the competition between rock groups and the different directions they tried to lead popular music.
.......... With the jester on the sidelines in a cast
On July 29, 1966, Dylan crashed his motorcycle while riding near his home in Woodstock, New York. He spent nine months in seclusion while recuperating.
.......... Now the halftime air was sweet perfume
Drugs and marijuana are now rampant in all rock circles in the mid to late 60’s.
.......... While sergeants played a marching tune
The Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" album in general is "marching" music because it's not for dancing, but music with a message to which we march, literally protest and anti-establishment songs.
.......... We all got up to dance
.......... Oh, but we never got the chance
The Beatles' 1966 Candlestick Park concert only lasted 35 minutes and there wasn't any danceable music to dance to. Old time rock and roll is disappearing from the scene.
.......... 'Cause the players tried to take the field,
.......... The marching band refused to yield.
A reference to the dominance of the Beatles in rock and roll. It's a comment about how this led to more "pop art" music, leading in turn to a loss of traditional rock and roll, and shut out the Stones and other groups.
.......... Do you recall what was revealed,
.......... The day the music died?
.......... We started singing
.......... Refrain
.......... (Verse 5)
.......... And there we were all in one place
Woodstock or Altmont.
.......... generation lost in space
A reference to hippies, who were sometimes known as the "lost generation", because of their alienation from society, and presumed use and preoccupation with drugs.
.......... no time left to start again
The "lost generation" had spent too much time being stoned, and had wasted their lives. Their preference for psychedelia had pushed rock and roll so far from Holly's music that it could not be retrieved.
.......... So come on Jack be nimble Jack be quick
A reference to Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones; "Jumpin' Jack Flash" was released in May, 1968.
.......... Jack Flash sat on a candlestick
Altmont was The Stones' attempt to create their own “Candlestick Park Concert”. This line comes from the nursery rhyme that has the line "Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, Jack jumped over a candlestick." Create your own image.
.......... 'Cause fire is the devil's only friend
With "Sympathy for the Devil" and other songs, The Stones were playing with fire. These lines are a reference to the rise of the Stones as the next major rock influence.
.......... 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
After Woodstock the Stones decided to create a “Woodstock West” free concert at the Altamont Speedway in 1969. The Stones allowed members of the Hell's Angels to work security in the foolish belief that this would keep them from disrupting it. This concert was out of control from the beginning. The Angels were rioting and beating fans and singers. When the Stones arrived for their set, all hell broke loose. The Stones continued to perform, between pleas to end the violence, fearing what would happen if they stopped playing. In the darkness near the stage, an 18 yr. old black man reportedly pulled a gun and was beaten and stabbed to death by the Angels. Public outcry that the song "Sympathy for the Devil" had somehow incited the violence caused the Stones to drop the song from their show for the next six years.
.......... And as the flames climbed high into the night
.......... To light the sacrificial rite
These lines are about Altamont, and in particular Mick Jagger's performing while the violence was happening. Violence has since become a serious problem at many rock concerts to this day. The “sacrifice” is the fan being stabbed, and the bonfires around the area provide the flames. The Stones and several others scrambled to their helicopter after their music set to escape the carnage, like Satan escaping the flames of hell to safety. The helicopter rising from this scene creates an eerie contrast to the innocent Holly’s small plane taking off in a pure white snowstorm on its way to oblivion, as our fairytale began.
.......... I saw Satan laughing with delight
Satan would be Jagger. Ironically the Stones music was much more danceable than the Beatle music it replaced or the “art rock” style of McLean. Even more ironic The Stones succeeded in moving rock back to its R&B roots and heavily influenced the classic rock groups of the 70’s. The Stones are the only major group of this era that have performed continuously to the present day. Did the “bad boys of rock” trade their souls to save rock and roll and achieve immortality?
.......... The day the music died He was singing...
.......... Refrain
.......... (Verse 6)
.......... I met a girl who sang the blues
This refers to Janis Joplin, a 60’s Rock and Blues singer. Her big hits were "Piece of My Heart", "Me and Bobby McGee", “Cry Baby” and “Mercedes Benz”.
.......... And I asked her for some happy news
.......... But she just smiled and turned away
Janis died of a heroin overdose on October 4, 1970, another rock drug fatality. McLean is still trying to find happiness as in the beginning of this fairytale: “Maybe they'd be happy for a while," "That music used to make me smile." Note the tone of the song is very similar in these two verses, but this time the smile isn't for happiness but regret. The smiles he finds are but wistful memories.
.......... I went down to the sacred store
.......... Where I'd heard the music years before
The "sacred store" is the local record store. This is another spiritual reference applied to rock and roll. And it can also refer to Bill Graham's Fillmore West, one of the great rock and roll venues of all time, which closed down around 1970.
.......... But the man there said the music wouldn't play
Nobody is interested in hearing Buddy Holly's music anymore.
.......... And in the streets the children screamed
These are "Flower children" being beaten by police and National Guard troops; in particular, the People's Park riots in Berkeley in 1969 and 1970, Kent State and the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
.......... The lovers cried and the poets dreamed
Disillusioned, McLean has adopted an existential view of the world. But then lovers always cry... eventually, and poets always dream.
.......... But not a word was spoken
.......... The church bells all were broken
As in Simon and Garfunkle’s “The Sound of Silence”, no official source grieved, lamented or acknowledged the loss of the innocent music of Holly. Once again a religious metaphor.
.......... And the three men I admire most
.......... The Father Son and Holy Ghost
Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, and Richie Valens....and another religious allegory. The Big Bopper's real name was J.P. Richardson. He was a DJ who had one big novelty hit, the well known "Chantilly Lace". Richie Valens was Richard Valenzuela, rock and rolls first Chicano star best known for “La Bamba”.
.......... They caught the last train for the coast
They were dead and gone, "went west" is a synonym for dying, as in “bought the ranch”, a common cultural metaphor. This line also shows up in Procol Harem’s “Whiter Shade of Pale” with the same meaning. Our fairytale, the song and Don’s search for happiness, spirituality and truth in the music of his time, end on a sad and empty note.
.......... The day the music died
.......... And they were singing...
.......... Refrain (2x)
At one level American Pie is Don’s personal story of coming of age and learning about the real world, and how it changed during turbulent times, reflected in the music of that era.
The performers mentioned here, and in particular Dylan, The Beatles and The Stones have had more impact on the direction of rock and roll than any others since the days of Holly, Elvis, Little Richard and Chuck Berry. In effect American Pie chronicled the transition of rock from its childhood to its late teens and correctly picked the artists who created rock and roll as we know it today.
And you thought it was just another long dull boring song about nothing! It had to be that long to describe ten years of rock history.
_ _ _ _ Kool “Buddy” Karl can be found KJ-ing
around Orange County at various
clubs and private parties.

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