A long, long time ago, when I can still remember how the music used to make me smile...
We all collectively know it as the opening lyric to an iconic, historical song, a true mile marker across our popular culture landscape: American Pie, by artist Don McLean. But if you were a Martian, only here for a short time to observe, or perhaps a Gen Z dweeb who doesn't acknowledge anything before, maybe, Justin Timberlake, you might just think it's the first line of a blog about life in January 2021 and the heavy, inescapable weltschmerz of post-Trump America.
Both would be correct.
American Pie is one of, if not the, most celebrated, analyzed pop songs in Western culture. It was released on the album of the same name in 1971 and 49 years ago this month began a solid four weeks at the top of the Billboard charts. McLean, who grew up in the suburbs around New York City, wrote the song in Cold Spring, NY, and here in Philadelphia, where he first performed it on March 14, 1971 at Temple University. Fun fact for ya: On that day I was in Philadelphia myself, attending my sister's first birthday party, unaware that I would one day attend Temple University - albeit briefly. I was a whole eight years old and I had a small, blue and white plastic reel-to-reel tape recorder I used to record songs off the radio: WFIL AM, nothing but top-40.
The song is eight and a half minutes long, not unheard-of for a Sixties folk ballad but absolutely a non-starter for a pop song - or any song that aspired to radio airplay. Remember, at the time, the only way for musical artists to make money was to record material that was released on an album, played on the radio as a single, and attract enough attention to sell said albums (and singles, called 45's), as well as tickets to concerts. No videos, no streaming, very little merch.
It was a simpler time, and therefore a less inclusive one. Radio programmers were effective gatekeepers; if they didn't like it, we didn't hear it, and many careers died before they began. A song that clocked in at 8:33 and was based on the inevitable decay of a civilization, kicked off on the day Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper (Jiles Perry Richardson, Jr.) all died in a plane crash, should have had no shot at success, period. The fact it was played, then rose to #1, then remained recognized and relevant for 50 more years is not only fascinating but completely unexplainable. Think about it: if you could understand and replicate what made American Pie successful, you could unlock the secrets of fame, wealth and - today especially - incalculable social influence.
But if there's a Da Vinci code somewhere beneath, it's never been found, and will likely never be found. Personally, I believe there is no secret to good writing. Or, said another way, there's no secret decoder ring you can buy in order to crank out good writing. Good writing is 65% talent and 35% rewriting, plus 100% luck. Yes, I know that's 200%; that's why I'm a writer, not a math person! And since you can't manufacture luck, a lot of good writing probably, statistically, goes unread and unrecognized.
But not this song.
One of the main reasons people have been obsessed with American Pie over the decades is the desire to correctly identify all the music personalities referenced in code in the song: (John) Lennon read a book on Marx, right? And Elvis is the King. But who's the Queen? Many say Bob Dylan was the Jester (probably because of the leather coat he "borrowed from James Dean") but Dylan himself has said as recently as 2017 that he's way too large of an influence on music to be referred to in such terms: "I have to think he’s talking about somebody else," Dylan reportedly said. Full of yourself much, Bob?
And McLean has been consistently prickly over the years, steadfast in his refusal to confirm or deny most of the references. In fact, despite auctioning off the original manuscript and notes behind the song in 2015, for a cool $1.2 million, McLean has never really handed anyone the comprehensive, secret decoder ring, opting instead to talk about the feelings of the era: "Basically in American Pie things are heading in the wrong direction.... It [life] is becoming less idyllic. I don't know whether you consider that wrong or right but it is a morality song in a sense," he is quoted as saying.
Today McLean is 75 and a recent interview in The Guardian scratches away more of the rust and reticence to gain a better understanding of the man and the music. We learn that the song wasn't driven by sadness over Holly's death, or the gradual decline of artistic integrity in popular music, although both are inarguably staples of the song. Rather he tapped into a grief far more personal and fundamental to write it: the death of his father when McLean was 15 years old, and an older sister whose struggle with addiction ravaged both herself and the family. In case McLean's later hit Vincent, about the tortured artist of Starry Night and I'm-going-to-cut-off-my-ear fame, didn't clue you in, Don McLean has had issues with melancholy and depression throughout his life.
“All my stuff is about loss – and a certain kind of psychic pain. I’ve never really been happy,” he says.
In the article McLean defines the song as a "biography" and the cultural, musical allusions as mere technique, the bricks and blocks with which he built a testament to his feelings of powerlessness and grief. For someone saddled with that kind of lifelong psychic pain, communicating in code is a necessary coping mechanism. Can you imagine how annoying it's been for five decades to have people poking you, tugging on your sleeve and asking you to rip off the veil and just SAY IT ALREADY?
In early drafts of the song McLean had a more acceptable pop ending, something closer to a revisionist, Disney-fied version where the music gets “reborn” and everything is gonna be all right. But, "(t)hings weren’t going that way,” he says. “I didn’t see America improving intellectually or politically. It was going steadily downhill, and so was the music.”
And that was in 1971!
American Pie references the riots at a free concert in 1969, held at Altamont Speedway in northern California and featuring big-name acts like the Rolling Stones and the Grateful Dead. More than 300,000 were said to have attended and the concert was ultimately remembered not for the joy or music, but for the violence that left four dead, including one woman who was stabbed to death. In January, 1972, the lyrics could be heard on every radio from coast to coast, and soon across a world much larger and more diverse than it is today. And 49 years later, to the week, we (and the world) are reeling in the wake of a "rally," a "protest" turned horribly awry that resulted in an unprecedented siege of the US Capitol by Americans, and the death of five, including a woman who was shot to death.
Let that sink in.
In 1971 Don McLean felt our country, and our music, were "going steadily downhill." His response, despite his chronic emotional pain and loss - or perhaps because of it - was to write an iconic tapestry of a song that not only captured a moment in time but exists today completely outside of time. It's a literal classic, never to be forgotten: It was named the fifth most important Song of the Century by the Recording Industry Association of America. It is taught in college classrooms and debated in online forums every day, half a century later. And McLean resists any urge or pressure to participate in workshopping, stubbornly referring people to the work itself and letting them have at it.
And today we are coming out of a dark period - or we pray we are. The last four years have been marked by a widening divide between Americans, magnified and enhanced by technology and almost limitless, nonstop access. There's been an unprecedented drive by some Americans to engage in the political process, by any means necessary, and a horrific, violent resistance by other Americans unwilling to consider the future on any terms different from the past. The onslaught of negativity was debilitating already, but then a global pandemic drove us indoors - away from one another and toward our screens instead, where inanimate programs and profit margin proliferated biased speech and reduced to zero any common ground we had to share.
Don McLean resides in California, where he claims to be "nearing the end of the high-dive.” He still wrestles, albeit privately, with loss that occurred in his life, both as a child and an adult. But he remains silent when it comes to the chaos and loss around him. It's anyone's guess as to why: maybe it's because he's bought an important biosphere of protection for himself, the privacy to live an examined life on his own terms. Maybe it's because it was never about being a social commentator, but simply finding a voice for his own process. Maybe it's because he has seen five decades of one of the most important songs in history do nothing to reverse, or even slow, our decline.
And maybe it's all of that. Maybe the lesson is accountability and self-direction. Maybe, in order to survive this, we all need to be committed to our own individual ways of accessing, understanding, and ultimately coming to terms with the suffering and bile inside us. It's okay that we're not sharing it with others, or trying to change the world. Maybe taking steps to heal ourselves is the beginning.
Then maybe each other.