The enigmatic nature of the lyrics makes ‘American Pie’ a song practically begging to be analysed. I will certainly not be the first to do so; since it was first released in 1971, it has enticed many to consider its words, even though Don McLean himself has always been reticent to give us all the definitive meaning. We’re left needing to piece together the parts for ourselves. I can picture myself, quite vividly, sitting in the back of our Cherokee, looking out into the dry Texas landscape, as the music played. A long time ago, in a world so alien to my life as is now, it could almost be unreal. This simple scene epitomises my childhood nostalgia, the world I long to return to, although what that is specifically, what I long for, defies words and logic. There’s nothing specific, just a sense of things as were, a nostalgic sense. And the soundtrack of my nostalgic sense is American Pie.
American Pie itself is, of course, a song about nostalgia, which in harmony together - my memories and this song - deepens that sentimental quality and transports me back, in a synchronistic fashion (or in Walt Whitman’s miraculous everyday fashion, or in a Proustian, the infused moment of meaning, fashion), into a world I can now only glimpse but fleetingly. The lyrics themselves begin with looking back, back into the world of a little boy, remembering how, ‘That music used to make [him] smile.’ That is, until he looked down at the newspaper he was delivering, and not being able to take another step, he read about the widowed bride, and the day the music died. So, this is a reference to the thirteen-year-old Don McLean reading about a freak disaster in the newspapers he was delivering. On February 3, 1959, a small plane crashed near Clear Lake, Iowa. Inside were a few musicians, most notably Buddy Holly. This is the day Don McLean refers to as ‘The Day the Music Died.’ The song, then, can be seen as first and foremost a tribute to the musician which the young Don McLean most admired - Buddy Holly. The chorus that follows is a lament to the dead, “bye, bye Miss American Pie – them good ole boys who were drinking whiskey and rye”, amounting to a nostalgic longing for an America passed, the America of the 1950s. That idyllic, never-was suburban fantasy world, in which men laugh while sipping their Budweiser under the shining sun, the blonde girls have perfectly coiffed hair, everyone drives a Chevy, and we all eat American apple pie cut with such precision that there’s not even a crumb out of place. An idyllic, wholesome Christian America, in which we all know what is loving and good, and we all choose the good. I say never-was, of course, because there was a lot of stuff bubbling away under the surface.
Idyllic 1950s America was not so idyllic for many. Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, the United States invaded Vietnam, women were disenfranchised, and McCarthyism was in full swing, rooting out the pinko menace. The song then jumps a decade, from the never-was fantasy world of the 50s, to the complexity and turbulence of the 60s, and in particular it focuses on the rebel spirit of the rock-n-rollers. Those who were formally on the fringes of society, those bohemian types, who were now moving into the mainstream, and offering us all a new vision for what could be. What American Pie does here is it enmeshes together a few different things: the search for meaning, which we can call the religious function; the vision of the rock-n-rollers; and the world of politics, enmeshed all together one on top of another, because at the end of day, they all come to the surface through us. It’s all part of life, and the delineation game that people play, the boundary setting, is by its nature artificial, because the whole thing is life, the whole mess of it, and to deny that, is to deny life. And so, who is that? Who comes with his vision for us all, who is the jester that sang for the king and queen, with his borrowed coat from James Dean, with a voice that came from you and me (he’s saying what we’re all thinking)? Who was the one with the songs of protest, that showed us all what could be? Bob Dylan of course.
The reference to James Dean is a reference to the iconic album cover ‘The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’ in which Dylan is wearing a coat which resembles the iconic red coat worn by James Dean, which epitomised ‘cool’, worn in his most notable movie ‘Rebel Without a Cause’. But Bob Dylan and his fellow 60s visionaries, unlike Dean, is very much one with a cause: giving voice to the disenfranchised. In this way, Bob Dylan stole the crown from Elvis Presley, and became himself the King of Rock and Roll.
While the King was looking down
The Jester stole his thorny crown
Thorny, like Jesus’ crown of thorns, for it was a mantle that came at great cost. As McLean moves through the 60s, he begins to notice that these visionaries themselves are beginning to splinter apart, offering, as they are, different tomorrows. John Lennon reads his book on Marx and offers us his vision, epitomised in his song ‘Imagine’ – his world in which we can stop looking to the fantasies of heaven, or borders, or countries, or commercialism, and instead live into a realised present. Then, we have the Beatles, and capturing the disorder of the late 1960s, their helter skelter in a summer swelter. That carnival slide, a Helter Skelter, which is the name of one of the Beatles’ songs which was released in 1968, one of their more hard-metal sounding songs, more frenetic and louder than their more famous work. This song seemed to capture the chaotic zeitgeist of the late 60s, made infamous by the hippy cult leader Charles Manson.
The reason our attention is returning to Mason in society at the moment, is because there are two films about Manson on the cusp of being released, ‘Charlie Says’, and Quentin Tarantino’s next movie, ‘Once Upon A Time in Hollywood’. So, Manson (in the late 60s this is), is on his free-love ranch just outside of Los Angeles, California, in a cult of his own making, not dissimilar to the Jesus movement, offering his followers a utopian vision of tomorrow in which all will live in harmony, one with another. That is, after a brief apocalyptic epoch comes and goes, a race war, an epoch which Manson named after the Beatles’ song, Helter Skelter. Manson was obsessed with two things, the apocalyptic content within the Book of Revelation, and the Beatles’ music, using both interchangeably to construct an elaborate apocalyptic cosmology. He believed that a race war would happen, and that his elect few would go into the desert, down into a secret pit, a bottomless pit, the one talked about in Revelation chapter 9 (nine being another Beatles reference - the experimental song, Revolution Nine (Revelation Nine)). From that pit, Manson would then rise up and lead the world into a golden age. When his prophesied race war did not come to fruition, however, he ordered his followers, his girls, to go and kill rich white Americans, the idea being that this would trigger the race war, and the coming apocalyptic epoch would commence. Nine murders followed, for which Manson spent the rest of his life in jail. He died just a couple of years ago, hence why these films are now surfacing.
It landed foul on the grass
The players tried for a forward pass
With the jester on the sidelines in a cast
This is the ongoing splintering, the increasingly divisive visions pulling in different directions, the promise of the more optimistic early 60s being lost to the chaos and madness, and the darkness. Charles Manson was seen as the dark underbelly of the hippy movement – what happens when you allow latitude to flourish to the extreme. Do you recall what was revealed the day the music died? With that then, we’re brought back to Buddy Holly, in whose death the whole illusion is broken, in whose death the disarray under the slick never-was America was revealed. The day the music died.
There’s a game now being played, a game to recapture a beautiful moment, and we can’t let ourselves believe it, but that moment has passed. Whether it’s the idyllic never-was 1950s America, or the optimistic hippie-esque visions of the early 60s, it cannot be reconstituted. This fruitless effort was typified in the Altamont Speedway Free Festival of December 1969, the last-ditch effort to recover some of that hippie magic, to recapture what happened at Woodstock. It was headlined by the Rolling Stones, and it was a disaster. In the drunken chaos a young gun-wielding boy was killed as the Rolling Stones played on. A generation lost in space. The space race was on, but more pertinently here, lost in space, spaced out, spaced out on drugs, in a stupor of unknowing.
I watched him on the stage
My hands were clenched in fists of rage
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.
And now what can I do? What can I do at this dark end? I can ask the girl I knew, for some happy news, but she just smiled and turned away. For there is no reprieve to be had, we must face the chaos as it is – we must recognise the truth of things. And then we have the final verse, before the chorus is repeated,
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
This could again be referring to those men who died in that plane crash: Buddy Holly, along with Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper. Or it could be in reference to the three political visionaries who were assassinated in the 60s: Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy, and Robert Kennedy. After all is said, at the culmination of the song, the chorus is sung with great gusto once again. Despite Don McLean’s foreboding, his warning to us all not to allow ourselves to be swept up into that romantic fantasy of yesteryear, not allow ourselves to be swept up into that nationalistic nostalgia, we are now permitted to indulge. For now we reminisce with our eyes wide open, we see the darkness for what it truly was, and look back not through rose-tinted glasses, but wholly comprehending the full picture: the good, the beautiful, the fire, and the death. The Texas landscape, my singing mother, and a future that never was. All is perceived with perfect clarity, for I cannot now be duped, there’s no illusion that can deceive, no rhetoric that can win my heart, not even the crocodile tears of a wicked woman. Unlike so many, I see right through it all. I hear Don McLean’s warning, I heed it, and I am thus released into my nostalgia, my noticing of that deeper meaning. And it gives me pause, it gives me purpose, and yes, it even gives me a smile.