American Pie, by Don McLean

The Buddy Holly plane crash site, 5 miles north of Clear Lake, Iowa, Feb. 3, 1959.

We tell stories, and we share remembrances. We get together with friends and we fondly recall times when we were all younger together. We share common experiences and recollections. We tell the same stories we have always told, maybe adding a layer of exaggeration and truth-bending with every retelling. The stories get bigger. They get more fantastic, more outrageous and more tragic. Our eyes get misty when we remember. Sometimes we laugh.

“A long, long time ago
I can still remember how that music
Used to make me smile.”

Don McLean wrote the epic “American Pie” in 1971 about the music, politics and events of the 1960’s. I didn’t grow up in the 60’s, but I suppose that if I had, the reunion conversations I have with my friends might sound a lot like this song.

“American Pie” was a huge hit, topping the charts around the world in 1972. Usually when asked what explain the meaning behind his monster hit, McLean cagily replies “it means I’ll never have to work again.” Cute.

Piecing together the various bits of otherwise meaningless trivia that have gathered in the far corners of my mind through the years, the song makes pretty good sense to me, and with your indulgence, I will take a stab at annotations below. I make no claim as to the veracity or accuracy of what I write, only that I think my guesses are pretty good. The song begins as a man alone. A lonely voice, accompanied by only a piano.

“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”

McLean was a child of the 1950’s, and he loved music, even from a very early age. The music made him happy, it made him smile, and he knew that if he could find a way to become a musician himself, he could make other people happy.

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 mu
sic died.”

But everything changed in early February, 1959 when Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper (J.P. Richardson) and Ritchie Valens died in a plane crash outside Clear Lake, Iowa. They were some of the biggest music stars of the day, and in the blink of an eye they were gone. As a child, McLean was delivering newspapers when he saw that his rock and roll idols had died. Buddy Holly left behind a young wife. The 1960’s had begun, the life and music McLean knew and loved was over, and gone forever.

“So bye, bye Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry
Them good ole boys were drinking whiskey ‘n’ Rye
Singin’ this’ll be the day that I die
This’ll be the day that I die.”

The chorus, coming early in the song, brings us together and lets us sing along and mourn together. These stories are all of our stories. They are for us to all listen to, they are for us to all tell. The quiet, contemplative music comes to an end. The band comes in. This is rock and roll. This is why we are here.

“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?

In 1957, the great doo-wop group The Monotones asked the enternal question “I wonder, wonder, wonder, wonder who. Who wrote the book of love?” As rock and roll grew in popularity during the late 1950’s, so did the protests. Religious leaders saw the new musical genre as coming straight from the devil, parents were confused and maybe a little bit frightened. The music was strange, loud and foreign, but as Marty McFly said towards the end of Back the Future, your kids are going to love it.” Teenagers didn’t need their souls saved, they didn’t need their parents to understand. the music, they just wanted 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 bronkin’ buck
With a pink carnation and a pickup truck
But I knew I was out of luck
The day the music died.”

It should come as no surprise that religious leaders didn’t like rock and roll. It wasn’t for them. Rock and roll was for the kids. The kids driving around after school, the kids greasing their hair back, the kids at the high school dances. Rock and roll was fun, and young people who listened to it were a community of celebration and jubilation. They knew they were kids, and this music was for them. And then February 1959 came, and these kids grew up fast. The 60’s were here.

Now, for ten years we’ve been on our own
And moss grows fat on a rolling 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 on Marx
The quartet practiced in the park
And we sang dirges in the dark
The day the music died

Rock and roll stopped with the ferocity of a plane slamming into the cold winter ground, and then it stood still. The creativity and energy Buddy Holly was replaced by lush strings of Connie Francis and the slick, coiffed hairdo of Ricky Nelson. Things got stuck and stagnant. The moss began to grow just as the Rolling Stones hit America with a loud, bluesy fist. Bob Dylan who could changed personas and musical styles with the flick of his wrist was like a court jester singing for the king and queen, but always stone cold cool, looking a little like James Dean.

That which we thought was cool was no longer cool. Elvis was back from the army making crappy movies and terrible music. Dylan, the jester, became the true king of rock and roll, almost as if he stole Elvis’ crown right off his greasy head. John Lennon and the Beatles came to America, and their music soon encouraged us all to reflect with more depth and introspection. Our music that was once a happy celebration was now quiet, and sometimes sad.

“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?”

The Beatles sang “Helter Skelter,” the Byrds sang “Eight Miles High.” Music was moving forward, even though Bob Dylan (AKA the Jester), was taking time off to recuperate from a serious motorcycle accident, sitting on the sidelines. But this was the summer of love, and we were dancing in the park, smelling flowers, lifing our arms towards the sun-drenched sky. The Beatles released “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” and the music could be heard from every speaker in every car and every teenagers’ room. We could not dance to the music, but we could enjoy it.

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

The Woodstock music festival may have been sold as a peace and music festival, but in reality, we were all just stuck in the mud. And then the Rolling Stones played Altamont in 1969, and just like that, the dream of the ’60’s was over. Mick Jagger pranced around on stage, Jumpin’ Jack Flash himself, singing and dancing on stage performing “Sympathy for the Devil” while the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang murdered an innocent man in the audience only a few feet away from the biggest rock band in the world. Satan laughed. The music died.

The music slows down. McLeans’ high pitched mournful voice is again singing alone.

“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”

Janis Joplin, blues and country folk singer extraordinaire died in 1970 at tender, tragic young age of 27. Rock guitar god Jimi Hendrix. 27 years old. Dead in 1970. Jim Morrison, the lizard king, acid rock god lounge singer. 27 years old. Dead in 1971. They all smiled, and then turned away. They took the last train for the coast. The sacred store was not selling any doo-wop or rockabilly. The 1950’s were over when Buddy Holly died. The 1960’s were over now. All that is left are the stories. The stories we tell ourselves over and over again. The stories we embellish. The friendships we lean on. The legends that grow. The lies we tell. Together we sing.

“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”

“American Pie”
Written by Don McLean
Performed by Don McLean
Released November, 1971

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