David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Day 119: Don McLean (American Pie)

August 23, 2020

Pop music needs its mysteries. Carly Simon shouldn't tell us who was so freaking vain. Alanis Morrisette should keep her mouth shut so that Dave Coulter can spend the rest of his life wondering if he "oughta know." Michael Stipe never should enunciate clearly.

And most of all, Don McLean should never reveal all the references in "American Pie."

Sadly, for the most part, all these wonderful mysteries of the unexplained in pop music are being revealed. I am most disappointed by McLean who at one point when asked what "American Pie" means, responded with "It means I don't ever have to work again."1  Perfect answer, but maybe a lie, because in 2015, the notes with the song were auctioned off, I hope for charity, because if they went straight to him, his original quote of "don't have to work again," just took a bitter turn.

I refuse to look up those references, although even in just doing the little bit of research for this blog, incidental explanations have shown up.

No, I want to stay the innocent listener I was in 1971 when this song was all over the radio. It's still just amazing that this 8 and 1/2 minute song became #1. It is one of the first 45's I owned and I hated having to flip the record to hear the second half (maybe that frustration should have made me more suspicious of the 8-tracks I owned later).  At 9, I wasn't too far removed from McLean's age of 13 when he heard Buddy Holly had died, the core of the song. "Something touched me deep inside" when I (and maybe a lot of us) heard "American Pie."

Musically, it is quite a tour de force, which gets overlooked in the epic quality of the lyrics. That lovely piano opening as he recounts reading about Holly's death, which then gets replaced by the soft strumming of the guitar for the first rendition of the chorus, a sprinkling of that piano tossed in for good measure. Then everything gets cranked up for the second verse, full band with that Paul Griffin piano remaining the highlight.  Second chorus brings on full background choir, and third verse elevates more, and so forth, until everything is brought back down for the last verse.

The musicianship and the vocals (at times, McLean offers some wonderful vocalizations, such as with the line, "oh, we never got the chance," help keep the song from being an on-going dirge).  I mean, let's face it, could there have been more depressing lyrics for a 9-year old to hear than "this'll be the day that I die"?

I suppose that was offset by all the great words I learned from "American Pie": levee, rye, carnation, Marx, dirge (ironically), sacrificial, rite." The song actualized the grade school language exercises I had to do, writing a story using a bunch of random words selected by our classmates.

So I don't really need to know who McLean saw as "the father, son and holy ghost."  Who cares if there is a specific "jester, king or queen?" I'd like to imagine my own "girl who sings the blues." Such uncertainty is what makes the song malleable to all of us.  Why, oh why, did McLean ever have to tell us that the Jester was Bob Dylan?  All that did was make me feel a little pity for Bob Dylan, who reportedly took offense to that, saying in 2017, "A Jester? Sure. A jester that writes songs like 'Masters of War,' 'A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall,' and 'It's Alright, Ma'--some Jester."

Surely, Bob Dylan, of all people, knows that the Jester is truth-teller in a King's court. He should be honored, not offended.

And alas, with that unveiling of The Jester, I have now lost a little something I loved about "American Pie" and about "Bob Dylan."  And what was gained? Apparently $1.2 million.  "All your heroes are whores," wrote Tanya Donelly in her own masterpiece, "Mysteries of The Unexplained." Please, Tanya, don't ever get more specific than that.

"American Pie." Don McLean. American Pie. United Artists. 1971.

1"American Pie (song)." Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Pie_(song)

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Day 120: The Call "I Still Believe."->

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