We Sang Dirges in the Dark: American Pie at 50

Why is this overbaked Don McLean epic still even a thing?

Don McLean’s American Pie turns 50 this fall (Image: Discogs)

News item from 2015: Manuscript of Don McLean’s “American Pie” sells for over a million bucks. “The draft that was auctioned is 16 pages, 237 lines of manuscript and 26 lines of typed text…including lines that didn’t make the final version as well as extensive notes.”

Some things that might have been uncovered in McLean’s original notes:

 

1. In an early version, “The Day the Music Died” wasn’t in February. It was a random day in August when McLean misplaced his 45 rpm adapter and his records played all wobbly.

2. Fire, it turns out, was not “The Devil’s only friend.” The Devil was also friendly with Earth & Wind, but they snubbed him at a Hell Mixer.

3. “Jack be nimble, Jack be quick”: really about fitness guru Jack LaLanne.

4. Missing verse about Dino, Desi & Billy and Gary Lewis & The Playboys: (“The sons of laughter on Hullaballoo/One Italian, one half-Jew.”)

5. Note: “What rhymes with ‘doorstep’? ‘Poor schlep?’ ‘Dinah Shore-step’?”

 

The continued interest in “American Pie” is completely mystifying. David Hepworth’s book Never a Dull Moment is subtitled “1971 The Year That Rock Exploded,” and let’s start with the dubious premise that to make that case stick he has to claim that Don McLean’s magnum opus is “one of the first great pop records that is about great pop records.” That’s just wacky: to a large extent, pop music has always been self-referential; a lot of the earliest rock’n’roll records were about rock’n’roll itself, and anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of pop history could reel off dozens of pre-’71 “great pop records” that were about “great pop records.” In “Havin’ a Party,” just the first that pops into my head, Sam Cooke implores the DJ he’s addressing to keep playing hits like “Soul Twist” and “I Know.” Hell, you can go back to the big band era and “Juke Box Saturday Night” for an example of a song that quotes from prior songs, and let’s not get started on things like “Those Oldies But Goodies (Remind Me of You)” and “Memories of El Monte.”

 

VIDEO: Don McLean performs “American Pie” on the BBC

You really have to do critical calisthenics to make the case for “American Pie.” Its impact and reputation seem to rest on McLean’s disinclination, from the start of the song, to say anything directly. The song just goes on and on, for well over eight minutes, using easily decipherable “code” to describe characters and events from, mostly, the 1960s. “Sergeants played a marching tune”! What could that mean? Could it refer to Sgts. O’Rourke and Carter from F Troop and Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.? McLean might as well have written “Sergeants played a peppery tune.” “Jack Flash,” “a girl who sang the blues” (not Billie Holiday), “The Jester.” When interviewer Bill Flanagan asked Bob Dylan what he made of that reference, Dylan snapped back, Don McLean, ‘American Pie,’ what a song that is. A jester? Sure, the jester writes songs like ‘Masters of War,’ ‘A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,’ ‘It’s Alright, Ma’—some jester. I have to think he’s talking about somebody else. Ask him.”

For about 3.5 minutes—the length of your average pop song—McLean stays out of linguistic trouble, and it’s a decent pop song. “A long, long time ago,” he starts, and then elliptically but not annoyingly, describes being a boy with a paper route who finds out (“bad news on the doorstep”) that Buddy Holly has died. So far so good: the chorus is bouncy (bouncy enough to have been covered by the Brady Bunch kids), and if you let slide the fact that you were unlikely to find pickup trucks and good ol’ boys in New Rochelle, New York (not, say, Aberdeen, Texas), where McLean grew up and went to prep school, everything is fine. Then McLean starts embellishing his story: “For ten years we’ve been on our own…”. Uh, oh, we have a lot of ground to cover here. “Moss grows fat on a Rolling Stone” (the magazine? Maybe: it did increase its ad pages around then). 

 

 

But wait a minute. Were “we” on our own? Or were we “all there in one place”? How did the Jester borrow a coat from James Dean? Why were McLean’s hands “clenched in fists of rage” (hint: we’re at Altamont, and McLean is using his indignant voice)? People have tried for decades to untangle all this nonsense, and McLean is happy to perpetuate the song’s myth-making. It’s “an indescribable photograph of America,” he’s announced. He’s about to embark on a 50th anniversary “American Pie” tour, but how would that show be any different from any Don McLean show since 1971? Has he ever been able to do a concert where he didn’t sing “American Pie”? Night after night, year after year, “A long, long time ago…” and everyone settles in for the same litany. 

“The day the music died”? The day in February 1959 that made McLean shiver was tragic, but it didn’t kill “music.” If it had, what is the rest of the song about? Couldn’t McLean have just said, “The end,” after the second chorus? Was the day Otis Redding was killed in a plane crash “The day soul music died”? Or Patsy Cline’s death “The day country music died”? Or does music die over and over again, in McLean’s narrative—an exhausting thought? The song was recorded in May 1971, and not long after that, Bill Graham closed the Fillmores, so there was that whole “rock is dead” reading of the song, with the “sacred store” of the last verse standing in for Graham’s shuttered venues. 

Why would anyone need to hear “American Pie” again? Or more than once, for that matter? Does McLean reveal new shades of meaning with each performance, does anything suddenly become clearer? It’s at least partially a celebration of rock’n’roll, but McLean doesn’t sing like a rock singer; he sings with bland earnestness, like a folk singer, or like Andy Williams, who did “American Pie” as part of a live medley with “Alone Again (Naturally),” “Song Sung Blue,” “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” and “The Summer Knows,” and “American Pie” has never sounded more at home than in that company.

For McLean’s audience, “American Pie” is a cultural time capsule: this record, this newspaper, this concert stub, this wilted pink carnation. I’m sure everyone sings along, like it’s some combination of a jukebox musical and a hootenanny. It sounds like hell.

 

AUDIO: Don McLean “American Pie”

 

 

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Mitchell Cohen

RockandRollGlobe contributing writer Mitchell Cohen began writing about music and films for various publications in the mid-’70s, including Creem, Film Comment, Take One, Fusion, Phonograph Record Magazine. He is the co-author of Matt Pinfield’s memoir All These Things That I’ve Done, and a contributor to the website Music Aficionado. Follow him on Twitter @mitchellscohen.

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