An excellent article on a classic song.
American Pie and the day the music died
Joe Queenan on Don McLean's classic slice of 1950s nostalgia
Friday October 26, 2007
American Pie is a song that has been mocked by sophisticates ever since it first aired in 1972. Lyrics like "I was a lonesome teenage bronkin' buck with a pink carnation and a pickup truck" helped the ridicule gain traction, though not among McLean's fellow bronkin' bucks, whose numbers presumably included Bruce Springsteen, a stripling who would later make a fortune writing this kind of ebullient malarkey.
But unlike other songs that have been mocked by sophisticates, American Pie was not, and is not, universally hated, not even by hipsters. This puts it in an entirely different class than Ebony and Ivory, Tuesday Afternoon, Achy-Breaky Heart or Piano Man, songs whose very existence seems to presage the dawn of the Apocalypse, songs that shatter one's faith in the inevitability of human progress, songs that from the very first time you hear them make you want to move to another solar system.
American Pie falls into the same broad class as Bohemian Rhapsody and La Vida Loca, bouncy, peppy, massively overplayed songs that quickly become so much a part of life's rich tapestry that despising them is like despising your pajamas. These songs may be pretentious. They may be pompous. They may be ridiculous. They may be on the radio 24 hours a day, even in the basement of a freezing Smolensk whorehouse. They may be sung partially in Spanish. And yes, at a certain level, they may be inane. But they mean no harm. They do not threaten our faith in the universe. Most important of all, they remind us that given the choice between the silly and the idiotic, the silly wins hands down.
American Pie was written by the then-unknown Don McLean in the spring of 1971, the same year Carole King's mega-platinum Tapestry appeared. With such songs as It's Too Late and So Far Away, Tapestry decisively signaled that the manic Sixties were over, that it was time for young people to step back, take stock, simmer down, chill out, nest. From this point on, the tens of millions of Baby Boomers born shortly after the Second World War, the raucous, seditious don't-trust-anyone-over-thirty crowd, would spend the rest of their lives waxing nostalgic for the Sixties, obsessing about their implausible children, buying reasonably priced home furnishings, and waiting for Sting to learn how to play the lute.
American Pie is notable because it is not nostalgic for the decade that precedes it, but for the Fifties, and particularly for the music of the late Fifties, and particularly for the music of Buddy Holly. Being nostalgic for the Fifties just 18 months after the Sixties ended took a certain amount of chutzpah, because the whole point of the Sixties was across-the-board rejection of the bland, featureless 1950s. By the time McLean's song was released, the doo-wop band Sha Na Na, who had performed at Woodstock, were already making a name for themselves. But Sha Na Na was a joke. Fifties nostalgia would later dominate the musical Grease, but the makers of Grease also viewed the Fifties through the prism of irony. McClean, by contrast, took the 1950s seriously and deeply mourned their passing.
"The day the music died" referred to in the lyrics is February 3, 1959, when a small plane carrying Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and an artist known as the Big Bopper crashed on its way to Fargo, North Dakota, with no survivors. To McLean, this was a tragedy beyond repair, not only because the music of the Fifties - and particularly Holly's - was so beautiful and chipper and innocent but because America itself was beautiful, chipper and innocent. The specific date when America lost its putative innocence has been the subject of many songs, books and newspaper editorials, not to mention films like Quiz Show and Platoon. Some say it occurred in Vietnam, others when John Kennedy was assassinated, still others when Martin Luther King went down for the count. Purists contend that after Hiroshima and Nagisaki, any further discussion of America's lost innocence was veering toward the tasteless; hard-core chronology buffs go all the way back to Wounded Knee and other massacres of defenseless American Indian women and children to buttress their case that America had lost its innocence far earlier than Oliver Stone or Don McLean might suspect. In all likelihood, few of the young black men being lynched by the Klan in the years leading up to the Big Bopper's tragic death would have agreed with the verdict that America had not yet lost its innocence.
Eight and a half minutes long, American Pie was chopped up into two parts for its original commercial release. Zippy, rollicking, congenially repetitive, with a chorus so infectious that the irrepressible Madonna once used it in a completely unexpected graveside sing-along in The Next Best Thing, American Pie is the sort of song it is easy to make fun of, and is often ridiculed by music critics whose literary skills do not approach Don McLean's, much less Buddy Holly's. But for many of us, the very fact that someone could live the rest of his life off the royalties from a song containing the words, "The three men I admired most, the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, they caught the last train for the coast" affirms that in America, literally anything is possible and foreigners should never dare screw around with us.
McLean, who also wrote And I Love Her So for Elvis Presley and the precious Vincent (Starry Starry Night) for himself, attended Villanova University, a tony institution located a few miles outside Philadelphia. Villanova's tony student body would later include Jim Croce, famous for the nostalgic, wistful hit Time in a Bottle.
Jim Croce died in an airplane crash in 1973.