Song Beneath the Song: “American Pie” by Don McLean

“AMERICAN PIE,” Don McLean’s magnum opus that spent four weeks at #1 in 1972, is a “dirge in the dark,” a song about the ramifications of the plane crash that claimed the life of Buddy Holly. Over the course of six verses, seven choruses, eight-and-a-half minutes, and any number of cryptic allusions approaching the Biblical in both scope and obscurity, the narrator inveighs against the British Invasion. The point is this: American music—viz., good music—died with Charles Harden Holley.

“The Day the Music Died” refers to 3 February, 1959 (“February made me shiver”), when Buddy Holly perished in a plane crash (“the plane climbed high into the night”), along with Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper (neither worthy of mention in the song). When the chorus of “good ol’ boys” lament that “this’ll be the day that I die,” they are coyly alluding to Holly’s hit “That’ll Be The Day:”

You say you’re gonna leave
I know it’s a lie,
Cuz that’ll be the day-ay-ay
That I die.

Since the release of “American Pie”  in November, 1971—just 12 years after the death of American music—listeners have played the roman à clef game, attempting to divine, often with the aid of mind-altering substances, just who the allegorical characters in the song are supposed to represent. Is “The King” Elvis, as is commonly assumed? Is “The Jester” Bob Dylan? The “girl who sang the blues” Janis Joplin? And who are the enigmatic “three men I admire most / the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost” who board the last train to California in the final verse? This tantalizing ambiguity is part of the song’s charm.

Whatever the meaning of the individual references, the chronological flow of the song seems clear. We begin at a dance in a high school gym, presumably early in ’59, as “The Book of Love” plays—the age of pink-carnation innocence, before the Lubbock sound was corrupted by Liverpudlians—and jump to ten years later (1969, a decade after Holly’s demise), where the malefic influence of the Beatles (“the Sergeants played a marching tune,” “Lenin/Lennon read a book on Marx”), the Rolling Stones (“moss grows flat on a rolling stone,” “Jack Flash sat on a candlestick”), the Byrds (“the birds/Byrds flew off from the fallout shelter, eight miles high and falling fast”), and, curiously, the Grateful Dead (“fire is the devil’s only friend”) have adulterated the purity of American rock ‘n’ roll. We check off all the Baby Boom cultural milestones: the Manson murders (“helter skelter”), Woodstock (“and there we were in one place, a generation lost in space”), and Altamont (“no angel born in hell could break that Satan’s spell”), as well as the film Rebel Without a Cause (“a coat he borrowed from James Dean”).

In spite of all this generational excitement going on around him, however, the narrator (b. 1945) is unmoved. Nothing—not the Beatles, not the “girl who sang the blues,” not even the Summer of Fucking Love—can make him forget the loss of Holly, whose memory he invokes with a reverence akin to religious zeal. If the three men he admires most (Hendrix, Morrison, and Clapton? Sinatra, Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr.? Nixon, Agnew, and Kissinger? Does McLean even know?) are the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost, Holly, we might assume, is a trinity all to himself. Once you get past the reverence, the whole endeavor seems kind of silly.

Look, no one disputes the genius of Buddy Holly. Even the Beatles worshiped at his altar; the name of their band is meant to echo Holly’s own outfit, the Crickets. Just 23 when he died, Holly nevertheless left behind enough material to fill a solid greatest hits album. It could be argued—indeed, “American Pie” itself makes the argument—that his loss at such a young age is the single worst tragedy to befall the popular culture in the twentieth century. His untimely death deprived us of who knows how much great music. Or, to put it in Holly’s own words, “All my love, all my kissin’, you don’t know what you been missin’.  Oh, boy.”

Nevertheless, I can’t help but find this song reactionary, a musical equivalent of MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN. I saw McLean perform when I was in high school—it was my first concert, in fact, back in ‘87—at the gym at Drew University (so he saw us dancing in the gym). I loved “American Pie” and “Superman’s Ghost” and “Vincent” and “Castles in the Air,” so I was excited for the show. McLean was not. At one point, he tore into Paul Simon, finger-picking a thirteenth chord and mockingly singing “At the Zoo.” It was uncomfortable, because his bitterness was so obvious. Basically, he came off like a jaded old man who hates anything new—you know, like the narrator of “American Pie.” That the cover of the album—McLean flashing the thumbs-up, with the American flag imprinted on his thumb—looks like a Tea Party political ad only underscores this conservatism.

Buddy’s gone, Don. Take a sad song and make it better.

About Greg Olear

Greg Olear (@gregolear) is a founding editor of The Weeklings and the author of the novels Totally Killer and Fathermucker, an L.A. Times bestseller.
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