Saturday, October 20, 2012

Lyric Review: Don McLean's American Pie

By JccKeith

Before we get started, let me say a few things: I thought I'd cover an oldie but a goodie and no, it's not an Irish song. Some of you may have heard it before.  Okay, let's all just admit everyone has heard this song, probably over and over again since the radio stations still seem to find it somewhat of a novelty.  So we've all heard this song and enjoyed its great rhymes and seemingly cryptic references.

On the surface, it seems nonsensical at times and unusual, to those of us not from the 50s, 60s or even the 70s.  Let me remind you, this song was from 1971.  However, as great as this song is and as odd as some of the lines are, they all have meaning  Yes, that's right, this entire song can be decoded.  And no, you don't need a decoder ring just a guide and a little help from the internet.  

So here we go let's break this thing down, one line at a time.  Bear with me as it is a long song.  McLean is not like the songwriters of today with their short repetitive writing style, no, not McLean.  The man was positively a poet and clearly enjoyed writing, so off we go:

Here are the lyrics as heard in the song:  

A long long time ago [Meaning: it was a long time ago.  Seriously, the song was written in 1971 and is all about the 1950s and 60s, a long time ago, even in the 70s.

I can still remember how [McLean, a big fan of 50s music, remembers it all well, big shock]

That music used to make me smile [Again, McLean loved 50s music]

And I knew if I had my chance [McLean desired to be a songwriter someday]

That I could make those people dance [Music of the time was for dancing not really listening to the words]

And maybe they'd be happy for a while [People would have a good time listening to his music]

But February made me shiver [Not so self explanatory, actually refers to Buddy Holly having died on February 3, 1959 in an Iowa plane crash.  McLean was a fan of Holly]

With every paper I'd deliver [Means exactly what is says.  McLean was a paper boy at one time]

Bad news on the doorstep [Again, refers to the headlines concerning Holly's death as well as Richie Valens and Big Bopper in the plane crash]

I couldn't take one more step [McLean was very disturbed by the news, frozen in place, in shock since Holly was McLean's hero]

I can't remember if I cried [Means exactly what it says, he doesn't remember if he cried when he read the story]

When I read about his widowed bride [Holly was married and his wife, Maria Elena Holly, was pregnant but son suffered a miscarriage]

But something touched me deep inside [McLean was deeply affected by the deaths]

The day the music died [The day Holly, Valens, and Big Bopper died, February 3 is called "the day the music died." Also refers to the music genre as a whole, it was dying out and the death of three of the major artists sealed it]

So Bye, bye Miss American Pie [American Pie is synonymous with the American Dream.  Things were changing, America was changing, there is a loss of innocence]

Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry [This line can be interpreted many ways.  One is to see the Chevy as the American automobile, it was the automobile of the time.  This is accepted as to what McLean refers.  Levee on the other hand has been construed to mean different things.  Some see it as the levee business in general.  Levees were being created because America was no longer fertile, at least as a metaphor for the music business.  Others believe it refers to the levee being the Vietnam War and it acting as a levee against the 'flood of Communism.' The war was promoted by the government to act as a prevention against the spread of communism, hence the metaphors for levee and flood.  Others say levee refers to one of two possible locations, one called Levee was a bar located near McLean's hometown in New York.  The second is the town, Levee, New York, located about 15 minutes from where McLean went to school]

Them good ole boys were drinking whiskey and Rye [Several possible meanings, one being politicians of the time.  Politicians of the time being the good ole boys, drinking.  Another is good old boys are the older, conservative Americans who have believed in the war and its preventing the flood of communism.  Yet another involves whiskey and rye being the acronym WAR.  The last says that the line refers to traditional American, in contrast with the new,younger generation promoting drugs, love and peace]

Singin' this'll be the day that I die [Could be a reference to Buddy Holly's song "That'll be the day," in which he eventually says "that I die."  Could also, if you're following along the war path, be a reference to soldiers in Vietnam and their constant threat of death]

This'll be the day that I die [see last line for meaning]

Well I know that you're in love with him [catching a girlfriend cheating]

Cause I saw you dancin' in the gym [see earlier references, music is mainly for dancing and dates involved going to a dance]

You both kicked off your shoes [sock hops were common dances in the 50s]

Man, I dig those rhythm and blues [McLean likes the music of the times]

I was a lonely teenage broncin' buck [He was a teenager at the time and ready to go]

With a pink carnation and a pickup truck [Pickup trucks were synonymous with sexual freedom.  Also Marty Robbins had a hit song in 1957 called "A White Sport Coat (And a Pink Carnation)]

But I knew I was out of luck [Things weren't going to work out, things were changing]

The day the music died [see previous explanation]

I started singin'


Now, for ten years we've been on our own [Holly died in 1959, this song was probably written ten years later]

And moss grows fat on a rolling stone [In 1965 Bob Dylan wrote the song "Like a Rolling Stone" then in 1966 was in an accident which left him sidelined for a while, where the moss symbolizes the passage of time, hence moss growing thick on a rolling stone]

But, that's not how it used to be [Dylan used to be a folk singer, "Like a Rolling Stone" was a change to rock]

When the jester sang for the king and queen [The jester is Dylan and the king and queen are Elvis and Joan Baez.  Elvis was 'the king' and Dylan wrote a song "Queen Jane" supposedly about Joan Baez]

In a coat he borrowed from James Dean [In "Rebel Without a Cause," Dean wears a red windbreaker jacket.  Dylan wears a red windbreaker on the cover of his "Freewheelin" album.  The album cover also resembles a famous Dean picture]

And a voice that came from you and me [Dylan represented the movement of the 60s, so his voice was that of the people]

Oh and while the king was looking down [Elvis had joined the army]

The jester stole his thorny crown [Refers to Dylan stealing the spotlight from Elvis while Elvis was in the army where the thorny crown refers to the price of fame]

The courtroom was adjourned [Reference to Kennedy assassination, the case was never really closed]

No verdict was returned [No killer was truly found and Oswald was killed]

And while Lenin read a book of Marx [Reference to the Beatles, Lennon specifically and the songs like "Revolution" in 1968]

The quartet practiced in the park [Refers to the Beatles performance in Candlestick Park, is practicing because they have yet to change their music to something even more groundbreaking such as 'Sgt. Pepper']

And we sang dirges in the dark [Dirges are funeral songs.  Dirges were sung for assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther Kind Jr. all in the 60s]

The day the music died [earlier explanation]

We were singin' [previous reference]


Helter Skelter in a summer swelter [Reference to Manson murders in summer, book written on it was named Helter Skelter because of the Beatles song "Helter Skelter"]

The birds flew off to a fallout shelter [The Byrds were a folk group covering a Dylan song in 1965.  Fallout shelter was another phrase for rehab.  One of the Byrds band members was arrested for marijuana possession]

Eight miles high and falling fast [Refers to psychedelic song "Eight Miles High," written while on speed.  Falling fast refers to Byrds changing music genres only a couple of years after covering the Dylan song]

It landed foul on the grass [Foul grass in another phrase for marijuana]

The players tried for a forward pass [The players refer to the protest groups and forward pass refers to their movements for change]

With the jester on the sidelines in a cast [References to Dylan's accident in 1966]

Now the half-time air was sweet perfume [Reference to marijuana usage]

While sergeants played a marching tune [Reference to "Sgt. Pepper" the Beatles song in 1967]

We all got up to dance [Reference to the old purpose of music being dancing, now it was to be listened to not danced to]

Oh but we never got the chance [See above meaning]

Cause the players tried to take the field [Players are protesters.  Could reference protesters in 1968 at Chicago Democratic Convention being beaten by police or to the students killed at Kent State University in Ohio by the National Guard]

The marching band refused to yield [Again, Beatles and their anti-violence songs]

Do you recall what was revealed [McLean was not a fan of the 60s, saw it as a failed generation, as revealed after it was all ending]

Buddy Holly, The Music
The day the music died

We started singin


Oh and there we were all in one place [Reference to Woodstock]

A generation lost in space [Moon landing was in 1969, Lost in Space was on tv and everyone was on acid]

With no time left to start again [Times are changing again, the 60s movements are ending]

So come on Jack be nimble, Jack be quick [Reference to Rolling Stones song "Jumpin Jack Flash"]

Jack Flash sat on a candlestick [Throw back to nursery rhyme Jack be nimble... and to Rolling Stones choices]

Cause fire is the devil's only friend [McLean sees the Stones as having sold out, their music changes, as seen in the record "Their Satanic Majesties Request" and the song "Sympathy for the Devil"]

And as I watched him on the stage [Reference to Mick Jagger on stage]

My hands were clenched in fists of rage [McLean was angry at Stones attempt to recreate Woodstock]

No angel born in Hell [The security at the concert were Hell's Angles]

Could break that Satan's spell [A black man was beaten and stabbed to death by an Angel, then they started assaulting everyone]

And as the flames climbed high into the night [The Stones got out in a helicopter]

To light the sacrificial rite [another reference to the black man's death]

I saw Satan laughing with delight [The end of the era, music, in McLean's eyes was now gone]

The day the music died

He was singin


I met a girl who sang the blues [Reference to Janis Joplin]

And I asked her for some happy news [Joplin's songs were depressing or at least not happy]

But she just smiled and turned away [Joplin died from heroin overdose on October 4, 1970]

I went down to the sacred store [Reference to record stores from the 50s]

Where I'd heard the music years before [where McLean became interested in music]

But the man there said the music wouldn't play [It is now the 70s and 50s and 60s music is ignored]

And in the streets the children screamed [The youth of the nation are still protesting]

The lovers cried, and the poets dreamed [Reference to Dylan songs and the Beatles]

But not a word was spoken [No one was really saying anything with the music anymore]

The church bells are were broken [People are disillusioned with music and with God]

And the three men I admire most [Did I mention McLean is a Catholic?]

The Father, Son and the Holy Ghost [For the non-religious who don't know, these three are the Holy Trinity]

They caught the last train for the coast [The generation has been abandoned as has America.  Time magazine even had a cover story about God being Dead]

The day the music died

And they were singing

*Chorus* repeat x2

So there you have it, line by line, the mysterious song all sussed out for you.  Suss means to figure out.  I only know this because the word is in a Radiohead song and I looked up its meaning.  But that is another lyric review all on its own.  As for now, this was a long song so I say goodnight.

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