“This is a story about America.”
42 years ago, on the 22nd January 1972, a record by American singer Don McLean reached No. 2 in the UK charts. “American Pie” was and remains a significant song of the period and has been voted No. 5 in the 100 most important recordings of the 20th century. For an entire generation it marked the end of the 1960s and put a final full stop on their teenage years. In a series of cryptic verses the song tells how the popular music they had grown up with had lost its innocence.
“Long, long time ago, I can still remember how that music used to make me smile.”
The story begins with a boy delivering newspapers on a cold February morning. He reads about the death of someone important to him and senses that the music he loved had died as well. Anyone who grew up in the 1950’s knew that this was a reference to the death of Buddy Holly who was killed in a plane crash on 3rd February 1959 along with J.P Richardson (a.k.a “The Big Bopper”) and Ritchie Valens who had just sold a million copies of his latest record “Donna”.
Although Don McLean has consistently denied that there was any particular symbolism or significance to his enigmatic lyrics, claiming – “They’re beyond analysis – they’re poetry.” – many have tried to unpick them for clues and references. Here are some of the interpretations…
“Did you write the book of love?”
“The Book of Love” was originally recorded by U.S doo-wop group the Monotones in December 1957. It contains the question “I wonder who wrote the Book of Love?”
“I was a lonely teenage broncin’ buck
With a pink carnation and a pickup truck.”
‘A White Sportscoat and a Pink Carnation’ was a 1957 hit for Marty Robbins. It was covered in the UK in the same year by Terry Dene and the King Brothers
“When the jester sang for the king and queen
In a coat he borrowed from James Dean
And a voice that came from you and me
Oh, and while the king was looking down
The jester stole his thorny crown.”
Some say that the Jester is Bob Dylan who appeared on the cover of his album ‘The Freewheeling Bob Dylan’ wearing a jacket similar to one worn by James Dean in the film ‘Rebel Without a Cause’. Singing ‘in a voice that came from you and me’ – i.e “folk music” – the Jester allegedly took over the number 1 popularity slot from the King, a.k.a Elvis. (Unlikely!)
“And while Lenin read a book on Marx
The quartet practiced in the park.
And we sang dirges in the dark..”
“Lenin read a book on Marx” is supposed to indicate John Lennon reading a book about Groucho Marx. “The quartet in the park” are the Beatles playing their last live gig at Candlestick Park in San Francisco on August 29th 1966 – which forgets that they performed live on the roof of Apple Studios, London on 30th January 1969 playing “Get Back.” “Dirges in the dark” is apparently a reference to the New York blackout of Nov 1965 when 30 million Americans were left without electricity.
‘Helter skelter in a summer swelter
The birds flew off with a fallout shelter
Eight miles high and falling fast
It landed foul on the grass
The players tried for a forward pass
With the jester on the sidelines in a cast’
The Beatles song ‘Helter Skelter’ held a macabre message for Charles Manson, leader of the commune group that murdered actress Sharon Tate and six others in California in 1969. “Eight Miles High” was a 1966 hit for ‘The Byrds’. The fallout shelter is supposedly a drug rehabilitation clinic.The jester on the sidelines is apparently Bob Dylan wearing a plaster body cast after crashing his Triumph T100 motorcycle in 1966. Are you keeping up with this?
‘Now the half time air was sweet perfume
While the sergeants played a marching tune.’
The sweet perfume is either marijuana smoke or tear gas, while ‘the sergeants’ refer to ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’.
‘Cause the players tried to take the field
The marching band refused to yield’
This is said to refer to the 1968 Democratic Party National Convention in Chicago when hundreds of young protesters – ‘the players’ – were beaten back by the police – ‘the marching band’ – encouraged by Mayor Richard J. Daley.
“So come on, Jack be nimble, Jack be quick
Jack Flash sat on a candlestick
‘Cause fire is the devil’s only friend.”
‘Jack’ is President Jack Kennedy. ‘Jack Flash’ is apparently a reference to the Rolling Stones 1968 hit "Jumping Jack Flash – and their appearance at the free concert on December 6th 1969 at Altamont Speedway in northern California. Following their third song, ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ a fan, Meredith Hunter, was stabbed to death.
“I met a girl who sang the blues
And I asked her for some happy news
But she just smiled and turned away.”
This alludes to blues singer Janis Joplin who died of a drug overdose in 1970.
“And the three men I admire most
The Father, Son and the Holy Ghost
They caught the last train for the coast
The day the music died.”
There has been a lot of debate about this final verse. Could the three men be the Father, Son and the Holy Ghost of the Bible or simply Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens? My own feeling is that the three men ‘admired most’ are President Kennedy, assassinated in 1963, and his brother Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King who were both assassinated in 1968.
For all the good time memories of the 1960’s, ‘American Pie’ is a chilly reminder that all was not as ‘peace and love’ as it seemed. It was a decade marked by dissension about Civil Rights, the war in Vietnam and social, sexual, moral and political freedoms.
“American Pie” mourns the lost innocence of the late 1950’s. The period is still celebrated – sometimes rather selectively – in films and television programmes like ‘Grease’, ‘American Graffiti’, ‘Happy Days’, ‘Call the Midwife’ and ‘That’ll Be The Day’ and ‘Heartbeat’, both of which take their titles from Buddy Holly songs.
American Pie Oddities
At 8 minutes 33 seconds, this is the longest single to hit #1 on the U.S Hot 100. Unusually the record starts in mono and gradually goes to stereo to represent the move from the monaural era into the age of stereo around 1958.
Here is a film on YouTube made to illustrate the original recording.
Like Don McLean I was delivering newspapers on February 4th 1959. It was outside the home of Mr and Mrs Pollard in Station Road, Welham Green that I read about the death of Buddy, the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens. I was 14 years old and it was my first encounter with mortality.
— from Martyn Day