Arguably one of the most important albums in (sort of) Rock Music history, for at least two reasons:
First reason- it contains spectacularly beautiful lyrics and melody not seen very often in contemporary music.
Individuals standing on stage, singing a melody and accompanying themselves with a simple instrument exhibit the most beautiful music, even in the rock genre. Solo artists (James Taylor), duos (Simon and Garfunkel), triplets (Peter Paul and Mary) and simple groups (Cream). Staged pyrotechnics diminish simple listenability and are currently in the process of destroying Rock as an art form.
Don McLean (and James Taylor) emerged as simple but effective troubadours. They understood this was karma and kismet and they would never stray from it. At some point in his career McLean graduated from college and was offered a full scholarship for graduate work to Columbia University in New York that he turned down. He knew what his future was and that it would be successful. He would not rise to his level of incompetence a-la the Peter Principle, and he has been exceptionally successful, continuing to do concerts now at my age.
Second reason- on March 14,1971, the album “American Pie” emerged as a new anthem from the ashes of 60s culture effectively demolished at the Altamont rock concert on December 6, 1969.
The 60’s and its anthem, “Alice’s Restaurant” (Arlo Guthrie, 1967) signaled the emergence of a radical change from the staid, prosperous Eisenhower 50s. The strains of “Are you experienced” from Jimi Hendrix and “When the music’s over” from the Doors wafted through the dorm halls leading to stunned silence. No one had ever heard anything like it before. It was electrifying and it led like the auditory pied piper to the culture that created it. An entire generation wafted into a radical social change that changed our lives and changed the world.
60s social upheaval was irrevocably intertwined with the music of the day. The medium of Rock has always been one of rebellion against conformity and conventionality, and accordingly fit like a hand in a glove with the 60s. Sixties Rock is the stuff of existential anti-heroism, inviting those seeking salvation by immersing their souls in a cathartic media masquerading as social profundity. The high risk-high gain medium selects for those who actively live the dream. The musicality selects strains and chords evolved to selectively pull resonant strings of the human brain, abandoning order.
Those selected for this cast were drawn in at their peril, with no safety net. Perhaps prior lessons from the existential philosophers, most of who went mad or suffered violent deaths, should have been heeded. Some very talented people discovered those consequences the hard way. Altamont was the final blushing crow pointing out very vividly that when the surface of “self enlightenment” was scratched, what lay underneath was madness and violence.
“American Pie” was an allegorical narrative of what lay beyond Altamont, exploiting the unfortunate plane crash of Feb 3, 1959 that took the lives of the prophetic Buddy Holly and two other minor players. Markers of what was to come in popular music and the culture accompanying it. When they died, a potential culture died with them.
Buddy Holly’s star was rising as the new exponent of what would come to be called “pop rock”, melodic and listenable. His works and innovations inspired and influenced contemporary and later musicians, notably The Beatles, Elvis Costello, The Rolling Stones, Don McLean, Bob Dylan, Steve Winwood, and Eric Clapton. Holly was among the first group of inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. In 2004, Rolling Stone ranked Holly #13 among “The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time”.
Parenthetically, Dion DiMucci of Dion and the Belmonts decided not to pay the US$36.00 fee and didn’t board the aircraft said to have “American Pie” painted on its cowl. J.P. Richardson (the Big Bopper), suffering from flu symptoms, coerced Waylon Jennings into giving up his seat. Ritchie Valens beat out guitarist Tommy Allsup on the toss of a coin. These decisions haunted these artists for the rest of their lives.
McLean explored some cryptic predictions:
“I met a girl who sang the blues
And I asked her for some happy news
But she just smiled and turned away
I went down to the sacred store
Where I’d heard the music years before
But the man there said the music wouldn’t play
And in the streets, the children screamed
The lovers cried and the poets dreamed
But not a word was spoken
The church bells all were broken
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”
The literal interpretation of McLean’s lyrics have been a source of continuing controversy for many years. Books have been written about them. When asked what his song meant, McLean famously replied, “It means I’ll never have to work again.” But be that as it may, the album marked the sharp transition to a radically different culture, the 70s.
Although difficult to imagine for many of you, the years 1970-71 were a straight up revolution, exacerbated by the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King in 1968 and nurtured by the violent Democratic National Convention also of 1968. An age of violent protest. Nixon Agonistes, the Students for a Democratic Society and the Weather Faction, Kent State, Vietnam Veterans Against the War (it’s head- John Kerry), Angela Davis and Black Power.
Much but not all of it related to an intensely polarizing President and the unpopular Vietnam conflict that remained in full swing. Virtually every city in the country brimmed with firebombs, looting and the crackle of small arms fire. Business owners sat in shifts with shotguns propped on their toes outside their storefronts nightly.
But I digress. Anyone more interested in the sociopolitical revolutions of the 60s and 70s in more detail should (shameless plug) check out my treatise on it:
I have gone over the lyrics to American Pie for years and I think I understand a lot of it because I was there for all of it. It’s a very interesting song on its own merits anyway. Check it out.