American Pie



"American Pie" is an eight-and-a-half minute long classic rock song by singer-songwriter Don McLean, about "the day the music died".

Recorded in 1971 and released that year on the album of the same name, it was a number-one U.S. hit for four weeks beginning with the week of January 15, 1972. It offers an allusive history of rock and roll, starting with the deaths of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J. P. Richardson, Jr. (The Big Bopper) in a plane crash in 1959. The importance of "American Pie" to America's musical and cultural heritage was recognized by the Songs of the Century education project, created by the Recording Industry Association of America, the National Endowment for the Arts, Scholastic Inc., and AOL@School which listed the song performed by Don McLean as the number five song of the twentieth century.

The song's lyrics remain the subject of much debate. Although McLean dedicated the American Pie album to Buddy Holly, none of the singers in the plane crash are identified by name in the song itself. Later performers are also alluded to with easily decoded identifications, leading to much discussion, encouraged by McLean's canny lifelong refusal to explain the lyrics. Asked what "American Pie" meant, McLean once replied, "It means I never have to work again". Later, he more seriously stated, "You will find many 'interpretations' of my lyrics but none of them by me [...] Sorry to leave you all on your own like this but long ago I realized that songwriters should make their statements and move on, maintaining a dignified silence."

Don McLean's website provides a clear statement of the songwriter's purpose:

"'American Pie' is autobiographical and presents an abstract story of Don McLean's life from the mid 1950s until when he wrote the song in the late 1960s. It is almost entirely symbolised by the evolution of popular music over these years and represents a change from the lightness of the 1950s to the darkness of the late 1960s."

During its initial popularity, guessing the meaning of the song's lyrics was a popular pastime. Many radio stations and disc jockeys published unofficial interpretations. Over the years, assisted by the collective power of the Internet and McLean himself, something approaching a "standard interpretation" of the song has emerged. How much of it was actually in McLean's mind, consciously or unconsciously, when he wrote the lyrics, is often debated. Years after the original recordings, McLean said in 2000:

"The song starts off with my memories of the death of Buddy Holly. But it moves on to describe America as I was seeing it and how I was fantasizing it might become, so it's part reality and part fantasy but I'm always in the song as a witness or as even the subject sometimes in some of the verses."

He later went on to say, "The song was written as my attempt at an epic song about America, and I used the imagery of music and politics to do that."

The primary interpretation of "American Pie" in this article is based on McLean's stated intent, his other views, particularly regarding religion, war, and his life. These are used to filter alternative interpretations from the four sources (noted within the article as Dearborn, Kulawiec, Fann, Levitt) in the Reference section and other well-known events in music history. Each Reference section source, except for Kulawiec, was mentioned at one time or another on McLean's website and is in itself a compilation of the viewpoints of many more people as well as other references. Even so, "American Pie" remains somewhat of an enigma given McLean's sparse explanations. Though it is clear he intended multiple meanings for certain parts of his song, it is not clear where he intended to have them. When McLean's autobiographical theme is relaxed or ignored, the numerous allusions have been combined to create some novel impressionistic effects that have led to interpretations he may not have intended.

The autobiographical theme of "American Pie" provides the chronological framework for the song's verses. The first verse describes McLean's memories of the music he loved as a young child and his reaction, at age thirteen, to the deaths of Holly, Valens, and Richardson. "American Pie" may represent the youthful, popular American culture of the mid- and late-1950s that involved the styles in music, dance, dress, movies, radio, television, and romance that McLean loved as a child and young teenager. The chorus marks the passing of that culture and its values with the accidental deaths of Holly, Valens, and Richardson in 1959.

The second verse describes McLean's perception of American culture during his innocent boyhood and the beginning of the loss of innocence thereafter. McLean personified that perception as Miss American Pie, referring to her as "you" in the lyrics. By imagining that he asks her whether she wrote "the book of love" and whether she has faith in God if the Bible tells her so, McLean might have expressed his belief about how important the moral and spiritual values of the Christian faith were for America at the time. In addition, McLean may have imagined Miss American Pie dancing at a sock hop with Buddy Holly, representing America's love of 1950s rock and roll. Added to the gloom associated with the deaths of Holly, Valens, and Richardson, McLean alluded to "Lonely Teenager", a song by Dion and The Belmonts released in 1960. (Dion performed with the other three musicians the night before they perished.) McLean has mentioned that 1959 to 1963 marked his acquaintance with "the darker realities of adulthood": his father died in 1961; and in 1963, he dropped out of Villanova University to become a professional musician, and suffered as President Kennedy was assassinated. Finally, the verse includes an allusion to being stood up at a prom by referring to the song "A White Sport Coat (And A Pink Carnation)" (1957) by Marty Robbins, which likely represents McLean's final separation from Miss American Pie. In this reference, McLean, a native of metropolitan New York City, described himself as a "broncin' buck with a pink carnation and a pick-up truck" which likely refers to the rural American roots of many of the musicians he loved so well -- Holly and Richardson were native Texans raised in small towns, and Robbins was a popular country and western music star from Arizona.

The third verse focuses on the rise of Bob Dylan, and corresponds to McLean's years as a young adult, the songwriter being inspired by The Weavers to become a professional folk singer at the time Dylan emerged as a powerful and popular musical force. From 1963 to 1969, McLean performed and toured with the likes of Pete Seeger, Herbie Mann, Brownie McGee, Sonny Terry, Melanie, Steppenwolf, Arlo Guthrie, Janis Ian, Josh White, and Ten Wheel Drive. McLean's intimate knowledge of Bob Dylan's songs are reflected in multiple verses. As an observer and participant in the 1960s American music scene, McLean traced the rise and domination of American music by The Beatles (1959-1969), starting in the third verse; and highlighted the tribulations of The Byrds (1966-1967), in the fourth.

By 1968, McLean, at age 22, was invited to become "Hudson River Troubadour" by the New York State Council for the Arts. In the song's fifth verse, McLean is at odds with the cultural and musical trends represented by Woodstock, which took place in his native New York in 1969, and conveys his disgust with The Rolling Stones (1968-1969). While McLean recorded his first album, "Tapestry", in 1969, a student riot took place just outside the Berkeley, California studio's door. By the last verse, McLean is saddened by the death of Janis Joplin (1970), and is dejected by the dissolution of music as an uplifting, spiritual, and moral force in the face of overwhelming violence at home and abroad.

Overall, McLean's musical "evolution" started with Bob Dylan's celebration of expanding liberty, freedom, and individuality in "a voice that came from you and me"; moved through the drug-influenced culture of the mid- and late 1960s of "Helter Skelter" and "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" by The Beatles; and ended with the apparent masochistic violence in "Jumpin' Jack Flash" by The Rolling Stones and the real violent mayhem at the Altamont (California) Speedway concert in December 1969.

The day the music died is the name McLean gave to February 3, 1959, the day an airplane carrying musicians Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper crashed, killing all three. But, as he explained on his web site, the date has a profound meaning to McLean because it marked a major change in his life:

"In Don's life the transition from light (the innocence of childhood) to the darker realities of adulthood probably started with the death of Buddy Holly and culminated with the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963 and the start of a more difficult time for America."

From the standpoint of about 1970, the twenty-five year old songwriter recalled the effect of six transitions on the day the music died, noted at the end of each verse of "American Pie".

* In the first verse, McLean tries to remember how he felt when the Holly, Valens, and The Big Bopper died when he was a thirteen year old boy: But February made me shiver with every paper I'd deliver; and I can't remember if I cried when I read about his widowed bride (referring to Holly's pregnant wife Maria Elena Holly). But at the end, all he can say is, But something touched me deep inside the day the music died.

* At the end of the second verse that describes McLean's perceptions of middle class America during the mid- and late-1950s, McLean believes that events after the day the music died would portend to bad times ahead: But I knew I was out of luck the day the music died.

* At the end of the third verse that focuses on the rise of Bob Dylan, McLean speaks for a generation of songwriters and musicians that misses Holly, Valens, and Richardson: And we sang dirges in the dark the day the music died.

* At the end of the fourth verse where McLean witnessed the effects of drug use on rock music, he asks if there was some higher meaning related to February 3, 1959: Do you recall what was revealed the day the music died?

* After McLean saw a murder and beatings at the Altamont Speedway concert in December 1969, in the fifth verse, he writes that Satan was happy on the day the music died: I saw Satan laughing with delight the day the music died.

* Finally, at the end of "American Pie", McLean sees Holly, Valens, and The Big Bopper off to heaven on February 3, 1959: 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 chorus contains the line Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry that may have multiple meanings. The first is derived from lines in the 1956, General Motors jingle, "See the USA in Your Chevrolet", advertising that brand of vehicles:

On a highway or road along the levee,
Performance is sweeter, nothing can beat her,
Life is completer in a Chevy.

Since traveling is a common metaphor for making one's way through life, driving a Chevy meant making it through life in a patriotic, middle class style that the owner could be proud of. A drive on a "road along the levee" beside a river or other body of water represents a scenic, fulfilling sojourn, so, the missing water along the levee implies that the trip, life, became empty. In this interpretation, the loss associated with the departure, passing, or separation from Miss American Pie befits a mournful drinking song: And them good ol' boys were drinking whisky and rye singing / This'll be the day that I die / This'll be the day that I die. That separation is similar to the one feared by the guy with his gal in the Buddy Holly and The Crickets' song "That'll Be The Day".

It is possible that "the levee" also refers to the name of the bar in New Rochelle, New York (now known as the Beechmont Tavern) where McLean imagined he and his friends mourned the death of Buddy Holly. The next chorus phrase meaning whiskey in rye rather than whiskey and rye may refer to the nearby town of Rye where McLean would often go with his friends after The Levee closed.

Some mistakenly believe that "Miss American Pie" is the name of the plane that crashed. This is an urban legend: the plane had no name, only a registration number.

"American Pie" includes a number of Christian religious elements that includes an allusion to Jesus wearing his Crown of Thorns; and the mentioning of "angels born in hell", the Trinity, Satan, and titles of two songs with lyrics that allude to God. In addition, some people believe that "American Pie" alludes to the Apocalypse. The purpose of these elements probably is not to promote a Christian theme because in December 2005, McLean explained that he is not Christian:

"I am not a devoted Christian. I do believe in God. I would say I'm some sort of a pantheist. I live in the forest and I think I'm living in church; that's my god. I do not understand why people have to believe in something. You're going to find out what the truth is one way or another sooner or later and it seems to me that the requirement that you need to believe in something in this life is like trying to choose door A or door B – are you going to choose the door to Heaven or the door to Hell and to me it doesn't seem intelligent. I do understand a lot of people get a lot of comfort from it but it's not for me."

One purpose of the religious elements in "American Pie" might be to remind the listener that music can provide spiritual fulfillment. McLean seemed to have expressed his belief in this power of music in the two questions asked in the second verse: Now do you believe in rock and roll? and can music save your mortal soul?. It also seems that McLean believed the antithesis is true, that music can corrupt the soul since the fifth verse describes a murder while The Rolling Stones performed music with wicked themes at the Altamont Speedway concert in December 1969.

The second verse of "American Pie" opens with a Christian theme: Did you write the book of love. The phrase refers to the title of the 1958 song "The Book of Love" by The Monotones, that includes the lines:

Tell me, tell me, tell me
Oh, who wrote the Book Of Love
I've got to know the answer
Was it someone from above?

The second verse also asks ... and do you have faith in God above? / If the Bible tells you so. Given McLean's characterization of 1950s American culture in the second verse, the line likely alludes to the title of the 1955 song "The Bible Tells Me So" by Don Cornell. The song includes the word "faith" in the refrain:

Have faith, hope and charity
That's the way to live successfully
How do I know, the Bible tells me so

The line might also or alternatively allude to the popular nineteenth century hymn "Jesus Loves Me" created by William Bradbury in 1862 with words drafted two years earlier by Anna Warner that includes the lines:

Jesus loves me, this I know
For the Bible tells me so

The third verse includes the line Oh and while the King was looking down, the jester stole his thorny crown. The Romans had mockingly nicknamed Jesus "the King of the Jews" in the hours before his death, forcing Jesus to wear a crown of thorns. Statues and paintings of Jesus dying on the Cross normally show him still wearing the crown, and looking down to his mother and John. However, there is no Biblical account of the crown being stolen.

The final verse of "American Pie" includes the lines:

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 three persons are an allusion to the Christian Trinity. The interpretation that is most consistent with events in the song is that the three persons are The Big Bopper, Ritchie Valens, and Buddy Holly, respectively. Specifically, The Father is The Big Bopper, who was the only father among the three musicians. Indeed, at the time of Richardson's death at age 28, he had been married to Adrian Joy Fryon for over six years, and the couple had a daughter, Deborah, and were expecting a son, Jay Perry. The Son is Valens, who died as a child at age seventeen. The Holy Ghost of rock and roll is Buddy Holly because of his pervasive influence on that music. Holly was an original inductee to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Their travel on "the last train for the coast" is a metaphor for death, with the coast representing heaven as their final destination.

Numerous other trios have been suggested, the most popular being the three American leaders assassinated during the 1960s: President John F. Kennedy as the Father; his younger brother Robert F. Kennedy as the Son; and the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as the Holy Ghost.

The line in the last verse, They caught the last train for the coast the day the music died, derives the notion of the Christian Trinity's departure, withdraw or defeat, or abandonment. These may allude to the many New Age religions that took root in the west coast of the U.S. during the 1960s, what some believe is the Christian God's abandonment of the United States, or the death of God himself.

Some people believe that "American Pie" includes an allusion to a battle between Satan against the Christian Trinity in the fifth and sixth verses. The impression is enhanced by the fourth verse's conflict between "players", interpreted as everyday people who want to dance, being prevented from accessing a field already occupied by a "marching band" composed of sergeants, interpreted as a military force. The desolation in the song's last lines, 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 Trinity's subsequent departure or retreat, is interpreted as the Trinity's defeat. Because the fourth verse mentions a fallout shelter and what might seem to be a bomb dropped from "Eight miles high", some people perceive that the desolation is the aftermath of a future nuclear war that a morally-weakened America, though still represented by the Trinity, loses to the Soviet Union, represented by Satan. For some others, the crises illustrate a prophecy from the Book of Revelation that may or may not be realized as a nuclear war.

In addition to the cultural references exposed above, there are several other references to events or changes in the world of music throughout "American Pie".

In contrast to the rock and roll theme in the second verse, the fourth verse seems to mark the decline of dance music where the lyrics reads: ... while the sergeants played a marching tune / We all got up to dance, oh but we never got the chance / 'Cause the players tried to take the field, the marching band refused to yield. The conflict between the sergeants and players may allude to the rivalry between intelligent, art rock (specifically represented by The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band) and fun, dance rock (such as that by The Beach Boys), in which the marching music wins, meaning McLean thought that the era of rock and roll dance music was over. Some people believe this passage contains a deeper reference to the Vietnam war, The Beatles' last live performance, and competition between The Beatles and The Byrds. Overall, McLean may be using the imagery of a football game to address The Beatles' domination of the "field" or occupation of the center stage of popular American music as measured in the sheer volume of their record sales represented by the June 1967 release of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and release of Magical Mystery Tour only five months later. Both became U.S. best selling albums for 19 weeks and 8 weeks, respectively. The line "Now the half-time air was sweet perfume while the sergeants played a marching tune," has sometimes been interpreted to refer to either marijuana smoke, or teargas.

The third and fourth verses contain references to Bob Dylan. The third verse includes the lines:

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

A strong case has been made that the jester is Bob Dylan. James Dean famously wore a red windbreaker in the movie Rebel Without a Cause, and Dylan was shown in a windbreaker on the cover of one of his albums, Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. Dylan also described himself as a clown chasing his muse in "Mr. Tambourine Man" (1965). The fact that the jester sang in a "voice that came from you and me" would refer to the populist origins of American folk music.

The jester is mentioned again in the fourth verse line ... with the jester on the sidelines in a cast. Assuming the jester is Dylan, this probably refers to his July 29, 1966, motorcycle crash that left him badly injured.

In music, "the king" is Elvis Presley for McLean and much of America. "Looking down" refers Presley's reduced success as a recording artist after 1963. The thorny crown, a Christian symbol for suffering, can be taken to represent the price of fame and power — specifically, Presley's struggle to cope with celebrity. The jester stealing the king's crown probably refers to Dylan overtaking Presley in record sales by the mid-1960s and also suffering the side effects of celebrity. McLean's line, The courtroom was adjourned, no verdict was returned, may refer to America's continued regard for Presley as "The King" even though Dylan was in the limelight.

Also in music, "the queen" of rock and roll in the late 1950s was Connie Francis. As with Elvis Presley, Francis' music recording successes were used to launch a successful movie career.

An alternate theory suggests that the "king and queen" are Pete Seeger and Joan Baez, regarded in the early 1960s as the king and queen of folk music. Seeger, who had strong ties to Dylan's guru Woody Guthrie, was seen in the late 1950s and early '60s as the reigning figure in folk music, a title Dylan would soon steal. Dylan would also take up, both professionally and personally with Baez, the queen of folk. It has been suggested that the line "when the jester sang for the king and queen" could refer to the 1963 Newport Folk Festival, at which Baez and Seeger were in attendance, and which marked Dylan's rise to national fame.

Some believe the third verse's second line and moss grows fat on a rollin' stone is a reference to The Rolling Stones. However, given that Bob Dylan is the main subject of the third verse, the phrase is taken from the title of Dylan's 1965 hit about himself, "Like a Rolling Stone". The line is a play on words on the proverb that "a rolling stone gathers no moss", but McLean says the stone grew moss by 1970 — a criticism of Dylan's relative, post-1966 motorcycle crash inertness, and diminished daring, creative energy and intensity. From the vantage point of 1970, McLean notes Dylan's decline in the third line: But that's not how it used to be. The moss that grew fat around Dylan may represent all the musicians who prospered by performing Dylan's 1962-1965 songs like "Blowin' In The Wind", "Mr. Tambourine Man", "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right", "Like A Rolling Stone", and numerous others, or the royalties Dylan earned from other performers' efforts.

The Beatles are linked to Buddy Holly because, in 1958, The Quarry Men that included John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison, and two others, produced the pre-Beatles trio's first ever recording — a demo that included an arrangement of "That'll Be The Day". In addition, The Beatles name was also an imitation of The Crickets name.

The third verse ends with the following lines:

And while Lennon read a book on Marx, the quartet practiced in the park
And we sang dirges in the dark the day the music died."

A historically consistent interpretation of the lyrics is that the quartet that practiced separately from the Marx-reading John Lennon on February 3, 1959, was an obscure a band of teenagers known as The Les Stewart Quartet that included George Harrison. The Quartet practiced to open the Casbah Club in the summer of 1959. The Casbah was a Liverpool social club for teenagers, run by Mona Best, the mother of Pete Best. Harrison joined the Quartet after The Quarry Men that included founder, John Lennon, and Paul McCartney, broke-up in January 1959. However, The Les Stewart Quartet proved unstable, losing two members (Les Stewart and Ken Brown) who were replaced by Lennon and McCartney. The Quartet was recomposed as The Quarry Men, and its first performance was at the opening of the Casbah Club on August 29, 1959. Groucho and Me, Groucho Marx's humorous autobiography, was published in 1959. McLean may have imagined the eighteen year-old John Lennon reading the book after the break-up of his band in January. The "park" is likely the Casbah Club, as it was located at 8 Heyman's Green, West Derby, Liverpool.

As alternatives, the quartet is often believed to be The Beatles, though, this is inconsistent with the lyric because The Beatles quartet included John Lennon. The Beatles, however, did perform as a quintet consisting of Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, Pete Best, and Chas Newby (substituting for Stuart Sutcliffe) at the Casbah Club in December 1960, after the group (that included Sutcliffe) performed for several months in Hamburg, Germany. In this case, McLean might be alluding to Germany, since Marx could mean Karl Marx, a German, and meaning that Lennon read about communism, creating a pun for the political theory Marxist-Leninism.

Also, "park" as a synonym for stadium could refer to any number Beatles' performances, including the August 15, 1965, show in Shea Stadium (originally supposed to be called Flushing Meadow Park), or The Beatles' last public concert at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, California on August 29, 1966; or to England or Europe where The Beatles "practiced" before first coming to America in 1964.

The fourth verse begins with Helter skelter in a summer swelter. "Helter Skelter" is a Beatles song that was released in two versions on two albums. The "summer swelter" may allude to The Beatles' efforts during the summer of 1968 to record different versions of the song: one session to record a single over 27 minutes long and an edited version appearing on the 1996 The Beatles Anthology, Volume III; and another two day long session that included eighteen takes of approximately five minutes each to create the White Album version. The strain of the second session earned Ringo Starr blistered and bleeding fingers.

The "summer swelter" may also or alternatively refer to the August 1969 Tate/LaBianca murders. The mastermind behind the killings, Charles Manson, claimed "Helter Skelter" inspired the bloodbaths he convinced his followers to commit.

Some people believe the lines in the fourth verse ... while the sergeants played a marching tune / We all got up to dance, oh but we never got the chance refers to The Beatles' (the sergeants) last live concert that occurred on the last leg of their 1966 North American tour at Candlestick Park in San Francisco on August 29, because their performance lasted for only 35 minutes. The interpretation is inconsistent with The Beatles' discography because the concert pre-dates the 1967 release of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Band and the album's recording sessions which started on November 24, 1966.

Another interpretation of the following verse: "While sergeants played a marching tune, We all got up to dance, Oh, but we never got the chance, 'Cause the players tried to take the field, The marching band refused to yield" is that the music of the sixties was dominated by the Beatles, and for this reason other artists did not get a chance to shine.

The fourth verse contains the lines ... the birds flew off with a fallout shelter / Eight miles high and fallin' fast, it landed foul on the grass. "The birds" are likely the American rock group The Byrds. The fact they "flew off with a fallout shelter" refers to their huge initial success, which they owed to their arrangement of Bob Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man". An American fallout shelter sign appears on Dylan's 1965 Bringing It All Back Home album cover containing the song. However, The Byrds popularity suffered ("falling fast") when their reputation for drug use rubbed off on their 1966 release of "Eight Miles High". Many radio stations banned the recording when some thought it was about drug consumption ("it landed foul on the grass"). This line, "eight miles high but falling fast", also calls to mind the line from Helter Skelter, "I'm coming down fast but I'm miles above you".

With the fourth verse mentioning the songs "Helter Skelter" (1968) and "Eight Miles High" (1966), and 1966 as the "halftime" of the 1960s decade (1961-1970), and alluding to The Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" (1967), McLean addressed the period, 1966 to early 1969, since the fifth verse alludes to two music concerts that took place in the second half of 1969. The lines, The players tried for a forward pass with the jester, on the sidelines in a cast, might refer to The Byrds' less than successful bids to outdo The Beatles without Bob Dylan songs after 1966.

McLean described his own generation as being lost to drug use in the opening of the fifth verse:

Oh, and there we were all in one place, a generation lost in space
With no time left to start again.

The generation is represented by the 400,000 to 500,000 mostly young people "all in one place", the Woodstock Music and Art Fair held at White Lake, New York, August 15-19, 1969. In addition, Woodstock hosted a gamut of some of the generation's greatest music artists.

"Lost in space" may have been an intentional corruption of the title of the 1967 musical "Hair" song "Walking In Space". The song vividly describes a clandestine, hallucinogenic drug experience. Alternatively, the term might refer to the state of being "spaced out", i.e., dazed from the intoxicating effects of drugs. Finally, it could alternatively or also refer to the popular, campy American television science fiction series of the time, Lost in Space, about a group of space travelers, that includes a family, who lose their way and are unable find their way back home.

McLean may have felt his generation permanently lost its innocence to drug use since it had "no time left to start again". The loss is represented in the verse's next lines that open a nursery rhyme to which McLean adds a perverted twist:

So, come on Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, Jack Flash sat on a candlestick 'cause
Fire is the devil's only friend

Jack Flash, is the crazed character in the 1968 The Rolling Stones song "Jumpin' Jack Flash". McLean's adding "sat on a candlestick" to Jack Flash's list of pleasures may represent masochism.

The Rolling Stones are mentioned in the "American Pie", where they might be first identified in the third verse's first line: ... and moss grows, fat on a rollin' stone. This is a play on words on the traditional proverb "a rolling stone gathers no moss", and might be a criticism of the band's alleged greed, or simply a reference to the death of the band's founding member Brian Jones in 1969. Alternative interpretations counter that the rolling stone is in fact Dylan, growing fat with moss during his hiatus from touring and public appearance in the late 1960's.

The fifth verse is believed to describe a December 6, 1969, free concert, organized by The Rolling Stones, at the Altamont Speedway near Livermore, California, in which The Rolling Stones and others performed. The Stones and The Dead are identified by references to their songs, "Jumpin' Jack Flash" (1968) and "Friend of the Devil" (1970), respectively: So come on Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, Jack Flash sat on a candlestick 'cause / Fire is the devil's only friend, though the "devil" may rather allude to The Stones' 1968 song, "Sympathy for the Devil", a more historically consistent interpretation. The concert was captured on film in the 1970 documentary named after the The Stones' 1969 song "Gimme Shelter". The "devil" is Mick Jagger, who performed "Sympathy for the Devil" that night dressed in black with a red cape before 300,000 people. "Angels born in hell" refers to members of the Hells Angels gang, who were hired to provide security. That night, gang members beat concert goers and Marty Balin of the band Jefferson Airplane. McLean, who did not attend the concert, wrote that he was enraged:

Oh, and as I watched him on the stage my hands were clenched in fists of rage
No angel born in hell
Could break that Satan's spell

McLean imagined the music agitating the Hells Angels into a killing frenzy that resulted in their stabbing to death the armed concert goer Meredith Hunter: And as the flames climbed high into the night to light the sacrificial rite. The murder, which occurred while the The Rolling Stones performed "Under My Thumb", was captured on film. Hundreds were injured in the violence.

The final verse opens with I met a girl who sang the blues, which probably alludes to Janis Joplin, whom many consider to be the greatest white blues singer of all time. Her death through an accidental heroin overdose in October 1970, is alluded to in the third line: But she just smiled and turned away.

Some people interpret part of the fourth verse as a reference to the Vietnam War. The section reads: ... while the sergeants played a marching tune / We all got up to dance, oh but we never got the chance / 'Cause the players tried to take the field, the marching band refused to yield. The conflict could be between the U.S. government (represented by the sergeants) administering the draft and young people resisting it. The players getting up to dance (the opposite of marching) trying to take the field might represent anti-war and anti-draft protesters. The marching band refusing to yield may represent security forces such as police, troops, or national guardsmen, or America's collective refusal to withdraw from Vietnam during the 1960s.

The concluding verse marks the year 1970, by referring to death of Janis Joplin, and then contains the lines:

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.

McLean likely wrote the lines in response to the May 4, 1970, Ohio National Guard shootings at Kent State University that killed four and wounded nine unarmed people at the scene of a demonstration against the Vietnam War. John Filo's famous Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph captured the fourteen-year old runaway, Mary Ann Vecchio, screaming over the body of the dead or dying student, Jeffrey Miller, who took a bullet in the mouth. The phrase "not a word was spoken" refers to President Nixon's silence on the matter. Stanley Karnow noted in his Vietnam: A History that "The [Nixon] administration initially reacted to this event with wanton insensitivity. Nixon's press secretary, Ron Ziegler, whose statements were carefully programmed, referred to the deaths as a reminder that 'when dissent turns to violence, it invited tragedy.'" (Ziegler's reference to violence included the University's ROTC Building by protesters on May 2.) Henry Kissinger, Nixon's National Security Adviser at the time, said the president was "pretending indifference." While demonstrations against the shootings broke out in hundreds of college campuses across the United States, McLean may have felt that the students were without leadership, as the "church bells" of the time, possibly the Chicago Seven, involved in leading the anti-war protests during the 1968 Democratic National Convention, were silenced. On February 20, 1970, five of the Chicago Seven were sentenced to five-year prison terms and fined $5000. (The judgments were reversed on appeal in November 1972.) The broken church bells may also refer to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy who were opponents of the Vietnam War. Both were assassinated in 1968.

The epic length and deeply personal nature of the song has made it largely resistant to cover versions; a few attempts have been made, however, first and most bizarrely by The Brady Bunch in 1972. Ska band Catch 22 made a reggae version of the song a staple of their live show and released several recordings of it; alternative rock band Killdozer recorded a thrashing, ironic version of the song in 1989. Additionally, several disco versions have appeared over the years.

In 1999, parodist "Weird Al" Yankovic did a Star Wars-inspired lyrical adaptation of "American Pie" entitled "The Saga Begins" in which the lyrics recount the whole plot of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace through the eyes of Obi-Wan Kenobi. While McLean gave permission for the parody, he did not make a cameo appearance in its video, despite popular rumour. However, he has stated that at live shows he almost starts singing Yankovic's lyrics, due to his children playing the song so often.

Recently, on the Harry Potter website, Mugglenet, featured a parody of American Pie. It was released in their editorial "The U-Bend" and was a summary of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince entitled Half-Blood Pie. A fan recorded their lyrics and it was put on the site and can be heard here.

Singer Lori Lieberman attended a McLean concert; in describing the experience to songwriters Norman Gimbel and Charles Fox, she said he'd "killed her softly." Gimbel and Fox wrote "Killing Me Softly" about Lieberman's experience, and the song became a huge hit for Roberta Flack, and many years later for the Fugees. This created a unique Grammy situation: in 1973, Flack won Record of the Year, beating out "American Pie," a song by McLean; in 1974, she won the same award for a song about McLean. Flack and McLean have performed "Killing Me Softly" together in concert at least once.

Almost any song parody site is rife with Pie-rodies; it's often the most parodied song on the site. A particularly clever one claims that the song is actually about Bill Gates, supposedly a Harvard classmate of McLean's. This is fiction, although a little-known fact is that while McLean was a freshman at Villanova University, a senior befriended him and urged him to pursue his musical dreams. The senior's name was Jim Croce.

"American Pie" was covered by American singer Madonna for the soundtrack to the film The Next Best Thing. The cover was co-produced by Madonna and William Orbit, after Rupert Everett (Madonna's co-star in The Next Best Thing) had convinced her to cover the song for the film's soundtrack. Her version of the song is shorter than the original, and contains influences of dance music.

It was released as the soundtrack's first and only single in February 2000 and was a number-one hit in several countries, including the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Germany, Italy and Finland. The single was not released commercially in the United States, but it reached number twenty-nine on the Billboard Hot 100 due to strong radio airplay. "American Pie" was included as a bonus track on all non-U.S. editions of Madonna's album Music, released later in 2000. According to Madonna, she was talked into adding the song to the album by an executive at Warner Brothers Records.

Remixes of the song were produced by Richard "Humpty" Vission and Victor Calderone. The single's video, directed by Philip Stolzl, features Madonna dancing in front of a large American flag. Shots of interracial families standing together for a family portrait, lesbians embracing, and a gay male couple kissing are shown in between shots of Madonna. Rupert Everett makes a cameo appearance in the video, with Madonna sitting on his lap.Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, with no Front-Cover Texts, and with no Back-Cover Texts.
Virtual Magic is a human knowledge database blog. Text Based On Information From Wikipedia, Under The GNU Free Documentation License. Copyright (c) 2007 Virtual Magic. Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.1 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts and no Back-Cover Texts. A copy of the license is included in the section entitled "GNU Free Documentation License".

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