I was talking to Terry Jacks last week when the name Don McLean came up. They were contemporaries: McLean had a career-making hit with American Pie in 1971; Jacks did the same with Seasons in the Sun in 1974. Jacks mentioned that he had once picked up a hitchhiking McLean in Hawaii. Did he recognize McLean? He did – who could forget that thumb?
McLean’s star-spangled digit is front and centre on the American Pie album cover. It’s red and it’s white and it’s blue, and it’s turned up. Thumbs-up America. I was an eight-year-old American kid when the song came out. What did I know about satire?
On Saturday, the 76-year-old McLean appeared at the John Bassett Theatre in Toronto, part of a 50th-anniversary tour of American Pie that had been delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. In front of a crowd of a few hundred people, McLean sang, talked and did his schtick before finally playing the epic, allegorical song about the loss of innocence and “Jack Flash sat on a candlestick.”
McLean and his four-piece band played it fast, then slow, then fast again. And when they got to “We were singing, bye-bye Miss American Pie” chorus, everyone in the crowd was singing except for me. I was too hung up on the lyric that mentioned “the day the music died” to join the communal refrain.
I was raised in Clifton Springs, N.Y., in the Finger Lakes region of the state. The town was tiny, white and Victorian, with a country club and three churches. I would have heard American Pie on the YMCA jukebox at around the same time the riots at the state prison in nearby Attica were happening. I don’t recall hearing about that rebellion at all.
American Pie was ubiquitous in the seventies. The melody was agreeable, the chorus was singable and the lyrical allusions sparked speculation. It was generally accepted that the repeated phrase “the day the music died” referred to the plane crash in 1959 that killed rock ‘n’ roll pioneers Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens – the end of a musical era. And although the song’s other codes and symbols revealed themselves gradually to me over the years, the line about Chevys and levees rang romantic instantly.
Next month, Don McLean’s American Pie: A Fable, a children’s book about a young boy’s journey to uncover his passion for music, will be released. The book’s cover depicts McLean’s own paperboy youth. I delivered newspapers as a kid myself. American Pie is the soundtrack to my wonder-years decade. Those were the days of decorating my bicycle with red, white and blue bunting on Memorial Days. On July 4, 1976, America celebrated its Bicentennial on a sunny Sunday afternoon with a country-wide ringing of bells. I clanged.
At some point I realized that McLean’s song spoke to the souring idealism of the 1960s and a country in moral decline. My fascination with the song only grew. After reading that McLean partly wrote American Pie in Cold Spring, N.Y., I made a pilgrimage to that Hudson River place. Stepping off the train, I felt I had arrived at a postcard-pretty universe parallel to my Clifton Springs. These are small, sheltered villages that Norman Rockwell himself would have dismissed as being too quaint by half.
The following summer I visited, for the first time in years, my American hometown. It was as I remembered it – right down to the cheeseburger, French fries and ice-cold Coca-Cola at the country club. Eating lunch, I overheard two men talking politics. This was 2016. The two guys had awful things to say about President Barack Obama and the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate nominee, Hillary Clinton. No mention of platforms or policies – just, to my mind, casual racism and misogyny.
Maybe I would have heard the same kind of things at the country club in the 1970s. Maybe I just wasn’t listening. Maybe the Bicentennial bellringing of 1976 was more propaganda than any real sign of unity.
Over the years, McLean has resisted explaining the meaning behind his American Pie lyrics. He was just as mum on stage in Toronto. “The song means I’ll never have to work again,” he quipped, referring to the substantial royalty cheques the hit song had earned him. At least the songwriter was being honest with himself.
American Pie was about things dying. (So was, for that matter, Jacks’s Seasons in the Sun.) The music is still alive, though. Some of us just hear it differently now.
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