American bye

Don McLean's career didn't end with "American Pie" -- or did it?

"American Pie" permanently etched Don McLean's name on the pop-music map at the end of 1971. It was the kind of song that got people talking, singing, thinking. The eight-and-a-half-minute folk-rock opus became a tombstone for the end of two ages of American innocence: the vision (and fiction) of simple life in the 1950s Eisenhower years, and the unredeemed hopes of the social and political revolutions of the 1960s. And, in some ways, it was McLean's epitaph as well, since he was never able to top or even match the overwhelming success of "American Pie." The song became a cultural phenomenon, later landing McLean on the cover of Life magazine as untold listeners tried to decode the song's meaning, something McLean himself declines to offer.

Almost 30 years later, "American Pie" came back in a multimedia rush, most notably when it was recorded by Madonna for the soundtrack to The Next Best Thing. It was also nabbed for the title of the recent teen gross-out sex flick, and even served as the tune to a Weird Al Yankovic parody of Star Wars titled "The Saga Begins." It's a song loved by many, yet probably hated by a considerable number as well, with a host of my music-critic brethren verging toward the latter camp.

I certainly leaned to the latter camp well before hearing it for the umpteenth time on pop radio in 1972. Eventually, I came to have an affection for it, and now I regard it with a nostalgic amusement that has little to do with its original impact. "American Pie" came back into my orbit at the end of the 1970s, when I road-managed McLean for a year and change, and had what I thought was a fairly close friendship with the man during that time and for a few years to follow. So with McLean playing the metroplex this weekend, and all these new slices of "American Pie" on the current pop-cultural menu, it seemed an ideal time to discuss the song's newfound popularity with the man who wrote it -- and catch up with a onetime friend with whom I'd lost touch.

Don McLean used to say that "American Pie" meant he never had to work again. Maybe he should have said "wouldn't" work again.
Don McLean used to say that "American Pie" meant he never had to work again. Maybe he should have said "wouldn't" work again.

This was not to be: His "people" in Nashville turned down my interview request with that old show-business saw of "a former obligation." Now, that just might be true. But since I once offered similar euphemisms to disappointed concert promoters and interviewers on McLean's behalf, instinct tells me he probably just couldn't be bothered.

No matter. I hardly need to talk to McLean to write about him, since I've already talked to him about his music and career probably more than any other journalist, much of that a sort of ongoing, casual discussion between friends. Since I spent a fair part of 1979 and 1980 watching and hearing McLean perform his music, I have an appreciation for his gifts that is probably rare among much of the rock-crit community.

I also happen to know the little-told story behind the writing of "American Pie." And now is about as good a time as any to tell it in print. No, I'm not going to tell you who the Jester is. I heard that question enough times during my road time with McLean, and even if I knew, I wouldn't tell -- for the sheer sake of being ornery. It's not like telling this story is spilling any state secrets; much to the contrary, I think it reinforces the notion of the song's considerable mystical power.

When "American Pie" hit, McLean was grilled endlessly about its meaning. The very act of asking a songwriter to assign specific meaning to a song is often useless. One of the best things about great music, at least in the days before music videos, was that a song's meaning could be so malleable. Often, the best definition for a song is yours -- whatever it means to you because of the way it applies to your life and way of thinking.

Of course, "American Pie" was doomed to be over-analyzed, coming as it did at a time when the entire nation felt a seismic cultural shift. A thumbnail definition might be that the Kennedy era had truly ended and we were fully under the influence of the Nixon years. The idea that we'd come upon "the day the music died" was palpable. The way the song's verses spun a pop-music and -cultural allegory -- references to the King and Queen, the Jester, Jack Flash, James Dean, and the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; snippets referencing previous songs; and a first verse that was clearly (as McLean has admitted) his reaction as a teenager to the death of Buddy Holly, an early musical hero of his -- captivated the public imagination in a manner as profound as any song did in the 20th century. It was parsed on the radio, studied in schools, debated in bull sessions among friends.

One thing I learned from my time with McLean is how an amazing amount of people could tell you when and where they first heard "American Pie." I can as well, though it probably has less to do with the song than the circumstances. It was the day after my 18th birthday, and I had just bought my first legal beer at the West End Tavern on Broadway in New York City, a venerable old jazz pub across the street from Columbia University (this being a time when, in most states, being old enough to vote and die for your country meant you were legally mature enough to imbibe). I'd heard snippets of "American Pie" on the radio and had caught its pop-culture buzz. So when I spied it on the West End's jukebox, I dropped in a quarter and played it, split in two on both sides of a 45 rpm single. It wasn't too bad.

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