Don McLean’s “American Pie” Explained at Last

From a Wall Street Journal story by John Anderson headlined “Don McLean’s ‘American Pie’ Explained at Last”:

“The greatest song in music history,” declares country star Garth Brooks (who used to make “American Pie” part of his live act) and a line like that will make every viewer a music critic. The greatest? This special by director Mark Moormann argues that it’s because a mythology has grown up around what was once the longest record to become a No. 1 hit, because it was cathartic at the time of its original 1971 release (the McLean argument) and because of its puzzling lyrics….

In exploring the history of “American Pie,” director Moormann covers some predictable bases, including the various milestones that the single achieved in terms of sales and radio play—and what some of the imagist lyrics mean. The undisputed “Day” in question was Feb. 3, 1959, when rockers Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens died in the crash of a small plane near Clear Lake, Iowa. What Mr. McLean reveals is that much of what follows “the bad news on the doorstep” is much more personal than poetic. “The King” wasn’t Elvis; the “Jester” wasn’t Dylan; the religious allusions are just that: Mr. McLean seems oblivious to the idea the “Book of Love” he mentions might have referred to the 1958 hit by the Monotones or that the “pink carnation” could be read as an allusion to the Marty Robbins hit “A White Sport Coat (and a Pink Carnation).” Some may have thought all along that the lines “While Lenin read a book of Marx / The Quartet practiced in the park” was as much about John, Groucho and the Beatles as it was about Communism. Apparently not.

It could well be that Mr. McLean is simply tired of his lyrics being scrutinized (e.g. was the “girl who sang the blues” Janis Joplin? No.) but you don’t get that impression.

Where “The Day the Music Died” achieves a narrative flow, and doesn’t feel engorged by adjectival hallelujahs, is in its exploration of the plane crash, which revisits some not unfamiliar but ever-intriguing bits of rock ’n’ roll history: Holly’s bass player, future country star Waylon Jennings, gave up his seat on the plane to the Big Bopper who had the flu; guitarist Tommy Allsup relinquished his to Valens, after flipping a coin. That Clear Lake has created a mini-industry for itself out of the tragedy shows a nice entrepreneurial spirit; Mr. McLean’s relationship with the town is one of mutual admiration and symbiosis.

For all the gushing about the “transcendent” nature of “American Pie,” Mr. Brooks is the one who actually mentions, and praises, the recording itself, which becomes a fascinating aspect to a show that seems to spend an inordinate amount of time justifying its existence. In Mr. McLean, the record producer Ed Freeman had a Pete Seeger-mentored folkie who wasn’t comfortable playing with a rhythm section, so he matched him up with players who “were very good but not hardcore session players.” They included bassist Rob Stoner, who remembers the sessions not going well, as does Mr. McLean. (“It kept sounding like a polka, which really annoyed me.”) When Mr. Freeman brought in pianist Paul Griffin everything jelled and the moment recalls Mr. Brooks’s comments about the piano, specifically, earlier in the show when he addresses the virtues of the arrangement.

The record went on to crush Top 40 radio orthodoxy with its 8½-minute length; Mr. Freeman recalls that “three minutes was the limit” a song could be at the time, which isn’t exactly true (see “MacArthur Park,” 1968, 7-plus minutes). What probably is true is that “There’s never been a phenomenon like ‘America Pie,’” though someone other than Mr. McLean should probably be saying it. What you would like him to address is the experience of being a songwriter of considerable gifts and range (“Vincent,” “Castles in the Air,” “And I Love You So”) and having so much of the rest of your career obscured by one song. At the same time, he has a really nice house.

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