February 2004

A Conscious Evolution Newsletter

 

 

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Classic of Encryption: Decoding "American Pie"

Dark Moon Goddesses In Astrology

Financiers Go Green: An Environmental Victory

Bush's Energy Bill Would Doom Environment

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Volume 3, No. 2

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Classic of Encryption:
Decoding “American Pie”

by Maria Barron
 
Don McLean, American Pie

Innocence lost; beautiful potential cut short before it blossoms ... we’ve grown used to it now. Dreams die daily in our cynical society. And anyone who thinks he’s going to mystically move masses of people to a higher ground through some shared sense of inspiration is probably setting himself up for a fall, reaching for that kind of pie in the sky.

But that’s not how it used to be. A long, long time ago, before the Kennedys and King were assassinated, and before the deaths of young rock ’n’ rollers full of promise became so commonplace that we hardly noticed when another one fell, back when the world was younger, an amazingly broad slice of the American populace believed in a shared vision. The baby-boomers of the U.S.A. were going to change the world in the 1960s, with their young energetic president, their velvet-voiced civil rights preacher, their nonviolent demonstrations and sit-ins, and their brand new American-born folk art that had morphed from rhythm & blues into rock ’n’ roll and taken the world by storm.

How we got from there to here (where just finding someone to save rock ’n’ roll, let alone the world, would be miracle enough), and whether we might ever find that shared spark, that connecting, conducive charge, once again in the cycling of the times — those are the observations and the key question baked into American Pie, the anthem that made Don McLean a musical star in 1971, and that recently made a smaller splash in its year 2000 re-recording by Madonna.

Don’t look for any answers in the absurd pair of movies of the same name released in the last few years. Those cinematic high-school boys out to lose their virginity were looking for a different kind of pie altogether. The American Pie films resemble the song in only one facet: the coming of age.

The song is, in many ways, a coming-of-age tale. And McLean, writing it in his mid-20s, placed himself in every verse, making it his own personal testament of entry into adulthood. But it’s also written from the sensibility of the time, embracing the generation’s conviction that the personal could be political, especially when presented in a poetic way that touched a universal, or at least a generational, chord. After an industry-documented 3 million airings on U.S. radio, American Pie still stands today as a unique cultural marker, a rhyming history of the ’60s, rife with rock ’n’ roll references and personalities, which tells the true story of a generation that came of age believing in dreams and ended up recognizing that darker forces are always out there fighting back against the love and magic and music.

“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,” McLean explained in a Lycos online chat with fans in May 2001. “Also, I was really influenced by the Sgt. Pepper album, and the American Pie album was my attempt to do that, but the song totally overshadowed the album. But the album has still been in print for over 30 years.”

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Beatles

What the Beatles had done with their 1967 album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, aside from raising the bar in rock music to a new level of maturity and artistry, was to create the first “concept album,” a cohesive whole built on a theme, rather than just a collection of mix-and-match songs. McLean was trying to do the same, although he was working more from the perspective of a live-music performer, while the Beatles had abandoned live concerts for studio work. As McLean described in a BBC Radio 2 interview in 1993, he wrote American Pie to open his first themed album and to summarize and close his live show. So any attempt to decode the song’s enigmatic lyrics — and there have been many — falls short if it glosses over the serious songs on the album, like the poignant story of a young man’s death in the trenches of war addressed in the song The Grave.

American Pie’s lyrics are not, as some suggest, merely a lament for that fun ’50s music you could dance to. Neither are they, as another theory goes, entirely about the Kennedy assassination. There are some well-known boilerplate decipherings that identify many of the characters and events in the nine-minute epic — from Bob Dylan’s emergence as a rebel with an anti-war, pro-civil-rights cause to the Rolling Stones’ hellishly fatal fiasco of a concert at Altamont. Many of those insights can be traced to a contemporaneous interpretation by a Chicago disc jockey, Bob Dearborn, who seemed to understand American Pie in the context of its times. Still, even he missed important details about those rockers’ appearances in the song. He also seemed confused about whether or not McLean was a Beatles fan and whether the Fabs played anything more than a bit part in the song. But the songwriter’s statements about Sgt. Pepper as inspiration helped confirm for me an old hunch that the Beatles filled a larger role than is typically recognized in this song about the birth, dreams and passing of an astounding era.

Concerning the inspirational value of Sgt. Pepper, the Beatles also managed, in that landmark album, to successfully translate the feeling of a sleeping-dream into a rock song with the lilting A Day in the Life and its fragments of impossible imagery. McLean, in a video made in the year 2000, explains the quick shifts in the meanings of images and symbols in American Pie in just such a way — as reflective of what happens in dreaming. That recent explanation provides yet another clue to the decoders who have wondered whether a phrase that means one thing in one line of the song can mean something completely different that seems to fit better in the next. Although McLean still talks only in riddles and clues about the song’s specific codes, he does verify the quick shifts in some symbols’ meanings: “You know how, when you dream something, you can see something change into something else, and it’s illogical when you examine it in the morning, but when you’re dreaming it, it seems perfectly logical.”

Jam with Buddy Holly

McLean’s version of a day (or decade) in the life starts with the events of February 3, 1959, when he was a
13-year-old paperboy and rock fan, and rock was the province of a rising young American musician/singer/ songwriter named Buddy Holly. McLean has long acknowl-
edged that he wrote the first piece of the pie while “thinking about Buddy Holly and just how sad that was, and how much I loved that guy, and how much I loved his music, and how much I felt for him ... and how it felt when I was a paperboy and I opened up these papers.”

The news he read there was of the death of Holly, 22, together with two other rockers, Ritchie Valens and “The Big Bopper,” J.P. Richardson, in the crash of a small plane in a Midwestern snowstorm while they were on tour. And so begins the theme of great potential, cut short by an early frost.

A long, long time ago,
I can still remember
How that music used to make me smile.
And I knew if I had my chance
That I could make those people dance,
And maybe they’d be happy for a while.
But February made me shiver,
With every paper I’d deliver
Bad news on the doorstep,
I couldn’t take one more step.
I can’t remember if I cried
When I read about his widowed bride,
But something touched me deep inside
The day the music died.

So bye-bye, Miss American Pie,
Drove my Chevy to the levee
But the levee was dry,
And them good old boys were drinkin’ whiskey and rye,
Singin’ this’ll be the day that I die,
This’ll be the day that I die.

In the chorus, after the classic poetic metaphor of finding dry land where there should be water, we get to the classic mourning rites of drinking and singing. “This’ll be the day that I die” is another explicit Buddy Holly reference, recalling one of Holly’s biggest hit songs, which goes, “That’ll be the day, when you say goodbye / That’ll be the day, when you make me cry / You say you’re gonna leave me but you know it’s a lie / ’Cause that’ll be the day that I die.”

Marty Robbins, A White Sport Coat (and a Pink Carnation)

Continuing in the second verse (below) is a litany of early rock tunes, other snatches of songs from childhood memory, references to the quest for understanding one’s self through music, and the feeling of growing up with a musical soundtrack coloring one’s life. References include: Who Wrote the Book of Love by the Monotones (1958); a children’s gospel song that goes, “Jesus loves me, this I know / For the Bible tells me so”; and the teen romance song, A White Sport Coat (and a Pink Carnation) by Marty Robbins (1957). There’s also a mention of the typical American “sock hop” dance in the school gymnasium, where shoes have got to go so as not to scuff the floor.

Did you write the Book of Love
And do you have faith in God above
If the Bible tells you so?
Now, do you believe in rock ’n’ roll,
Can music save your mortal soul,
And can you teach me how to dance real slow?
Well, I know that you’re in love with him
’Cause I saw you dancin’ in the gym,
You both kicked off your shoes,
Man, I dig those rhythm and blues.
I was a lonely teenage broncin’ buck
With a pink carnation and a pickup truck,
But I knew I was out of luck
The day the music died.

I started singin’
Bye-bye, Miss American Pie,
Drove my Chevy to the levee
But the levee was dry,
Them good old boys were drinkin’ whiskey and rye,
Singin’ this’ll be the day that I die,
This’ll be the day that I die.

At this point the song turns from the singer’s childhood and teenage memories to a more mature contemplation of the world and the music scene. And it’s in this upcoming third verse that we begin to be drawn into the heart of the song. Here McLean begins to contemplate the actions of some of the most famous ’60s musicians who took a chance, walking the line of trying to consciously influence politics and social values while also trying to remain true to their muses, as artists and entertainers. The main players in this verse are Bob Dylan (the Jester) and the Beatles’ leader, John Lennon, thinly disguised through wordplay as “Lenin.” This is a verse worth taking piece by piece.

Now for 10 years we’ve been on our own,
And moss grows fat on a rollin’ stone,
But that’s not how it used to be ...
When the Jester sang for the King and Queen
In a coat he borrowed from James Dean
And a voice, well, that came from you and me.

The first two lines relate that progress seemed to have stalled, in the world and on the rock scene, at the time the song came out, at the beginning of the 1970s, roughly 10 years after Holly’s death. Then the discussion shifts to hint at how exciting and personally relevant the scene used to be in the early and mid-1960s. Enter now the Jester. Bob Dylan came on the music scene very early in the ’60s as a young poet with an acoustic guitar and harmonica, writing and singing original songs in the folk music tradition with strong messages against war, injustice, racism and the military-industrial complex: songs like Blowin’ in the Wind and Masters of War. No one would have called him the Jester in his early career. But that changed in 1965.

Dylan had been a star who was loved by the crowds at the annual Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island, a major event for the folk music community, which as a group was very dedicated to liberal, anti-war and pro-civil-rights politics. At a previous Newport festival, in 1963, the young Dylan had closed out the show singing Blowin’ in the Wind together with a stage full of others, but most notably the legendary folk singer Pete Seeger and the much-acclaimed Joan Baez, arguably the King and Queen of folk music referenced in this verse of American Pie. Dylan was more the Crown Prince than the Jester of the folk scene at that point.

Bob Dylan, Newport 1965

But when he borrowed that coat from James Dean, all hell broke loose. That’s a metaphor, of course. Dylan didn’t really take the dead actor’s coat, but he did show up at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 sporting a black leather jacket, a new attitude, and an electric, rather than acoustic, guitar. He played a short set backed by blues/rock musicians and sang his new song, Like a Rolling Stone. James Dean, Rebel Without a Cause The blending of a rock sound with Dylan's still essentially folky sensibility excited some in the audience, but many were horrified. Pete Seeger reportedly spent some time in his car with his hands over his ears, and at one point during Dylan’s 16 electrified minutes Seeger grabbed an axe to cut the performers’ cables. Peter Yarrow, of the folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary, stopped Seeger, but the crowd booed Dylan off the stage anyway. It seems a bizarre thing to fight about, but for the old-schoolers, folk music was the authentic music of sincere, though frequently downtrodden, people. Rock was shunned for its commercialism. For Dylan, though, the shift to the new electric sound was a statement of artistic independence.

Oh, and while the king was looking down
The Jester stole his thorny crown,
The courtroom was adjourned
No verdict was returned.

This part of the verse certainly continues along the lines of describing a change from old to new, this time in an unexpected succession of leadership. But in my view, this is one of the shifting parts of the dream, with perhaps a double meaning, describing a point in time when change at the top in the cultural realm coincided strangely with a much more tragic change at the top in the political realm. In one sense, it works to continue seeing the Jester as Dylan, but the King whose crown he stole wouldn’t be the same King — Seeger — mentioned earlier in the verse; instead it would probably be Elvis Presley, the King of Rock ’n’ Roll. Dylan’s move into rock music, although it rankled his concert fans for a couple of years afterwards, moved him from being the Crown Prince of Folk to being rock ’n’ roll royalty. He and the Beatles dominated rock in America in the mid-1960s. In this interpretation, the lack of verdict from the courtroom would refer to the way the Newport incident became hotly debated, with people choosing sides over whether Dylan had done a great or horrible thing. Within a few years, the festival itself was deemed too contentious by its organizers and the event was disbanded (or adjourned) for many years.

But there’s a political interpretation to this part of the verse that makes sense as well. In this alternate version, the Jester might not be Dylan at all. Instead, these lyrics could refer to Vice President Lyndon Johnson’s assumption of the presidency after John F. Kennedy’s assassination in late 1963. And the courtroom that adjourned without returning a verdict would be the Warren Commission, which investigated the assassination and determined that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in killing the president, a finding that left many Americans unconvinced.

Both interpretations seem valid in a piece of poetry that seeks to capture the conscious and unconscious connections between different facets of the life and culture of a society during a particularly strange period of time. The assassination and its aftermath occurred in the same few years as Dylan’s at-first triumphant and then finally tumultuous appearances at Newport. Moreover, both the musical and the political observations of the song continue, entwined, in the last few lines of this third verse.

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

We were singing
Bye-bye, Miss American Pie,
Drove my Chevy to the levee
But the levee was dry,
Them good old boys were drinkin’ whiskey and rye,
Singin’ this’ll be the day that I die,
This’ll be the day that I die.
Yellow Submarine, the Beatles

Here, McLean makes note of John Lennon’s growing interest in politics and leftist ideas (what Lennon called a nice, British kind of socialism), which became apparent in 1968 in Lennon’s music, activism, social circle and even business activities, with the Beatles’ formation of their power-sharing Apple Corp. Lennon was the major symbol, but many rockers were showing interest in “new left” ideas as the whole idea of political dedication moved from the realm of folk music into rock after Dylan’s 1965 Newport shocker. The quartet that practiced in the park, of course, represents the Beatles, who were depicted in the animated 1968 film Yellow Submarine (in their alter-ego Sgt. Pepper’s Band guise) practicing in a band shell in a park in “Pepperland.” The animated quartet of the movie also saved Pepperland from the Blue Meanies through the power of love and music. Good practice, that! The reference to practice in the park probably also relates to the observation that the members of the group, in real life, were moving further outward into the world and into greater concern over how to use their apparent influence on the culture. Whether the Beatles liked it or not, many young people followed their lead, whether in matters of style or spirituality.

The “dirges” of this part of the verse again draw us back to the real-world problems of the times. While cartoon Beatles were fighting Blue Meanies with music, the anti-war and civil-rights movements were heating up and growing increasingly bloody. In the years from 1965-1968, the time span from Newport to Pepperland, President Johnson had greatly increased the draft call-up for the escalating war in Vietnam, civil rights workers were being murdered in the American South, and assassinations of key political figures seemed to be the chosen political statement of the anti-progressives. Funeral dirges had become a far-too-frequent part of life’s soundtrack.

The mix of history and music, and the struggle to move forward towards a better future in the midst of murderous destruction, comes to a head in the fourth verse. Time gets a little jumbled in this part of the dream of life, “falling fast” from 1969 back to 1966 and then climbing back again, but the events here are all from the last few years of the 1960s. Part of the job of this fourth verse is to add detail to the overview given in the third.

Helter-skelter in a summer swelter
The birds flew off with a fallout shelter,
Eight miles high and falling fast ...
It landed foul out on the grass,
The players tried for a forward pass
With the Jester on the sidelines in a cast.
Now the half-time air was sweet perfume
While the Sergeants played a marching tune,
We all got up to dance
Oh, but we never got the chance.
’Cause when the players tried to take the field
The marching band refused to yield,
Do you recall what was revealed
The day the music died?

We started singing
Bye-bye, Miss American Pie,
Drove my Chevy to the levee
But the levee was dry,
Them good old boys were drinkin’ whiskey and rye,
Singin’ this’ll be the day that I die,
This’ll be the day that I die.

The verse starts with a mention of the “Manson family” murders in the summer swelter of August 1969 in California. Charles Manson was reading bizarre messages into songs on the Beatles’ self-titled album, released in 1968, which became known as the “White Album.” Helter Skelter was the name of a rather silly song by Paul McCartney, about a love affair being like a trip up and down a playground slide, which the British call a helter-skelter. Manson’s followers, when committing the murders, wrote “Helter Skelter” among other things on the walls in the victims’ blood. The insanity of Beatles lyrics being perverted that way seems to be pointed up in the next reference, evoking a 1966 hit tune by the Byrds that goes, “Eight miles high, and when you touch down / You’ll find that it’s stranger than known.”

Despite the strange and horrible “fall-out” that could occur from musical efforts “landing foul” on insane ears within the drug culture, McLean tells us that the “players” — the peaceniks and their musical allies — still tried to move things along toward the better with a “forward pass.” But they had to play the game for a while without Bob Dylan’s aid, because a near-fatal motorcycle accident in 1966 had put the Jester on the sidelines for a few years afterwards.

All You Need Is Love, the Beatles

Enveloped in the “sweet perfume” of hippie flower-child beliefs and marijuana highs, the Beatles carried their Sgt. Pepper’s love-and-peace-crusaders personas forward with their specially arranged debut of the peace-people’s “marching tune,” All You Need Is Love. The Beatles debuted their new anthem with great fanfare, in a live television appearance that was part of the first worldwide satellite broadcast ever, seen by hundreds of millions of people. A London studio full of stars and other friends sang along on the final chorus. The event, June 25, 1967, was only 24 days after the release of their Sgt. Pepper album. That pair of releases served as the kick-off for what came to be known in American history as the “Summer of Love.” The All You Need Is Love single and the Sgt. Pepper album both shot to the top of the charts, although the single wasn’t on the album because it was recorded after the album was released. Instead, the call to peaceful action went onto the Beatles’ 1968 Magical Mystery Tour album, and the same tune won over the Blue Meanies in the Yellow Submarine movie the same year.

In response to the anthem’s call, McLean sings, the crowds of “players” tried to take the field, but their peaceful anti-war efforts failed and the military marched on, refusing to yield. The revelation that must have struck the peaceniks then, as 1967’s Summer of Love gave way the following spring to shocking violence in the homeland, was probably that the forces arrayed against them were mighty indeed. That revelation and reality is addressed in demonic symbolism in the upcoming fifth verse of American Pie.

The decade’s final two years were a horrifying, disillusioning mess. In April of 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and portions of cities across America went up in flames in the rioting that followed. Later that year, Democratic presidential candidate Robert Kennedy was assassinated and Republican Richard Nixon won the White House. Ultimately, in the final year of the decade, even facets of the rock ’n’ roll scene seemed to be conjuring up conditions that worked against the once-magical peace-and-love vibe. Hatred, violence and evil, it seemed, were rampant. In the penultimate verse of American Pie, McLean describes the destruction using as his main symbol The Rolling Stones’ ill-fated concert at Altamont Speedway in California in 1969.

The verse begins with what might be seen as a nod to the Woodstock generation, who gathered for three days of love and music in 1969 in a peaceful, if somewhat spacey, demonstration of their numbers. There’s also a nod, I believe, in the second line, to David Bowie’s 1969 hit, A Space Oddity, about the astronaut Major Tom heading off on a mission but then ending up floating off in space, disconnected from his ship. The Love Generation, McLean seems to suggest, had found itself in a similar predicament, disconnected from Earthly reality and suddenly out of time. From there the scene grows ever more sinister.

Oh, and there we were all in one place,
A generation lost in space
With no time left to start again.
So come on, Jack be nimble, Jack be quick,
Jack Flash sat on a candlestick
’Cause fire is the devil’s only friend.
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.
And as the flames climbed high into the night
To light the sacrificial rite,
I saw Satan laughing with delight
The day the music died.

He was singing
Bye-bye, Miss American Pie,
Drove my Chevy to the levee
But the levee was dry,
Them good old boys were drinkin’ whiskey and rye,
Singin’ this’ll be the day that I die,
This’ll be the day that I die.

Over the radio airwaves into the rioting American cities in the bloody last years of the decade, the Rolling Stones had released their newest string of hits-to-be: Jumpin’ Jack Flash, Street-Fighting Man and Sympathy for the Devil. The Stones have always liked to play up their bad-boy image, especially over and against the Beatles’ good-guy image while the Beatles were still a band. For instance, in response to the Sgt. Pepper album, the Stones had put out an album with a cover parodying the Beatles’ bright sergeants costumes ... an album called Their Satanic Majesties Request (November 1967). So in a way, the Stones’ 1968 hits were just typical examples of Stones cockiness, and yet, the lyrics did seem to revel in violence beyond the Stones’ usual practice. Some American radio stations refused to play Street-Fighting Man for fear of inciting listeners to riot.

Then the Stones began their 1969 American tour, for which they were touted as being at their rabble-rousing best. The tour ended on December 6, 1969, in the last month of the last year of the decade, when the Stones held a free, filmed concert outdoors at Altamont Speedway in Livermore, California, near San Francisco. The show was badly organized, and the Stones allowed the Hells Angels motorcycle gang — a gang that previously had beaten up protesters involved in a peace march in the Bay area — to serve as crowd control personnel for the concert. The bikers threw full beer cans at people in the crowd and beat many of the people there with lead-filled pool cues during the opening acts and a long empty waiting period that preceded the Stones’ appearance.

Gimme Shelter, the Rolling Stones

The Stones finally came onstage after dark and opened with Jumpin’ Jack Flash. It wasn’t long before they were playing Sympathy for the Devil, in which singer Mick Jagger introduces himself, lyrically, as Satan. A few songs later, as the band began playing Under My Thumb, a group of several Hells Angels attacked a young black man in the audience and ended up stabbing him to death. The murder of Meredith Hunter, 18, became part of the film Gimme Shelter, which documented the Altamont concert. The bikers reportedly had been harassing Hunter for attending the concert with his white girlfriend. Hunter allegedly pulled a gun after being knocked down in the crowd of 300,000-400,000. One of his assailants was charged in the murder, but not convicted, because the wounds he was filmed inflicting weren’t proved to be the fatal ones. The film’s title song, off the Let It Bleed album, which the Stones had released just days before the fateful concert, speaks of violence close at hand and fires raging in the streets. Whether “their satanic majesties,” the Stones, helped fan the flames during those sad closing years of the decade is a matter of debate. But for many, the ’60s came to both their literal and symbolic end at Altamont.

As Stan Goldstein, an assistant to the movie’s directors, recently told the online publication Salon.com, “In the aftermath of Woodstock, there was a general euphoria — more than a feeling — the sure knowledge that we, the rock ’n’ roll, be-in, wear-a-flower-in-your-hair community, had triumphed and could, in anarchy, find peace and overcome with love any who had an interest in violence.” In the aftermath of Altamont, that “sure knowledge” no longer applied.

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 Holy Ghost,
They caught the last train for the coast
The day the music died.

And they were singing
Bye-bye, Miss American Pie,
Drove my Chevy to the levee
But the levee was dry,
Them good old boys were drinkin’ whiskey and rye,
Singin’ this’ll be the day that I die,
This’ll be the day that I die.

They were singing
Bye-bye, Miss American Pie,
Drove my Chevy to the levee
But the levee was dry,
Them good old boys were drinkin’ whiskey and rye,
And singin’ this’ll be the day that I die.

McLean has said that American Pie included not only history but also images of how he imagined America might become ... and this final verse would be the mostly likely spot for that. Still, many code-crackers of American Pie find references to 1970 in this verse, and that’s entirely possible, given that the song came out in 1971. Many think the girl who sang the blues could have been Janis Joplin. Her 1970 death from a drug overdose was yet another sign of the darkness eating away at the once-vibrant counterculture. So too was the official, final break-up of the Beatles in 1970, which had begun happening in 1968. Lennon, in his 1970 solo album, Plastic Ono Band, explicitly distanced himself from faith in anything other than himself and his new wife. There was a mournful toll of church bells on the album, and there was a song in which Lennon repudiated his belief in “Beatles” and sang, in a tired voice, “The dream is over; What can I say? / The dream is over — yesterday. / I was the dream-weaver, but now I’m reborn / I was the Walrus, but now I’m John / And so, dear friends, you'll just have to carry on. / The dream is over.”

That was the way he ended the song called, “God,” which began with, “God is a concept by which we measure our pain.” The song includes a long list of items in which Lennon declares he no longer believes, but he doesn’t ever come out and state that he no longer believes in God or love. In fact, he later clarified his statement about God and pain, in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine founder Jann Wenner, thus: “The more pain you have, the more God you need.” Many a theologian would agree. In terms of politics, Lennon, in fact, increased his political activism for a few years after the break-up of the Beatles — until unrelenting surveillance by the Nixon FBI and a battle against him by the U.S. Immigration Department dampened his enthusiasm for any sort of public activity for a time.

The overwhelming loss of faith expressed by Lennon in that 1970 song may well be reflected in McLean’s lament in the last verse of American Pie that even God, as represented in the three persons of the Christian trinity — the Father, Son and Holy Ghost — caught the last train out of here, leaving the population in faithless desolation, with no one at all left to admire. For some, the statement “God is dead” became the new axiom. The Love Generation was over, along with much of the hope of changing the world that the music of the era had promoted. That level of enthusiasm and belief in the eventual success of people uniting in action toward goals of freedom and peace has never returned in the 30-some years since American Pie was written. Like McLean driving his Chevy to the levee, and like the poet T.S. Eliot contemplating The Waste Land, I sometimes survey our society and its popular music and think, “Here there is no water but only rock.”

Starry, Starry Night, Don McLean

Don McLean continues to write, perform and record, and in the last presidential election he gave his public endorsement to Green Party candidate Ralph Nader, who put out a thumbs-up American Pie poster to celebrate. I first studied McLean’s American Pie lyrics in a Poetry of Modern Music class in high school in 1975. Recently, in considering the poetry of the song anew, I came upon the songwriter’s statement in a 1991 radio interview that American Pie “is the first rock dream, and that’s all I’ll say about it.” At first, it struck me as a strange statement, given that American Pie was not the first dream-like rock song by any means.

Now I understand. It’s not the first rock song to ever come across like a dream. Rather, it’s a detailed description of what happened in the real world during the lifespan of the first rock dream — the first shared vision of reality induced by the new art form of rock music. Throughout all known history, art in its many, ever-developing forms, has always inspired humans on to new thoughts, realizations and actions. The dream is over, but the practice of art in its myriad forms lives on, and with it the hope of new inspirations and shared visions for creating a better future.

***

If you have the latest version of RealPlayer, available for free download onto systems running Windows 98 or higher, you can listen to Don McLean singing live versions of American Pie via these links to streaming audio from his official website, http://don-mclean.com. The first is a slightly slower, almost countrified version of the song, recorded at the Orchard Theatre in Dartford, England, with very good, clear sound quality. The second, recorded at the Royal Festival Hall in London in 1985, sounds more like the original rocker, but the sound quality is not as clear and strong as the first link.

American Pie performance, slower and clear

American Pie performance, rocker, not quite so clear

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