November 25, 2022

“I said, Don, it’s time for you to reveal”: 50 years later, the truth behind American Pie | Music

A A long, long time ago — five decades to be exact — America was rocked by harrowing generational confrontations, massive street protests, and a searing array of social justice movements. Today, half a century later, similar events and dynamics dominate public conversation. So, perhaps, it’s poetic that precisely five decades have passed since a song that captured all that cultural turmoil, American Pie, became a smash hit. “It’s a song that speaks to its era,” said Spencer Proffer, who produced a new full-length documentary on the song, titled The Day the Music Died. “But it’s just as applicable now.”

In fact, American Pie only gained fans and momentum as it touched successive generations and generated new covers. Over the years it has been performed by artists from Madonna (who created a commercially triumphant, if aesthetically soft, take in 2000) to Garth Brooks to Jon Bon Jovi to John Mayer. Over the years, journalists have subjected the song to a Talmudic level of scrutiny, while its songwriter, Don McLean, has dished out a glimpse of its intent. In contrast, the new documentary offers the first line-by-line deconstruction of the song’s lyrics, as well as the most detailed analysis to date of its musical evolution. “I said to Don, ‘It’s time for you to reveal what 50 years of journalists have wanted to know,'” Proffer said. “This film was a concerted effort to lift the curtain.”

Additionally, it offers an emotional account of the tragic event that McLean used as a starting point for the larger story he wanted to tell.

The event, which McLean dubbed “the day the music died”, shook up the pop world of his day and had a formative effect on the songwriter. On a freezing night in 1959, a small plane carrying Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and JP Richardson (The Big Bopper) crashed into a cornfield in Clear Lake, Iowa, minutes after takeoff, killing everyone in edge. The documentary begins with this event, returning to the Surf Ballroom, where the stars played their last show. The filmmakers pulled off a bang by bringing a man who saw that fateful concert, as well as the owner of the aviation company who leased the doomed plane, before the camera. Plus, it features a moving interview with Valens’ sister, Connie, whom we see thanking McLean for immortalizing her brother in song.

The first part of the film covers McLean’s early life, including his time as a newspaper boy in the New York suburbs where he grew up. In a lengthy interview for the film, McLean talks about the newspaper delivery that carried news of the crash, which he alludes to near the start of the song’s lyrics. At the time, Buddy Holly was his musical idol. While his death was the source of the song’s lyrics, a more personal loss altered the course of McLean’s life. When he was 15, his father died suddenly of a heart attack. “It had a profound effect on him,” Proffer said. “He carried his father’s death in his soul.”

In his grief, McLean threw himself into music, developing a talent promising enough to land him gigs in the folk clubs of Greenwich Village as a teenager. He found a role model in the Weavers, particularly in Pete Seeger, whom he befriended. The primacy of storytelling in the band’s songs, as well as their socio-cultural grounding, served as a model for certain aspects of American Pie. From Seeger he also learned the value of the singalong. An obvious appeal of American Pie is its chorus, which anyone can imitate. The simplicity of its melody echoes children’s music. “It’s like a campfire song,” Proffer said. “Everyone is invited to sing.

Some of the song’s lyrics even quote nursery rhymes, including “Jack be nimble/Jack be quick”. The cover of the American Pie album emphasized the connection by putting McLean’s thumb in the foreground to reference another nursery rhyme about Little Jack Horner, who “put his thumb up/and pulled out a plum”.

At the same time, the song’s message couldn’t be more adult. “To me, American Pie is a eulogy for a dream that didn’t happen,” the song’s producer, Ed Freeman, says in the film. “We have witnessed the death of the American dream.”

“The country was in a state of advanced psychic shock,” McLean said on camera. “All that ruckus and rioting and burning cities.”

Photography: The Cover Version/Alamy

The end of it all gave McLean the urge to aim for the moon, creatively. “I wanted to write a song about America, but I didn’t want to write a song about America like no one has ever written before,” he says.

This was no mean feat considering how many songwriters of the day were crafting their own odes to the disillusionment of the American dream. They ranged from Paul Simon with American Tune (which imagines the State of Liberty sailing out to sea) to Dion’s version of Abraham, Martin and John (which poignantly addressed the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy) .

McLean’s desire to stand out from the other singer-songwriters who dominated music at the time also had a career motivation. His first album, Tapestry, released in 1970 had not made waves and his small record company, MediaArts, had little confidence in him. Even so, the big statement song he crafted to turn the tide came in a form that defied the most basic edict of a hit – that it be no longer than three minutes. American Pie meandered for eight and a half minutes and was jam-packed with enigmatic fever dream-like imagery.

In fact, McLean wrote even more verses than the final song contained. “He just kept writing,” Proffer said. “If it was more than eight minutes, it could have been 16.”

In this sense, it shares something with Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. In both songs, verses were authored and discarded (although many more were discarded in Cohen’s case). Both songs have also grown in stature and impact over the years. (Coincidentally, Cohen’s song is also the subject of a new documentary called Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song). Yet, deep down, they are fundamentally different. “Hallelujah is a spiritual study,” Proffer said. “American Pie is a sociological study.”

Often he is shy. The lyrics are full of coded references to kings, queens, and jesters, as well as a host of cultural figures who together make it a virtual pop quiz: “Name that reference!” The result made the song particularly engaging, teasing the listener to solve their riddle. “Every time you listen, you think of something else,” Proffer said.

In the film, McLean dismisses some of the most common speculation about his benchmarks. Elvis was not the king in question. The “girl who sang the blues” was not Janis Joplin, and Bob Dylan was not the jester. In 2017, Dylan commented on his alleged Rolling Stone reference: “A jester? he said. “Of course the jester writes songs like Masters of War, A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall, It’s Alright, Ma.” I must think he’s talking about someone else.

As fanciful as some of McLean’s lyrics may have been, its central reference to “the day the music died” turned the song into a history lesson for those born too late to remember that event so overwhelming than McLean. Even when the song first appeared, more than a decade had passed since the crash, the equivalent of a thousand years in the bustling life of pop.

One of the most interesting sections of the documentary offers a granular dissection of the evolution of the song’s arrangement. He didn’t find his true groove until they brought in session keyboardist Paul Griffith, who played on seminal recordings by everyone from Dylan to Steely Dan. His piano parts brought gospel fervor to the song, as well as added pop bounce. Hooks like that helped a song of intimidating density and length become loved by millions.

To cope with its length, McLean’s record company came up with a clever idea. The first half of the song appeared on the single’s A-side, while the second was consigned to the B-side. The result turned the A-side into a cliffhanger that the listener had to watch until the end. The ensuing demand forced AM radio stations to broadcast both sides. At the same time, FM radio – whose mandate was to go further and play longer – was reaching its commercial peak at the time. Published in late 1971, American Pie reached number 1 in January ’72, where it remained for a full month. For 39 years it held the record for the longest song to reach number 1 – until Taylor Swift’s 10-minute cut All Too Well shattered it.

McLean in 2019.
McLean in 2019. Photograph: Charles Sykes/AP

Interestingly, both songs have some anger in them. But, over time, McLean’s piece has shifted dramatically in the public consciousness. Today it is sometimes played and performed, as if it were some sort of rousing sequel to The Star-Spangled Banner. In the film, one fan describes it as a song that makes you “pause and be thankful for everything you have.”

Garth Brooks says in the film that it’s a song “about this desire for independence, this desire for discovery… to believe that anything is possible”.

Both views couldn’t be more disconcerting, given the wall-to-wall sadness and disgust of the actual words. In fact, American Pie ends with “the father, the son and the Holy Spirit”, so dismayed by the state of the country that even they – the so-called saviors of mankind – rushed to the coast. “People don’t think about what (the song) really means,” Proffer said. “They think about how it makes them feel.”

If such reactions wildly decontextualize the song, the film can serve to recontextualize it. Additionally, it aims to extend its legacy by featuring new versions of the song sung by someone from the current generation (24-year-old British singer Jade Bird) as well as artists from another culture (singer Jencarlos and producer Maffio, who created a version in Spanish). “It’s exciting to know that something that happened 50 years ago can resonate for future generations,” Proffer said. “Listening to the song, people get a glimpse of what life was like then and what it has become today.”