Singing Dirges in the Dark - an Essay by Sean Treppedi
How Don Mclean's "American Pie" lyrics have resurrected themselves in today's radical times.
The handle is scolding hot. I jerk it open quickly and climb onto the sizzling leather upholstery; the seat singes my behind as I nestle in and acclimate. My nostrils catch first whiff of the moldy heated plastic and rubber concoction as I pull the door shut behind me. I then gasp the heavy air for a second and third breath—awaiting for the ignition. The seatbelt rejects my tug. I impatiently tug it again—no budge. Upon several more irritated attempts, I still lose. I let go and grasp it once more—gingerly guiding it over my torso then aimlessly sliding the metal tongue around at my hip until it clicks. The miniature vents at my knees emit more hot air, but I adjust its aim at my face anyway as it steadily cools. The gravel crushes from beneath us as we role over the rocky terrain and onto the smoother concrete.
“Track 8, please.”
My mother presses her finger to the button unit as many times as I follow the number increase on the display from behind. 1..2..3..4..5..6..7…
A long, long time ago, I can still remember how that music used to make me smile.
I crack the window as the salty air masks my face and begins to override the smells of the stuffy interior. I satisfyingly set my eyes on the row of snug cottages and bungalows along the way. Some carbon copies of one another—I try to identify a difference, but pass them before distinguishing. The narrow creeks of the marshland shoot in various directions like that of a labyrinth. My eye is beguiled from afar following each one to its mouth shooting out into the wide and placid inlet. It extends for miles into a lush green landscape of thick trees and distant houses sporadically perched among them—like fine details Bob Ross would paint in as a finishing touch.
And I knew if I had my chance, that I could make those people dance and maybe they’d be happy for a while.
At the time, Don Mclean’s “American Pie” was just a catchy tune that amused an eight-year-old accompanying his mother’s errand runs on Cape Cod. Like any good story, its imaginative words painted images in my mind. But, the words from this eight minutes and thirty-three seconds would also print themselves over these sights, smells, and feelings like hot ink off the press—stapling the quaint New England locale to Mclean’s rich and folksy vocal texture in my memory. It’s this nostalgic welding that makes music so inexplicably reflective—transporting us to places, people, and events in the most tearfully vivid way possible, and it’s a fascination the human race will never shake. I’ve always thought of the music we listen to throughout our lives like patches on a quilt—each song stitched together to create a chronological pattern of varying depictions that cover us in warmth—ultimately creating one big timeline. Like most people, I grew to continue making these attachments to songs, but the cryptically-fabled lyrics of “American Pie” would always remain in a league of their own.
In college, some friends and I would develop a weekly tradition of late night wine and music sessions. We’d blast each of our nostalgic soundtracks through the suite’s speakers and call it “Music Hour”—a time to listen to the soft balladry we otherwise wouldn’t hear in our usual settings of the tumultuous bars and clubs we’d flush our tight budgets at. Commentaries of conviction, maudlin reflections, and stomach-busting laughs that sometimes rendered us desperately panting for oxygen (plus the occasional adolescent indiscretion) prolonged deep into the night—and sometimes, until sunrise. This grab bag of emotions facilitated by our musical sentiment allowed us to levitate to another stratosphere of interpersonal exchange; it was almost therapeutic in a way. I’d always save “American Pie” for as late as possible—thinking that its powerful charge of affection would be best suited as a climax to our little rendezvous, and every time the croon of that first line accompanied by the ambling piano was blared, I’d swear that sulfurous ‘rotten-egg’ smell of the marsh that I’d never known I’d loved so much wafted straight from Massachusetts to my dismal Connecticut dorm room. I’d close my eyes and lose track of what year I was even in. The images I’d once painted from Mclean’s lyrics would float to the surface—the broken church bells, the somberly answerless blues-singing woman, and the three men who hopped the last train for the coast shot the hairs on my neck erect and ignited goosebumps on every square-inch of skin sheathing my body. What was it about these lyrics that were so heart-piercingly fervent? How can someone poetically layer words so deeply, that they never loose their luster—even after a lifetime of hearing them?
Now, of course, I’m not the only soul to be moved by its passages over the last half century—and I’m certainly not the only one to reminisce about the personal evocations it created. The irrefutably transcendent American pop culture staple and nationwide karaoke anthem is an era-defining piece of artistry. It’s the song you don’t have to know to know and it really doesn’t need an introduction; for most of us were born into the ubiquity of “American Pie.” The ambiguous lyrics sparked the decades of scholarly debates as soon as it became No. 1 on the Billboard in 1972, and it wasn’t until recent years that some of those theories met relief when Mclean sold the original manuscript and notes for $1.2 million. The real beauty of it all is that he left the interpretation open to the listener. This song is and always has been what you want it to be. “Whiskey” and “Rye?” The “Chevy” and the “Levee?” These vague rhymes became symbols of the American rock and roll dream. But, the most resonating catch in the chorus has to be its titular line “Bye, Bye, Miss American Pie.” Whether we knew or thought we knew what he was referencing here, it was clear that this had to do with change. Yes, we knew the song’s inspiration spawned from the plane crash of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. Richardson Jr. (a.k.a. “the Big Bopper”) in 1959 (hence “the day the music died” and rock and roll would never be the same again), but in the abstract, the song was a farewell bid to as Mclean once put, “an indescribable photograph of America that I tried to describe through words and music.”
My first glimpse of light was 24 years after the song was released. The America Mclean was depicting was not one I ever knew, but one I could only imagine through what I gleaned from its pop culture and my education. The Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, Apollo 11; The Beatles invasion, Woodstock, the Summer of Love; JFK, MLK, and Malcom X. It seemed like the 1960’s was one big ‘where were you moment’; the radical era of chaos and change through highs and lows that eternally forged itself into America’s pastime. I grew up feeling like I missed out. I felt as if there was a food fight in the cafeteria and I was home from school sick. Perhaps it’s the true reason why the song captivated me—because I could vicariously feel the revolution of the times through the song itself, and I wasn’t even there. It gave me some perspective, for whatever it was worth. Needless to say, I envied my parent’s youth for the music they raised me on—the singer/songwriter era; their formative years were built upon what I could measure as so much substance. When AM Radio beamed the hearts of Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel, and Stevie Wonder to Elton John, Carole King, Marvin Gaye, and a laundry list more of legendary troubadours that philosophized the human experience through song. It was ‘hip’ to listen to raw art with soul, concept, and meaning—all while I started my car in high school to “oppa gangnam style!”—a generation dominated by internet meme culture and a music industry less about the art and more about the commercial success. I didn’t ever expect to feel the same sting from a generational song regarding the state of the society that I actually knew. At least as far as the main stream went, most popular music seemed like a bubblegum formula made for auditory decor and “American Pie” was—like its own lyrics say—a thing of the past—or more specifically—ancient history. Or was it?
The overused greek philosophy “the only constant in life is change” applies in many everyday contexts, and I guess every 50 years or so, we’re due for a societal metamorphosis, too. Panic, sobbing, and a mass exodus of terror and feverish lathering. That’s about the scene in my office the day that coronavirus announced itself in the building in the pandemic’s infancy. In my experience, that day was the park attendant locking in the lap bar to a ride of nauseating twists, turns, and drops that would never circle back to its starting point. The ever-changing information on the enemy that can only be combatted with blind precaution has undoubtedly changed our rudimentary social behaviors for good—hence the “new normal.” The slew of world-shocking occurrences from there began to pile atop one another—including the shut down of sporting events, the closing of local small businesses, and the jaw-dropping volatility of the President at each press conference.
Amidst it all, I had been dusting off my parents’ vinyl records one monotonous day. Shuffling through many of my childhood song pioneers, I came across the flag-painted thumb on the song’s eponymous album. I felt the instant desire to set it under the needle and sat on the bed to endure its expected effect. While I sat for all eight and a half minutes of the crackling serenade utterly paralyzed aside from a subtle grin and some precipitation in the pupils, it wasn’t just driving past the marshland on a summers day, remembering antics with my old college pals, or musing about preceding eras that gave me this listen’s wistful reaction. For the song had taken on an entirely new meaning. The more I listened to those imperishable words, the more it became evident that “American Pie” was narrating our present reality. The players that couldn’t take the field due to the unyielding marching band, the defunct sacred store the narrator had once heard music from, and clenching hands in fists of rage upon a man on a stage were puzzle pieces that pressed firmly into their place, respectively. It was as if Mclean had architected the blueprint of inevitable societal change through poetry, and its structure was immune to the wrecking ball of time.
Awakening each day through quarantine to hear the tv’s ceaseless reports of the virus’s exponential rise, its overwhelming siege on our hospitals, and its blood-sucking bite to our economy was the “bad news on the door step” that had us all weary to “take one more step.” Though, it wasn’t until the releasing of George Floyd’s murder that we all really saw “Satan laughing with delight.” Our revolutionary eruption of a response has sent our streets into “screams,” “cries,” and “dreams,” but has also set the groundwork for a just future—helping extinguish our species’ true enemy from “a voice that came from you and me.” Face masks, social distance, and deserted streets; a decimated stock market, a battered health care system, and a soaring death and unemployment rate; tear gas, protests, riots, and Donald Trump in the oval office—all the ingredients of a zany speculative fiction novel that catches your eye at the bookstore. You stop and skim through its pages for longer than expected upon first glance before shelving it back with the thought ‘that would be something.’ That unfolded reality cements the notion that the yesterday’s America is dead and we remember it through a darkness of uncertainty, as our boundless train leaves the station for the coast. I may not have been around in the 1960’s, but Mclean’s recounting gives me the hint that everyone knew what they were around for—it was a growing pain that involved everyone to shed the skin of yesterday to a progressive tomorrow through days of reckoning. Throughout all of the time I’ve spent airing theories of time travel and imagining what the past must had been like, never did I think I’d actually get to be there. For in 50 years, will you recall what was revealed?
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Photo courtesy of Courtney Cook.
- Don Mclean. American Pie. United Artists Records, 1971. Vinyl.
- Moyer, Justin Wm. “Gloomy Don McLean Reveals Meaning of 'American Pie' and Sells Lyrics for $1.2 Million.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 8 Apr. 2015, www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2015/04/08/gloomy-don-mclean-reveals-meaning-of-american-pie-and-sells-lyrics-for-1-2-million/.