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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

"American Pie," a memorial to lost innocence as much as lost musicians

As Don McLean captured, "The Day the Music Died" was only the beginning of a period of sweeping cultural change in the United States.

Sixty-three years ago today, in the early morning, a pilot lost control of his Beechcraft Bonanza near Clear Lake, Iowa. The light aircraft crashed into a cornfield, killing the pilot and his three passengers, who had all played Clear Lake's Surf Ballroom the night prior: Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and "The Big Bopper," J.P. Richardson.

February 3, 1959, would later be known as "The Day the Music Died." Rock and roll suffered an incomprehensible trio of losses all at once. Given their ages — Holly was 22, Valens 17, and Richardson 28 — and their prominence, the fallen rockers were likely to stay at the top of the scene for a considerable time. Their sudden deaths left a noticeable void in their musical realm.

Of course, the music didn't fully die. Even the Winter Dance Party Tour on which the trio were starring continued, with Waylon Jennings taking a lead role. Nonetheless, the crash was a blow to an American culture that, for many, was beginning to lose its luster. Over the next decade, the masses were disillusioned as the country they knew slipped away: President Kennedy was assassinated; the United States went to war in Vietnam; civil rights and free speech movements cause mass reckonings of national values; and the popular conscience was uprooted from within by the emergent counterculture.

When Don McLean had a recording session at New York's Record Plant studio on May 26, 1971, he reflected on the massive cultural changes within the past decade-plus that had left those who lived through it with a bleaker and grittier view of their country and the world at large. Beginning with that February day that "made [him] shiver / With every paper [he'd] deliver," McLean captured these feelings and more in the eight-and-a-half-minute folk rock epic that is "American Pie."

What has always stuck with me about "American Pie," other than its sheer length, is the form McLean chose for the song: six verses and choruses, with a largely fast number being bookended by a slow, free verse and chorus. With all the social development and unrest that occurred in the time period the song describes, I hear the form as reflective of McLean's experience of the era: the 1959 plane crash caused a personal reckoning (it "touched [him] deep inside"), then the next decade whizzed by as he tried to make sense of all the changes around him. It was only when he stopped to write and record "American Pie" that he was able to take time to reflect.

For years, McLean refused to discuss his lyrics, wanting them to remain open to ambiguity. Yet despite his reticence, the song's many listeners came together to establish a collective meaning for the numerous references described above, along with many others. From multiple references to Bob Dylan as "the jester" — including his time "in a cast" following his motorcycle crash — to the "sergeants" that were the Beatles, to whom people "never had the chance" to dance in their later years, a large part of "American Pie" reflects the subsequent developments in music following the plane crash in Iowa. Through all the turbulence (pun somewhat intended), nothing ever seemed to truly fill the void Holly, Valens, and Richardson left without also bringing unrest or extra baggage that caused regret. Take, for example, "Helter Skelter in a summer swelter" from the start of the third fast verse, the fourth overall. While "Helter Skelter" is, in purely musical terms, a proto-metal track from the Beatles' White Album, it's also the name which Charles Manson gave to his theory of an impending race war.

The "Helter Skelter" reference epitomizes the other facet of McLean's lyrics that always gets to me: the inescapability of death. The lines "The courtroom was adjourned / No verdict was returned" evokes the Kent State shootings of May 4, 1970, in which the case against the shooting guardsmen was dismissed by the judge. The Kent State case is tied up in a greater conversation on the Vietnam War and the associated violence, both overseas and on the home front — the "marching band" that "refused to yield" points toward the military and police that cracked down on the protesting "players" as they "tried to take the field." Through all of it, "what was revealed"? The America in which McLean had grown up had come and gone, and the world was seen as much darker than it was before.

Just like in the first slow verse, the final fast verse combines the themes of music and death with a discussion of the infamous Altamont Free Concert. The Rolling Stones' headlining performance is conjured with a reference to "Jumpin' Jack Flash" and a conflation of Mick Jagger with Satan through a nod to "Sympathy for the Devil" and/or the Stones' album Their Satanic Majesties Request. This devilish characterization is furthered and perhaps validated in McLean's mind by the role of Hell's Angels, the motorcycle gang hired as security; one member stabbed concertgoer Meredith Hunter to death as he brandished a gun. With Altamont occurring in December 1969, the decade went out on as somber a note as the last did, and the dark cloud over American society only grew larger. Subsequent events like the aforementioned Kent State shootings only saw that cloud continue to consume the country over which it lay.

"American Pie" is a cultural record of a time in which the American cultural conscience shifted as dramatically as it ever has. Through music, death, and their intersection, Don McLean turned that cultural record into a vinyl one that has already endured for more than a half-century, and one which will continue to stand as a reminder of what this country was and how it has changed.


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