Don McLean, “American Pie”


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.”

One of my fondest memories from the Summer that I was on staff at Camp Wah-Tut-Ca is of my first Staff Night Out.  I realize that it’s a bit strange to say that one of my favorite memories of camp is of leaving camp, but bear with me.  On Wednesday nights, after the areas had closed for the evening, most of the staff would head out of camp for a bit of real-world recreation.  As I recall, this was one of my very first occasions to head off into the world with friends – without supervision, direction, concern for the content of chicken nuggets, or hesitation about turning the stereo way up.  I remember the feel of the wind, and the bright lights of the Newbury Comics we had come to plunder.  Mostly, though, I remember the exhilarating sensation of freedom that came from being able to go anywhere we pleased. (1)  And then there’s “American Pie…”

Growing up, American Pie was one of my mother’s favorite albums.  I had never found myself interested beyond “American Pie” or “Vincent.” (2) It wasn’t that the melodies weren’t nice, or that the songs are particularly bad, but… well, someone let me watch MTV when I was three, and “Babylon” did not match up to “We’re Not Gonna Take It.”  (3) That’s just the way it goes.  Anyway, despite this being one of my mother’s favorite albums, I managed to give it a fair hearing and, like most people, I came to like “American Pie” for its energy and dynamism.  In many ways, I still think of it as the up-tempo (second) cousin of “Desolation Row.”  I’m sure I don’t know anyone who hasn’t, at least once, sung along with this song at the top of their lungs.  And so it was that I found myself – new cassette of American Pie firmly inserted in the tapedeck, warm New Hampshire wind blowing across my face, twilight fading into night – singing in a car full of boys for all I was worth.  The smile I had on “Can music save your mortal soul?” is one that even I could see.

The trip was an eclectic one. (4) We wandered through Blind Melon, Sex Pistols, Don McLean, Phish, Don McLean, The Minutemen, and (probably) Don McLean again.  I’ve had this experience in lots of places (band rooms, school buses, first cars, etc.), and it’s always the same.  Many people do not remember the lyrics.  You should not be surprised by this.  Any song worth knowing, which is also over four minutes, is, for most, a sort of Matterhorn of Memory.  “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine),” “Desolation Row,” and others like them might as well be the tax code for the lasting effect that they have on the long-term memory of most ordinary people.  Sometimes, like the former, they help you out with a chorus.  Other times, like the latter, they give you a line or two to hang onto.  Life is tough.  However, with songs like these, I think that most of us (Sure, I’ll pretend to be someone who forgets lyrics for a moment) make up for things with exceptional gusto on the choruses.

Strangely, my memories of this song are all the same.  Driving around New Hampshire with a warm wind and volume.  Driving around the coast of Maine with my uncle, and the only girlfriend he ever had that I liked, and arriving at an actual levee.  (5) There is always a breeze, and there is always volume.  And for some reason, everything is always a little bit brighter.  Now, as I get older (I can actually say things like “Oh, I did that a quarter-century ago” and have a clear recollection, now.), I wonder if this is simply the process of memory reducing abstract events to archetypes.  Sometimes, it makes me a little nervous to think that my once-distinct memories are simply becoming abstractions.  However, in the course of pondering this, I’ve realized something pretty remarkable.  With respect to my relationship with these songs, it actually doesn’t matter what the specifics are.  I know, this is a fairly shocking admission for someone whose website hinges upon musical and biographical minutiae.

But when it comes to “American Pie” what really matters is the sensation of the wind, the brightness of the world, and the feeling of sliding into a moment of pure pleasure.  I can be back in that car in New Hampshire, or laying at the foot of my father’s stereo, or driving along the seaside, or dancing with silly band girls, and none of it really matters.  What matters is that it happened, and that I get to paint the day with the colors I learned back then.  Is that compromise?  Is that getting older and settling for less?  Yes and no, I think.

Ah, but I’ve gotten away from the song a bit, haven’t I?  Let’s go back to that New Hampshire car ride for a moment.  I learned two valuable things on that trip, which have served me well ever since.  The first was the danger of “one, big hit! wonders.”  Now, the question I should have asked myself when choosing between the full album and the single (which is all I really wanted, anyway) was this: “Ever heard anything else by Don McLean that you liked?”  This would’ve been followed up by: “Anyone you know or trust ever mention anything?”  If the answer is no to both things, wait until you can borrow the thing!  We were treated to a horrible demo version of “American Pie,” that nearly sucked the life out of everything, and not much else. (6) Ah well. Thank God for “Fee” is all I’ll say about that!

The other thing I learned that night was that all we really need to be happy is music to sing along to, and a car to take us off into the night.  For years now, this information has come to define my life and my passions.  And sometimes, when the hills are flying by and the music is turned way up, I can still feel the thrill of being free for the first time, heading out for parts unknown, and sharing something simple and beautiful with no mind for the world beyond.

And all that, it turns out, from an album of my mother’s that I could barely stand when I was small.  Life never ceases to amaze…

Here’s an original version of the song that someone posted on YouTube.  Enjoy!

Want to see what I mean about the live thing?  You’ve been warned!  (By the way, isn’t it weird how he just starts with an extra chorus?  Even he knows that that’s all people really want.  Weird.)

And come on, like you weren’t thinking about it

  1. Note: New Hampshire has never been this exciting since. For anyone, I bet. [Back]
  2. My school choir did “Vincent.” Some things should not happen. [Back]
  3. Wait, did I just own up to liking “We’re Not Gonna Take It.”  Sigh.  You know what, it’s probably not the first time in these pages… as long as I don’t let on about Wham! we should be fine. [Back]
  4. This was also the first time I’d ever heard Phish, and will, therefore, forever link “American Pie” and “Fee.” I wonder if that sentence will ever be written again… [Back]
  5. Oddly enough, despite my advanced age of eleven, no one gave me whiskey or rye. [Back]
  6. Incidentally, Don McLean has never once played this song live in a way that I have enjoyed.  Nor my father.  Not sure why that is, but it’s almost a miracle that the recording happened at all. [Back]

1 thought on “Don McLean, “American Pie”

  1. It’s funny how your memories of “American Pie” are more-or-less the same as mine, which are also more-or-less equivalent to my memories about the Smashing Pumpkins’ “1979.” They have that same feeling — the wind, the night and the city lights, loud singing along with the stereo and enjoying a kind of fleeting, almost-mournful pleasure.

    I listened to both songs on the night of my high school graduation. While everyone else was having parties or spending time with their families, I got into my car and drove around on country backroads until the sun went down. I guess I kind of recognized it as the end of an era, and my musical choices reflected that.

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