There are some songs which I grew up hearing on the radio in an uncritical way (for the first few years I simply listened to everything I could and soaked it all up like a sponge, without much of an opinion most of the time) that I understood, and others I would learn to understand…and then there’s this song.
I suspect that you, dear readers, either love or loathe this song; that it somehow either makes some grand sense or that it is a load of old whiffle and not worth much examination. Well, this here blog exists in part to look at these old DJ-favorite warhorse songs, the ones that purport to say something - about not just the singer’s psyche but a whole generation’s psyche – and who knows how much brain time has already been dedicated to figuring out what this song means, over the decades.
Now, I’m not sure if I have the stamina to go through every single line of the song* but I figure that if Don McLean is trying to tell us something, then it’s worth trying to decode what it is, and maybe root around a little deeper to figure out what is really going on here. This is a folk song, lest we forget, about rock ‘n ‘ roll; it is about one day, and everything after.
“A long, long time ago-“ Ok, now, hold it there. A long, long time ago? Are we going back to some pre-WWI time when jazz was invented? Hm, what? 1959? That’s not a long time ago! That is (from 1972’s terms) just over a decade or so! Since when is that a long time ago? Already McLean is messing with our minds, trying to yank listeners out of their own inner chronology. This is his 1959 he’s talking about; that cold day, the day that the music died.
Well, Jesus H. Christ on a skateboard, the music died? Or maybe I should write it as The Music died? At the time I first heard this, I knew nothing of Buddy Holly, so the rest of the song made little sense, besides the general puzzle of why anyone would have “drove my Chevy to the levee” upon hearing the news**. Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper and Richie Valens died in a plane crash in early February 1959, the day (Rock) Music died. This much is known, and that is where this song resides – with the “Good ol’ boys” who sit around drinking and pretty much figure that’s it, as far as music is concerned***. Already we are in the corner of a rather narrow room, so to speak, and then McLean gives us the rest of the story, full of sock hops and pickup trucks, none of which could really help him cope with Holly’s death. And then…
Then we get a potted history of rock music in the 60s. It is fairly obvious that this is a song by a Baby Boomer for other Baby Boomers; indeed one of the reasons it did so well in the first place is that it became an anthem for them, was #1 in the US for a month, in fact. Now, I can’t do much about being from this generation or that; but what I can say is that this song represents to them (or at least a lot of them; I hate to generalize) a certain truth. An emotional truth, but not really a factual one, but rock ‘n’ roll is long on myth and sentiment and short on facts. Thus, in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll the piece on Buddy Holly refers to McLean’s song without attribution early on; and there’s a strange denial of events by Greil Marcus, who should really know better, as to what was exciting in music – in his essay on The Beatles, he says that before they arrived “Rock and roll – the radio – felt dull and stupid, a dead end.” This after writing a piece on girl groups where he says: “If you were looking for rock and roll between Elvis and The Beatles, girl groups gave you the genuine article.” Well, which is it? In truth, there was an awful lot happening between Elvis and The Beatles, and you, dear readers, pretty much already know the roll call: The Beach Boys, The Four Seasons, Sam Cooke, James Brown, the rise and rise of Motown, Phil Spector, surf rock, the Impressions – the list goes on and on, and yet I can still sense Marcus’ tut-tutting of a lot of this. Holly’s death was a symbolic one for a loss of innocence; he died, guilty of nothing more than wanting to travel warmly, and the rest of the original rock ‘n’ rollers either joined the Army or got into girl trouble, to put it mildly. The music kept right on coming, as it always does.
And now, back to the song. The middle part, as I said before, is something of a history, and when I was in my sponge mode I would always space out a bit here, as I had very few clues as to what he was going on about. The King and Queen, for instance. I didn’t grow up in a household where Elvis was talked about at all, so I had no idea he was the King, and I still have no idea who the Queen is. The Jester is Bob Dylan**** who somehow steals the King’s “thorny crown”, though just how this happened in real life I have yet to figure out. People have thankfully given up calling anyone the new Dylan, but Dylan was not then the new Elvis – Elvis was Elvis, and that was that. (That Dylan sings in a voice “that came from you and me” is a bit much; unless he’s saying that his literal voice is more like the public’s than, oh, Bobby Darin’s, for instance.) Then there’s a trial (?), then Lenin and Marx are thrown in as signifiers and maybe puns as The Beatles show up, and The Byrds somehow get involved in a football game (“the players tried for a forward pass”: do any of The Byrds look athletic to you?) while Dylan is injured, and The Beatles return with Sgt. Pepper during half-time; they refuse to leave the field so the players can get on with the game, so I guess the game is called off. The Rolling Stones (in case you were wondering where they were) turn up as the bad guys, making the narrator oh so angry. “Fire is the Devil’s only friend*****” he says, out of nowhere. “Satan laughs in delight” as Altamont and so forth (funny how Woodstock, the ur-Baby Boomer event if there ever was one, isn’t mentioned) happen and the decade ends…
…and there is our narrator, asking a girl who sings the blues for happy news (completely unsure about who this might be; Joni Mitchell perhaps? Laura Nyro? No clue) and he goes to the “sacred store” where the man who works there says most pathetically that “the music wouldn’t play” as if all the turntables in the world were now possessed by the devil himself and would only work backwards, or something. Then the “three men” he admires the most – “the Father, Son and the Holy Ghost” also disappear. At the time I first was getting to know this song, I had utterly no idea what that meant, either in the original or in the tortured metaphors of the song. Albert Ayler once said that “Trane was the Father, Pharoah is the Son and I am the Holy Ghost”; apparently here it’s Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin. And thus the music has died all over again, rock and roll is effectively finished, and the folk singer is here to say, I guess, that those awful Rolling Stones and in a way The Beatles did the deed. They killed it, and the good ol’ boys go down to the levee to perhaps throw themselves in, but it’s dry, so they just get drunk themselves. A silent rust has set in; the sing-a-long quality of the song – and really, this is a kid’s song gussied up for grown-ups – coerces that death out and out, until all that seems to happen is that “the music” dies repeatedly, whether it is by actual deaths of musicians or the death of certain scenes. The world is now a cold and quiet place, the narrator implies; and rock and roll is indeed gone.
And yet, and yet. If I go back to this year for a moment where I can clearly remember things, it is this one: I am with my aunt Debbie. She has driven me over to her new place – I can still remember the wicker things in the bathroom – and while we’re in the car the radio is on; the engine is quiet enough and the radio is loud enough so I can hear the song. It’s “Superfly” by Curtis Mayfield. I know immediately without question it is a great song (it would take me a whole post here to explain why) and if anyone had told me at that moment that “the music wouldn’t play” I would have looked at them blankly, as if they were crazy. And when I heard this song for the first time about six years later, it would seem to me that this is someone else’s story; that trying to shoehorn in Christianity into this story was awkward at best and inexplicable at worst; and I knew from my upbringing that there was plenty of good music from the 60s that had nothing to do with rock and roll, so what is the point?
I suppose McLean was trying to sum up the experiences of a generation, those who were so utterly hopeful in the early 60s and then found themselves “lost in space” as he says (oddly enough, Vietnam isn’t mentioned in the song either – then again, it was still happening). But the generalization that somehow turns every listener into those “good ol’ boys” even if they’re girls – that “we” are all supposed to remember things “we” learned, all went over my head. I could tell he didn’t like The Rolling Stones but as they were favorites of my mom, well, what about that? That both Dylan and Elvis make comebacks at the end of the decade is forgotten – gets in the way of the plotline, I suppose – and for someone who claims “I dig those rhythm and blues” the death of Otis Redding is strangely avoided.
But back to Mayfield: “Superfly” was just one song of many that started to appear after the epochal Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On album (crucially “Family Affair” was #1 before “American Pie”), ones where some truths about life were starting to be told. In the UK some of these songs charted, though a lot of them sold in “specialist” shops, so the sales were not included in the regular charts; you can imagine my puzzlement as I looked for Mayfield’s hit only to draw a blank. "American Pie" is a melodramatic look back at something; it virtually asks its listeners to wallow in the past. It is retrograde where Mayfield is singing of the now, and now is where music lives.
In the UK I suppose “American Pie” is taken as given as a song of Americana; Holly kept having hits in the UK long after the US, and in a way didn’t figuratively “die” here in quite the same way. (The whole British Invasion is based in part on Holly’s music, which I like to think would have pleased and surprised him.) In a way I am not the audience for this song; I never was, even as a kid. As a history lesson it is flawed at best; I can never forget while listening that I am not part of the “we” and the communal loss of innocence is not something I can share directly, unless I look towards my own experiences of loss – and as I recall at at least one time, it didn’t touch half my friends the way it touched me. Mass mourning of musicians still happens, but it’s more fragmented now; harder to put into words, let alone a mix-up of religion and football. And always I trust the musician directly as opposed to someone singing about them******; one can only wonder what Dylan or The Byrds or indeed The Rolling Stones think of this song, for instance. (Or The Crickets, for that matter – they kept playing, the music didn’t die for them.) Lamenting the death of a musician is fine, remembering them is fine, but trying to fit in a potted history is asking too much – like too many different flowers in a bouquet. The best way to remember is to listen; to pay tribute and play the music and know that it will live on.
*This isn’t The Explicator, at least not the last time I looked.
**I will get back to this in a bit, don’t worry.
***In the UK these people are Teddy boys; there is no equivalent of them in the US, as such, besides the umbrella term “good ol’ boys” (who generally speaking like country music, anyway).
****As things go, Dylan played piano the day after Holly’s death at the scheduled concert; Bobby Vee filled in for Holly. Even in that literal sense, “the music” didn’t die; it just got played by different musicians.
*****As my husband’s first wife Laura said out loud upon hearing this: “Fucking godhead shite!” and quite right, too.
******If you want to hear an album about a musican’s impending death that is lovely and beautiful and heartbreakingly great, it’s J Dilla’s Donuts. That he is an inspiration to everyone coming out of Detroit is also a fitting tribute, I feel.