"A long long time ago. I can still remember how that music used to make me smile." Don MacLean, singer/songwriter who penned the hit song "American Pie," knew that if he had his chance he could make people dance. So they might be happy for a while. Normally they were sad. It was, after all, February, 1959, and the newspapers had nothing but bad news in them. Not exactly sure what MacLean had to complain about other than the cold. The Cuban Revolution had just happened, ousting dictator Fulgencio Batista, which caused US-based mobster Meyer Lansky to flee Havana for the Bahamas. At least at that moment, the future of Cuba looked bright.
Down in North Carolina, four students had just staged the first Civil Rights sit-in at a whites-only lunch counter. Pope John the XXIII inaugurated Vatican II, the radical refocus of the church toward human rights and the needs of the poor, which has since been undone. Only now, 40-some years later, with the accession of Pope Francis, is the Catholic church beginning to bring itself back on course. True, the South Vietnamese government had used intimidation, bolstered by almost a billion dollars in US aid, to stage an election victory, but that should have come as good news to the white, innocent US citizens of the late 1950s.
Oh, that's right. Buddy Holly was killed in a plane crash. That was the bad news on the doorstep. That was the day the music died. It's worth noting that Buddy Holly himself chartered the plane, on which Ritchie Valens, rock 'n roll's first Latin crossover hit-maker, also died. And that's racist.
But I won't debate Buddy Holly's racist assassination of Ritchie Valens here. The man did a lot for white coolness. Elvis Costello would have had to dress in a denim shirt and cowboy boots on the cover of My Aim Is True if it hadn't been for him. Holly also helped launch the career of country music legend Waylon Jennings, all the while penning rock 'n roll standards that would give George Thorogood material to fatten up his albums.
The Book of Love and faith in God and the Bible were the values we lost that day, according to MacLean. He was a lonely teenage broncin' buck, but he was shit out of luck when that plane went down. I mean, his girl was dancing to R&B in the gym with another guy. Black music was just beginning its reign of terror.
Don MacLean said goodbye to those quintessentially American values like Miss America and pie. I'll use America as another word for USA, as MacLean does, rather than acknowledge the other vast areas of land in the western hemisphere. Pie was apparently invented in America. Before that, all fruit was cooked loose on a cookie sheet and got all over the oven. More and deeper on the subject of pie, later.
MacLean drove his Chevy to the levee, but found it dry. He was unhappy about that. But as we should all know by now, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, a dry levee is a good thing. A dry levee is a levee that's doing its job. A wet levee is a leaky levee. Both Memphis Minnie and Led Zeppelin warned about the threat of the levee breaking long before the 9th Ward washed away. A music mavin like MacLean would have been aware of that had he not been such a racial purist. More on levees later, as well.
At the levee, the good ol' boys were drinking hard liquor to ease their sadness over Holly's death. Both whisky AND rye. Never mind that rye is whisky. Those morose white southerners, who weren't rednecks but good ol' boys, and therefore not members of the Klan, were so broken up they couldn't tell they were drinking two glasses of the same thing. It's hard not to sympathize with them. It's not their fault that five years later, freedom riders Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman would be murdered in Mississippi while on a mission to register black people to vote.
The next two verses are pure allegory. First there are references to Elvis (the non- Costello one), The Byrds, Dylan, The Beatles, a courtroom, Karl Marx, Jesus, James Dean, the hydrogen bomb – but the overall sense is negative, as we, the innocent, baffled white bystanders, are left singing "dirges in the dark." Apparently MacLean has revealed somewhere that the character he calls "The Jester" is Bob Dylan, but since the Jester steals the King's "thorny crown" he could easily be John Lennon, in whose song, "The Ballad of John and Yoko," John complains: "The way things are goin/They're gonna crucify me." John was known as "The Funny One," and was a perfect fool in every sense of the word.
Another trip to the, fortunately or unfortunately, dry levee, where the crackers are double-fisting whisky, and then we are at an allegorical football game. It's unclear whether the marching band or the football team are more militaristic, and perhaps that's by the author's design, but in any case it's hard not to infer allusions to the then contemporary war in Indochina. "We all got up to dance/but we never got the chance/Because the players tried to take the field/The marching band refused to yield..." So, we all tried to re-enact the innocence of the sock hop, but the strife between pro-war America and anti-war America prevented us. We were, I suppose, Richard Nixon's Silent Majority, as rock 'n roll was hijacked by politics.
We probably went and hid under the bleachers while that battle was going on to do our dirges again, mourning the loss of our innocence, as America is wont to do every few years. "Do you recall what was revealed?" the verse concludes. Uh... no. Is this a reference to the cover of Herb Alpert's album, Whipped Cream and Other Delights? Who knows? The allegory's thicker than stucco.
Another trip to the levee. Each time we visit the levee, we're singing about the trip. We're actually singing about singing about the trip to the levee, where we meet the good ol' boys, and then THEY sing that this will be the day that they die. We're singing about singing about good ol' boys singing. Songs within songs within songs.
Then comes the famous Altamont Speedway Free Festival. After name-checking the TV show "Lost In Space," Don takes us to that fateful night the Rolling Stones headlined, where four people died, including one woman who was stabbed. This is not one of rock history's bright spots, granted.
As Mick Jagger does his moves like Jagger on the stage, Don's "hands [are] clenched in fists of rage." What kind of rage? Homophobic rage. "Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, Jack Flash sat on a candlestick" sings the bard. This is a clear reference to Jagger's notorious bisexual adventures. Sitting on a candlestick is a metaphor for anal sex. Don equates Jagger with Satan, due in part to his participation in homosexual acts, in part to his charisma, the seductive appeal of Lucifer.
Bye bye pie, hello levee again. Miss American Pie, by the way: that innocent girl next door with her apple-pie-wholesome vagina. Good by, pie, Satan has seduced you, stuck in his thumb or his sodomite candlestick and despoiled you.
Finally, in the post-apocalyptic wastes of town, Don wanders, but gets no happy news from the girl who sings the blues. And why should she offer any? Her apple pie vagina has been violated by Satan! The music won't play down at the sacred store – not the music Don used to listen to, anyway. And in perhaps the most eerily forlorn triple rhyme in all of rock poetry, Don sees, "The three men I admire the most/The Father, Son and the Holy Ghost/They caught the last train for the Coast." Even the tripartite Christian God Himself has abandoned the Midwest to find fame and filthy lucre in Los Angeles.
The song is titled American Pie. Don MacLean, who was very much a devout Christian, and a judgmental one at that, for some reason decided to name his song, allegorically, Vagina. His song is about the innocent sexuality of the girl next door perverted during a debauched, deadly, sacrificial rite of fire and homosexual sodomy. That's how he sums up pop music history from 1959-69.
Let me walk that back, although I haven't actually twisted the knife as much I might have liked to. I love the song, "American Pie," by Don MacLean. I think it's lyrically wonderful and musically marvelous.
Yet here we are in 2016 going back over the same issues we were hoping to have resolved by the end of the 1960s: equal rights for black people, equality for women, people of color and those of non-hetero-normative sexuality and gender identification, the end of poverty, war, and the human-caused degradation of the planet. And I have to lay some of the blame on this song. It's a timeless classic, so it can certainly be said to have had a timeless effect on the collective consciousness of our nation.
When Hillary Clinton calls out Donald Trump for appealing to the Alt-Right, she's being far too specific. We're still mourning Miss America's Pie, or rather white men are still trying to police white American pussy, and defend it from deflowering by the dark Other, his alien rituals, his perverted sexuality, and his jungle music. The good ol' boys drinking by the levee are white supremacists, believing that this will be the day the white race faces either death, or fights back to survive. The levee is dry, but Don really wants a wet levee, a broken levee, a flood to, as Travis Bickle said, wash away all the scum.
But it's still a great song. A long long time ago, I can still remember when it used to make me smile.
This has been the Moment of Truth. Good day!