‘I Said Don, It’s Time for You to Open Up’: 50 Years On The Truth About American Pie | Music




BUT Long ago—five decades to be exact—America was rocked by torturous intergenerational strife, mass street protests, and a host of social justice movements. Now, half a century later, such events and dynamics dominate the public debate. So perhaps it’s poetic that exactly five decades have passed since the song “American Pie”, which captured all these cultural upheavals, became a hit. “This song spoke of its time,” said Spencer Proffer, who has made a new comprehensive documentary about the song called The Day the Music Died. “But it’s just as applicable now.”

In fact, American Pie has only gained fans and expanded its meaning as it hit successive generations and spawned new covers. It has been interpreted over the years by artists from Madonna (who created a commercially triumphant if aesthetically sluggish take in 2000) to Garth Brooks, Jon Bon Jovi and John Mayer. Over the years, journalists have subjected the song to Talmudic analysis, while author Don McLean has slowly revealed his intentions. On the contrary, the new documentary offers the first line-by-line deconstruction of the song’s lyrics, as well as the most detailed analysis of its musical evolution to date. “I told Don, ‘It’s time for you to talk about what journalists have wanted to know for 50 years,'” Proffer said. “This movie was a collaborative effort to raise the curtain.”

In addition, he offers an emotional account of a tragic event that McLean used as a starting point for a larger story he wanted to tell.

The event, which McLean called “the day the music died”, shattered the world of pop music at the time and had a formative influence on the songwriter. On a cold night in 1959, a small plane carrying Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. Richardson (Big Bopper) crashed in a cornfield in Clear Lake, Iowa, minutes after takeoff, killing all on board. The documentary begins with this event, returning to the Surf Ballroom where the stars played their final show. The filmmakers pulled off a coup by filming the man who saw the fateful concert, as well as the owner of the airline company that leased the doomed plane. What’s more, it features a touching interview with Valens’ sister Connie, who we see thanks McLean for immortalizing her brother in song.

The first part of the film chronicles McLean’s early life, including his time as a paperboy in the New York suburbs where he grew up. In an extensive interview for the film, McLean talks about delivering a newspaper with news of the crash, which he alludes to at the beginning of the song’s lyrics. At the time, Buddy Holly was his musical idol. If his death provoked the lyrics, then a more personal loss changed the course of McLean’s life. When he was 15, his father died suddenly of a heart attack. “It made a big impression on him,” Proffer said. “He carried the death of his father in his soul.”

In his grief, McLean threw himself into music, developing a talent promising enough to earn him performances in Greenwich Village folk clubs as a teenager. He found a role model in the Weavers, especially in Pete Seeger, whom he befriended. The priority of storytelling in the band’s songs, as well as their sociocultural basis, served as a model for some aspects of American Pie. From Seeger he also learned the value of singing in a choir. One of the hallmarks of “American Pie” is the chorus that anyone can repeat. The simplicity of his melody echoes children’s music. “It’s like a campfire song,” Proffer said. “We invite everyone to sing.”

Some of the song’s lyrics even quote nursery rhymes, including “Jack be nimble/Jack be quick”. The American Pie album cover emphasized this connection by showing McLean’s thumb in the foreground to refer to another nursery rhyme about Little Jack Horner “put his thumb in / and pulled the plumb line”.

At the same time, the message of the song is as adult as possible. “For me, American Pie is a panegyric to a dream that hasn’t come true,” producer Ed Freeman says in the film. “We have witnessed the death of the American dream.”

“The country was in some sort of advanced state of mental shock,” McLean says on camera. “All this bedlam, riots and burning cities.”

American Pie 1971 Album Cover by Don McLean on United Artists - Editorial Use Only2AKEF7K American Pie 1971 Album Cover by Don McLean on United Artists - Editorial Use Only
Photo: The Cover Version/Alamy

The extreme of it all made McLean want to creatively shoot at the moon. “I wanted to write a song about America, but I didn’t want to write a song about America like anyone has ever written before,” he says.

It was no small goal given the number of songwriters at the time who were composing their own odes to the frustration of the American Dream. These ranged from Paul Simon’s “American Melody” (which represents the State of Liberty floating on the sea) to Dion’s version of “Abraham, Martin and John” (which poignantly references the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy).

McLean’s desire to stand out from the other singer-songwriters who dominated music at the time also had a career impetus. His debut album, Tapestry, released in 1970, failed to make a splash, and his small record company, MediaArts, had little faith in him. However, the big statement song he came up with to change that was presented in a form that defied the most basic hit rule – it should be no longer than three minutes. American Pie ran for eight and a half minutes and was filled with cryptic imagery worthy of a fever dream.

In fact, McLean wrote even more poetry than the final song could hold. “He just kept writing,” Proffer said. “If it had been more than eight minutes, it could have been 16.”

In this sense, it has something in common with Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. In both songs, the verses were written by the author and discarded (though many more were discarded in Cohen’s case). Both songs have also gained status and influence over the years. (Coincidentally, Cohen’s song is also the subject of a new documentary called “Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, Journey, Song”). However, in essence, they are fundamentally different. “Hallelujah is a spiritual exploration,” Proffer said. “American Pie is a case study.”

Often it is shy. The lyrics are full of coded references to kings, queens and jesters, as well as a host of cultural figures who together turn it into a virtual pop quiz: “Name that link!” As a result, the song became especially engaging, teasing the listener to solve the riddle. “Every time you listen, you think of something else,” Proffer said.

In the film, McLean debunks some of the most common assumptions about his bearings. Elvis was not the king in question. The Girl Who Sang the Blues was not Janis Joplin and Bob Dylan was not a buffoon. In 2017, Dylan commented on his alleged Rolling Stone reference: “Jester?” he said. “Of course the jester writes songs like Masters of War, A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall, It’s Alright, Ma.” I must think he is talking about someone else.

As bizarre as McLean’s lyrics seem, the underlying reference to “the day the music died” turned the song into a history lesson for those born too late to remember the event as shatteringly as McLean. Even when the song first appeared, more than a decade had passed since the crash, equivalent to a thousand years in the fast-paced life of pop music.

One of the most interesting sections of the documentary offers a detailed analysis of the evolution of the song’s arrangement. It didn’t find its true sound until they brought in session keyboardist Paul Griffith, who played seminal records for everyone from Dylan to Steely Dan. His piano parts brought gospel fervor to the song, as well as additional pop music. Hooks like these helped a song of frightening density and length become loved by millions.

To deal with its length, McLean’s record company had a clever idea. The first half of the song appeared on the A-side of the single, while the second half was relegated to the B-side. As a result, the A-side became a cliffhanger that the listener had to watch to the end. Subsequent demand forced AM radio stations to play both sides. At the same time, FM radio, whose mission was to go deeper and play longer, reached its commercial zenith at the time. Released in late 1971, American Pie hit #1 by January ’72 and stayed there for a full month. For 39 years, she held the record for the longest number one song until Taylor Swift’s 10-minute version of All Too Well broke it.

McLean in 2019.
McLean in 2019. Photograph: Charles Sykes/AP

Interestingly, there is a certain amount of anger in both songs. But over time, MacLean’s work has changed significantly in the public mind. Today, it is sometimes performed and interpreted as if it were some kind of rousing sequel to The Stars and Stripes. In the film, one fan describes it as a song that makes you “stop and be grateful for everything you have”.

Garth Brooks says in the film that the song is “about the desire for independence, the desire for discovery … believing that anything is possible.”

Both looks couldn’t be more bewildering given the sheer sadness and disgust in the actual words. In fact, “American Pie” ends with “father, son and holy spirit” so shaken by the state of the country that even they – the alleged saviors of mankind – rushed to the shore. “People don’t think about what (this song) really means,” Proffer said. “They think about how it makes them feel.”

If such reactions strongly decontextualize the song, the film can help recontextualize it. Moreover, he aims to expand his legacy by introducing new versions of the song performed by someone from the current generation (24-year-old British singer Jade Bird) as well as artists from another culture (singer Gencarlos and producer Maffio, who created a version in Spanish ). “It’s nice to know that what happened 50 years ago can resonate with generations to come,” Proffer said. “Listening to the song, people get a glimpse of what life was like back then and what it has become today.”

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