Chasing the Jester's Ghosts: "American Pie"

Don McLean, "American Pie" album art

In light of the March 2017 announcement of "American Pie" being preserved in the Library of Congress, let's not forget other songs of the '70s that matter just as much.

Don McLean

American Pie (Reissue)

Label: Capitol
Release date: 2003-06-24

In a wide-ranging March 2017 interview conducted by music writer Bill Flanagan, Bob Dylan displayed what seems to be another element of curmudgeonly old man bitterness that first saw fruit in his 2015 MusiCares Man of the Year speech. Dylan was settling scores in that speech, answering decades-old conclusions from critics and putting his music and creative process in proper historical context. In the Flanagan interview, first posted on and meant primarily to promote his latest release of covers from the American songbook, the triple-CD set Triplicate, the name Don McLean came up. Flanagan concluded (perhaps rashly) that Dylan was the Jester in “American Pie”. Dylan quickly and conclusively let his feelings be known about that 45-year-old song:

Yeah, Don McLean, ‘American Pie,’ what a song that is. A jester? Sure, the Jester writes songs like ‘Masters of War,’ ‘a Hard Rain’s a-gonna Fall, ‘It’s

Alright, Ma”-some jester. I have to think he’s talking about somebody else. Ask him.

It’s hard not to get away from the presence of Dylan throughout American popular music over the past 50 years, even his self-imposed relative exile from roughly 1969-1974, and the man doesn’t do himself any favors, staying defensive after all these years. Nevertheless, the points are clear. What did these songs mean? Roughly a week after the Dylan interview was posted, the Library of Congress selected “American Pie” as one of the songs worthy of cultural preservation. What was it about that song, and a handful of others from the early '70s, that spoke to the end of one turbulent era and the beginning of another?

Earnest literacy and ghosts were all over songs from that period, in explicit or implicit form: James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain”, Cat Stevens’ “Wild World”, Carole King’s “So Far Away”. Pre-teen deep thinkers learned about heartache from Don McLean’s “American Pie”, that eight and a half minute allegory about the death of innocence as seen through the loss of Buddy Holly in an Iowa corn field in February 1959. Nothing was explicitly spoken in the song. It was all allegory, all coy references, all implications, and listeners got hooked, especially with that mournful last verse, just vocal and piano:

“I went down to the sacred store / where I’d heard the music years before but the man there said the music wouldn’t play.”

That was easily understandable. Things were changing. The revolution was instead taking place every day in independent record stores with plastic-covered new releases with amazing cover art and gatefolds that opened up to a world of wonders. Record stores were pristine, sacred places. They were the sanctuaries that made it possible for us to make great discoveries. Nobody judged what you brought to the counter. Sure, they might have laughed derisively to themselves, but it was all part of a swirling, tough dialogue.

We definitely were willing -- like Elton John implored us in “Benny and The Jets” -- to fight our parents, to go out in the streets, to see who was right and wrong -- but in the record store we were kings. In the record store, we programmed mix tapes to play over the PA system, a mix that might not have always been welcoming to the crowd but it worked for us.

Earlier in the song, in a moment of weakness, the King looks down and his crown is taken by the jester, the heir apparent. “The courtroom was adjourned / no verdict was returned”. Nothing could be done because the guard was changing. Was this Elvis surrendering to the inevitability of The Beatles? Was that really Bob Dylan brazenly strutting around with a crown of thorns, the crown he never wanted? The mind reeled, and in those days you could dance to story song epics, sway around on the dance floor like a lopsided idiot, and you could exercise your mind, think about everything, question the principles an earlier generation had set out, and build another road if the need surfaced. That’s the power this music gave.

McLean takes a dramatic detour later in that final verse that’s equal parts obvious and trite and profound: “The three men I admired most / the Father, Son and the Holy Ghost / They caught the last train for the coast/the day the music died.”

If you were a seven or eight-year-old child in 1971-1972 suburban northeast America, 1971, you drove with your Mom in the family’s 1967 Chevrolet Vista Cruiser. You drove past the cemetery where the heart of your family would find their eternal rest. There were no stoplights, no abandoned railroad crossings, just white Church Steeples, and unlocked doors. It was a town where barren couples adopted orphaned Vietnamese children, where people sang Christmas Carols door-to-door, their voices visible through icy clouds, and there was no reason to think any of this would end within five years, after Watergate, after Nixon, after the death of hope.

If the AM car radio was turned on any given weekend afternoon, you would hear Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind”. Suddenly an image in one of the verses would enter your consciousness and never go away: “Just like an old time movie / ’bout a ghost from a wishing well / In a castle dark or a fortress strong / with chains upon my feet/but stories always end…”

This was heartache, surviving a car wreck, reading minds, remembering unforgiving ghosts who lived in a hazy middle world. In 1970, you remember the Carpenters song "(They Long to Be) Close to You". This was the sonic equivalent of the warm down comforter sleeping bag that protected you from the rain. They were a sugary-sweet brother/sister pop combo from California that was huge in the '70s. The song was a lush, rich Burt Bacharach/Hal David classic, a ballad that paid tribute to a woman who made the birds appear every time she was near. You didn’t want to be taken by it, but like other hits from this duo, including “We’ve Only Just Begun”, the honest evocation of happiness and joy was hard to dismiss in light of today’s vocally altered mish-mashed tunes. There was a sense of purity to the Carpenters that was anything but post-modern and campy. They just seemed honest.

Listen to “Superstar”, written by Bonnie Bramlett and Leon Russell, for an armchair analysis of what might have been going on in the tragic tortured soul of Karen Carpenter. It’s a truly disturbing, frightening ballad. It was sung from the perspective of an obsessed fan who remind her favorite singer, on the chorus, of an empty declaration he once made: “Don’t you remember you told me you loved me baby?”

The Carpenters may have been the embodiment of all that was harmless and vacuous in the '70s, the antithesis of the cerebral and confessional singer/songwriter, but Karen’s sudden 1983 cardiac arrest, as a result of her anorexia, gave lie to the notion that all was sunshine and lollipops in a land of eternal bliss and Pepsodent smiles.

Film director Todd Haynes’s 43-minute 1987 film Superstar: the Karen Carpenter Story, is a bit morbid (he cast it entirely with Barbie dolls as the lead characters) but it ultimately proves strangely affecting and touching, thanks to the music. Richard Carpenter successfully petitioned to stop its distribution, but it can (and really should) be easily accessed online. Haynes takes the surface-level banality of the Carpenters music, mixes it with the perfection of the Barbie culture, and the viewer is rendered nearly helpless.

The Carpenters were definitely the ultimate guilty pleasures in their day. No free-form, soul patch wearing hipster would have been caught dead with them on the play lists swirling in their minds during the '70s, when significance was synonymous with angst, but there was always something heartbreaking in their ballads.

Faith and longing came in the mysteries of Harry Chapin’s “Taxi”, a long, cinematic first-person narrative about a jaded hero who drives a taxi for a living and finds himself picking up an old lover one rainy San Francisco night. Listening to this song, you could imagine the sleep in his eyes, the beard stubble on his cheeks. Nothing he’d ever planned had ever come true, and everybody from the old days was long gone. Of course, the selling point for many was the refrain, where he noted that he “flies so high when I’m stoned”, but there was also the searing, soaring, ethereal falsetto voice (courtesy of his bass player John Wallace) in the song’s middle-eighth: “Baby’s so high that she’s skying / Yes she’s flying, afraid to fall I’ll tell you why baby’s crying / ’Cause she’s dying / aren’t we all”.

Harry Chapin was one of the better alumni from the singer/songwriter school. He was a powerful folksinger and active anti-world hunger activist who would die in a car crash, at 39, nine years after he made it big with “Taxi”. Chapin’s brother Tom hosted a great children’s TV show from that era called Make a Wish. Each week, he played guitar and imagined himself as an animal or something equally fun. We watched stock footage of the subject matter, and at the end of the show, Tom was always sitting outside on a rock as he strummed the show’s theme song and literally ascended into the sky.

“Taxi”, like “American Pie”, Procul Harum’s “Conquistador”, Todd Rundgren’s “Hello, It’s Me”, Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain”, and Elton John’s “Your Song”, was one of those songs on constant late night rotation on such powerhouse hitmakers as legendary top 40 Boston station WRKO-AM. Those were the days when anybody could feel like they had a horse in the race of Casey Kasem’s “American Top 40” weekly countdown radio show. Everything was a sweeping narrative, with grand cinematic flourishes and production values and adult metaphors for sex and drugs and hopelessness a child could only hope to see come true.

Children of the '70s examined lyrics and album designs for death symbolism and political upheaval. Elton John was Captain Fantastic and David Bowie was a Thin White Duke, Classic marathons and Memorial Day 500 best ever song countdowns that always ended with Led Zeppelin’s bombastic “Stairway to Heaven” and The Beatles’ “Hey Jude”. Now, the music is gone from commercial AM and FM radio and everywhere else. It’s been replaced by streaming mixes and satellite radio. The access is wonderful, but the radio magic has vanished.

* * *

Much has been written about how Dylan was but a singular actor in the larger picture of the singer/songwriter movement whose greatest exponent wasm arguably, Woody Guthrie. Dylan might have in fact been “the unwashed phenomenon”, (as 2017 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Joan Baez put it in her 1974 song “Diamonds and Rust”), but he was only part of a bigger picture. That’s what he seems to have been saying since 2015, as he’s explored the American songbook. The least an artist can do is transmit the narrative. The most they can do is find an original style of transmitting work that’s been part of our cultural aural DNA for generations. “Try to create something original,” he notes in the Flanagan interview, “you’re in for a surprise.”

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