Thursday, February 4, 2016

a pink carnation and a pickup truck

Published February 9th, 1997,
in the Arts section of the
New York Times
was an article,
'Amerian Pie':  25 Years Ago, America Listened

written by David Browne

------------------------------------- [excerpt, article] -------------------- Twenty-five years ago this week, Don McLean's "American Pie" ended a four-week run as the No. 1 song in the country.  It was McLean's first and biggest hit, it galloped on for eight and a half minutes, and it sold more than a million copies.

Those are the facts, but the legacy of "American Pie" is much greater and more lasting.  "American Pie" took over the airwaves and the consciousness in a way that few records had done before or since. 

Whenever it was played, everyone seemed to listen. 

Like much 70's singer-songwriter rock, this behemoth was an earnest slice of unplugged folk-pop with a sing-along chorus.  But its allure wasn't merely attributable to a musical hook.  Here was a pop phenomenon that grabbed the public's attention not so much with chords as with words.

Those words were plentiful.  For those born too late or too early to remember, "American Pie" was an allegory about the end of rock's innocence, tracing the music from 50's sock hops through the death-stained Altamont concert. 

At the time, it wasn't so obvious.  Listening intently, transistor radios pressed to our preteen ears, my friends and I struggled to decipher the clues.  The "day the music died" was easy:  a reference to the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly.

But who was "the jester on the sidelines in a cast"?  (Bob Dylan.) 

Or the "king" from whom the jester stole his "thorny crown"?  (Elvis?)

"Jack flash . . . on a candlestick"?  Simple -- Mick Jagger.) ...

Reading the lyrics now, it's easy to wince at the heavy-handed, often overwrought imagery that invited such critical scorn at the time. 

Lines like "And in the streets the children screamed / The lovers cried and the poets dreamed" reek of a college course on the poetry of rock. 

The more important chords that "American Pie" struck were ones of tone and mood.

In mourning the end of rock's Brylcreem era

and its first counterculture,

"American Pie" set the tone for the remainder of the 70's:  it implied that the best of rock and the best of times were over.  ...It was the first song to ask if rock was dead -- a question that continues to be mulled, most recently with the suicide of Kurt Cobain.

For McLean, the impact of "American Pie" was so overwhelming that for a time he refused to play the song in concert.  On the stark black-and-white cover of his next album, he is seen hunched over, staring grimly; its songs bemoaned his fame, making him the Eddie Vedder of his day.
------------------------ [end excerpt] ---------------


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