“I was around in 1970 and now I am around in 2015, there is no poetry and very little romance in anything anymore, so it is really like the last phase of ‘American Pie.’ ”
Gloomy Don McLean reveals meaning of ‘American Pie’ — and sells lyrics for $1.2 million
The music died because Buddy Holly merely wanted what every touring musician wants: to do laundry.
Shoved into unheated buses on a “Winter Dance Party” tour in 1959, Holly — tired of rattling through the Midwest with dirty clothes — chartered a plane on Feb. 3 to fly from Clear Lake, Iowa, to Fargo, N.D., where he hoped he could make an appointment with a washing machine. Joining him on the plane were Ritchie Valens and, after future country star Waylon Jennings gave up his seat, J.P. Richardson, a.k.a. “the Big Bopper.” Taking off in bad weather with a pilot not certified to do so, the plane crashed, killing everyone aboard. The toll was incalculable: The singers of “Peggy Sue” and “Come On Let’s Go” and “Donna” and “La Bamba” were dead. Holly was just 22; incredibly, Valens was just 17. Rock and roll would never be the same.
Thirteen years later, Don McLean wrote a song about this tragedy: “American Pie,” an 8½-minute epic with an iconic lyric about “the day the music died.” Now, the original 16-page working manuscript of the lyrics has been sold at auction for $1.2 million.
“I thought it would be interesting as I reach age 70 to release this work product on the song American Pie so that anyone who might be interested will learn that this song was not a parlor game,” McLean said in a Christie’s catalogue ahead of the sale. “It was an indescribable photograph of America that I tried to capture in words and music.”
That photograph was always a little bit blurry. At more than 800 words, the meaning of “American Pie” proved elusive even for a generation used to parsing inscrutable Bob Dylan and Beatles lyrics. McLean has said the song was inspired by the 1959 plane crash, but has been cagey about other details.
“People ask me if I left the lyrics open to ambiguity,” McLean said in an early interview, as the Guardian reported. “Of course I did. I wanted to make a whole series of complex statements. The lyrics had to do with the state of society at the time.”
But what state was that? It seemed like the song’s cast of characters — which include a jester, a king, a queen, good ol’ boys drinking whiskey and rye as well as “Miss American Pie” herself — were meant to represent real people. The song includes references to Karl Marx; Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (or, more likely, John Lennon); the Fab Four; the Byrds; James Dean; Charles Manson; the Rolling Stones; the “widowed bride,” Jackie Kennedy; and the Vietnam War.
What does it all mean? Just what a song about the day the music died seems like it might be about: the end of the American Dream.
“Basically in ‘American Pie,’ things are heading in the wrong direction,” he told Christie’s, as the Newcastle Herald reported. “It is becoming less idyllic. I don’t know whether you consider that wrong or right but it is a morality song in a sense.”
As ideals of the 1960s turned into the cynicism of the 1970s, this feeling was widespread enough to send the song to No. 1 in 1972.
“American Pie is the accessible farewell to the Fifties and Sixties,” Guardian music critic Alexis Petridis wrote in the catalogue. “Bob Dylan talked to the counterculture in dense, cryptic, apocalyptic terms. But Don McLean says similar ominous things in a pop language that a mainstream listener could understand. The chorus is so good that it lets you wallow in the confusion and wistfulness of that moment, and be comforted at the same time. It’s bubblegum Dylan, really.” (Perhaps of note: Dylan’s manuscript of “Like a Rolling Stone” sold for $2 million in June, besting McLean’s measly $1.2 million.)
Forty-four years after “American Pie’s” release, McLean, 69, wasn’t much more positive about the state of the world than he was a generation ago.
“I was around in 1970 and now I am around in 2015,” McLean said, as People Magazine reported. “There is no poetry and very little romance in anything anymore, so it is really like the last phase of ‘American Pie.’ ”
Nor was there romance in McLean’s decision to sell the manuscript. He did it for the dough.
“I’m going to be 70 this year,” he told Rolling Stone. “I have two children and a wife, and none of them seem to have the mercantile instinct. I want to get the best deal that I can for them. It’s time.”
Ahead of the Christie’s auction, McLean did offer some advice to all the budding Don McLeans out here.
“I would say to young songwriters who are starting out to immerse yourself in beautiful music and beautiful lyrics and think about every word you say in a song,” he said.