February 3rd, 1959. That’s the day the music died, according to Don McLean in the song “American Pie.”
There are a number of fascinating details of that fateful flight, but maybe I’ll save that for a different post, maybe on the actual day. This is more for just me to gush about my favorite song.
When I was growing up my parents had the car radio tuned to the oldies station about fifty percent of the time. Forty percent of the time it was right wing talk radio like Rush Limbaugh or Mike Savage. The other ten percent was a smattering of sports radio or, god forbid, new music.
Due to the constant flow of the golden oldies on KFRC 99.7 I ended up with a real attachment to that era of music. I still love it.
My Girl, Sittin’ On The Dock Of The Bay, Chantilly Lace, Lean On Me, Hard Days Night, Light My Fire, Under The Boardwalk, I Think Were Alone Now, Turn Turn Turn, Crimson and Clover, and many more had me singing in the car along with my Mom (nobody else in the family sang, my Dad always said “I’d rather listen to the song.” Tons of fun they were).
For the longest time (whoa whoa whoa) my favorite song was Doh Wah Diddy. It was catchy, short and repetitive. It was easy to memorize for a kid. Plus, the opening of the song was so much fun to burst out with:
There she was just a-walkin down the street singin doh wah diddy diddy dum diddy do.
I still love that song and enjoy yell singing it from time to time, but as I got older my tastes changed a little. I enjoyed songs that were a bit longer and, I think, the storyteller in me started to appreciate songs that told a story with the lyrics. This led me to a new favorite song, one that stays with me to this day; American Pie.
There are so many things I love about this song, but the first thing that stands out to me is the length of it. At its full run time its over eight and a half minutes long. I think it says something about my personality that when I love something I can never get enough of it. More, more, more. It was one of the first things that led me to a love for writing. I always wanted to continue the story from things that I enjoyed. So, naturally, if I enjoy a song I want it to go well beyond the crisp three minute mark that most of the oldies seemed to hold themselves to.
The song tells a story too, which I’ll get to in a minute but while it tells that story it changes its pacing dramatically. Starting off slow and somber it introduces you to the main character, the narrator. There’s a melancholy in his voice as he’s remembering his past and childhood. A saudade state of a time he believes is long gone as he quickly arrives at the crux of his story, the day the music died and how it killed a generation’s innocence.
Bye, bye Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry
And them good ole boys were drinking whiskey and rye
Singin’ this’ll be the day that I die
This’ll be the day that I die
But the sad state quickly picks up after the chorus and puts life in us again. McLean sings of songs he loved and feelings he remembers fondly. He tells us about how music is attached to his inner being and all of the good things in life like love and happiness. The song has us moving and is catchy.
The song stays up through more verses. It makes us forget about the sadness and pulls us through the evolution at a constant high note. The change is slow but eventually we turn the high energy good feeling into rage.
As I got older I noted how perfectly you could feel his anger when he sang how his hands were, “clenched in fists of rage.” He had taken the good feelings throughout the song to this point and flipped them on us as everything was changing. Everything we knew was going away and it couldn’t go back. He lashed out in the only way most people know how to when their lives are never going to be the same, with rage.
The song ends as it started, in sadness. In even more death. In everything gone and how it can’t come back because, “the man there said the music wouldn’t play.” The chorus then repeated but picking up at the last turn to leave us in that wistful remembering that we often are left with when dancing with nostalgia.
There is a slight, funny lining up of this song and my reaction when Madonna covered it in 2000. I was Don McLean looking up at Mick Jagger with my hands clenched in fists of rage. I was appalled that she would cover my favorite song. It was outlandish that she would try and turn it into a new age dance mix. I wanted her off my lawn and I was only 20 years old. How dare she!
I know all the words. I’ve known them for years and no matter how long it goes between moments of singing or hearing the song I can still recite it at about ninety-eight percent accuracy.
I find the idea of a favorite song kind of funny. My wife doesn’t have one. My sixteen year old doesn’t either. They are more of the type to have a current favorite song but if you ask them what their favorite of all time is they can’t tell you. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but there is something to be said to having an answer when someone asks, “if you could only listen to one song for the rest of your life, what would it be?” To have an answer to a question like this says you’ve got something about yourself figured out. You know yourself so well that you can predict what you’d like hearing now as well as thirty years from now. Not many people know themselves that well.
American Pie is my everything song. I can sing to it. I can listen to it and get lost. I can get offended when someone butchers it. I can talk about its different angles and meaning.
It is, in a microcosm, everything I love. It has depth and substance. It’s romantic and painful. It has hurt and sadness. It’s about something and takes you on a trip while entertaining you along the way. It’s my favorite song and I had never put into words exactly why until now. I figured it was about time.