There would be baseball games on that radio, but not just yet. Not on this particular Friday, not with the players on strike. It was the end of a very turbulent week if you were a baseball fan, especially if you were a Mets fan. Gil Hodges died of a heart attack. Yogi Berra was named to succeed him. Rusty Staub was acquired from the Expos for Singleton, Foli and Jorgensen. What was supposed to have been Opening Night, the night before in Pittsburgh, was cancelled due to work stoppage.
Friday morning, however, would herald something even more momentous than the 1972 baseball season. On Friday morning, April 7, 1972, on a Panasonic AM-FM portable radio that my mother gave my father for their 21st wedding anniversary — a radio I would inherit in a few years after he upgraded — I first heard “American Pie” by Don McLean.
It was Opening Day, all right. The world of popular music opened up all around me. That season is still in full swing.
It was, for all intents and purposes, the day the music was born.
I don’t remember a lot of sitting around the weekday breakfast table as a family when I was a kid. In fact, I remember it almost never happening. I would say “never,” except it seems to have taken place that Friday, April 7. My parents’ anniversary was the reason. They were, for the first time, leaving me, 9, and my responsible sister, 15, alone for a couple of days as they decided to celebrate their wedded bliss at the Host Farm Resort in the Pennsylvania Dutch Country. They would be driving out early, so we needed to acknowledge their anniversary that morning. That’s why the radio was presented before school. That may be why I remember what it was playing.
My sister had tuned it to WNBC, home of the “Imus in the Morning” program which was a big sensation in the spring of 1972. Mr. Imus had just come to New York from Cleveland the previous December and got lots of laughs with his Reverend Billy Sol Hargis character and his proclamation that “Rambling with Gambling days are over/It’s raining, it’s pouring/It’s Imus in the Morning!” Yes, Don Imus was once fresh and was once funny. And he was once required to play records on 660 AM. Sometime on Friday morning, April 7, 1972, he played one that began:
A long, long time ago
I can still remember how that music
Used to make me smile
He wouldn’t be done playing it for a long, long time. For more than eight minutes, I would eventually learn. By the time “American Pie” was finished, I had begun. I had begun to love pop music. I had begun to understand what pop music was. I had begun to identify with pop music. I had begun to follow pop music. I had begun a lifetime love affair with pop music.
That was quite a radio. And this is quite a song.
I didn’t realize that “American Pie,” by Top 40 standards, had already been on the air and on the charts a long, long time. To the rest of the world, it was old news. “American Pie” had debuted at No. 69 in Billboard‘s Hot 100 for the week ending November 27, 1971. It reached No. 1 on January 15, 1972 and remained at the top of the chart for four consecutive weeks. By the time I discovered it, “American Pie” was falling off the national chart. It had left WABC’s local list in the middle of March.
But to me, it was brand new. It entered my life at No. 1 on April 7, 1972 and it has remained lodged there ever since. It is my favorite song ever. It always will be. And April 7, 1972 will always be the date from which all pop music flows. Everything that was released after that Friday has been, at some point, authentically new to me, authentically potentially part of the soundtrack to my personal narrative. Everything before it is forever an oldie. Every song from before the spring of 1972 is like every Mets game from before late in the 1969 season. I know it existed — I just can’t swear to it for sure.
That’s how powerful “American Pie” was when I first heard it. That’s how meaningful April 7, 1972 is to me. I’d heard other songs in my first nine years, three months and one week on the planet, but once I heard “American Pie” by Don McLean, I was determined to hear more songs. I listened and I heard.
In the wake of April 7, 1972, I heard “Horse With No Name” by America; and “Heart Of Gold” by Neil Young; and “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” by Robert John; and “Mother and Child Reunion” by Paul Simon; and “Without You” by Nilsson. Some of it I liked. Some of it I loved. All of it I heard in a way I’d never heard it before, in a way that allowed me to link it to a time: a month, a week, a day, a moment. I heard music that connected itself to me by its very existence. I heard music in a context that made sense to me. And I could hear more of it if I just stay tuned.
I’ve stayed tuned for 35 years. I’m not as tuned in as I used to be, but I still keep an ear open, knowing that something else will come along. I still listen to the radio, if not quite as much as I once did. The stations have changed. The singers have changed. The sounds have changed over and over again. But what became a part of me on April 7, 1972 has stayed a part of me: the wonder, the excitement, the anticipation, the deeply personal nature of music.
To no song do those feelings apply the way they do to Don McLean’s “American Pie”.
“Like no other song of its era,” declares Eric Lefcowitz in The Rhino History of Rock ‘n’ Roll: The ’70s, “‘American Pie’ managed to capture the mood and tone of that fascinating and slightly odd transitional period between the 1960s and the 1970s when people were attempting to recapture their lost innocence and, at the same time, move forward.”
I may recall in intense detail having “American Pie” revealed unto me, when it happened and what I was doing, but I don’t know that I recall what was revealed to me about rock ‘n’ roll or my mortal soul. “American Pie” carried an intense air of mystery to it, yet I’ve never been much of a stickler for trying to penetrate it.
For that, there are loads of theses circulating out there. Opinions on exactly what Don McLean was trying to tell us every step of the way are as common as rear entries: everybody has one. But McLean himself blessedly skirted the subject in 2000 by confessing, “I’ve never analyzed the lyrics to the song. They’re beyond analysis. They’re poetry.”
Works for me; he wrote it, he would know.
It is established that “the day the music died” equals Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper going down over Clear Lake, Iowa on February 3, 1959 and that Don was painting on a pretty breathtaking canvas — “my attempt at an epic song about America” — from there. Everything else is conjecture and interpretation.
When I was 9, I didn’t know from Buddy Holly or epic. It was the poetry I dug. The awesome wordplay. I assumed my new favorite song was about something deep, something off the beaten path, something you didn’t come across every day, probably a little hippieish.
It was the most dramatic thing I’d ever heard. It started slow, it sped up, it became manic, it wound down to a point where “the music wouldn’t play”. It painted pictures I could barely literally comprehend. I was content to listen to them and imagine them — the pink carnation and the pickup truck; the dancin’ in the gym and the kickin’ off of shoes; the quartet that practiced in the park and the dirges that were sung in the dark — as I wished without having them explained to me.
At 9, you think I had any idea what “Helter Skelter in a summer swelter” meant?
Or what a levee was?
That rye was a drink, not just a bread baked by Levy’s (as opposed to levee’s)?
That “the Father, Son and the Holy Ghost” wasn’t something Don McLean made up on the spot to go with “caught the last train for the coast”?
That I could differentiate between “the birds” and the Byrds in the reference to “Eight Miles High”?
Or nod “oh yeah, Mick Jagger” when I heard “Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, Jack Flash sat on a candlestick”?
Or be almost certain that “the sergeants” who “played a marching tune” were the Beatles?
The fully woven tapestry of what McLean probably means is massively impressive in retrospect. It truly is. But I’m with Lester Bangs, who called the lyrics “just a bunch of words that could have as much meaning as you wanted.” When I was 9, I was too old for nursery rhymes. But when I was 9, “American Pie” was like the greatest nursery rhyme ever written.
It caught on in my demo, which makes sense now that I’ve read “it is around the age of ten or eleven that most children take on music as a real interest” in Daniel Levitin’s This Is Your Brain On Music. Indeed, I can remember other kids in third grade humming it and referring to it as “Miss American Pie” (thus raising my fact-checking ire regarding the accurate citation of song titles and such for the first time). By sixth grade, we were singing it at graduation as part of our Bicentennial-themed ceremony (“Philadelphia Freedom,” too). Every now and again I’d come across an article confirming that “American Pie” hadn’t just been a No. 1 hit, but that it was Important, that maybe it was the most Important record made after the Beatles broke up.
I felt good that I’d landed on something so significant without knowing it. But it also didn’t matter. I couldn’t like it any more than I did when I didn’t know anything about it.
By the time I was in college, I learned many of my peers held it in the same kind of esteem I did. I distinctly recall some friend of a friend tacking the sheet music to her wall. “It’s my favorite song,” she said. The mutual friend in this case said he didn’t like “American Pie”.
“How can you not like ‘American Pie’?” I asked.
“Because,” he said with defiance, “everybody always says it’s their favorite song.”
Maybe not everybody (I have an amusing book called The Worst Rock ‘n’ Roll Records of All Time that ranks it No. 9 in dubiousness), but yes, it’s nice to know that for once I’m in eternal harmony with a large group of listeners. After telling you of my unabashed fondness for the cheesy and the obscure since the end of last December, I take some satisfaction in reporting that my No. 1 Song of All-Time is practically my generation’s No. 1. It’s the only one of my leading favorites that shows up regularly in actual sanctioned commercial countdowns, not just my heartfelt, homemade Top 500.
But that kind of widespread popularity shouldn’t surprise me. It transcended age range in my family. My father, who rues the turning of the musical calendar from 1950, liked “American Pie”; my sister, with little musical interest at all, liked “American Pie”; even my mother, whose only comment to me about the music of my youth was that Bonnie Tyler and Rod Stewart sure sounded alike and rather ridiculous at that, liked “American Pie”.
My god, I really am related to those people.
I remember Chevrolet using the “drove my Chevy” line in a commercial, but I don’t remember if it was Chevrolet or another advertiser that portrayed a guy not wanting to get out of his car until “American Pie” was over. That’s been me for 35 years. Every new stereo we buy, I insist on christening the turntable with eight minutes and thirty-two seconds of Don McLean, from the same LP I bought at TSS in 1973 (just before I realized I could buy singles).
Long song. So long that its 45 was sold as Parts I and II on sides A and B. So long that American Top 40 generally didn’t play the entire version. But that’s like exhibiting only half of Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night. “The song was too powerful to be abbreviated, and a majority of radio stations played only the complete version,” according to Fred Bronson in The Billboard Book of Number One Hits. The Clearasil ads would just have to wait. At 8:32, you could be happy for a while and then some.
Don McLean wrote something much longer than the norm in his field and the length was embraced because the work was great enough to merit such a reception. The lesson wasn’t lost on me.
If you were to ask me to name my favorite recording artists, I’d tick off probably dozens of groups, duos and solo acts before remembering to mention Don McLean. It’s not that I don’t celebrate the guy’s entire catalogue, it’s just that I’ve demonstrated very little curiosity about everything that isn’t “American Pie”.
For the record, Don McLean is a local boy, from New Rochelle. Went to Iona. Had a pretty big hit right after “American Pie” called “Vincent” (so hauntingly beautiful in its own right that it might have been written about the Van Gogh of first basemen) and a lesser hit the following winter with “Dreidel,” which is No. 72 on my list (it came out not long after Chanukah). Don disappeared from the charts for most of the rest of the ’70s, re-emerging in 1981 with a touching Roy Orbison cover (“Crying”) and then a re-release of the sincere if badly dated “Castles in the Air”. If he’s received any kind of contemporary/non-oldies airplay in the last quarter-century, I’ve missed it. If he’s come out with an album of new material, I’ve gone unaware. I’ve never seen him play live. I’ve only caught him on television by accident.
He gave me “American Pie”. What else could I ask from him?
As the song of songs, it is best left alone. Use it in another commercial? I wouldn’t begrudge Don the royalties, but I’d hope it doesn’t get mixed up with some shady pie company. Cover it? Madonna did that in 2000 on the soundtrack for The Next Best Thing. Turned out the next best thing to Don McLean’s original is never hearing Madonna cover it (though it somehow reached No. 29 in Billboard). Illustrate it? There was a syndicated show in 1986 with the clever title Deja View. Its aim was to produce music videos for classic songs that predated MTV. They did one for “American Pie”. It looked exactly like something that somebody who had 15 years too long to think about it would have created.
“American Pie” doesn’t need latter-day ubiquity, doesn’t need updating, doesn’t need a literal visual treatment, certainly doesn’t need another wacky teen sex romp named after it (though I thought the first one was pretty good) or another Weird Al Yankovic Star Wars parody of it (he’s done better). It doesn’t need anything except to be heard in its entirety on the radio or television or Internet every once in a while, maybe even by some 9-year-old who’s never heard it before.
Otherwise, leave it be. It’s been perfect since April 7, 1972.
Credit where credit’s due: To underscore the absurdity of segregation in 1962 Baltimore, John Waters made the last Thursday of every month on The Corny Collins Show Negro Day in Hairspray, thus providing the twisted inspiration for making the final Friday of each month here Music Day. Here’s to you, Mr. Waters. (And here’s to you, gentle reader, if you picked up on the homage.)
The No. 2 Song of All-Time was heard at the end of September. Join us in this space on January 4, 2008 for the debut of Flashback Friday: Tales From The Log. In the meantime, if you want to relive all of this year’s reliving all over again, go right ahead to go right back.