I’ve been listening to Don McLean sing “American Pie” for 20 years now and I still don’t know what the hell he’s talking about. I know, I know, the “day the music died” is a reference to the Buddy Holly/Ritchie Valens/Big Bopper plane crash, but the rest of the song seems to be chock-full of musical symbolism that I’ve never been able to decipher. There are clear references to the Byrds (“eight miles high and fallin’ fast”) and the Rolling Stones (“Jack Flash sat on a candlestick”), but the song also mentions the “King and Queen,” the “Jester” (I’ve heard this is either Mick Jagger or Bob Dylan), a “girl who sang the blues” (Janis Joplin?), and the Devil himself. I’ve heard there is an answer key that explains all the symbols. Is there? Even if there isn’t, can you give me a line on who’s who and what’s what in this mediocre but firmly-entrenched-in-my-mind piece of music? –Scott McGough, Baltimore
Now, now, Scott. If you can’t clarify the confused, certainly the pinnacle of literary achievement in my mind, history (e.g., the towering rep of James Joyce) instructs us that your next best bet is to obfuscate the obvious. Don McLean has never issued an “answer key” for “American Pie,” undoubtedly on the theory that as long as you can keep ’em guessing, your legend will never die.
He’s probably right. Still, he’s dropped a few hints. Straight Dope musicologist Stefan Daystrom taped the following intro from Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 radio show circa January 1972: “A few days ago we phoned Don McLean for a little help in interpreting his great hit ‘American Pie.’ He was pretty reluctant to give us a straight interpretation of his work; he’d rather let it speak for itself. But he explained some of the specific references that he makes. The most important one is the death of rockabilly singer Buddy Holly in 1959; for McLean, that’s when the music died. The court jester he refers to is Bob Dylan. The Stones and the flames in the sky refer to the concert at Altamont, California. And McLean goes on, painting his picture,” blah blah, segue to record.
Not much to go on, but at least it rules out the Christ imagery. For the rest we turn to the song’s legion of free-lance interpreters, whose thoughts were most recently compiled by Rich Kulawiec into a file that I plucked from the Internet. (I love the Internet.) No room to reprint all the lyrics, which you probably haven’t been able to forget anyway, but herewith the high points:
“February made me shiver”: Holly’s plane crashed February 3, 1959. “Them good ole boys were . . . singing ‘This’ll be the day that I die'”: Holly’s hit “That’ll Be the Day” had a similar line. “The Jester sang for the King and Queen in a coat he borrowed from James Dean”: ID of K and Q obscure. Elvis and Connie Francis (or Little Richard)? John and Jackie Kennedy? Or Queen Elizabeth and consort, for whom Dylan apparently did play once? Dean’s coat is the famous red windbreaker he wore in Rebel Without a Cause; Dylan wore a similar one on The Freewheeling Bob Dylan album cover. “With the Jester on the sidelines in a cast”: On July 29, 1966, Dylan had a motorcycle accident that kept him laid up for nine months. “While sergeants played a marching tune”: The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. “And as I watched him on the stage / My hands were clenched in fists of rage / No angel born in hell / Could break that Satan’s spell / And as the flames climbed high into the night”: Mick Jagger, Altamont. “I met a girl who sang the blues / And I asked her for some happy news / But she just smiled and turned away”: Janis Joplin OD’d October 4, 1970. “The three men I admire most / The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost / They caught the last train for the coast”: Major mystery. Holly, Bopper, Valens? Hank Williams, Elvis, Holly? JFK, RFK, ML King? The literal tripartite deity? As for the coast, could be the departure of the music biz for California. Or it simply rhymes, a big determinant of plot direction in pop music lyrics (which may also explain “drove my Chevy to the levee”). Best I can do for now. Just don’t ask me to explain “Stairway to Heaven.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.