In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
Don McLean was 13 on the day the music died. One night in February 1959, Buddy Holly and his band had just played a show in Clear Lake, Iowa. This was a ridiculous tour, all small upper-Midwest cities and cold climates. The routing didn’t make any sense. Holly was sharing the bills with Dion & The Belmonts, Richie Valens, and the Big Bopper, and a young Waylon Jennings was playing bass in his band. Holly usually travelled by bus, but he was sick of wearing dirty clothes, and he wanted a little time to unwind and do laundry before the next gig. So he chartered a plane to fly him to the next show in Moorhead, Minnesota. That plane crashed shortly after takeoff, killing everyone on board. The Big Bopper was 28. Buddy Holly was 23. Richie Valens was 17, just four years older than Don McLean.
McLean grew up in New Rochelle, New York, and he was working as a paperboy in 1959. When he learned about the crash, he was folding the newspapers that he’d have to deliver that morning. It left an impact. McLean found his way into folk music, playing up and down the East Coast and falling under Pete Seeger’s wing. And a decade after that plane crash, McLean started writing “American Pie,” a sprawling and portentous epic that did its best to tie that crash to the death of a whole generation’s innocence.
If you’re going to attempt to interpret the lyrics of “American Pie,” you’re going to venture into the realm of pure conjecture. McLean isn’t talking. Of those lyrics, McLean once wrote, “They’re beyond analysis. They’re poetry.” In one interview, asked about the meaning of the song, McLean snapped, “It means I don’t ever have to work again if I don’t want to.” Four years ago, McLean sold his handwritten lyric sheet at auction for $1.2 million, and he wrote, “I wanted to make a whole series of complex statements. The lyrics had to do with the state of society at the time.”
McLean left those lyrics cryptic and elliptical enough that high-school English classes and stoned kids in dorm rooms have been puzzling over them for decades. There are all sorts of little references in there: the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Kent State, Altamont, Janis Joplin, Charles Manson, the Byrds, the Cold War. There’s a Lennon/Lenin pun, which might also be a pun about Karl Marx and Groucho Marx. Pretty much everyone agrees that the Jester, a recurring character in the song, is Bob Dylan. Dylan steals James Dean’s coat and Elvis’ throne, and then, after his motorcycle crash, he finds himself sidelined in a cast. And all this has something to do with the burst of excitement that greeted the birth of rock ‘n’ roll — that whole mythic ’50s ritual of drag-races and backseat makeouts — and the way it eventually turned into nothing. The levy was dry.
This is, of course, all a bit much. Unless I’m forgetting something, “American Pie” is the longest #1 single in the history of the Billboard charts. It’s its own B-side. The song was too long to fit on one side of a 45, so the label just cut it in two, and you had to flip the record over to finish listening. There are stories about radio DJs playing the song so they’d have time to go to the bathroom, maybe even to go smoke a cigarette outside.
That length isn’t oppressive, exactly. McLean keeps the song moving. It’s full of dynamic changes, starting out quiet and slow and then getting loud and fast and then reverting back. He throws in enough allusions to keep you thinking. But he’s also mythologizing an era of short, fun, direct songs by writing a song that is none of those things. “American Pie” is a well-written song with a strong and memorable hook and at least a couple of layers of meaning. And it bugs the shit out of me.
McLean wasn’t technically a Baby Boomer. (He was born in October 1945, missing that generation’s unofficial cutoff point by two months.) And yet his attempt to cram a decade-plus of pop-culture chaos into a grand, overarching narrative mirrors the way the Baby Boomers spent years mythologizing their own histories, treating their generation like the only one that ever existed. All the things that McLean sings about on “American Pie” — the songs, the deaths, the marches, the wars — are clearly important. But in writing his own epic poem unto them, McLean reveals his own self-seriousness. It’s a song that practically begs for cool English teachers to assign it.
I’m a son of Baby Boomers, so I obviously have my own generational hang-ups with this song and what it represents. That’s not the song’s problem; it’s my problem. “American Pie” is clearly a well-written, well-recorded song that means a whole lot to a whole lot of people. It is also a stifling indulgence. It can be both things.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s “Weird Al” Yankovic’s video for “The Saga Begins,” the 1999 American Pie parody where Yankovic sums up the plot of the movie Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace:
(Yankovic’s highest-charting single is 2006’s “White & Nerdy,” a parody of a very different #1 single. It peaked at #9, and it’s a 7.)