The Washington Post reported last week that, in order to secure the financial future for his wife and children, aging singer Don McLean sold the original 16-page working manuscript for the lyrics to his chart-topping 1972 song “American Pie” for $1.2 million at auction. Somehow this mundane, practical gesture seems a sad but fitting end for a song that lamented the end of an era of cultural innocence.
“American Pie” was inspired partially by the shocking deaths of young rockers Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper in a plane crash in 1959. But it was about much more than “the day the music died,” as one line goes; it rambled on with allusions to everyone from Karl Marx to Charles Manson to Jackie Kennedy to The Beatles. “It was an indescribable photograph of America that I tried to capture in words and music,” said McLean in a catalogue for Christie’s auction house. “Basically in ‘American Pie,’ things are heading in the wrong direction. 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.”
“American Pie is the accessible farewell to the Fifties and Sixties,” wrote Guardian music critic Alexis Petridis, who considered it Bob Dylan Lite. “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.”
I was never a fan. I remember the hit playing incessantly on the radio, and despite its catchy chorus, at 8½-minutes it was well over twice the length of the average radio single and felt even longer. McLean’s other big hit, “Vincent,” an achingly touching ballad about the world’s inability to grasp the genius of Vincent Van Gogh during the troubled painter’s lifetime, was much better lyrically and musically.
But I was very young at that time and had no capacity for nostalgia. It would be a few more years before I got my first sense for how easily important moments and people can slip into the past, lost forever, sometimes before you even realize how much they meant to you. At the time, living in the present was all I understood, and the future seemed limitless and bright. But then I got older.
It’s natural – and not entirely wrong – for every generation to reach an age when it waxes nostalgic about the past and complains that the present is “going to hell in a handbasket,” as my parents used to say. But in his mid-20s at the time, McLean was ahead of the curve in recognizing that things were “heading in the wrong direction.” Now 69, he remains lugubrious about the state of the culture: “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.’”
That is an overstatement – after all, there are still poetry and romance in the world; you just have to dig through whole strata of cynicism and snark and irony nowadays to find them. But he is correct that our cultural ability to appreciate beauty, romance, and poetry has atrophied, or at least been devalued in what an old friend of mine used to call our Age of Ugliness, and that is a disheartening loss.
In a verse that didn’t make the final cut for the song, McLean falls down on his knees and offers everything he has to give, “if only He would make the music live again.” If only it were that easy; it will take a new generation of artists who value sincerity over oh-so-hip detachment to breathe life back into the culture. McLean has worthy advice to budding songwriters: “Immerse yourself in beautiful music and beautiful lyrics and think about every word you say in a song.”
The music may have died once, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be resurrected.
(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 4/17/15)