American Pie: Don McLean; Garth Brooks; Madonna

Hello there! Our song this week is American Pie. It is one of the greatest rock songs of all time. We will review the original version by Don McLean. We will also discuss covers by Garth Brooks, and by Madonna.

Don McLean, American Pie:

Don McLean is an American pop singer who was born in October, 1945 in Port Chester, NY. McLean became interested in music at an early age, when two of his big musical influences were Frank Sinatra and Buddy Holly.

However, McLean then became a big fan of folk music, and particularly the group The Weavers. McLean enrolled at Villanova University but dropped out after four months.

He then embarked on a career as a singer-songwriter. He frequented cafes and folk music joints on the East Coast, but also The Troubador in Los Angeles. The photo below shows a young Don McLean.

McLean’s first big break occurred in 1969 when he hooked up with Pete Seeger, who was on a tour to raise awareness of environmental issues.
Later that year, McLean released his first solo album, Tapestry.

Cover of the 1972 United Artists album American Pie by Don McLean.

Cover of the 1971 United Artists album American Pie by Don McLean.

Tapestry was issued on the small label Mediarts. However, Mediarts was subsequently taken over by United Artists Records. As a result, McLean’s second album American Pie was released in 1971 by United Artists.

That album’s title song American Pie became a gigantic smash hit. It rocketed to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 list, while McLean’s album also reached #1 on the Billboard album charts.  The album cover is shown at left.

In most of our blog posts, we are content to provide a couple of verses of a song. However, the lyrics to American Pie are sufficiently impactful and thought-provoking that we will print all of the lyrics.

A long, long time ago
I can still remember how that music used to make me smile
And I knew if I had my chance
That I could make those people dance
And maybe they’d be happy for a while

But February made me shiver
With every paper I’d deliver
Bad news on the doorstep
I couldn’t take one more step

I can’t remember if I cried
When I read about his widowed bride
But something touched me deep inside
The day the music died

[Chorus:]
So bye, bye, Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry
Them good ole boys were drinking whiskey ‘n rye
Singin’ this’ll be the day that I die
This’ll be the day that I die

Did you write the book of love
And do you have faith in God above
If the Bible tells you so?
Now do you believe in rock and roll?
Can music save your mortal soul?
And can you teach me how to dance real slow?

Well, I know that you’re in love with him
‘Cause I saw you dancin’ in the gym
You both kicked off your shoes
Man, I dig those rhythm and blues

I was a lonely teenage broncin’ buck
With a pink carnation and a pickup truck
But I knew I was out of luck
The day the music died

[Chorus:]

Now for ten years we’ve been on our own
And moss grows fat on a rollin’ stone
But that’s not how it used to be
When the jester sang for the king and queen
In a coat he borrowed from James Dean
And a voice that came from you and me

Oh, and while the king was looking down
The jester stole his thorny crown
The courtroom was adjourned
No verdict was returned

And while Lennon read a book on Marx
The quartet practiced in the park
And we sang dirges in the dark
The day the music died

[Chorus:]

Helter skelter in a summer swelter
The birds flew off with a fallout shelter
Eight miles high and falling fast
It landed foul on the grass
The players tried for a forward pass
With the jester on the sidelines in a cast

Now the halftime air was sweet perfume
While the sergeants played a marching tune
We all got up to dance
Oh, but we never got the chance

‘Cause the players tried to take the field
The marching band refused to yield
Do you recall what was revealed
The day the music died?

[Chorus:]

Oh, and there we were all in one place
A generation lost in space
With no time left to start again
So come on, Jack be nimble, Jack be quick
Jack Flash sat on a candlestick
‘Cause fire is the devil’s only friend

Oh, 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
To light the sacrificial rite
I saw Satan laughing with delight
The day the music died

[Chorus:]

I met a girl who sang the blues
And I asked her for some happy news
But she just smiled and turned away
I went down to the sacred store
Where I’d heard the music years before
But the man there said the music wouldn’t play

And in the streets, the children screamed
The lovers cried and the poets dreamed
But not a word was spoken
The church bells all were broken

And the three men I admire most
The Father, Son and the Holy Ghost
They caught the last train for the coast
The day the music died

[Chorus: 2X]

The lyrics paint an exceptionally vivid word-picture. An entire generation of youth memorized every line of the song, and not surprisingly tried to figure out the “meaning” behind the various verses in the song.

Long articles have been written “explaining” the lyrics to this song. We don’t intend to follow those examples. Furthermore, for decades Don McLean has refused to explain it. McLean has said, quite correctly, “songwriters should make their statements and move on, maintaining a dignified silence.”

However, various aspects of the song are rather obvious. For example, “the day the music died” refers to Feb. 3, 1959, the day that a plane crash took the lives of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and “The Big Bopper” J.P. Richardson.

Don McLean has admitted that, indeed, he was about to deliver newspapers on his paper route on the morning of Feb. 4 when the front-page headlines told him of Buddy Holly’s tragic death.

Furthermore, the song describes a ten-year interval, “for ten years we’ve been on our own.” My feeling is that the decade referred to spans the period between the death of Buddy Holly and the Dec. 1969 concert at Altamont, CA.

In American Pie, it would seem that “the jester” refers to Bob Dylan; “the sergeants” and the “marching band” appear to refer to the Beatles; “the birds” is probably a reference to The Byrds.

And it appears that the verse that mentions “Jack Flash” and “Satan laughing with delight” is a reference to the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont Speedway. On that occasion, a spectator was beaten to death by a group of Hell’s Angels, as the Rolling Stones performed.

As for the remaining allusions and references, well, you’re on your own. At the end of this piece I provide a reference where you can indulge in speculation to your heart’s content.

Here is the audio of Don McLean’s record American Pie. The lyrics are printed on the screen as the tune unfolds.

I want to highlight the instrumental mix on this song, as it is extremely impressive. The song starts out with just McLean’s solo vocals, in a very slow tempo, accompanied only by a sparse piano.

After the initial verse and chorus, the song picks up speed.  Don McLean joins in on acoustic guitar, and we get drums and bass as well. Backup singers appear in the chorus, and we are off and running. In the final two verses and chorus, the tempo once again slows down, and the ending is measured and melancholy.

The combination of the cryptic lyrics, catchy melody, McLean’s beautiful tenor voice, and the accompaniment is well-nigh irresistible.

Here is Don McLean in a live performance of American Pie in 1972. Here McLean appears solo, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar. Note that many in the audience sing along with the chorus, and appear to know the song’s lines by heart.

One of the reasons that McLean refuses to “explain” the references in American Pie is because he didn’t simply intend to write a tune that alluded to various rock groups. Rather, he meant to compose a song that conveyed the sense of innocence and idealism at the beginning of the rock ‘n roll era.

McLean then portrays this idealism being replaced by violence and disillusionment. He intended his song to convey his own emotions over this period of time, and also to chronicle the fortunes of the entire country.

Does he succeed in this goal? That’s up to the listener to decide. However, what is undeniable is that in American Pie, Don McLean not only crafted a blockbuster hit, but a song that has remained one of the most enduring American pop tunes for over 40 years.

The impact of American Pie was so profound that it eclipsed nearly everything else McLean has produced. The RIAA lists American Pie as the #5 song in the entire 20th century! The only songs ranked higher in this list were Over The Rainbow, White Christmas, This Land Is Your Land, and Respect. Wow! And in 2015, McLean’s notes and lyrics for American Pie sold for $1.2 million at auction.

Although American Pie overshadows everything else he has written, Don McLean was not exactly a “one-hit wonder.”

The album American Pie contained one other major hit, plus a number of other impressive songs. McLean’s tune Vincent, a song about painter Vincent Van Gogh, is a haunting examination of Van Gogh’s brilliance and his struggles with mental illness. McLean provides memorable images of Van Gogh; when this is combined with McLean’s lovely vocals, the result is stunning.

Vincent (also known as “Starry Starry Night” from its first line) made it to #12 in the Billboard Hot 100 pop charts in May, 1972. However, it was a much bigger hit worldwide, hitting #1 on the charts in the UK, #2 in Canada and #3 in Australia.

Some years later, McLean’s cover of Roy Orbison’s Crying reached #5 on the pop charts in May, 1981.

Don McLean continues to tour. In 2011 he appeared at the Glastonbury Festival in the UK, and in 2014 he performed at the Stagecoach Country Music Festival in California.

Alas, the most recent news about Don McLean has not been so great. In January of this year, he was arrested on a charge of domestic violence regarding his wife, Patrisha.
In March 2016, after 30 years of marriage, Patrisha filed for divorce. On July 21, 2016, McLean plead guilty to domestic violence assault, domestic violence criminal threatening, criminal mischief and criminal restraint against Patrisha.

We’re sorry to hear this about Mr. McLean. We certainly don’t condone domestic abuse. Nevertheless, we want to offer him a toast, “Have a whiskey and rye, Don. You wrote one of the greatest pop songs of all time.”

Garth Brooks, American Pie:

Garth Brooks is a singer-songwriter who has become a country music superstar. It is possible that he has sold more records than any solo artist ever.

Troyal Garth Brooks was raised in the Tulsa, Oklahoma area. His mother was a country singer who had appeared on the Ozark Jubilee TV program. The family featured weekly talent contests in which every one of the six children had to sing and play an instrument. For these talent contests, Garth learned to play guitar and banjo.

Below is a photo of a young Garth Brooks performing.

An outstanding athlete, Garth attended Oklahoma State University on a track scholarship, where he competed in the javelin throw. However, music remained his real love. After graduating from college, he began performing in clubs and bars in the Stillwater, OK area.

Brooks was attracted to both country and rock music, and initially was uncertain about what direction to pursue. However, his first recording contract was for country music, and he moved to Nashville and recorded his first album.

After Garth Brooks’ first eponymous album was released in 1989, he became an immediate country success. Four of the songs from that album made the top 10 in the Billboard Hot Country Songs charts, including the #1 song The Dance.

Brooks’ second album was an even bigger smash. The album spent 23 weeks at #1 on the Billboard Top Country Albums charts, and became a cross-over hit as it reached #3 on the Billboard 200 pop album list.

That album contained the song Friends in Low Places, which became Brooks’ signature tune. Although Garth Brooks was very much a country-music star, he was also inspired by rock performers. Brooks listed Billy Joel, Queen and even the band Kiss as inspirations for theatrical elements in his live acts.

For example, Garth Brooks pioneered the use of hands-free microphones in his concerts. This would allow him to run around the stage in his performances, or even to be picked up by a crane and hoisted in the air above his enthusiastic fans.

Over the years, Garth Brooks continued his dominance of the country music scene. He sold zillions of records, and used his clout to craft uniquely favorable record deals. He sold out massive stadiums for his concerts.

Brooks even took his concert tours around the world. He was especially successful in the U.K. Despite being dissed by British music critics, Brooks sold out venues such as London’s Wembley Stadium. Brooks also drew nearly a million people for a concert in New York City’s Central Park.

On several of his albums, Garth Brooks included covers of rock ‘n roll songs. He contributed to a Kiss tribute album, and covered songs by artists such as Aerosmith and Billy Joel.

Garth Brooks has performed Don McLean’s American Pie at several concerts. I’m going to show video of his performance in January 2009. This occurred at the concert We Are One: the Obama Inaugural Celebration at the Lincoln Memorial.

With Barack Obama and his family in the audience, Brooks performs parts of three songs. He begins with a short clip from American Pie.  While Don McLean’s original is sorrowful and morose, here Brooks’ version is upbeat, perhaps even inspirational.  The audience sings along joyfully to the chorus.

Then Garth segues into a bit of Shout, by the Isley Brothers. The final song in this trilogy is Brooks’ own We Shall Be Free.

Garth Brooks wrote the song We Shall Be Free in 1992. He was appearing at the Association of Country Music awards in Los Angeles. This occurred at a time when the 1992 L.A. riots were in progress.

Brooks wrote the song, imagining a world free from strife and oppression. The song touches on topics such as
world hunger, freedom of speech, homelessness, homophobia, racism, and freedom of religion.
The song turned out to be one of Garth Brooks’ biggest sellers, although it was also controversial in the country music community.

Folks, we are looking at a grim next four years. We are going to need to remind ourselves of times when people of good will could envision a world of progress and harmony. So we recommend videos such as the one above to help us through times of despair.

Garth Brooks has continued his career as a country superstar. The one mis-step might be his brief appearance as an fictional alter ego, Chris Gaines. Gaines (in reality Garth Brooks) was supposed to be a rock star, and Brooks released an album credited to Gaines.

The album was intended to be a promotional vehicle for a movie called The Lamb, in which Garth Brooks would star as “Chris Gaines.” However, the movie never materialized. Despite the fact that the album reached #2 on the Billboard album charts, Brooks’ fans seemed puzzled by this career move, and to the best of my knowledge the “Chris Gaines” project has been shelved.

The past few years have seen a fascinating controversy over the question: what solo artist has sold the most records? The Recording Industry Association of America stated that Garth Brooks was the best-selling solo artist of the 20th century.

However, this drew bitter criticism from fans of Elvis Presley. They argued that Elvis
had been short-changed in the rankings due to faulty RIAA certification methods during his lifetime.
So, the RIAA updated their methods for certifying records, and this time Elvis came out on top.

Now, Brooks’ fans cried foul, and in Nov. 2007 Garth Brooks was ranked ahead of Elvis. However, in Dec. 2010 one more recount placed Elvis in first place.

To my knowledge, the most recent RIAA count in Oct. 2014 had Garth Brooks ahead of Elvis. But hey, who really cares? Both Elvis and Garth Brooks are pop superstars, and they have each sold a mind-boggling number of records.

Madonna, American Pie:

Madonna Ciccone has been a pop superstar for the last 30 years. She is believed to have sold more records than any female musician in history.

Ms. Ciccone grew up in the Detroit area. Her father Tony worked as an engineer for Chrysler and General Motors. When Madonna was 8, her mother died of breast cancer. This was a great shock to Madonna, in part because Madonna’s mother did not communicate to her daughter that she was gravely ill.

Things got worse for Madonna when her father married the family’s housekeeper a few months later. Although Madonna was a straight-A student, she became noticeably rebellious, and resented the fact that her father and stepmother started a new family.

Madonna received a dance scholarship to the University of Michigan School of Music, but dropped out after two years. At that time, she headed off to New York City with $35. Following the path of many starving artists, Madonna worked at Dunkin’ Donuts while she took classes at the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater and auditioned for various dance productions.

Below is a photo of Madonna performing at Madison Square Garden in 1984.

Madonna then began singing and playing guitar with various rock bands. In 1982, she decided to branch out on her own as a solo artist. She signed a contract with Sire Records, and released a couple of singles.

When both of Madonna’s first singles became big dance-club hits, she released an eponymous album in July 1983. The album featured several new disco-era technological features, such as
the Linn drum machine, Moog bass and the OB-X synthesizer.

Not only was Madonna’s album a hit, she also became renowned for her cutting-edge fashion sense. Subsequently, Madonna became a superstar following the 1984 release of her second album, Like a Virgin.

The title track of that album not only topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart for six straight weeks, but the song generated a storm of criticism over the overt sexuality of the song, and complaints that the song
promoted premarital sex and undermined family values, and moralists sought to have the song and video banned.

By this time Madonna’s career had reached the stratosphere. She succeeded despite that fact that her voice was merely average. However, Madonna’s music videos were sexually explicit and extremely powerful; and she used her ballet training in elaborately-choreographed dance numbers on world tours.

Madonna’s music videos and tours also introduced edgy sexually-provocative numbers. Images alluding to sado-masochism, bondage, and simulated masturbation were all included in her performances.

Such provocative images evoked predictable complaints from religious conservatives. The Vatican condemned one of Madonna’s music videos, and MTV banned a couple of her videos. Of course, this just helped Madonna’s career to thrive.

Madonna released her version of American Pie in March 2000. The song was released to promote the soundtrack for her movie The Next Best Thing.

So here is the music video of Madonna performing Don McLean’s epic tune American Pie.

In this performance, Madonna includes only a couple of the verses from Don McLean’s tune. Throughout this music video, Madonna dances and sings in front of a gigantic American flag, while wearing a tiara.

I’m ambivalent about turning a classic song like American Pie into a dance-beat tune. However, there is no denying that Madonna frequently smashes pop conventions, and that she has an exceptionally keen sense of the commercial possibilities of her music.

You might expect that Don McLean would be scandalized that a performer like Madonna would turn his epic folk-rock tune into a dance mix song.

However, you would be mistaken. McLean loved this cover version. He called it “mythical and sensual,” and was thrilled that Madonna decided to cover it. The song was recorded while Madonna was filming the movie The Next Best Thing with co-star Rupert Everett.

Apparently Everett convinced Madonna to record this song for the soundtrack of their movie. Everett appears from time to time in this music video, and he occasionally sings along with Madonna.

Madonna’s version of American Pie was not released commercially in the U.S. However, it was a big hit around the world; it reached the #1 spot in the U.K., Canada, Australia, Germany and Switzerland, among other places.

This is the second of two different music videos of American Pie that were released by Madonna. This particular version is called the “Humpty Remix,” as it was arranged by Richard “Humpty” Vission. This remix presents a more upbeat and dance-friendly song than Madonna’s original music video.

To date, Madonna has sold over 300 million records and has been certified as the best-selling female recording artist of all time by Guinness World Records. In 2008, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Madonna has also proved herself to be a talented and versatile actress. She starred in movies such as Desperately Seeking Susan, Dick Tracy and Evita. True, some of her movies were also real stinkers (e.g., Swept Away), but this might be expected from an artist who was constantly pushing the envelope and venturing into uncharted territory.

I must admit that I haven’t followed Madonna’s more recent ventures. I have to say, I am ambivalent about Madonna’s reliance on music videos, which promote lip-synching. Also, many of Madonna’s “live” concerts also feature a significant amount of lip-synched “singing.”

Madonna defends this practice by saying that her concerts feature extremely athletic dance numbers, and that she has no choice but to rely on pre-recorded music for those segments. Perhaps, but as our readers know, we are very critical of lip-synched music. Over-reliance on taped music leads directly to “artists” like the despicable Milli Vanilli.

It is hard to argue with Ms. Ciccone’s tremendous commercial success. She combined powerful ambition and drive with a clear sense of what she wanted to accomplish. She thrived in the MTV and dance-club era, and changed the landscape for female pop artists.

It is interesting that this blog post features singer-songwriters Garth Brooks and Madonna. These are two of the best-selling artists in pop music history; in fact, it is conceivable that they are the top male and female solo artists (in terms of records sold) of all time.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, American Pie (song)
Wikipedia, Don McLean
Wikipedia, Garth Brooks
Wikipedia, We Shall Be Free
Wikipedia, Madonna (entertainer)
Jeff Roteman, “Bob Dearborn’s Original Analysis of Don McLean’s 1971 Classic ‘American Pie'”, Aug 10, 2002.

About Tim Londergan

Tim Londergan is professor emeritus of theoretical physics at Indiana University-Bloomington. He studies the properties of the quarks and gluons that form the internal structure of protons and neutrons. He also writes a blog "Tim's Cover Story" that compares covers of important songs in rock music history. He and his wife share their college-town life with two delightful cats, Lewis and Clark. His hobbies include tennis and ornithology, and he is a life-long fan of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team.
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2 Responses to American Pie: Don McLean; Garth Brooks; Madonna

  1. Frederick Luehring says:

    My memory (it’s been a loooooong time) of the documentary Gimme Shelter was that while the Hell’s Angels beat up a lot of people, the person who died was stabbed. I seem to remember Mick Jagger commenting on how he could see the knife silhouetted against a near by women’s clothes as the Angels stabbed the victim. Wikipedia supports this:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Altamont_Free_Concert
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Death_of_Meredith_Hunter

    Like

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