Eight and a half minutes was still a terrifying eternity in that year of 1971. Only with a lot of subject matter and an extraordinary melodic talent to manage to get a radio station to play the entire song without its listeners turning off the device or, worse, migrating to another station. Hey Judewith its duration of more than seven minutes, had been an achievement of Paul McCartney three years ago. The End, like everything else by the Doors, one point off the curve in 1967, with an unbelievable 11 minutes and 43 seconds. AND California hotel, architected note by note as a monumental building, would only exist in five years. But subject and melody were just what was left of the Don McLean at the beginning of the decade and its American Piehe felt, had the strength to overthrow an empire.
The song came out in 1971 thrown like a harpoon with many points, reaching the heart of a world full of sexual, racial, political, military, ethical, musical and existential dilemmas. There was already a lot of emptiness and frustration in that post-Beatles, post-Woodstock, post-Martin Luther King Jr, post-Robert Kennedy and pre-disco time gap. In other words, in short – and despite the Sly and Family Stone – after dream. McLean picked up his guitar and captured the lack of planetary inspiration with a poetic and melodic crescent sequence of the most inspired of his time. American Pie, the symbolic apple pie, went straight from the album, McLean’s second, to the top of the most played. And it’s been there for over 50 years as the longest song to ever reach that position.
Time has made the song even bigger than what Americans call “fire music”. In addition to having the tenderness of the most heartbreaking folk songs, right in everything, his lyrics began to gain mythological, mistaken, fake or, it also happened, perfectly adequate interpretations. Whenever asked by journalists about the meanings of his lines, Don McLean would go around the edges: “After all, what is the meaning of American Pie?” asked the journalists. “It means I’ll never have to work again,” he once replied. Her logic was simple. When explaining anything, McLean would empty the magic of the possibilities: “You find a lot of explanations about my lyrics, none of them made by me… forward, maintaining a respectful silence.”
At 76 years old, already guaranteed a star in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the author lived to see an entire documentary dedicated to his music. The Day The Music Died, or The Day the Music Died, a phrase from the song and the name by which one of the most shocking tragedies in rock history became known, is on the Paramount+ platform with good stories, good interviewees and a part in which the lyrics are dissected so that, as far as possible, the truths are revealed or reinforced. The most obvious of them is: the song was dedicated to Buddy Holly and made still by a heart bleeding from the death of the idol. McLean learned of Holly’s death while working as a newspaper delivery boy on the morning of February 3, 1959. The lyrics read: “February made me shiver / with every paper I’d deliver”, or “February made me shiver with every newspaper that I delivered”.
Things to demolish: Elvis Presley is not the “king” mentioned in the song; the “girl who sang the blues” was not Janis Joplin and Bob Dylan was not the “jester”. The fake news went so far that it even reached Dylan himself, taken by a Rolling Stone magazine reporter: “A court jester?” Dylan said. “Of course, the court jester writes songs like Masters of War, A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall, It’s Alright, Ma. I can only think he is talking about someone else.” At the same time, the film notes that “the day the music died” concerns the plane crash that took the lives of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper, as well as pilot Roger Peterson.
The label’s solution to release the long song is also remembered. A single had the first half of the song on side A while the second half was heard on side B. The song was so good that people turned the album over just to hear the sequel to the story. None of the later versions would have the same audacity. Garth Brooks, one of its versionists and interviewee in the film, says the song is “about this urge for independence, this urge to discover, to believe that anything is possible”.
John Meyer, Jon Bon Jovi and even Madonna, overwhelming, they also made their versions, but none to the point of surpassing the affective force imposed in 1971. “For me, American Pie it’s a compliment to a dream that didn’t come true”, says the song’s producer, Ed Freeman, in the film. “We witnessed the death of the American dream.” McLean says that “the country was in some advanced state of psychic shock.” “All this confusion and riots and cities on fire.” His idea, he says, was to make a song about the United States in a way that no one else had done. He managed.