Who didn’t know these things about ‘American Pie?’


As long as I’m going on about the days of my youth…

I was flabbergasted by this piece in the WSJ over the weekend:

Earlier this month, one of the greatest mysteries in rock ’n’ roll was finally solved. The unnamed “king” and “jester on the sidelines” in Don McLean’s iconic 1971 song “American Pie” were revealed to be Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan, respectively….

Whoa, whoa, whoa! Hang on! Greatest mysteries?

Who did not know, soon after the song’s release in the fall of 1971, that “the king” was Elvis and the “jester” was Dylan?

Nobody! At least, nobody who was old enough to take a consuming interest in listening to the radio and who had time on his hands to talk endlessly about such drivel. In other words, nobody who was in college then.

I checked, and I was right — the columnist who wrote that was 3 years old when the song came out. So… maybe this was a big revelation to her, but not to Rob, Barry, Dick or me.

It’s hard to believe it even made headlines. Oh, I see why — McLean just sold the lyrics for $1.2 million. OK.

You know what? Now that I think back, I’m hard-pressed to explain how we knew all that stuff that we knew about the song. There were no social media. There was no Wikipedia. And mass media were firmly in the hands of the older generation, which didn’t care and didn’t engage such topics. Did we get it from DJs on the radio? From Rolling Stone? I don’t remember how we knew; we just did. Or thought we did, anyway…

45 thoughts on “Who didn’t know these things about ‘American Pie?’

  1. Phillip

    I was an avid listener of Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 radio show weekly in those days, and I distinctly recall him having a special show, maybe a half hour or even more, in which he analyzed the lyrics to American Pie.

  2. Gregory Hardy

    South Park’s Trey Parker and Matt Stone have an expression for that when it comes to dealing with celebrity libel lawsuits: “True Rumors.” They can get away with doing an episode of if Tom Cruise is gay by making fun of the True Rumor: It doesn’t matter whether or not Tom Cruise is gay, but it’s a True Rumor that people wonder if Tom Cruise is gay, so they make fun of the people wondering part.

    They also cited as examples the stories of “This movie star had to go to a hospital to get a gerbil taken out of you-know-where” and “this rock star fainted on stage and was rushed to the hospital where after a stomach pump it turned out he had yada yada yada.” All those gross-out stories predate the Internet, but we’ve ALL heard them, we all KNOW who/what they’re taking about … how do these True Rumors come to life?

    So that’s our vocabulary builder of the day: True Rumor.

  3. Doug T

    Somewhere in a shoe box (I ran across it a few months ago) is a letter (1972?) from a disc jockey at WLS Chicago explaining line by line the song “American Pie”. My girlfriend (and wife of 42 years) and I would sit in my ’68 Dodge listening to AM radio or the 8 track. I think it was a tie between “American Pie” or Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” being our favorite. Sitting behind the Rainbow Grill in Hartsville eating cheeseburgers with chili…kids don’t do that anymore do they? We did get McLean’s 8 track. “Vincent” is a beautiful song. I think I’ll go to You Tube and listen again.

    Good Night.

  4. Norm Ivey

    Back in the day I spent hours listening to this and trying to identify everything. I’ve never found a satisfactory answer for the identity of the queen. I’ve seen online references that Dylan did a concert for Queen Elizabeth II, but I can’t find a reliable source that confirms it.

    Any thoughts on who she is?

    1. Mark Stewart

      Music is an art form. Maybe sometimes the expression is to carry the point forward – maybe there is no specific decoding to every phrase.

      In this song, the three phrases I personally wonder about are the queen, the whisky ‘n rye, and the levee.

      Some things should (and do) remain inscrutable. That’s reflective of human communication; things don’t always convey from one to another the way the speaker intended, even when they are trying to be clear and not instead aim to paint the impression they feel at that moment. And we all paint our impressions of life in some way or another.

      Storytelling is the transmission of ideas more than facts. What is truth is not always definable, not in our rigid vocabulary anyway. Lyrics express the rhythms of life.

      1. Norm Ivey

        I always figured he said the levee because it rhymes with Chevy. I wonder if the levee is dry in the sense that there’s no drinking allowed? That would play as a counterpoint to the good ol’ boys drinking while the singer can’t.

  5. Bryan Caskey

    Like the song; hadn’t really thought about it that much. As has been mentioned here before in other discussions of music, “American Pie” doesn’t really mean much to me, ’cause I wasn’t there for all that crazy stuff.

    Funny how everyone scoffs at the Millennials now. The more I read about the Boomers, the more I see similarities with the Millenials. Don’t look at me though. I’m on the tail-end of Gen X.

    1. Doug Ross

      When people claim today is worse than the past it’s due primarily to selective memory… the range of human experience has and always will be a bell curve. For every Beatles, there was a Tiny Tim. For every Marlon Brando, there was a Herbie and the Love Bug. If you think the old days were better, you’re lying to yourself.

    2. Brad Warthen Post author

      No, I’m not. The sixties HAD the Beatles. Today we have nothing of the kind.

      I’ve written about this before, and I’m far from being the only one — the 1960s were an unbelievably fertile cultural watershed. There was just this explosion of creativity in the popular sphere, whatever the medium you choose — music, television, film (a lot of bad movies, but some really impressive cutting-edge stuff that everything we’ve seen since built on), fashion, design, and even the written word (New Journalism, for instance).

      The dynamism, the constantly churning change and excitement around the changes, is something that is hard to explain.

      Look at a photograph or hear a song from that decade, and you have a good chance of picking the year. Today, you’d be hard-pressed to choose the decade. People look the way they did 20 years ago, in terms of what most of them wear, hairstyles, etc. As for music — well, when’s the last time you heard something really new and fresh, something that moved the needle?

      It’s not nostalgia, or not just nostalgia. There was a lot about the 60s that was abhorrent. But the dynamism was astounding…

      1. Doug Ross

        I listen frequently to the replays of Casy Kasem’s Top 40 on Sirius 70’s on 7. Each week they replay a different show from the same week during one year of the 70’s. The difference in the music styles between 1970 and 1979 are likely as great as the difference you saw between 1960 and 1969.

  6. Doug Ross

    “well, when’s the last time you heard something really new and fresh, something that moved the needle?”

    Pretty much on a weekly basis. Check out Alabama Shakes… Mumford and Sons..

    Decade by decade there have been game changers. For me it’s artists like Eminem. Van Halen. Dave Matthews. The Beastie Boys. Bruce Springsteen. The list goes on and on.

  7. Phillip

    Doug, I agree there was tremendous variety and innovation in the 70s and later decades, and there continue to be innovative and interesting music on into our own time. I think what Brad is getting at about the 60s is that the impact of certain groups in rock music (just focusing on that genre for the moment) was more profound and longer-lasting than with most since. Yes, there were a lot of changes in the 70s, the 80s, so forth…but I think in terms of mass-market pop music the changes have shrunk decade by decade.

    That might be a function of me being an old fogie, but I wasn’t even conscious of pop music in the 60’s, so I’m looking at it as a dispassionate observer. The musical voyage from 1959 to the Beatles’ White Album is in another realm entirely.

    Plus, the 60s was the decade when popular tastes and culture transitioned from being primarily dictated by and for “grownups” and became energized by influence and innovation from younger creators (and consumers). (Mad Men, from what I know of that show, illustrates this change pretty well). From that point on, to a greater and greater extent, American culture in so many things (music, film, TV, food, technology) has been driven by the under-35 crowd and maybe even the under-30 crowd.

    Pop music accordingly got seriously commodified during the 70s from being the expression of a rebellious generation to an expression of various “consumer generations.” Not to say there aren’t expressions of rebellion anymore, but they are more “rebellion-as-brand,” if it is mass-market music. The real musical troublemakers (in all genres) have, by definition, pretty small audiences for the most part.

    Then there’s the nature of media itself. I recall when Michael Jackson died, how some commentators noted that no pop artist likely ever again would sell “units” in the volume he did, simply because the market for music (like so many other commodities) has become so fragmented, along with the means of dissemination. Just like there was only CBS, NBC, ABC in the 60s, so were there limited means/choice to hear (and to hear of) various pop artists. Today we have so many more choices in music, just as we have so many more choices in [fill-in commodity of your choice here]. No group will be like the Beatles, for many reasons, one of which being because no group that attained anything remotely like the success they did would be able to continue to make the artistic choices they made in their (let’s not forget, actually quite brief) career.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Media are more diverse now, but popular music was VERY diverse in the 60s — British pop groups and their American imitators, folk (which covered a fairly broad range of styles itself), varieties of soul (Memphis, Motown), Burt Bacharach all by his lonesome, Hispanic music like Trini Lopez, Brazilian music like Sergio Mendes, crossover country from Glen Campbell to Johnny Cash, both west- and east-coast beach music, Broadway show tunes (which we heard a LOT on TV variety shows, white blues from Paul Butterfield to Cream. And old people music, too — Dean Martin probably had more exposure than at any other time through his variety show, and Sinatra had some big hits during the decade. There was also Perry Como, Andy Williams, etc.

      But because the media pipeline was narrow, all of us were exposed to ALL of it. So people’s musical tastes were more likely to be broad-based. People had less opportunity to go off into limited cultural digressions…

      1. Doug Ross

        I think you guys are just old. 🙂 The diversity is there and most kids listen to a wide variety of music. My daughter’s iTunes covers a wide range of styles.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          But that’s your daughter’s playlist. It’s not a widely shared experience, the way music was in the 60s.

          The different styles your daughter listens to now are more likely to come from various relatively esoteric niches.

          In the 60s, we were surrounded at all times by this very wide array of musical styles, that shifted radically from year to year.

          And that change from year to year is the most notable difference between now and then. I suspect that your daughter’s playlist, diverse as it is, contains music that would in no way have been surprising to someone 10 years ago, and might not sound like an “oldie” to someone 10 years from now.

          But back then, the music was all about right NOW, and a little later, things would be very different…

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            Kids today are less rooted in the NOW. Which means the musical niches they get into are as unrooted in time as in style.

            For instance, a friend of one of my daughters, hearing about my musical tastes, burned me some CDs of stuff he likes, stuff from the 60s and 70s that the pop world overlooked back then — Michael Hurley, and Link Wray.

            A kid in the 60s lacked the technological ability to share music from, say, the 1900s. He was unlikely even to have the chance to HEAR it, much less share it…

          2. Mark Stewart

            Was it the music itself in the 1960s; or was it the curating of what made it out into the wider public realm that drove the Boomer generation into such a frenzy? Looking back, this would also seem to include artists own explorations of other peoples’ music…

            In other words, was it just a huge pool of impressionable youths with access to portable turntables and later on 8 track tape players? Was the “innovation” synonymous with dissemination?

            I think the ability to record and replay music is what launched this generational feeling of newness and change. What you describe as a youth culture sounds suspiciously like the roaring 20s, but maybe not quite as young an audience as the disposable incomes had not risen yet. Maybe it was easy money and control over their own technology that drove the kids of the 60s?

            1. Kathryn Fenner

              I think you have hit the nail on the head: the rise of youthquake culture was clearly driven by how many Boomers there were and how much discretionary income they had–clearly a tipping point. Before that, teens were poor, for the most part, so marketing was not directed at them.
              As far as technology goes, don’t forget the transistor radio and the cassette tape, both cheap and portable. Portable turntables are swell, but vinyl is not convenient to transport, and stable surfaces are required. You can groove all over with a nifty transistor radio with a wrist strap, or a tape player. A tape player also makes dissemination way easier. Nobody made a mix LP.

            2. Brad Warthen Post author

              What do you mean, “curating”? Are you referring to what DJs did?

              And yes, there was a “youth culture” in the 20s — I suppose younger people threw themselves into the excesses of the Jazz Age with far greater enthusiasm than their elders.

              But I don’t think the “culture” of youth in the 20s, flappers notwithstanding, was nearly as distinct from that of their elders as was the Boomers’. To a boomer, the crazy kids of the Jazz Age looked a lot like their parents…

            3. Brad Warthen Post author

              To Kathryn’s comment re cassettes:

              Yes, BUT… I don’t think the cassette came completely into its own as a means of making music MOBILE until the advent of the Walkman in mid-1979. Which is later than the era in question. Although yes, most of us had cassette players put into our cars earlier in the 70s.

              Of course, there was 8-track, but it was never the phenomenon that the transistor radio was, or that mobile cassette players were later.

            4. Brad Warthen Post author

              Not that we weren’t USING cassettes in the 60s. We sent (low-fidelity) cassettes back and forth to my Dad while he was in Vietnam, 1967-68. It pretty much replaced letters…

            5. Mark Stewart

              I’m old enough to remember lugging stacks of albums (never 45s) to and from friends houses. We would listen to a song here and one from there – or sometimes stack a bunch on the little tower and listen to 3-4 A or B sides. Mixed tapes didn’t really happen much until after 1980 – Walkman’s certainly popularized them but they had been around before. It was about 1980 that the recordable quality got good enough to make mixes that didn’t sound like playground mixes. I remember the older reel to reel tapes, too – but those were only ever touched by DAD.

              By curating, I meant that the music heard by the masses was edited by the record label kingpins, the DJs and even the record store clerks. The channels were narrow, and as you said, they tended to gush out something and then quickly move onto something else. Maybe that’s innovation. Or maybe it is people shoveling “the new”. There is a fine line between experimentation and manipulation…

            6. Kathryn Fenner

              I had a cassette player/recorder that was maybe the size of two or three VHS tapes, and weighed about the same, about 1970–which means it wasn’t cutting edge if my frugal parents would buy such a thing for me. I could carry it everywhere, unlike the Hi-Fi in its mahogany and upholstered grandeur.
              My friends and I used it to tape our own plays, until I got some Partridge Family tapes, and then—also I’d tape TV themes off the air. I was a weird kid.

            7. Brad Warthen Post author

              Oh, I had one of those. It didn’t play hi-fi music, but it was good for speech. It was like the one we used for sending cassettes to my Dad in Vietnam.

              Once in 1970, “A Hard Day’s Night” came on the telly, and I put the recorder next to it and recorded large chunks of the dialogue. I listened to that a LOT afterward. It’s why, in my teens, I could do a dead-on impersonation of John saying to Ringo, “Stop dragging things down to your own level. It’s immature, son.”

              If I had known that someday I could just hit a button and record the whole movie, in HD, I would have been overwhelmed at the idea that there could be anything so wonderful in the world, much less widely and affordably available…

            8. Norm Ivey

              I made my first cassette mix tape in 1974. I am certain of the date because I know that it had Rock On (David Essex) and Hooked on a Feeling (Blue Swede) on it. I made it on a little portable player that also had an AM/FM radio. I would listen to the radio until I heard the first notes of a song, and then punch the Play/Record buttons at the same time. The kids at school were duly impressed that I got those songs for free and could listen to them anytime I want. I also had a tape about the same time that I assembled from my parent’s country album collection featuring Ray Price, Jim Reeves, Ed Ames and Sonny James (among others). I’ve made hundreds of tapes/playlists since.

          3. Brad Warthen Post author

            At the moment I’m listening, via Pandora, to a cover version of Elton John’s 1971 hit “Tiny Dancer,” played by Ben Folds on a 2002 live album.

            A music-listening experience like that was impossible, on a number of levels, in 1971. The fact that people can listen like that across time now smooths out distinctions to where you can’t really point to something and say, “That sounds like 2015.” EVERYTHING sounds like 2015, and vice versa…

            1. Brad Warthen Post author

              In the 60s, a pop group such as Herman’s Hermits could repackage a dance-hall ditty from decades earlier — “Henry the Eighth” — and kids would think it was new and fresh.

              When Ben Folds played “Tiny Dancer” in 2002, most of his audience probably recognized it as an Elton John song. (Interestingly, Folds did nothing to make it his own; it sounded like he was trying to impersonate Elton note for note.)

              And of course, what was true of 2002 is more true of 2015.

              That’s a big difference.

            2. Brad Warthen Post author

              I looked it up — something else that would have been practically impossible at the time — and “Henery the 8th” was first popular in 1910, which would have blown my mind in the mid-60s.

              In 1965. 1910 seemed so far in the past, it might as well have been the Late Medieval Period.

              And yet, it was exactly as long ago as 1960 is today. Which isn’t nothing, but it isn’t much, either…

  8. Brad Warthen Post author

    Rather than repeat myself, let me refer you to my arguments of the past on this point. Here’s a post in which I argued that the 1965-1975 period was unique in pop music.

    Then there was this one, about how I came back to this country in 1965 after having been in the Third World since lat 1962, and how I was overwhelmed by the tsunami of cultural change, a wave that didn’t just hit once, but kept on coming — and how, if I’d been gone the same period in this decade, I’d be utterly unimpressed.

    I think the evidence is hard to argue with. The rise of youth as a force driving popular culture at the very moment that the biggest generation in history was reaching its teens made for a restless energy such as had not been seen before, and hasn’t been seen since. Phillip mentions the journey of the Beatles. They reinvented themselves from album to album — both causing and being affected by the changes around them — in ways that I don’t think we’ve ever seen on that scale. It was a very, very, VERY different time…

    1. Doug Ross

      How much of the Beatles reinvention was the result of drug use? And should we regret that they made those personal choices to partake in those drugs when we see the results?

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        I don’t know. I mean, when you have Lennon vehemently denying that “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” was about LSD, it’s hard to know exactly what is drug-influenced and what is not.

        Obviously, there is SOME drug influence. And a LOT during the “Magical Mystery Tour” phase.

        But much of it was about fashion — hair, clothes, etc. — with the Beatles both reflecting and setting trends in that area.

        Of course, the Beatles were always drug-influenced to some extent. They were ingesting black-market pills to stay up through those long sets in Hamburg long before we heard of them.

        But creatively, the acid influence was the greatest, starting with Dr. Robert

  9. DougT

    What does Dave Barry say…I am not making this up. Channel surfuring last night going through my progression (PBS, CSPAN, a couple more), as a last gasp to find something worth watching I turned to Palladia. A red headed British-accent guy was singing “Vincent”. The song endures. His guitar playing left much to be desired, but the young girls in the audience were enjoying every note. I think the guy’s famous, but I haven’t a clue who he was.

      1. Doug Ross

        By “chicks” I assume you mean 60 year old women? Chicks today dig John Mayer singing “Your Body is a Wonderland”.

Comments are closed.