Don’t Eat the American Pie

Don McLean flyer. Israel, March 2018.

Seeing this poster in Tel Aviv for a Don McLean concert, you might think, “I didn’t even know he was still alive,” then ponder the afterlives of music careers, how even one-hit wonders make good money playing resorts and fairs. Or you might think, “How incongruous!” and marvel at the strange feats of decontextualisation that the intersection of capitalism and culture makes possible.

But if you were to take some time to reflect on the deeper meaning of “American Pie,” McLean’s best-known song, and try transposing it to Israel, you would eventually realise that this concert, at this time in history, could not be in better sync with its setting.

The song, if you don’t remember it well, tells the story of a descent into chaos and disillusionment in the wake of “the day the music died”. But it tells this story entirely in code, never mentioning anyone by name. Given the details in each stanza, it seems pretty clear that McLean wants us to see the 1959 plane crash that took the lives of early rock-and-roll stars Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and The Big Bopper as the beginning of this period and its end as the series of events that signalled the exhaustion of its utopian energies, from the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr., Robert F. Kennedy to the scaling-up of the war in Indochina; from the rapid rise in drug abuse throughout the developed world to the violent turn in various protest movements; from the suppression of the Prague Spring to the brutality in Biafra and East Pakistan.

To be sure, McLean spent years avoiding an overt explanation of the song. And even when he did relent, he described it as an autobiographical account of his personal development during those years. In retrospect, it seems clear that he recognised intuitively that the best way of killing a compelling allegory is to “artist-splain” it. Letting people find what they want and need to find may detract from whatever message you wished to convey, but it guarantees that the impact of your work will expand to encompass different interpretations.

That’s why conservative Christians could argue that “American Pie” was a denunciation of the satanic influence on popular culture, while my mother, who was devoted to the same folk music tradition in which McLean began his career, could inform me that it was really about how Bob Dylan’s decision to go electric at Newport in 1965 led to a widening split between artists like Pete Seeger, fastidiously devoted to the Popular Front-style protest culture of the Depression, and the sort that the loud, irreverent rock-and-roll counterculture would soon produce. No matter how hard you examine the song’s lyrics, you can’t find adequate evidence to dismiss these readings outright or many others that have popped up over the years.

For the most part, though, these interpretations are much too narrow by themselves, reducing the song’s multivalence to something deceptively simple. The best know parody of McLean’s masterpiece, Weird Al Yankovic’s 1999 song “The Saga Begins” does a far better job, surprisingly. By recontextualising “American Pie” in relation to the Star Wars franchise’s New Age mythology, it provides the raw material for discerning a political substrate in the lyrics. Anticipating the story arc of the so-called prequel trilogy, they implicitly connect Annikin Skywalker’s impending journey to the dark side, his transformation into Darth Vader, with that of the United States itself.

Annikin is blessed with immense potential but struggles to realise it because his arrogance and impatience are refracted through a reservoir of wounded resentment. In the second and third films of the trilogy, he increasingly comes to feel that traditional institutions — the Senate, the Jedi – are holding him back and seeks a path that will make it easier for him to achieve maximum power.

To anyone who knows the history of the United States, this plot neatly distils its transformation from a provincial backwater into the world’s greatest power over the century between the Mexican-American War and World War II. But it provides an even more apt précis of Israel’s development, particularly the pervasive sense of having-been-wronged and concomitant desire to exact revenge that animates the nation’s history. The reason why the Jedi Council refuses to train young Annikin is that its members, particularly Yoda, sense that he is holding on too fiercely to the feeling of having grown up as a slave and will possibly find it difficult to let go of other injuries in the future (as soon proves to be the case).

What does this have to do with “American Pie,” which looks back nostalgically on a Golden Age before the music died? Both the United States and Israel are unusually fixated on the time when they came into being, the founding fathers and mothers who determined their future course. These early years were not a time of great power, relatively speaking, yet they now bask in the warm glow of righteousness. Although ethically problematic actions made survival possible — the forced displacement of native peoples, first and foremost — the conviction that there was no other choice continues to justify them in the minds of most citizens.

In the case of Israel, however, this parallel is further accentuated by the fact that perception of the nation’s place in history was radically transformed during the 1960s. The apparent loss of innocence that McLean chronicles corresponds rather nicely with the aftermath of the Six Day War when Israel could no longer fall back on the image of the plucky underdog. But here’s the thing: The cold, hard truth is that the perception of what preceded that sudden shift is largely the product of delusion. If there was innocence lost in the nation’s history, it wasn’t after it had matured into a regional power, but at the very beginning, with decisions that have haunted it ever since.

The same holds true for rock and roll, really, and along intriguingly similar lines. That Golden Age that “American Pie” directs our attention towards, before the fall into knowledge, was only possible because of a foundational theft, that transfer of cultural resources that made African-American culture palatable to middle-class whites.

In a sense, then the positing of 3 February 1959 as “the day the music died” functions as a way of whitewashing history since that music had been suffering long before mainstream American society acknowledged its birth. And when the United States’ behaviour as a superpower during the Eisenhower years is taken into account, the idea — though assiduously promoted in Star Wars creator George Lucas’s 1973 film American Graffiti and a host of other texts, including the television show Happy Days and a spate of back-to-basics records that responded to the perceived excesses of the counterculture — that this period was somehow “innocent” seems even more problematic.

A great many people are still interested in debating what happened during the late 1960s, as the numerous fiftieth-anniversary celebrations scheduled for this year are sure to forcefully demonstrate. Some wish to redeem that tumultuous time’s revolutionary promise. Others continue decades-worth of efforts to undo its cultural and political legacy. But almost everyone seems to go along with the notion that it was a time of excess, standing in sharp contrast to the relative probity that preceded it.

In this regard, the ground has long since been ceded to those who wish to disentangle the idea of progress from what was once its leading edge, either by reframing it in purely economic or technological terms — though there aren’t any moon landings coming up — or by insisting that it’s politically counterproductive to think in terms of progress at all.

Bearing all this in mind, it could be very worthwhile to take a closer look at the role nostalgia culture currently plays in reinforcing reactionary political behaviour. Many Baby Boomers have retired and a lot more will do so in the next few years, where their numbers will continue to distort demography, as they’ve been doing since the 1960s. There are lot of them, in other words, which means that the increasing conservatism that senior citizens tend to display will have a greater impact than ever.

One perverse consequence of this asymmetry is that artists like Don McLean will continue to get gigs as long as they are capable of playing because they help to ratify fellow senior citizens’ self-conception as people who experienced the most radical time ever and learned lessons they need to impart to each generation that followed theirs.

Crucial to proponents of this reverse ageism is the conviction that they made the perilous passage from innocence to experience, bringing the world gifts that everyone still benefits from. Perhaps what is needed, then, is an approach to cultural and political analysis that demystifies the before-and-after logic of such beliefs. The 1960s didn’t span a loss of innocence; rather, they distracted people sufficiently so that they would fail to recognise that they never had much innocence to lose. 

That’s the lesson of “American Pie” we can glean from reading the song, as Walter Benjamin famously advised, “against the grain”. It sure beats watching a geriatric Don McLean sing his most famous song for fans who would rather validate their youthful struggle than do anything to transpose it into the future.

Commentary by Charlie Bertsch. Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. Published under a Creative Commons license.