February 3rd was the 50th anniversary of the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper, which is why Don McLean has been stuck in my head for the last two weeks.
“American Pie” was song-lyric gold to the dreamy teenager I used to be and pretend I no longer am. Even before I learned in school what made for good poetry, I knew I was not making good poetry, so I copied song lyrics into my journal instead. My parents also had a tendency to be, shall we say, over-curious about what I was always scribbling, so I also used song lyrics to hide the details if I didn’t want them to know something. I would pick a song that had the right emotion for the moment and use it to encrypt my turbulence or joy or confusion or hurt.
While it doesn’t exactly take the NSA to decode what I was feeling when I transcribed “Tears of a Clown” or “Yesterday” or “I Go to Extremes” or “Never Tear Us Apart,” I have no idea what specific incident or person each song stands for. But when I turn the pages, which crinkle and pop like old parchment because I pressed so hard with my pen, old insecurities and heartbreak sing to me. I also hear a kind of giddy delight at how much meaning could be packed into so few words.
So I don’t remember exactly why “American Pie” is in my notebook. It falls, I believe, in the “We Didn’t Start the Fire” category of song-lyric transcribing — in which I wanted to understand and connect to history and the world at large. There was mystery and meaning that needed teasing out or looking up in dictionaries, almanacs, encyclopedias. (And for the record, yes, yes, I am wincing at the second Billy Joel reference in a very short amount of time and no, no, I will not admit to how many of his songs are in my journals.)
But I do remember writing out “American Pie.” I copied the whole song, snapping between play and pause on my flat gray tape recorder (careful not to press the orange record button), rewinding when I missed a word, thinking the song was about John Lennon. I was seven when Lennon was shot, and I still remember my father showing me the Time cover with tears in his eyes. My dad was — is still — a reluctant Beatles fan and, at the time, I didn’t understand his reaction.
It was (according to the date in my notebook) December 1985 when I wrote out “American Pie,” five years after Lennon was killed and my father cried. I knew, as I wrote, that McLean was singing about yet another thing my father understood and I did not, something about the world growing darker, something about innocence and hope, something about America before I was born. I remember wanting to feel the same way as they did, to feel that the three men I admired most were the “father son and the holy ghost,” but knowing I didn’t. (And, of course, “Helter skelter in a summer swelter” did nothing to change my Lennon-based ideas about the song.)
But most of all, I remember hitting the chorus, with its word “levee” and being completely and utterly stumped. First, there was the spelling: “levy”? “levee”? I knew there were two spellings, but didn’t know what either meant (see, I was always that kind of word geek), and once I looked it up and settled on “levee” because it was the one that could (sort of) be dry, I . . . still didn’t understand.
For years, I didn’t get what that line (“I drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry”) had to do with the price of beans, let alone with music and the death thereof. It always bugged me — I mean, I had decoded the whole song. I’d learned the references to Buddy Holly (February made me shiver, Singing “this’ll be the day that I die”), Altamont (the flames climbed high into the night), the Beatles (while the sergeants played a marching tune) and so on and so on — but this line eluded me.
As you can imagine, the Interwebnets are all atwitter with interesting, if wrong, interpretations. One asserts that the line evokes the song “See the USA in your Chevrolet.” Another claims it’s a reference to the civil-rights murders (because their bodies were found in a levee).
They’re wrong. And Don McLean, who wants us to believe that all of his lyrics are “beyond interpretation,” is wrong.
McLean and I both went to Iona College (no, not at the same time — haven’t you been reading?). There’s a bar roughly across the street from Iona called The Beechmont. The former name of the Beechmont when McLean was the right age for the time-honored tradition of underage drinking in New Rochelle? The Levee.
Well, the Levee, she closed. And the good old boys? They had to go drink their whiskey in Rye — as in, Rye, New York, not that far from New Rochelle, a town that, along with Port Chester, was once well-known for being the spot where all the Greenwich kids would go to drink legally because the drinking age was higher in Connecticut.
And for me, this simple explanation ties in with my original experience of the song, trying to understand why my father was so upset at the death of John Lennon, wanting to connect some great change in America with the changes in my own head, heart, and body. The narrator of “American Pie” is singing a mournful bye-bye to the way things Used To Be. The narrator knows, like my father felt, “there we were all in one place, / A generation lost in space / With no time left to start again.”