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Monday, August 23, 2010

American Pie Revisited

I heard he sang a good song,
I heard he had a style
And so I came to see him,
To listen for a while
And there he was this young boy,
A stranger to my eyes

Those are part of the lyrics from Killing Me Softly, popularised by Roberta Flack. It was written by Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel. Originally, it was recorded by Lori Lieberman but it was the Roberta Flack version which had thrust this beautiful song into pop folklore, sweeping the world by winning 3 grammys including the coveted “Song Of The Year” award.

I like the song. The soulful Roberta Flack version is always touching and emotive, to say the least. And the recent Fugees’ version (featuring va va voom Larryn Hill), despite it’s hip hop proximity and influences, is also one to be savoured.

Not many people know but this song was inspired by a poem written by Lieberman titled “Killing Me Softly With His Blues”. Lieberman wrote that poem after watching a then unknown singer performing. This particular singer later became a famous folk rock singer who wrote one of the best, and the most enigmatic folk rock song of all time. Who was he? Who was this singer whom Lieberman saw and who was:-

Strumming my pain with his fingers
Singing my life with his words
Killing me softly with his song
Killing me softly with his song
Telling my whole life with his words
Killing me softly with his song

That singer was the then unknown Don McLean. The singer/composer who would later penned hits such as the beautiful, and yet disturbing and haunting “Vincent”, a tribute to non other than Vincent Van Gogh. Just consider this:

And when no hope was left inside
On that starry, starry night
You took your life as lovers often do -
But I could've told you, Vincent:
This world was never meant
For one as beautiful as you

McLean’s lyrics are always filled with emotive imageries and metaphors, and hauntingly beautiful multi layered colours. Along this line, American Pie was composed, recorded and released in 1971.

The song bucked the then prevailing trend in that it was more than 8 minute long. Many among the production people were pessimistic about the song when McLean wanted to record it. But of course, the rest, as they say, is history.

The song became some kind of an anthem among folk rock fans across the globe. It is, for example, listed in the Song Of The Century education project at number 5 song of the 20th century. But what actually interested many fans about the song is its lyrics and their meaning.

I must say that in terms of enigmatic lyrics, American Pie must rank up there together with Procol Harum’s haunting “A Whiter Shade Of Pale” and Robert Plant’s gibberish laden “Stairway To Heaven”. Plant’s “Stairway To Heaven” is a heavyweight in itself, being a 6-minute something epic rock with arrangement so complicated that it had even been compared with a Beethoven’s piece.

Jimmy Page’s riffs in that song is among the best riffs in any rock songs ever. In my opinion, that riffs are almost similar in stature as that of David Gilmore’s riffs in “Comfortably Numb” (voted by Rolling Stones Magazine as the best rock riffs ever). The only thing which would have made Stairway To Heaven even better, to me, is a 2 minute co da with an inter play between Page’s acoustic guitar and his monster Les Paul! I wish!

In contrast, Procol Harum’s number was shorter in length. It remains to date as one of the most frequently covered song in history although Annie Lennox’s cover would, in my opinion, rank as the best. The lyrics were enigmatic, to say the least. Plant’s lyrics in Stairway To Heaven were seemingly gibberish. In fact, it is a known fact that Plant himself did not like the song, refusing to perform it live. Once, he famously, or rather infamously, referred to the song as “that little wedding song”! Blasphemy!

I digressed, yes. It’s hard not to when I am talking about something which I absolutely love.

Okay, back to American Pie. Lyrically, American Pie became the “greatest mystery in rock and roll history”. Such was the enigma and mystery of the lyrics that the song spawned hundreds of interpretations while Don McLean maintained a dignified silence about its meaning save for admitting that the song did refer to Buddy Holly and that the album American Pie was dedicated to him. On August 3, 1993, a letter was published where McLean among others said:

"As you can imagine, over the years I've been asked many times to discuss and explain my song "American Pie" [June25]. I have never discussed the lyrics, but have admitted to the Holly reference in the opening stanzas. I dedicated the album American Pie to Buddy Holly as well in order to connect the entire statement to Holly in hopes of brining about an interest in him, which subsequently did occur... Sorry to leave you all on your own like this but long ago I realized that songwriters should make their statements and move on, maintaining a dignified silence."

And so, it is well established that American Pie did refer to Buddy Holly. “American Pie” to me refers to the America of the old days, where people would live in happiness and peace, days where greed and power were not too important, days of innocence where people would be listening to their favorite music and danced in the gym, days where Richie Valen and Buddy Holly ruled. The song is a study in rock and roll music development in America intertwined with a social study of the American psyche of the late 50s running through the 60s, paying attention to how things changed after a certain date, the turning point being “the day the music died”, namely, the day Buddy Holly died in an air crash in 1959 together with Richie Valen (as portrayed in the movie La Bamba) and the Big Bopper.

"But something touched me deep inside
The day the music died
So bye-bye, Miss American Pie
Drove my chevy to the levee
But the levee was dry
And them good old boys were drinkin' whiskey and rye
Singing this will be the day that I die
This'll be the day that I die

To McLean, the day Buddy Holly died marked a shift of some sorts in the history of rock and roll in particular and in the socio-political scene of America generally. America of old was portrayed in various imageries and metaphors which are filled with innocence and nonchalant attitude.

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

All these would change, quite irretrievably on the day the music died.

But I knew I was out of luck
The day the music died

Thereafter he traced the emergence of Bob Dylan, a fact which was juxtaposed against the decline in popularity of Elvis Presley (I think):

“Oh, and while the King was looking down
The jester stole his thorny crown

It also contained some vague reference to the cover of Dylan’s album titled “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” where Dylan posed in a red windbreaker ala James Dean. It would be remembered that James Dean wore a red windbreaker in “Rebel Without A cause”, a defining moment in American film industry: -

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

I could go on and on about the various facets of the lyrics and what they could possibly mean. Among the more interesting events alluded in the lyrics are the rise of Rolling Stones; the political inclination of the Beatles; the murder of Tate by Charles Manson; the famous Woodstock concert; and the infamy of the Rolling Stones’ concert at Altamont where a young man was beaten and killed by a member of the Hell’s Angel who was engaged as security crew. These are but some of the events related in the song. Events which formed a lasting impression on America and the world in general.

Whatever it is, I never failed to be saddened by the last few verses of the song, which to me, is still relevant to the whole world and indeed to Malaysia and our society in the present days. As the electric instruments and percussions stop and McLean is left strumming his acoustic guitar, the tempo slows down and he sings, in a melancholic voice:

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 woudn'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

The girl who sang the blues was of course Janis Joplin, a singer full of verve and emotions, with a voice which would make even the hardest of hearts weep, a singer who was saved from the streets a hippie and turned into a blues star but later was found dead with foams in her mouth courtesy of a handful or bottleful of LSDs.

When asked for some happy news, she would just smile and turn away and the man at the music store said the music just wouldn’t play. The children screamed, the lovers cried and the poets dreamed. And the father, son and the holy ghost, they took the last train for the coast.

These lyrics never fail to make me sad as I ponder and fear for my children’s life in future Malaysia. The music has long died in Malaysia. And if I had asked the girl who sang the blues, I am sure she would just smile and turn away. It is sad, but true. Just read our newspapers nowadays. Just listen to our politicians. The mullahs. Just look at Malaysia today. American Pie is worth more than we ever realize.

May God have mercy on us.


Anonymous said...

Yes, may God have mercy on us all. Amin.

Cruzeiro said...

Hi, Art!!
That was a beautiful write-up on American Pie ... pretty much agree with your take on it.

One thing though - there is another take on it .... that the "music" also died in America, after the assasinations of JFK, RFK & MLK and Vietnam. It was a time of "innocence lost".

In relation to Malaysia- well, as you said, the party is over, and the music has died ....
The "innocence" of Malaysia is lost, and the reality is rearing its ugly head.

It's heartbreaking to see the depths to which UMNO stoops to plunder the resources of the country. I do not use the word "nation", because we have yet to see anything that amounts to "nation building" - from PR or BN.

Both sides are still trapped in the racial paradigm, still talking about racial privileges & preferences. At one time, I thought, the one hope we have is in a "benevolent military dictatorship" like that of Korea's President Park, who set the course for a vibrant democracy .... now, I'm not so sure anymore.

I hear from the "grapevine" that our Nusantara neighbours are "on standby" for some "flash" in Malaysia, so that they can "invade" to "protect their citizens here", and rid the country of Umno.
Scary thought ... considering what is happening to Sabah.

I started writing what seems like a very long time ago (2006, I think)- thanks to MT & RPK. It seems like I've written about practically every ill in our society (although most of the time, not very directly) - so much so, everything I wish to write about these days seems like a rehash.

I'll say one thing Art - I'm beat!! I really admire RPK for the fire he has in his belly to keep going from the 90s.
It now depends on people from your fraternity to assert yourselves- if you wanna change this country ...


Afif said...

Meh, you didn't mention my fave band Bunkface.

Anonymous said...

Read 'em and weep...I did. What a haunting description of the current state of affairs.

tupingera said...

The music has long died in Malaysia but the gala parties with Paris Hilton and Jamie Foxx have just begun in Las Vegas and Washington.

Antares said...

Anon@9:19am - This info may be of interest to you! Who knows, you may decide to quit saying "Amin"... :-)

Lovely post, Art. I totally admire Don Mclean as a folklorist-poet of the first order and a masterful chronicler of his times. Alas, I can't bear to listen to his songs (had the same issue with John Denver and never fail to cringe whenever someone starts singing "Country Roads" :-).

Am also allergic to "Guantanamera" and "La Bamba."

Ahirudin Bin Attan said...

All my fav songs, too.
But the truth is, the spirit of American Pie is dying even in America, too. Nostalgia all around the globe. Five For Fighting's album "America Town" attempts to relive it. Enjoy the music, it's supposed to take us away from the politics, the mullahs, etc.

Cheers, mate.

semuanya OK kot said...

The music had already died sometime before 1969.

Anonymous said...

Art, your taste in music is exquisite cos it is similar to mine :) I read most of your postings and i've never come across a single one which is not well argued or articulated. May god bless our country with more righteous people like you

psc said...

May there more like u To save this country.
May The Force Be With You.
God Bless You

Leithaisor said...

Sad? Fear? Too true, especially where our children's future is concerned.

Many have already made the desparate and painful decisons to send their children overseas for studies with the express directive to NOT come back on graduation. Hundreds of thousand have already uprooted and left, and many more have similar plans.

Some have opined that this is proof that the tactics and plans of the racists groups who seek to make it uncomfortable for some races have succeeded.

Whether that allegation has been proven correct or not, it remains true that such emmigration is sucking the nation of many of its talented people, and making it much easier for any racist groups to succeed.

Like the girl who sang the blues, I too have to be honest with the young folks when I tell them that I have no "happy news", only sad truths. But I encourage them to fight for a better tomorrow, for everyone here. Rather than "catch the last train to the coast".

Many had opined also that they were so disgusted with the state of affairs in Malaysia that they would not fly the flag for the Merdeka celeberations last year, and this year, similar statements have been made.

But I have flown the flag all these years, and have been doing so this year too. It is the flag of my nation, a place where I have a right to be, whatever any bigot may try to say. To not fly it would be more a token of their victory rather than a sign of my disgust at what has already occurred.

Yes the music may have died, but I fly the flag to say that I have not given up. They have not won.

Anonymous said...

Its amazing how you look at us from the eyes of music, more amazingly, I can related to what you have written from music and lyrics standpoint of view. Truly agree bro!

Closer to home, I miss P Ramlee/Saloma and much later the likes of Search, Ramli Sarip, Headwind - the good old days at PJ Hilton! It was really a One-Malaysia back then - we were one in music. Look at us today! Very very sad.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Beautiful, Art, simply beautify. You've outdone yourself.

abdullahjones said...

for this, i salute you dear mr. art.

nirwant said...

Maybe if P.Ramlee were still around, we could learn how to live our lives in a more tolerant and in mutual respect for each other. How many of us miss those good old days when we could just get on by and there was hardly any talk of race or religious bigotry. Now, all you hear is, "don't go there, that place is not Halal". I lost so many friends sometime after the mid-70s when the first rumblings of religious intolerance began to surface.

To make matters worse, the mainstream media and pro-UMNO blogs have nothing nice to say other than their perverted and unrelenting reporting on the 'not so apparent' threats that the Malays face from the rest of the citizenry.

At no time in the history of this country have race and religion been championed as vocally and as militantly as it is these days. Although, admittedly, race and religious sensitivities have always been around, they began to take new proportions ever since Mahathir's ascent to power. Anything said and done that insulted the other races seemed to enjoy the protection of UMNO. Not surprisingly, therefore, the likes of Perkasa, Utusan, MPM and a host of other pro-UMNO movements and, the latest entry, educators, show such arrogance and impunity at issuing their unveiled threats and insults against all non-Malay Muslim citizens.

The latest controversy about the name of a non-Muslim CM being mentioned in prayers is another case in point. While you may forgive UNMO and its cronies for their combative stance on this issue; what else would one expect anyway from career politicians and other social misfits, who strive and survive on their deceitfulness, sycophantic and hypocritical attitudes and their juvenile sensationalism. But, what most find unconscionable and inconceivable is that religious leaders have been enlisted by UMNO to support their cause, and these supposedly 'pious beings' appear to have taken their call all like ducks to water.

But, I am convinced that only a small number of Malays support their cause. I say small, because I am convinced that the Malays today are now more knowledgeable and discerning and not easily fooled nor purchased by such irresponsible and reprehensible theatrics.

What Malaysian needs today is more music and less mental harassment. If Najib had the courage and the conviction to make a change, this is where he will be most needed. Get all to stop their threats and provocation. Illegalise movements that champion race and religion and put reins on all religious departments. Scrap the BTN and even National Service unless they can ensuer a truly national agenda is reflected in their programs. Return national universities and schools and the public sector to a truly multi-racial character. No one is contesting the special provisions in the Constitution. But stop those who incite hatred and create undue stress and make our living a great deal more unpleasant by distorting and misrepresenting the true spirit and purpose of these provions.

I have made certain observations in life : 'Cheats and frauds can't sing'. But, my hope is that there are among those tantrum throwing and hate-mongering spewing 'mobs', there are those who can sing!.

kang said...

Vincent, an all time evergreen song that reminisced the good old days. It's sad to see we are going back to the stone age with all the ridiculous law.

This song is also included by Chyi Yu, a Taiwanese fame for her Mandarin song "Olive Tree", in her English album "Stories". A really great singer full of emotion.

Anonymous said...

I shared similar emotion whenever I listen to American Pie, Crocodile Rock, Leader of the Band and Living Next door to Alice. I find it damn weird my nationalistic sentiment is sometimes lean towards a country and culture I know very little.

As Cruz put it, we are still writing the same thing over and over not knowing where and when is the end. Is that what they mean by oldies never die?


Anonymous said...

Bro Art,

no mention of Lynyrd Skynyrd's Freebird? Now that's the best riff (5 minutes) ever. I learn my air guitar with that song. haha...

Gan said...

I grew up with Don McLean's songs, for me - his lyrics has so much depth.

For you to co-relate it to the current Malaysian scene is spot on ...