Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Circle Game

Tivoli Circle (via Wikimedia)

The fallout from the racially motivated shootings in Charleston has traveled to New Orleans and reignited a discussion among its citizens about statues and buildings named for heroes of the Confederacy or for former slave owners. This thorny point was addressed by Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who announced this week that he is now in favor of removing several statues erected to Confederate heroes, including the famous statue of General Robert E. Lee at Lee Circle.  During the Reconstruction era and before the statue of the Confederate general was erected in 1884, New Orleans citizens referred to the intersection of the upriver and downriver sections of town at present-day Howard Avenue and St. Charles Avenue as Tivoli Circle or Tivoli Gardens. This was because of the popular Tivoli Carousel that was there.

With the capture of New Orleans in April of 1862, the Confederacy lost its most valuable port and the longest Union occupation of any city began. While some merchants cheered the arrival of the Federal forces, others did not. New Orleans was made the seat of government for the state. Tempers ran high during the remainder of the war and the institution of a Reconstruction government became a sore point among business leaders. This antipathy came to a head most especially during the disputed gubernatorial election of 1872. The Democrats had claimed victory for John McEnery, while the Republicans held that William Kellogg had been elected.

An attempt to put a new, Democrat-backed government into power was put down by federal and New Orleans Metropolitan Police forces at the Battle of Liberty Place in 1873. After four days of insurrection, the Reconstruction government was put back into place and not one of the 5,000 Crescent City White League members was charged or put on trial for the attempted coup. Union forces only departed under a presidential order in 1877.

It was a decade later and five generations ago, my first family member  - my maternal great-great-grandmother -  fleeing oppression and seeking a better life, arrived in New Orleans. Sometime prior to her arrival, city fathers had erected the monolithic column topped with the former Confederate general at Tivoli Circle as a sign of defiance to the former Reconstruction government. The citizens had dubbed it Lee Circle. Neither my great-great-grandmother nor her daughter or son-in-law and their family had anything to do with the Civil War, nor slavery. They sought refuge in a city that was not always welcoming to them either. My family found strength and comfort in living in what was then the largest Jewish segment of town located near the Dryades Street commerce corridor. My great-grandfather was a barber and all of the family members lived together. Indeed, my grandfather's original drugstore was eventually located just two blocks away from Lee Circle, adjacent to the Jerusalem Temple of the Shriners.

Other than the biblical references to slavery, my family has endured nothing of the savagery of slavery, although it is probable they were persecuted as Jews to varying degrees in the series of pogroms that characterized life in Eastern Europe and the Russias. While my family has been the victim of anti-Semitism in this country, it no doubt falls far short of the organized pattern of discrimination and racism endured by African-Americans, many of whom died for taking their stands against the forces in power.

I am not insensitive to the feeling that runs through the African-American community when dealing with the issue of slavery and the glorification of the Old South.  Jews, too, have been targeted by rebel flag waving hate groups - some in white robes and some in custom-made suits - for a number of generations.

But I recognize that the principles of tolerance and understanding will not generate with the destruction of monuments or the renaming of buildings. The changes that we all seek for acceptance and equal opportunity will not come from without, but from within each of us. The power to forgive the shooter who was so full of hate came rapidly from the members of the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston in the face of inconsolable loss. That was the lesson of love that surmounted all of the death and destruction sought by the murderer.

It is an important issue to recognize that reminders of slavery and the War Between the States still exist today and that they still give rise to negative feelings for many of our citizens. However, it is just as important to recognize that even if we were to erase every Civil War vestige and reference or place them in mothballs via museums, we would still have to confront the larger question of how do
we accept each other without prejudice and hate in our hearts?

That will take soul searching, open discussions and, I am afraid, much more than enraged committees and wrecking balls.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

American Pie - Updated

In 1972 I was working at my college radio station, WTUL, when Don McLean’s American Pie came out. Speculation ran rampant then about what could he have meant with respect to all of the allusions to popular music. I remember one time doing a very funny routine (or so I thought at the time) which parodied the entire song on the radio station live as it played. But I really had several thoughts about what McLean was trying to say and generated my own analysis, which I kept to myself. 

Nearly a generation ago, Madonna's cover of the song regenerated interest in McLean's verses and I took the opportunity to write down my own interpretation for the first time.

Recently, on April 8, 2015, McLean sold the original lyrics to the song for $1.2 million to an unnamed collector. He took the occasion to offer comments for the first time about this song that hailed rock and roll music, but bemoaned several trends within it. Prior to this recent sale and the accompanying notes that went with the manuscript, McLean had steadfastly refused to explain the meaning of his lyrics. 

I am gratified to learn that much of what I had interpreted is acknowledged by McLean to be correct. While I admit that there are some areas that still need clarification, I offer to you my own updated spin on these enigmatic lyrics.

A long, long time ago,  
I can still remember
How that music used to make me smile.
Don McLean wrote American Pie circa 1970, about a year before the same-titled album was released on United Artists Records. As a boy, McLean was profoundly influenced by the impact of rock and roll music. Whether he is referring here specifically to the happy doo-wop vocals of the era or to comical songs like the Diamonds’ Little Darling or the Coasters’ Charlie Brown, remains to be seen. Suffice it to say that McLean recalls the early rock and roll era was great fondness.
And I knew if I had my chance,That I could make those people dance,And maybe they’d be happy for a while.
McLean gives us insight here that he wanted to become a performer even back then. Popular rock and roll parties all involved dancing couples as a means of social interaction. It is important to remember that these were the Eisenhower years. The movie Pleasantville alludes to much of the repression of the times.
But February made me shiver
With every paper I’d deliver.
Bad news on the doorstep.
I couldn’t take one more step.
Here he refers quite pointedly to the Cold War and the fear of mutual assured nuclear annihilation between Russia and America. McLean was, reportedly, a newspaper delivery boy at that time, so the allusion to the doorstep is a literal one too. By specifically mentioning February, however, he summons up the image of that dreaded February 3, 1959 Iowa plane crash that took the lives of Texas rocker Buddy Holly, Latin idol Richie Valens, and J. P. Richardson, known as "The Big Bopper." For many people like McLean (the Beatles and the Rolling Stones included), Buddy Holly was one of their most profound influences. His death created a void that was never filled.

I can’t remember if I cried,
When I read about his widowed bride.
Holly left behind a pregnant wife, Maria Elena, who had only recently been married and, unfortunately, suffered a miscarriage shortly after the tragedy. 
But something touched me deep inside
The day the music died.
The loss of Holly, Valens, and Richardson on that snowy February day in Iowa sent shock waves across the country. For many people it became the day the music died, but I believe that McLean is also using it here metaphorically as a jumping off spot to comment on the state of rock and roll since 1959.

(Refrain) So, bye-bye, Miss American Pie,Drove my Chevy to the levee,But the levee was dry.
The chorus is a bit enigmatic. I believe that the term summons forth a metaphor of innocence and naiveté. Chevrolets were, of course, the cars of choice for many teenagers at the time and I believe that this poetic device summons up their free spirit as well as pointing to the Fifties in a general way.

It is very interesting that McLean mentions levees. Two of the major cities along the Mississippi River have extensive levee systems, namely Memphis, Birthplace of the Blues, and New Orleans, Birthplace of Jazz and Home of Rhythm and Blues. Were it not for blues and rhythm and blues, rock and roll would never have evolved into the popular medium that it proved to be. Jazz, of course, is the only true indigenous American art form.

And them good old boys were drinkin’ whiskey and rye

Singin’ this’ll be the day that I die,

This’ll be the day that I die.
The ending of the chorus alludes to several things. Underage drinking being the norm, many parents and role models ignored or looked the other way at rock and roll parties. Good old boys suggests a Southern influence such as found in Elvis Presley, who hailed from Mississippi, and Buddy Holly, a Texan. One of Holly’s most noted songs was That’ll Be the Day That I Die and McLean makes a specific reference to it here.
Did you write the Book of Love?And do you have faith in God above,
If the Bible tells you so?
McLean begins his first uptempo verse with a reference to the Monotones Book of Love, one of several songs of that generation that defined boy-girl relationships. Also, there were several songs at the time which were spiritual in nature that enjoyed great success. The Platters’ My Prayer and several songs by the Jordanaires, who backed Elvis Presley, were quite popular at the time. The song Jesus Loves Me contains the verse "Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so" and I believe that McLean’s similar prose is intentional.
Now, do you believe in rock and roll?

Can music save your mortal soul?

And can you teach me how to dance real slow?
Rock and roll music became something of a religion for the teenagers of the time. Buddy Holly and the others, in a sense, became the first of many martyrs of rock and roll music. It gave the young adults of the era something to follow that was distinctly theirs and apart from their parents. 

Some years later, the Lovin Spoonful asked Do You Believe in Magic? Within it are the lines "It’s like trying to tell a stranger ‘bout rock and roll." Coincidental? Maybe.

Slow dancing between teenagers became a part of the ritual of the rock and roll dance. Slow ballads like In the Still of the Night or Twilight Time encouraged intimacy at rock and roll dances.

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.
Touch dancing, which lost its popularity with the influence of dances like the Twist, the Watusi, the Frug, the Swim, and the Mashed Potato (among others) during the Sixties also suffered due to the extended guitar solos prominent in many latter day songs. The gymnasium was the place of choice for many school dances and, in order to protect the floor surfaces, students were encouraged to take off their shoes. This is where the term "sock hop" emanated.

As to rhythm and blues, New Orleans became a major breakout center for popular music of the day. Allan Freed, the Cleveland disc jockey credited with popularizing the term "rock and roll" was chiefly responsible for getting white middle-class teenagers to open up to the largely black influences of gospel, blues, and rhythm and blues that defined rock and roll music. "Race music," as the black music was called, was rarely allowed to be heard over popular Top-40 formats of the day. In fact, many white teenagers first heard Fats Domino’s Blueberry Hill not by Fats at all, but by squeaky-clean, buckskin-wearing Pat Boone! His cover version was deemed more acceptable by middle-class radio station program directors. 

When Sam Phillips at Sun Records was able to get a good looking white male, Elvis Presley, to sing the songs of these black acts, he helped crown the next King of Rock and Roll, making the music accessible to white America. But remember, too, that Phillips was also responsible for getting country acts like Johnny Cash to incorporate their repertoire into the rock and roll genre and made it possible for Buddy Holly and the Crickets to rise to the top of the charts.

I was a lonely teenage broncin’ buck
With a pink carnation and a pickup truck
But I knew I was out of luck
The day the music died.
Dion and the Belmonts recorded A Lonely Teenager and A Teenager in Love around this time. My take on "broncin’ buck" is that many Western songs were popular in the day, such as those by Frankie Laine and Marty Robbins. Robbins’ A White Sport Coat and a Pink Carnation is obviously used for reference here. I might suggest that the following line could well cover some of the songs dealing with teenage automobile deaths like Teen Angel by Mark Dinning or Last Kiss by J. Frank Wilson, but that might be stretching it a bit.

I started singin’
Bye-bye Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee,
But the levee was dry.
Them good old boys were drinkin’ whiskey and rye
Singin’ this’ll be the day that I die,
This’ll be the day that I die.
The refrain brings us back to consider Buddy Holly and the influences of blues and rhythm and blues in rock and roll. It might be added here that much of this music was heard in music club venues or "joints" that readily sold alcohol to their patrons.

Now for ten years we’ve been on our ownAnd moss grows fat on a rolling stone,
But that’s not how it used to be.
McLean continues the song with a veiled reference to Buddy Holly’s plane crash and he uses the expression of "a rolling stone never gathers moss" to make reference to Bob Dylan. Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone was his first major hit, but his influence among performers like Peter, Paul and Mary and Joan Baez had already been firmly established. In the early Sixties, Dylan’s folk music and, later, electric rock changed the American musical landscape through his penchant for poetry and his de-emphasis on simplistic lyrics and tunes.

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.
Bob Dylan is, of course, the jester. Elvis Presley would, undoubtedly, be the "King" of Rock and Roll and Connie Francis would, probably, serve as his queen. Francis’ wholesome qualities and runaway best sellers would categorize her as the best female artist of the era.
As McLean suggests, Dylan’s voice was not especially pretty, almost laughable to some. But the voice wasn’t the big draw for Dylan’s legions of fans. It was what his music had to say to them. Dylan’s first album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, pictured him on the cover in a windbreaker which, except for the fact that it was not red, could have passed for the jacket that Dean wore in the movie Rebel Without a Cause. Many promotional pins and posters of the day promulgated from Columbia Records suggested that Dylan was a "rebel" and exhorted his fans to "Be Different – He Is." The roots of Dylan’s music were categorized as American folk with Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger having both had prime influences on him. Yet, while his music ceased to be purely folk in the intervening years, it could still be thought of as music stemming from all of America, hence "in a voice that came from you and me."

Oh, and while the king was looking down
The jester stole his thorny crown.
The courtroom was adjourned.
No verdict was returned.
Elvis joined the Army in 1958 at the absolute zenith of his fame. RCA Records continued to release his records over the course of the next two years when he was in the service so that the public never knew that he was away from the recording studio. Nevertheless, when he returned to both a movie and recording career in 1960, Presley’s popularity had waned. He was still very popular, but his effect had diminished appreciably. Buddy Holly had stirred the public’s imagination during Presley’s absence, but after his untimely demise, Bob Dylan was the one who became the force to be reckoned with. The reference to the "thorny crown" has biblical implications of martyrdom or the price that one must pay for celebrity. Presley, for example, was never able to go to a film theater by himself, opting, instead, to buy the entire movie house out. Likewise, Dylan became something of a recluse during the Sixties. McLean’s lyrics here about the courtroom could be taken literal, but I believe they are figurative. I believe, rather than what others might think, that it is not a reference to the Chicago Seven, etc. It is my opinion, rather, that he is talking about the court of popular opinion about whom was the undisputed "king." Dylan inherited the mantle by default, filling the vacuum left behind by Presley’s departure from the music scene when he opted for a more prominent and lucrative film career.

And while Lenin read a book on Marx
The quartet practiced in the park,
And we sang dirges in the dark
The day the music died.
We were singing
The impact of Beatlemania is first mentioned here. The Lenin is actually John Lennon, not Vladimir Lenin, yet the poetic license here is brilliant. John Lennon’s politics were decidedly leftist and controversial, so to use the image of the renowned Bolshevik as a figure for the leader of the Beatles is quite fitting. The quartet – The Beatles – was so popular they couldn’t tour in clubs or small theatres. They had to book into large stadiums and arenas, many times unable to hear themselves above the din of the crowd. The reference to dirges might again be interpreted as McLean’s take on the way that popular music had evolved from rock and roll to album-oriented rock music featuring songs with long guitar solos and little or no opportunity for dancing.
Helter Skelter in a summer swelter
The birds flew off with a fallout shelter
Eight miles high and falling fast.
The Beatles’ Helter Skelter (from their so-called White Album) came out after the Watts Riots of 1965 and the "Summer of Love" in 1967, but it is metaphorically used to convey the confusion and resentment in the nation with regards to Civil Rights and the Vietnam War. Nuclear proliferation was at an all time high as both the United States and the Soviet Union teetered toward nuclear destruction and McLean makes note of that by mentioning the fallout shelter. The Byrds, considered by many to be the first American supergroup, and many others began experimenting with marijuana and other drugs including LSD. Their song, Eight Miles High, was banned by several stations because its lyrics purportedly sponsored drug usage.
It landed foul out on the grass
The players tried for a forward pass
With the jester on the sidelines in a cast.
McLean mixes both a football and baseball metaphor here. Obviously using grass, or marijuana, caused many musical players, John Lennon included, to run "afoul" of the law. A forward pass in football could be interpreted here as a "passing" of a "joint" from one to the other in hopes of further experimentation with their various music forms. Some have suggested that McLean was referring to The Rolling Stones as the players trying for widespread fame, but I am not so certain. Because of later lyrics, I believe he is referring to the Beatles. Dylan, as "the jester," was noticeably absent during this time due to an almost-fatal motorcycle crash that literally kept him in a cast for several months.
Now the half-time air was sweet perfume
While the sergeants played a marching tune
We all got up to dance,
Oh, but we never got the chance.
McLean begins this verse with a reference that I believe is to the Beatles’ gig at Shea Stadium. The sweet perfume may simply mean that the Beatles fans were following their idols’ beliefs that "all you need is love." It may also be intimating the fact that drug usage was beginning to become popular among youth or that some might be feeling attractions to Eastern religions like Buddhism that utilize incense in their worship. Some have gone so far as to suggest that these words refer to the riots at the Chigago Democratic National Convention with the "sweet perfume" representing tear gas. While that may never be determined, the sergeants are, in my estimation, the Beatles whose Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album revolutionized album rock. Again, McLean bemoans the lack of dancing in the popular music of the day.
‘Cause the players tried to take the field,
The marching band refused to yield.
Do you recall what was revealed
The day the music died?
We started singing
While at Shea Stadium, the Beatles and, later other groups, could not be intimate with their audiences ever again. The marching band, while a slight reference to Sgt. Pepper’s, is in reality an allusion to the huge numbers of police who were present there and at other concert venues. Performers like the Beatles were unable to mix with the crowd because of security concerns from the police. Fans who wanted to get close were kept at a distance by the swinging batons of the local constabulary when the crowd charged the stage.
Oh, and there we were all in one place
A generation Lost in Space
With no time left to start again.
There is very little doubt that McLean is pointing to Woodstock at the very beginning of this verse. The reference to the generation "Lost in Space" has a double meaning, of course. This Woodstock generation was also the first television generation, whose consciousness was raised by programs like Star Trek and Saturday morning’s Lost in Space. They suggested that the human race could advance into space with dignity and humanity not encumbered by differences in race, creed, or national origin. The real space race was going on at this time, of course. Neil Armstrong walked on the moon only days before Woodstock became the largest concert of its kind. With antipathy towards America’s involvement in the Vietnam War and drug usage at an all time high, it is no wonder that so many felt helpless and discouraged, willingly embracing the lifestyle of the so-called "hippies."
So come on,
Jack be nimble, Jack be quick,
Jack Flash sat on a candlestick,Cause fire is the Devil’s only friend.
Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones are, of course, the focus of these verses. Jumping Jack Flash was a major hit for them at the time. McLean tends to see Jagger as an anti-Christ figure and suggests that the Stones were following a much darker path in their music. The Stones always maintained a close tie with the blues, so it is only natural that their music be conceived by the religious right as that of "the Devil’s." Ironically, one of their early hits was Play with Fire. The reference to the candlestick is to Candlestick Park which was suggested, but ultimately rejected, as a venue for the Rolling Stones free concert that was eventually held at the Altamont Motor Speedway in 1969.

Oh, and as I watched him on the stage,
My hands were clenched in fists of rage.
No angel born in hell
Could break that Satan’s spell.
And as the flames climbed high into the night
To light the sacrificial rite,
I saw Satan laughing with delight
The day the music died.
He was singing

Two of the major hits of the Rolling Stones at that time were Paint It Black and Sympathy for the Devil, the latter of which became inextricably linked with Mick Jagger. The concert at Altamont was a disaster for the Rolling Stones after the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gangs that had been hired as bodyguards exceeded their authority, beating scores of faithful fans and fatally knifing one. To McLean (and others) Woodstock showed the promise of what could peaceably be accomplished, while Altamont pointed out the shortcomings of large rock festivals.

I met a girl who sang the blues

And I asked her for some happy news,

But she just smiled and turned away.

This is a patently obvious reference to Janis Joplin, whose bluesy style was the foundation for Big Brother and the Holding Company. Joplin smiled and turned away, as McLean says, due to her increased involvement with drugs. Her death and those of Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison sent reverberations throughout the music industry.

I went down to the sacred storeWhere I’d heard the music years before,But the man there said the music wouldn’t play.

Having worked in a record store for many years, I can attest to what McLean is relating here. Years ago when Buddy Holly was all the rage and Elvis was still "King," record companies sent out long-play albums with no shrink-wrapping. Albums were played in cubicles, listened to by legions of faithful fans, and purchased on the spot. If one purchased the last copy in stock, it would not necessarily be unplayed or pristine. Once albums began to be shipped out with factory seals, however, it was impossible to play these albums at record stores because they would not be accepted for returns to the manufacturers with the seals broken. This is why record stores had play copies or promotional copies provided by the record companies. So, literally, the music wouldn’t play there anymore. Some have suggested that he additionally may be referring to the demise of music venues like the Fillmores East and West, but I don’t see that.

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.

It is my feeling that McLean is referring to the anti-war movement and the many different clashes by police and demonstrators. The "Love Generation" suffered many lost battles including those waged in People’s Park in Berkeley, California and at college campuses across the country. While the tragedies as Kent State and Jackson State Universities were yet to occur, McLean does not suggest that all’s well here. In fact, far from it.
This was also the time when the prevailing question on covers of news magazines was "Is God Dead?" Thousands of disillusioned youth turned away from the teachings of the established religions, searching for spirituality through worship in alternative religions such as the Hare Krishnas, the Ba’hai Faith, and others. Still others influenced by psychedelic drugs and "free love" established communes that promoted non-traditional lifestyles and families. Methods of freeing one’s self from drugs and achieving spiritual nirvana were also explored within the practice of Transcendental Meditation and others, making the established Church less enticing.
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.
And they were singing
(Refrain twice)
California became a wild center at the end of the Sixties for all kinds of religious practices. What I think McLean is trying to say here is that traditional religion had lost its luster for the masses. Even songs like Spirit in the Sky by Norman Greenbaum had now come into play, rising steadily up the charts and mixing rock music with religion. Indeed, rock music had become a religion unto itself. The reference to the Trinity might also be seen as a final veiled reference to Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and the Big Bopper and a comment on the state that popular music was in at the beginning of the Seventies. 

It was a monumental work by McLean and is still very much worthy of examination and analysis even nearly 45 years after it was written.

(All lyrics Copyright Don McLean and MCA Records)                               
(©2000/2015 Alan Smason)