Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Can music save your inaugural soul?

During the Inaugural Concert held Sunday at the Lincoln Memorial, Jack Black introduced one of the performers, prefacing what was to come as representing what one might hear on the radio while driving across the country. Then Garth Brooks came out and started singing "A long, long time ago / I can still remember how the music used to make me smile..."--the intro to Don McLean's opus, "American Pie."

However, he then skips over the rest of the first verse and jumps to the chorus. So, I suppose if your radio was on a station where the record was scratched you might hear that exactly as performed, but hey, the song is over 8 minutes long in its entirety, so a bit of editing was necessary. He then proceeds through the second verse (including the couplet "Do you have faith in God above / If the Bible tells you so?") and one more extended chorus, getting even Obama himself singing along.

In 1972 (when the song hit #1 on the charts) there were probably more people who recalled the proverbial "day the music died" (when in 1959 Buddy Holly perished in a plane crash along with Richie Valens and the Big Bopper). Now it's probably better known as that song Madonna butchered and the one used in the Chevy commercials. It's still one of the best rock and roll songs ever written.

And because McLean refused to state exactly what it was about, that's left it open to interpretation--of which there are many. However, the consensus is that it's a tribute to Holly (as noted in The Annotated American Pie) with references to other big name artists who came before and after, including Bob Dylan and the Beatles. Some choose to interpret it as having political overtones ("when the jester sang for the king and queen" perhaps referring to President Kennedy), but others find the song to focus too much on music for such meaning to have been intended. But such is the beauty of art: It is whatever the listener wants it to be.

One thing that is certain: The listeners want it to be a rousing party sing-along, despite the fact that they're singing the couplet:
"And good ol' boys were drinking whiskey and rye / Singing 'This will be the day that I die'."

While that seems overt references to possible alcoholism and death, that's only an obvious interpretation if one is, you know, paying attention to the words. A popular interpretation is that the closing line alludes to singing Buddy Holly's hit, "That'll Be The Day," where the chorus finishes with "That'll be the day that I die." So it could very well not be about actually dying but about reminiscing about the early days of rock while enjoying a cocktail. But somehow I doubt all the thousands at the concert have done the research, so I'd guess some of them were mouthing the words without dwelling too much on the specific words.

Because they're under no obligation to interpret those lines (or any of the rest of the song) as somber (even though even without knowing much about music history the lyrics do tend to be less-than-upbeat). It's got "American" right there in the chorus--so it's patriotic! And "pie"! Who doesn't like pie? And what kind of pie could be better than American pie? And then we get a nice reference to a popular American automobile with an internal rhyme with "levee" (which, other than with Led Zeppelin, is a word that doesn't get a lot of use in rock songs). Then there's the easy to remember "dry" and "rye" and "die"-ending lines.

The song has six verses. Six. And they're not short verses either. The song is long and the only part that's easy to remember is that chorus. Everyone somehow recognizes how brilliant the song is, even without being able to quote much more than the lines of the chorus, so it has transcended its rather maudlin-seeming origins and become a good song for a celebratory event (such as what this concert was supposed to be, presumably).

To dwell on the allusions to booze and shaking off the mortal coil with a more literal interpretation would almost certainly ruin the only portion of the song that's really accessible for a broad audience.

And as Americans, we are free to completely overlook that and interpret it as being as jubilant as the Isley Brothers' "Shout!" (which is into what Brooks segued after "American Pie").


But I have to admit: If I'm driving across country and after "Shout!" on comes Garth Brooks' "We Shall Be Free" (as happened during the medley he performed during the concert), I'm changing the station. Preferably to something playing some Stevie Wonder.

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