Monday, October 24, 2016

A Slice of American Pie

The title song from Don McLean's "American Pie," which hit the music stores on this day in 1971, is the song that everyone remembers from that album.

But my first exposure to the album was through my mother, who actually bought it because she liked the song "Vincent." I'm not even sure Mom had heard "American Pie" before she bought the album.

I know she didn't know the title of the song she liked. She thought the title was "Starry Starry Night" which was the opening line of the song — and a variation of the name of a painting by Vincent Van Gogh that she liked ("The Starry Night").

I wasn't with her when she bought the album, and I have often wondered how she managed to make the sales clerk understand which album she wanted — since she didn't know the name of the album or the correct name of the song she liked. I suppose she must have told the clerk that the first line was "Starry starry night," and the clerk must have been familiar with more than simply the title track. "Vincent" had been released as a single before Mom bought the album, and it fared pretty well — not quite as well as "American Pie" but pretty well, rising to #12 on the charts.

If that wasn't how her purchase unfolded, then Mom must have required the assistance of more than one clerk to locate the album she wanted.

I had heard the single "American Pie" — many times — before Mom bought the album. It was released as a single in November 1971, became a fixture on the radio, soared to #1 in 1972 and has been inspiring discussions about the meanings of its lyrics for decades. When it was reissued 20 years later it reached #12.

Most people have nothing but praise for it. The Recording Industry Association of America ranked it fifth on its list of the songs of the century. The only ones ahead of it were Judy Garland singing "Over the Rainbow," Bing Crosby crooning "White Christmas," Woody Guthrie singing "This Land Is Your Land," and Aretha Franklin belting out "Respect." That's pretty exclusive company.

While many people have discussed the song at length and sought to decipher all the clues in the lyrics, McLean has said little about it. "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," he said. Fair enough.

Even though that song shares the name of the album, the song that comes to my mind first when I think of the album is "Vincent," inspired by the life and work of Van Gogh.

People have been praising the poetry of "American Pie" for many years, but the poetry of "Vincent" is easily its equal.

And while no other songs from the album were released as singles, any or all of them could have been.

"American Pie" was McLean's second album — and the peak of his career. That's pretty heady stuff for a man in his mid–20s.