When people ask Don McLean what American Pie really means, he likes to reply: "It means I never have to work again."
His eight-minute-long "rock and roll American dream" became an anthem for an entire generation - who memorised every line. Their children in turn grew up singing it - fascinated by the mysterious lyrics with their cryptic references to 50s innocence, the turbulent 60s, and 70s disillusion.
Who broke the church bells? Who was the jester who stole the crown to the the king? And what really was revealed "the day the music died"?
"The day the music died" refers - of course – to Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper and Ritche Valens's untimely death on 3 February 1959, which McLean mourns as the end of the entire 50s era.
But if you think this is "what American Pie is about", you would greatly disappoint McLean.
The religious imagery that emerges in the second verse becomes a powerful and recurring symbol of loss throughout the song. The girl who McLean saw "dancing in the gym" no longer cares for his "pink carnation and pickup truck", leaving him "out of luck".
Bob Dylan is the court jester who becomes the revolutionary leader of the 60s generation, knocking Elvis, the king of the 50s, off his pedestal: "While the King was looking down, the jester stole his thorny crown."
One alternative theory casts McLean's "King and Queen" as Pete Seeger and Joan Baez, the folk giants of the early '60's whose crown Dylan ultimately stole. The jacket Dylan "borrowed from James Dean" can be seen on the iconic cover sleeve of his 1963 album The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. But by the end of the decade, we see that Dylan's "rolling stone" is gathering moss, in fat quantities.
As the 60s reach their turbulent climax in verse four, and nuclear tensions rising, the Beatles have become the "sergeants" leading the march of counter-culture, leaving Dylan behind as "the jester on the sidelines in a cast" after his near-fatal motorbike crash. But just at the peak of the sweetly marijuana-perfumed Summer of Love in 1967, the tension boils over into civil unrest. "We all got up to dance, but we never got the chance," sang McLean.
"Do you recall what was revealed the day the music died?" This could be the song's most ambiguous line of all. A popular theory is the Miss America contest of 1968 where feminist protesters had supposedly "burned their bras". But the most likely reference, is the 1968 riot at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, where police brutally cracked down on demonstrators. What was revealed? Probably the dark underside of one of America’s most cherished institutions. But perhaps "what was revealed" has nothing really to do with this event, and is really a harbinger for the tragedy that follows in the fifth verse...
The Stones' frontman Mick Jagger really did appear on stage that night dressed in a flowing red cape, singing lyrics inciting fire and rebellion. Meanwhile at the stage perimeter members of the Hells Angels motorcycle gang - hired as security - engaged in bloody clashes with the rioting audience. Jagger was later accused of failing to halt the performance, infuriating McLean's narrator: "I saw Satan laughing with delight; The day the music died".
Just as Woodstock was heralded as the landmark of the counterculture movement, Altamont was the event that signalled its demise.
The tragedy served to finally "burst the bubble of youth culture's illusions about itself," wrote Todd Gitlin, an eyewitness, in his book The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage.
And in the final verse of McLean's parable, when he "goes down to the sacred store, where I'd heard the music years before" he finds that sadly: "The man there said the music wouldn't play".
And these words are not just symbolic. That kind of music simply wouldn't play any more. Half a century later, it would be nice to think that - whatever the revelations to come from McLean's original scribbled notes - they will not burst the bubble for the millions of fans who still nostalgically dream of Chevys, whisky and rye.
A long, long time ago I can still remember how that music Used to make me smile And I knew if I had my chance That I could make those people dance And maybe they'd be happy for a while
But February made me shiver With every paper I'd deliver Bad news on the doorstep I couldn't take one more step I can't remember if I cried When I read about his widowed bride 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 ol' boys were drinkin' whiskey and rye Singin', "This'll be the day that I die This'll be the day that I die"
Did you write the book of love And do you have faith in God above If the Bible tells you so? Now, do you believe in rock 'n' roll Can music save your mortal soul And can you teach me how to dance real slow?
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 bronckin' buck With a pink carnation and a pickup truck But I knew I was out of luck The day the music died
I started singin', bye-bye, Miss American Pie Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry Them good ol' boys were drinkin' whiskey and rye Singin', "This'll be the day that I die This'll be the day that I die"
Now, for ten years we've been on our own And moss grows fat on a rollin' stone But that's not how it used to be 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
Oh, and while the king was looking down The jester stole his thorny crown The courtroom was adjourned No verdict was returned And while Lenin read a book on Marx A quartet practiced in the park And we sang dirges in the dark The day the music died
We were singin', bye-bye, Miss American Pie Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry Them good ol' boys were drinkin' whiskey and rye Singin', "This'll be the day that I die This'll be the day that I die"
Helter skelter in a summer swelter The birds flew off with a fallout shelter Eight miles high and falling fast It landed foul on the grass The players tried for a forward pass With the jester on the sidelines in a cast
Now, the halftime air was sweet perfume While sergeants played a marching tune We all got up to dance Oh, but we never got the chance '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 singin', bye-bye, Miss American Pie Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry Them good ol' boys were drinkin' whiskey and rye Singin', "This'll be the day that I die This'll be the day that I die"
Oh, and there we were all in one place A generation lost in space With no time left to start again So, come on, Jack be nimble, Jack be quick Jack Flash sat on a candlestick 'Cause fire is the Devil's only friend
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 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 singin', bye-bye, Miss American Pie Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry Them good ol' boys were drinkin' whiskey and rye Singin', "This'll be the day that I die This'll be the day that I die"
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 wouldn'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
And they were singin', bye-bye, Miss American Pie Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry And them good ol' boys were drinkin' whiskey and rye Singin', "This'll be the day that I die This'll be the day that I die"
They were singin', bye-bye, Miss American Pie Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry Them good ol' boys were drinkin' whiskey and rye Singin', "This'll be the day that I die"
Nostalgia and Storytelling in Philip Roth’s American Pastoral
After all, what they sit around calling the "past" at these things isn’t a fragment of a fragment of the past. It’s the past undetonated—nothing is really brought back, nothing. It’s nostalgia. It’s bullshit.
Philip Roth, American Pastoral
Movie Trailer: click here
While much of Philip Roth’s American Pastoral is concerned with the 1960s, the novel opens with a grandiose evocation of the Jewish neighborhood of Weequahic in Newark, New Jersey in the 1940s. Now in his sixties, the narrator Nathan Zuckerman conjures up the vibrant atmosphere of his hometown during World War II, fifty years earlier.
The novel begins with a description of his childhood idol, Seymour “Swede” Levov, a teenager depicted as a mythical hero worshipped by the entire community. He stands as the epitome of Jewish assimilation with his prowess in football, basketball, and baseball—the holy trinity of American sports.
The first pages of the book are idyllic in tone; Zuckerman is depicting a paradise, as is made clear from the title of the first part of the novel, “Paradise Remembered,” evoking Genesis by way of Milton. However, the tone is also elegiac, as the narrator mourns the disappearance of a world to which he can no longer return.
This bittersweet recollection is clearly seen through the soft focus of nostalgia, characterized by both pleasure and pain. The word “nostalgia” was coined in the late 17th century by a Swiss medical student, Johannes Hofer, to describe the affliction suffered by Swiss mercenaries who fought abroad and longed for their native Alps. He coined the word by combining the Greek words nostos, meaning “to return home,” and algia, meaning “pain.” Homesickness was not something new, but Hofer located its effects in the body. He identified it as an actual disease whose symptoms included “persistent thinking of home, melancholia, insomnia, anorexia, weakness, anxiety, smothering sensations, and fever”, with potentially fatal consequences. While certainly not as extreme, Zuckerman’s nostalgia presents an idealized version of his hometown, but one that he readily admits is a fantasy. In fact, when he finds out that the Swede’s later life did not conform to the perfect American Dream trajectory he had anticipated but led to a tragic downfall brought about by the bomb his daughter Merry planted to protest the Vietnam War, he decides to imagine a “realistic chronicle” of his story, which takes up most of the novel.
Past and present
To understand the nostalgic outlook of the narrator of American Pastoral, one needs to take a look at his immediate context. The story has a frame narrative in which Zuckerman attends his 45th high school reunion, a particularly fitting event for reminiscing and reevaluating the past. The narrator confesses that the reunion stirs up within him a whole range of memories and emotions. Common sense leads us to believe that the causes of nostalgia are to be found in the past, but actually it has little to do with how good or enjoyable one’s past actually was, and everything to do with how frustrated one is in one’s present conditions. The vision of the past that is thus created is determined by present concerns and shaped by the perceived contrast between past and present situations.
During the course of the first part of the novel, Zuckerman informs the reader that he chose to live a secluded life in a remote part of the Berkshires, effectively retiring from the world as an active participant. Furthermore, a recent bout with prostate cancer left him both impotent and incontinent. It is no wonder in these conditions that the writer would turn to the past for consolation. People are more prone to nostalgia in certain pivotal moments in life such as the passage from adolescence to adulthood, because such periods are rife with uncertainty and doubts. Nostalgia is thus a positive process which helps reassure the self that it is as capable of surmounting present or future difficulties as it was in the past.
At Zuckerman’s high school reunion, one of the main subjects of conversation between the participants is the threat of cancer and dying. In this context, nostalgia appears as one such reaction against the inevitable prospect of death, as what Blaise Pascal would call “diversion” (divertissement), the tactic of evasion people naturally adopt to fend off the distressing facts of life: “Not having been able to conquer death, wretchedness, or ignorance, men have decided for their own happiness not to think about it” (Pascal). For Zuckerman and his former classmates, nostalgia offers a safe heaven, a welcome but only temporary respite from the thought of their mortal condition. Thus nostalgia could be seen as a reaction to both the irreversible nature of time (the fact that the past is past) and the inevitable prospect of death, as a desperate attempt to avoid these unpleasant realities.
Zuckerman remembers idolizing the Swede as a child.
He remembers running into the Swede in New York City for the New York Mets vs. the Houston Astros game in 1985.
In 1995 he gets a letter from the Swede wanting to take him out to dinner and talk to him.
He has dinner with the Swede.
A few months later he attends his 45th high school reunion and learns the Swede is dead and that his daughter is the "Rimrock Bomber."
He begins imagining how life must have been for the Swede beneath the surface.
Then he does some research and writes the Swede's story as a novel.
He begins telling the readers about what he's written.
What is a “Pastoral”?
We have some definitions of "pastoral," from the Oxford English Dictionary Online, that totally apply to this novel:
- A literary work portraying rural life or the life of shepherds, esp. in an idealized or romantic form. - Substitute Dawn's cows for sheep and we have a match.
- A rural and idyllic scene or picture. - This is probably strongest in the third part of the novel, when the Swede remembers his early life with Merry and Dawn in Rimrock.
Often the pastoral is presented as a contrast between an idyllic, peaceful countryside, and a dangerous, chaotic city. In this case the dangerous, chaotic city is Newark, New Jersey, Roth's hometown. The collision of rural and urban is hammered home for the Swede when Merry bombs the Rimrock post office, killing a local doctor.
So, given what we know about the pastoral, what exactly is an American pastoral? Many readers and critics see the title phrase as meaning something like the nebulous American dream. The Swede achieves one popular version of the American dream—working hard, having a fancy house in the countryside, with plenty of money, and a "perfect" family. As a third generation immigrant, he has completed the dreams of upward mobility put into play by first and second generations. His religion is America. He loves everything about it.
Then his daughter Merry becomes aware of the Vietnam War and America's role in it. She comes to believe that people only get rich by making war (not love), taking advantage of others, and hurting others… especially the poor and the powerless. She comes to question her father's version of the American dream. She comes to think of it as false and exploitative.
So, is the title ironic? Does the story argue that that there can be no such thing as an idyllic life in America unless the problems of poverty and war are solved? Will America always be haunted by the violence done to the Native Americans and the institution of slavery? How about by violence done in wars? There are no easy answers to any of these questions.
In fact, American Pastoral seems to be all about asking really hard questions, stirring things up, asking us to question our realities and our assumptions about American life and the American dream.
Act I - "Paradise Remembered"
In this act we learn that author Nathan Zuckerman's high school idol Seymour "Swede" Levov has died. The Swede had a daughter who bombed a post office in the small town of Rimrock, New Jersey. She too has died. From the few clues Zuckerman has, he sets out to imagine what the Swede's life might have been like with his daughter, before and after the bombing. He turns his imaginings into a novel.
Included in this act are some of his imaginings, such as an uncomfortable scene where the Swede kisses Merry when she is eleven, and a series of scenes when she is older and very angry about the Vietnam War. The act ends with a paragraph about Merry blowing up the post office.
MOVIE SCENE “Revolution”
Act II - "The Fall"
In this act, Zuckerman seems to drop out of the story. The rest of the novel seems to be told in the third person, from the Swede's perspective (though we can't help but keep Zuckerman in our minds). The act begins four months after the bombing. Rita Cohen comes to see the Swede at Newark Maid and then extorts him for money, supposedly for Merry.
This act covers a five-year period where the Swede desperately waits for another word about his daughter and where he tries to figure out what happened to make things turn out so ugly. At the end of the five years, he gets a letter from Rita Cohen telling him where Merry is. He finds Merry and learns lots of terrible things: she really was the bomber, she has killed three more people, she's been raped twice. He also learns that she now considers herself a Jain and has taken a vow of non-violence.
Act III - "Paradise Lost"
Most of the final act is centered around a dinner party happening at the Swede's house after he's seen Merry. The conversation turns to Watergate, and then to the film Deep Throat, reminding us that we are in the 1970s. The act includes more of the Swede's memories of his life before the bombing. Throughout the act, he's trying to decide whether to go back and get Merry, or to run away with Sheila, or to run away with Merry.