While putting together this Mellow 70s Gold MP3 project, I came across the M’s, and Don McLean in particular: “American Pie” was his biggest hit, followed closely by “Vincent” – about Vincent Van Gogh. I can tell what “Ms. American Pie” was about: about four fucking minutes too long.
The early 70s were the time of the Folk Pop Troubadour. Always a white guy, always hairy, with a lot of chest hair he’d show in open leisure shirts and vests, often sporting a beard or handlebar mustache, too, prone to jeans, cowboy boots and gold chains, the kind of guy who portrayed himself as the gutsy, sensitive acolyte of Woody Guthrie, but if you listen to their music, it was just as much Tin Pan Alley as the Dust Bowl. A very odd mix, I’m starting to realize, as folk pop, save for brief flashes like Michelle Shocked, Suzanne Vega, Tracy Chapman (note: women), pretty much died after that burst of vaguely macho popularity in the early 70s.
With McLean, the really odd thing I’m remembering came years after the song was popular, and I recall liking the song a lot in the 70s. When it came on the radio, I’d think, “Jesus Christ, the guy was on fire to write a song like this.” An epic, the kind of things DJs would play when they really had to piss and needed a few minutes away from the studio.
By the time I was in college in the mid-80s, at Penn State, I was pretty much worn out on “American Pie.” The group of friends I had developed in my junior year at State College all congregated in Colin’s and Justin’ apartment downtown, which we’d call headquarters, a place of many strange nights, but a very healthy place, too, a bunch of like-minded, vaguely artsy individuals congregating to get drunk, discover Chuck Berry and Bob Dylan, have meaningless fights over personal philosophies, and occasionally get really bombed or even stoned on any given Friday night. The “meaningless fight” thing happened a lot – Colin and Justin would have philosophical differences over which way the wind was blowing. But they were two characters I fit in well with and managed to serve as some kind of buffer/peacemaker, although “motherfucking fence-sitter” would be how both would often describe it when I wouldn’t take either side in a meaningless debate.
Right around the corner was a typical college town bar called the Shandygaff (conveniently located in Pig Alley). I don’t know what in the hell that name implies: it sounds nautical. The bar’s still there – if you google the name and “Penn State,” it has its own website. Nothing against the Shandygaff. All the bars in State College were pretty much the same: crowded every night with a bunch of kids in their early 20s who didn’t know how to drink or pace themselves, so abuse was the order of the day and a badge of honor. I’m sure that’s as much of the college experience now as it was then.
The back of headquarters was right over Pig Alley, and we’d often sit in the living room on a Friday night, minding our own business, when Colin would hear some drunk shitting, pissing or vomiting in the alley. The vomiting was obvious – even I could hear that. But since Colin lived there, he’d developed an ear for even the lightest zipper sound, the tinkling, or the flop of shit on a sidewalk. And it drove him nuts. He’d rain down newspapers, magazines, candles, pillows, anything he could find, and yell down, “Do that somewhere else, you fucking animal!” Half the time the person would scamper away, half the time he’d get into a verbal sparring match. (I'm surprised no drunken idiot savante noted the obvious: "Dude! It's Pig Alley! Cut me some slack!") It never got physical. Colin was a monster at the time, working out like a fiend, a few years out of the army and still real salty. I learned a lot about just letting my balls hang out and not worrying about it from him.
We’d catch people fucking, too; it was an alley behind a college bar. Filled with twentysomethings. Blind drunk. It was to be expected. If we caught people fucking, we’d just hang our heads out the window and quietly watch, maybe applaud afterwards. Such was college life circa the mid-80s at Penn State. It was fun. It was temporary. I honestly have a hard time remembering a lot of it, which I guess is a good sign.
But the thing about the Shandygaff was every night, some time during the night, someone would play “American Pie” on the jukebox, and it always lead to a sing-a-long. I don’t know if this was tradition before my time there – it probably was – or how long it went on afterwards (or if it still goes on, which I doubt). The sing-along usually meant humming along to the voluminous verses and singing the signature chorus about driving one’s Chevy to levy, though the levy was dry, etc.
This happened every night. I don’t remember Justin really giving a shit, but I somehow remember it annoying the hell out of Colin. “They’re singing that song again! Fuck Don McLean! I want to hunt him down and beat his ass!” I was in the Shandygaff once or twice when it happened, and while it seemed spontaneous, how could it be, it happened every night. Believe me, sitting in that apartment with the windows open, you could clearly hear the song being sung en masse by a few dozen drunken college kids.
What struck me most, then and now, was this is a song that came out in 1971, when nearly all of us were a few years out of diapers. This whole thing about nostalgia being an old man’s game: the most nostalgic people on earth are in their 20s. They constantly recall moments from their teen and childhood years, and attach an aura of innocence to them that they sense or believe is no longer present in their lives. Mourning the loss of innocence, to be more hammy and inaccurate. (Delusional and not grasping how time works would be the more accurate descriptors here.) I recall that vibe being very much true of my time in college. The one night, Justin and I went cruising in my yellow Hornet station wagon. I was on a huge Van Morrison jag at the time, and “Brown Eyed Girl” came on the tape deck. “Shit, man, I remember hearing this song on the bus all the time back in Erie” (where he spent part of his teen years). I could tell this was a misty morning memory type deal for him, although the reality probably was masturbating in the green grass behind the stadium.
When I hear “Ms. American Pie” now, I don’t recall those thousands of times I heard it back in the 70s when I was a kid, or even the first time, which I’m certain was an awestruck moment. I remember drunk-ass kids in Izod and LaCoste short-sleeved knit shirts and painters hats, chicks who looked like they were in The Go-Go's, with symmetrical haircuts and parachute pants, all blotto on pitchers of cheap beer, drunkenly wailing words they couldn’t recall for the most part, and creating a sort of instant, baseless nostalgia that, I am certain, would find more than a few fortysomethings in their offices now, thinking, “Oh, for the days, when I’d sing ‘American Pie' in the Shandygaff back at dear old state.”
And I can’t knock that – better to have good memories than bad. Just strange how music, nostalgia and memory works together, and the weird, disjointed pieces it throws together to mark a time that’s long in the rear view mirror – which is really a good feeling!
In honor of all this shit, I’ll pick three songs I’ve pulled together thus far for Mellow 70s Gold as some kind of peace offering for making you read this far. Enjoy.
“Sweet Painted Lady” by Elton John. This is an album cut from his Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album: the legendary “first album I ever bought.” Bernie Taupin often wrote awful, maudlin lyrics, but this one starts, “I’m back on dry land once again/Opportunity awaits me like a rat in the drain” and stays on that level. A damn good song. Elton later re-tooled it as a nostalgic ballad called “This Train Don’t Stop There.” Go to Youtube to see the mind-blowing video (featuring Justin Timberlake as 70s Elton) for this song.
“Dialogue Part II” by Chicago. I was shocked by how many memorable hits Chicago has when I got into their stuff. I’m not sure this one was a hit. Why do I remember it? Because cheerleaders have a habit of taking popular songs of the day and changing the lyrics to suit their team. Instead of the repeating “We can change the world now/We can make it better, yeah” chant the members of Chicago sing, our cheerleaders came up with, “We’re the Spartans, we play tackle, we’re the best man, yeah.” It worked pretty well … well enough that I can remember it clearly 30 years later!
“Could We Start Again Please?” from the Jesus Christ Superstar soundtrack. That’s Yvonne Elliman, doing her thing as Mary Magdalene. This song was added for the motion picture soundtrack, as it hadn’t appeared in the stage version. I’m not sure why, but the song really gets to me, even now. I guess it’s that feeling of a situation – a relationship, or even somebody’s life – spinning out of your control and most likely ending. You could apply it to Christ dying on the cross, or breaking up, or someone dying. Definitely one of those “what the fuck” songs for me, where I should be somehow above it, yet it pulls me in, every time.
Just a small sampling of the ass-backwards journey I’ve been on the past few weeks!