Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Nurse the Hate: Don McLean

I was walking the hounds past a neighbor’s house that was playing what they considered a festive “American” playlist of songs on this July 4th.  The only real thread between the songs was a reference to America in the title.  “Born in the USA” to “Living in America” to “American Pie”.  I don’t think they realized that their celebration of all things USA was a song about a Viet Nam Vet being used and forgotten, a throwaway movie soundtrack song, and one about the death of Buddy Holly.  As the guy that writes the lyrics, it is depressing that almost no one actually listens to or understands the lyrics.  I could picture in my mind one of the Moms enthusiastically complimenting the other Mom on the Patriotic song choices as they glossed over lines like “Born down in a dead man’s town/First kick I took is when I hit the ground/Born in the USA… I was Born in the USA”.  Eh, what are you going to do?  Listen to fife and drum music?  Rock on neighbors. 

I will admit that “American Pie” does have an emotional connection for me.  Not only did it represent an excellent song choice when I was a radio DJ when I needed to go to the toilet, Don McLean’s song does have an absolutely irresistible chorus.  He never wrote anything close to that catchy again, and as far as I know there are no owners of the American Pie LP that have ever listened to Side 2 of that album more than once.  I have spent more time than I care to admit in redneck bars where girls in cutoff jean shorts have screamed out that chorus at the top of their lungs while holding a Bud Light longneck bottle.  That is not my emotional connection however.

The first time I ever heard “American Pie” was when I was around six years old.  I was sitting shotgun in my father’s company car, a Ford Grand Torino station wagon.  I seem to think it was green with the fake wood paneling, but maybe I am confusing that detail with the Griswold’s imperial family truckster.  The car was a behemoth.  The great thrill was sitting in the rear facing backseat when it was a full load of kids in the car.  Despite the very real chance of motion sickness and even greater chance of immediate death in an accident, that seat was the prized seat in that car if you were six.  My father’s company had graciously provided the model of the car with the electric back window, perhaps the greatest feat of automation I had witnessed up to that time.  Yet, I know I was sitting in the front seat when “American Pie” came out of the AM radio that afternoon.  It was my father and I on a mission.

It was warm, so we had the windows down.  The car was so big, I was so little, or a combination of both, that I could hardly see out the window.  The vinyl fake leather seats stuck to the back of my legs.  I remember the smell of the upholstery, a combination of chemicals and sun damage.  I was sleepy from the hot sun beaming on my face and the car’s motion.  I recall "American Pie" coming on the radio being like an electric shock.  It had my full attention.  I instantly got the chorus, though I didn’t know what rye was and was confused how “good old boys” could drink whiskey and rye bread.  I patiently waited through the verses until that chorus would come around once again.  I really liked the rhyme “Chevy to the Levee”.  The song had just ended when we came to a stop at a quarry where our task had been to go buy sand for a sandbox my father had built.  Two big men tossed plastic bags of sand into the back of the car after we paid in a filthy office area.

I remember driving back home, no seatbelt and stuck to the front seat, asking my father if that “chevy to the levee” song was going to play again.  He said he didn’t know but graciously hit the push buttons to move the radio from station to station as we looked for it.  We couldn't find it and settled for a Phillies game.  When we got back home, he took the bags of sand and emptied them into the sand box in the back yard.  The sand was moist and stuck together.  It was a coarser grain than the sand I was used to at the Jersey Shore.  I didn’t like how it stuck to me.  I wandered off from the triumphantly completed sandbox, most assuredly disappointing my father by my lack of enthusiasm.  

I don’t know how much longer it was before I heard “American Pie” again.  It was probably the same week as I am sure the Top 40 stations pummeled the hit song into oblivion on their playlists.  I do have a clear memory of being at the Pennypacker Swim Club, a private pool near our home where I showed a surprising adeptness in the water in swim classes.  They had a snack bar where every kid with a little change in his pockets went for a hot dog and birch beer.  The too cool for words teenage girls behind the counter played the AM radio at all times.  I had a hot dog in my hand and was waiting for my birch beer (the vastly superior cousin of root beer) when good old Don McLean came on again.  I stood absolutely still, trying not to be conspicuous to the teenagers nearby as I listened to the song again.  I didn’t know if it was “cool” to like it, and certainly not to the level I did.  I remember a girl with long brown hair pulled back with a clip behind the counter pushing the paper cup of soda to me and whispered discreetly “You like that song, don’t you?” with a sly smile.  I immediately flushed red with embarrassment and left the snack bar.  The screen door slammed shut behind me as I ran back to my family, hoping to put the incident of being noticed behind me.

I have no real recollection of the song again until college.  It just sort of disappeared when all things 70s were cast aside in favor of the exciting new 80s.  There was a guy that lived down the hall from me that had a good record collection.  I saw that iconic cover as I flipped through his records.  We put it on his record player and the beginning crackled as the needle illuminated the heavy play the hit had received.  I remember when I took the record off after the song had finished seeing Side 2 as I slipped it back into the white paper sleeve.  It was absolutely pristine.     


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