“I heard he sang a good song,
I heard he had a style
And so I came to see him,
To listen for a while
And there he was this young boy,
A stranger to my eyes”
Those are part of the lyrics from Killing Me Softly, popularised by Roberta Flack. It was written by Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel. Originally, it was recorded by Lori Lieberman but it was the Roberta Flack version which had thrust this beautiful song into pop folklore, sweeping the world by winning 3 grammys including the coveted “Song Of The Year” award. I like the song. The soulful Roberta Flack version is always touching and emotive, to say the least. And the recent Fugees’ version (featuring va va voom Larryn Hill), despite it’s hip hop proximity and influences, is also one to be savoured.
Not many people know but this song was inspired by a poem written by Lieberman titled “Killing Me Softly With His Blues”. Lieberman wrote that poem after watching a then unknown singer performing. This particular singer later became a famous folk rock singer who wrote one of the best, and the most enigmatic folk rock song of all time. Who was he? Who was this singer whom Lieberman saw and who was:-
“Strumming my pain with his fingers
Singing my life with his words
Killing me softly with his song
Killing me softly with his song
Telling my whole life with his words
Killing me softly with his song”
That singer was the then unknown Don McLean. The singer/composer who would later penned hits such as the beautiful, and yet disturbing and haunting “Vincent”, a tribute to non other than Vincent Van Gogh. Just consider this:
“And when no hope was left inside
On that starry, starry night
You took your life as lovers often do -
But I could've told you, Vincent:
This world was never meant
For one as beautiful as you.”
McLean’s lyrics are always filled with emotive imageries and metaphors, and hauntingly beautiful multi layered colours. Along this line, American Pie was composed, recorded and released in 1971. The song bucked the then prevailing trend in that it was more than 8 minute long. Many among the production people were pessimistic about the song when McLean wanted to record it. But of course, the rest, as they say, is history. The song became some kind of an anthem among folk rock fans across the globe. It is, for example, listed in the Song Of The Century education project at number 5 song of the 20th century. But what actually interested many fans about the song is its lyrics and their meaning.
I must say that in terms of enigmatic lyrics, American Pie must rank up there together with Procol Harum’s haunting “A Whiter Shade Of Pale” and Robert Plant’s gibberish laden “Stairway To Heaven”. Plant’s “Stairway To Heaven” is a heavyweight in itself, being a 6-minute something epic rock with arrangement so complicated that it had even been compared with a Beethoven’s piece. Jimmy Page’s riffs in that song is among the best riffs in any rock songs ever. In my opinion, that riffs are almost similar in stature as that of David Gilmore’s riffs in “Comfortably Numb” (voted by Rolling Stones Magazine as the best rock riffs ever). The only thing which would have made Stairway To Heaven even better, to me, is a 2 minute co da with an inter play between Page’s acoustic guitar and his monster Les Paul! I wish!
In contrast, Procol Harum’s number was shorter in length. It remains to date as one of the most frequently covered song in history although Annie Lennox’s cover would, in my opinion, rank as the best. The lyrics were enigmatic, to say the least. Plant’s lyrics in Stairway To Heaven were seemingly gibberish. In fact, it is a known fact that Plant himself did not like the song, refusing to perform it live. Once, he famously, or rather infamously, referred to the song as “that little wedding song”! Blasphemy!
I digressed, yes. It’s hard not to when I am talking about something which I absolutely love. Okay, back to American Pie. Lyrically, American Pie became the “greatest mystery in rock and roll history”. Such was the enigma and mystery of the lyrics that the song spawned hundreds of interpretations while Don McLean maintained a dignified silence about its meaning save for admitting that the song did refer to Buddy Holly and that the album American Pie was dedicated to him. On August 3, 1993, a letter was published where McLean among others said:
"As you can imagine, over the years I've been asked many times to discuss and explain my song "American Pie" [June25]. I have never discussed the lyrics, but have admitted to the Holly reference in the opening stanzas. I dedicated the album American Pie to Buddy Holly as well in order to connect the entire statement to Holly in hopes of brining about an interest in him, which subsequently did occur... 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."
And so, it is well established that American Pie did refer to Buddy Holly. “American Pie” to me refers to the America of the old days, where people would live in happiness and peace, days where greed and power were not too important, days of innocence where people would be listening to their favorite music and danced in the gym, days where Richie Valen and Buddy Holly ruled. The song is a study in rock and roll music development in America intertwined with a social study of the American psyche of the late 50s running through the 60s, paying attention to how things changed after a certain date, the turning point being “the day the music died”, namely, the day Buddy Holly died in an air crash in 1959 together with Richie Valen (as portrayed in the movie La Bamba) and the Big Bopper.
"But 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 old boys were drinkin' whiskey and rye
Singing this will be the day that I die
This'll be the day that I die."
To McLean, the day Buddy Holly died marked a shift of some sorts in the history of rock and roll in particular and in the socio-political scene of America generally. America of old was portrayed in various imageries and metaphors which are filled with innocence and nonchalant attitude.
“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 broncin' buck
With a pink carnation and a pickup truck”
All these would change, quite irretrievably on the day the music died.
“But I knew I was out of luck
The day the music died”
Thereafter he traced the emergence of Bob Dylan, a fact which was juxtaposed against the decline in popularity of Elvis Presley (I think):
“Oh, and while the King was looking down
The jester stole his thorny crown”
It also contained some vague reference to the cover of Dylan’s album titled “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” where Dylan posed in a red windbreaker ala James Dean. It would be remembered that James Dean wore a red windbreaker in “Rebel Without A cause”, a defining moment in American film industry: -
“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”
I could go on and on about the various facets of the lyrics and what they could possibly mean. Among the more interesting events alluded in the lyrics are the rise of Rolling Stones; the political inclination of the Beatles; the murder of Tate by Charles Manson; the famous Woodstock concert; and the infamy of the Rolling Stones’ concert at Altamont where a young man was beaten and killed by a member of the Hell’s Angel who was engaged as security crew. These are but some of the events related in the song. Events which formed a lasting impression on America and the world in general.
Whatever it is, I never failed to be saddened by the last few verses of the song, which to me, is still relevant to the whole world and indeed to Malaysia and our society in the present days. As the electric instruments and percussions stop and McLean is left strumming his acoustic guitar, the tempo slows down and he sings, in a melancholic voice:
“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 woudn'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”
The girl who sang the blues was of course Janis Joplin, a singer full of verve and emotions, with a voice which would make even the hardest of hearts weep, a singer who was saved from the streets a hippie and turned into a blues star but later was found dead with foams in her mouth courtesy of a handful or bottleful of LSDs.
When asked for some happy news, she would just smile and turn away and the man at the music store said the music just wouldn’t play. The children screamed, the lovers cried and the poets dreamed. And the father, son and the holy ghost, they took the last train for the coast.
These lyrics never fail to make me sad as I ponder and fear for my children’s life in future Malaysia. The music has long died in Malaysia. And if I had asked the girl who sang the blues, I am sure she would just smile and turn away. It is sad, but true. Just read our newspapers nowadays. Just listen to our politicians. The mullahs. Just look at Malaysia today. American Pie is worth more than we ever realize.
May God have mercy on us.