There is a Hoagy Carmichael quote that Bob Dylan once used to describe his own songwriting: “And then it happened, that queer sensation that this melody was bigger than me. Maybe I hadn’t written it all. The recollection of how, when and where it all happened became vague as the lingering strains hung in the rafters in the studio. I wanted to shout back at it, ‘maybe I didn’t write you, but I found you’.” He then adds, “I know just what he meant.” Don McLean’s ‘American Pie’ is certainly a song with that fished from the ether feel to it.
In truth, pop culture was only just dawning when McLean picked up a guitar and laid it all out in just under nine minutes. And yet, he already seemed to somehow be standing on the shoulders of giants, seeing where the horizon dawned and where the day was headed. From the day the music died with Buddy Holly and co perishing in a plane crash to a young vagabond emerging from the rubble and wrestling culture in a new direction—all of this and more is seemingly contained within McLean’s opus.
As Paul Simon once said, “I’ve tried to sound ironic. I don’t. I can’t. [With] Dylan, everything he sings has two meanings. He’s telling you the truth and making fun of you at the same time.” This new sort of irony was an iconoclastic act. Gone were the straightforward ballads of old—you’d do well to find a song laden with irony in Buddy Holly’s catalogue. This wry look marked Dylan out as the ingenious joker in the pack. Seemingly, McLean saw him as less of a joker and more of a jester.
We are introduced to the jester in McLean’s masterpiece at about the point that Dylan reinvented the musical wheel with the Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. As McLean sings in reference to the jacket that Dylan sports on the cover of that record: “The jester sang for the king and queen / In a coat he borrowed from James Dean,” and then with a nod to his everyman stylings, “With a voice that came from you and me.”
Later proof that McLean demarked Dylan as some sort of clown figure comes with the line, “The players tried for a forward pass / With the jester on the sidelines in a cast,” in reference to Dylan’s hiatus from the music industry after a motorbike accident injured his arm. Whether or not the halftime show being sweet perfume is a reference to McLean’s opinion that the music was better in his absence is open to speculation, but McLean certainly has some oddly obfuscated message of condemnation against the jester in his track.
Another line that alludes to this is when he sings, “While the King was looking down / The Jester stole his thorny crown,” seemingly in reference to Dylan stealing Elvis ‘The King’ Presley’s thunder with a new introspective form of songwriting.
However, if these are all pointed fingers at Dylan, then the great irony is that albeit ‘American Pie’ is a masterpiece full of its own individualism, few songs in history have benefited more directly from Dylan himself. As John Cooper Clarke said: “I love Bob Dylan but I hold him responsible for two bad ideas: a) the extended running time of the popular song and b) the lyric sheet.” A song over three and half minutes long was unheard of on the radio, and poring over lyrics like I am doing now was a fat waste of little time.
As for their own thoughts on the matter, well, McLean once said, “I can’t tell you, but he’d make a damn good jester, wouldn’t he?” And Dylan recently responded: “Yeah, Don McLean, ‘American Pie,’ what a song that is. A jester? Sure, the jester writes songs like ‘Masters of War,’ ‘A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,’ ‘It’s Alright, Ma’ — some jester. I have to think he’s talking about somebody else. Ask him.”