You find you’re back in Vegas with a handle in your hand

I consider myself a risk-averse person. I’m not comfortable getting involved in risky investments or placing bets where anything really bad can happen. Playing games of chance — midway games, roulette, Blackjack — is just not my idea of a good time.

Many millions take a different view. To them, gambling in Vegas or on football games is the height of entertainment, but for me, I’m so afraid of the possible disastrous result that I can’t get excited about the possible favorable result. So it’s not fun, and it’s not a good use of my entertainment dollar.

But we all gamble at some point in our lives. We gamble when we make outdoor plans on days when it might rain. We gamble on getting to the plane departure on time even though there’s a pretty good chance that traffic will cause delays. Perhaps most notably, we gamble our hearts on a romantic relationship when there may be evidence that the other person may not be entirely honest.

Songwriters love the topic of gambling. A brief search of songs from the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s produced several dozen big hits and deep tracks that address the exhilarating highs and excruciating lows of gambling. Some mourn the fate of the gambling addict who can’t quit even when he has lost everything.

I’ve selected a baker’s dozen classic songs about gambling, from rock to blues to country to swing, and another dozen or so “honorable mentions,” and all are included in a Spotify playlist at the end of the piece.

I’ll wager you enjoy these tunes!

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“Go Down Gamblin’,” Blood, Sweat and Tears, 1971

This was actually the first “rock band with jazz horns” to make out big, preceding Chicago by a year or two. With Canadian David Clayton-Thomas as front man, BS&T struck gold in 1969 with three huge hit singles — “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy,” “Spinning Wheel” and “And When I Die.” Funny thing, though — neither rock fans nor jazz fans never quite accepted them because their attempts at merging the genres were often awkward and unappealing. “Go Down Gamblin’,” a rocker that stalled at #32 in 1971, began the disintegration of the band’s original lineup and their commercial success as well. But it has a great lyric by Clayton-Thomas about a guy who loses at gambling but has been lucky at love: “Down in a crap game, I’ve been losin’ at roulette, /Cards are bound to break me, but I ain’t busted yet /’Cause I’ve been called a natural lover by that lady over there…”

“Lady Luck,” Kenny Loggins, 1977

In 1971, Loggins was assigned to producer Jim Messina for his first LP. Messina ended up playing guitar, singing and writing songs as well, so the LP was aptly titled “Kenny Loggins With Jim Messina Sittin’ In.” That turned out to be the genesis of a successful five-year career arc as Loggins and Messina before Loggins finally released his true solo debut, the splendid “Celebrate Me Home,” in 1977. The opening track, “Lady Luck,” is a captivating Loggins tune with lyrics by John Townsend of Sanford-Townsend Band. Townsend tells the tale of a man who left his “lady luck” for another woman and consequently lost his luck at gambling as well: “7-11 he rolled, and all his life was a golden gamble, /You’d see him reeling it in when the odds were high, /Something supernatural, a charlatan, a mastermind, or some lucky lady, or some jealous lady, /Kiss your lucky lady goodbye…”

“Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man,” Bob Seger System, 1968

Long before “Night Moves,” “Against The Wind” and the string of Top Ten LPs and other hit singles he charted with The Silver Bullet Band in the 1976-1987 period, Bob Seger was an up-and-coming rock singer-songwriter out of the heartland city of Detroit, Michigan. In 1968, he assembled a band he called the Bob Seger System and, right out of the box, he scored a #17 hit on the US charts with “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man.” It has a standard ’60s rock song structure, carried by relentless organ and a 4/4 beat. Little known fact: Singing backup and adding acoustic guitar to the track was Seger’s young pal Glenn Frey, who would soon be a founding member of The Eagles. Seger’s lyrics on this tune are simple: “I’m out of money…and I must run…” The narrator likes to gamble, but he’s got to ramble, and at only 13. Whether it’s because he can’t pay his debts is unclear.

“Deal,” Jerry Garcia, 1972

Garcia, the man known as “Captain Trips,” the spiritual leader, guitarist, singer and songwriter for The Grateful Dead, was an enormously influential musician who enjoyed and performed a broad range of musical styles with the band and in various side projects during his 30-year career from the mid-’60s until his death in 1995. On his first solo record, “Garcia” (1972), he reverted to a “barroom rock and roll” sound on the wonderful opener, “Deal,” co-written with his longtime lyrics collaborator Robert Hunter, who espoused a “take your time, be prepared for anything approach to life: “I been gamblin’ hereabouts for ten good solid years, /If I told you all that went down it would burn off both of your ears, /Goes to show you don’t ever know, /Watch each card you play and play it slow, /Wait until that deal come round, don’t you let that deal go down, no, no…”

“The King of Hearts,” Procol Harum, 1991

I find it outrageous that Procol Harum, arguably the true pioneers of the British progressive rock genre (1967-1977), still haven’t been inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame while their many successors (Pink Floyd, Genesis, Yes) all have. In 1991, four founding members — singer/pianist Gary Brooker, organist Matthew Fisher, guitarist Robin Trower and lyricist Terry Reid — reunited to write and record a strong group of new songs for “The Prodigal Stranger,” which didn’t chart well but sparked a successful tour in the US and Europe. My favorite track is “The King of Hearts,” carried by Brooker’s soulful vocals and great lyrics by Reid: “Yes I played the King of Hearts, put my cards out on the table, /I thought the odds were in my favour, /But she laid the Ace of Spades, and I wound up where I started, /The King of Hearts no more, but the King of the Broken-hearted…”

“Draw of the Cards,” Kim Carnes, 1981

It took ten years between Carnes’s debut LP in 1971 and the runaway commercial success she achieved with her “Mistaken Identity” LP and its international #1 single “Bette Davis Eyes.” Her first taste of fame came in 1979 with her song “Don’t Fall in Love With a Dreamer,” a Top Five duet with Kenny Rogers, followed by her cover of Smokey Robinson’s “More Love” the same year. Although “Bette Davis Eyes” got most of the attention on “Mistaken Identity,” I’ve always been partial to “Draw of the Cards,” a modest #27 single carried by swirling organ/synthesizer that is “intoxicating in its creepiness,” as one critic put it. The lyrics emphasize how big a part luck plays in games of chance: “Drop the cards, watch the eyes, /Down and dirty, let ’em ride… /Ace is high, deuce is low, /Take the first, the rest should go, /And it’s all in the draw of the cards…”

“Losing Hand,” Ray Charles, 1953

Early in his career, before his mainstream hits like “What’d I Say,” “Georgia On My Mind,” “Hit the Road Jack” and “Unchain My Heart,” Ray Charles cut his teeth on traditional blues tunes. In 1953, in the same recording session that produced his first chart success, “Mess Around,” Charles recorded a smoldering slow blues tune called “Losing Hand” by Jesse Stone (known for writing the rock classic “Shake, Rattle and Roll”). Stone might’ve been the first to compare a losing poker hand to a failed relationship: “While I was playing fair, baby, you played a cheating game, /I know you don’t care, but I love you just the same, /I thought I’d be your king, baby, yes and you could be my queen, /But you used me for your joker ’cause I thought your deal was clean, /The way you did me pretty baby, I declare I never understand, /I gambled on your love, baby, and got a losing hand…”

“Luck Be a Lady,” Frank Sinatra, 1965

Veteran Broadway composer Frank Loesser came up with “Luck Be a Lady” in 1950 for the musical production of “Guys and Dolls.” It has since become a standard, with notable recordings by Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Brian Setzer and Seal. In the play, the bold gambler Sky Masterson tries to put one over on Sarah Brown, a straight-arrow woman who runs the local mission, but he finds himself developing real feelings for her. He makes a last-ditch bet in hopes of winning back her affections, and in the song, Loesser characterizes “Luck” as a woman who’s flighty and disloyal, with Sky begging her to be on his side (and stay by his side) that evening: “A lady doesn’t leave her escort, it isn’t fair, it isn’t nice, /A lady doesn’t wander all over the room and blow on some other guy’s dice, /So stick with me, baby, I’m the guy that you came in with, /Luck, be a lady tonight…”

“Viva Las Vegas,” Elvis Presley, 1964

Jerome Felder, who used the stage name Doc Pomus, wrote the lyrics while collaborator Mort Shuman came up with the melody for this vivacious rocker that served as the title song for one of Presley’s many film vehicles of the 1960s. Despite its cardboard plot and quickie production schedule, “Viva Las Vegas” was a big box office hit, thanks to co-star Ann-Margret, with whom Presley enjoyed genuine sexual chemistry, and the single reached #29 in the US. The lyrics summarize the fun-loving appeal and excitement of the gambling options to be found in the Vegas casinos: “Oh, there’s blackjack and poker and the roulette wheel, /A fortune won and lost on every deal, /All you need’s a strong heart and a nerve of steel… /I’m gonna give it everything I’ve got, /Lady luck, please let the dice stay hot, /Let me shoot a seven with every shot, /Viva Las Vegas…”

“The Turn of a Friendly Card,” Alan Parsons Project, 1980

For his fifth LP, Parsons and his collaborator Ian Woolfson put together a song cycle centered around the theme of gambling and its addictive dangers. In addition to the hit singles “Games People Play” and “Time,” the album includes a five-song suite that includes such tracks as “Snake Eyes” and “Nothing Left to Lose.” The highlight for me is the two-part title piece, which features Chris Rainbow on lead vocals. The lyrics capture how the thrill of gambling can devolve into a feeling of uncomfortable dread that can’t be escaped: “There are unsmiling faces and bright plastic chains, and a wheel in perpetual motion, /And they follow the races and pay out the gains with no show of an outward emotion, /And they think it will make their lives easier, for God knows up ’til now it’s been hard, /But the game never ends when your whole world depends on the turn of a friendly card…”

“Gambler’s Roll,” Allman Brothers Band, 1990

After being inactive for much of the 1980s, the Allman Brothers Band came storming back in the 1990s with great new albums and sold-out tours. The 1990 LP “Seven Turns” kicked things off nicely, with strong songs like Gregg Allman’s “Good Clean Fun” and Dickey Betts’ “Seven Turns.” The group had been reinforced with the addition of guitarist Warren Haynes and pianist Johnny Neel, who combined forces on a seething slow blues tune called “Gambler’s Roll.” Allman’s weary blues voice delivers the lyrics like no one else can, commiserating about the sorry plight of the gambler and the woman who loves him: “Cold wind blows a young girl’s world apart, she bet it all on the jack of hearts, /Gained her freedom but lost her soul on a gambler’s roll… You know the gambler he rides on a fool’s train, tradin’ silver for gold, /Oh, but his luck will change, time takes its toll on a gambler’s roll…”

“The Dealer,” Stevie Nicks, 1979/2014

When Fleetwood Mac were riding at their highest, Nicks was writing a lot of songs, more than could be squeezed onto the group’s albums because Christine McVie and Lindsay Buckingham had plenty of songs too. When the Nicks tune “The Dealer” was recorded but then rejected for inclusion on 1979’s “Tusk,” it emboldened her decision to begin a concurrent solo career. She ended up releasing seven successful audio albums between 1981 and 2011 but never found space for “The Dealer” until she re-recorded it and many other shelved tracks for her 2014 LP “24 Karat Gold: Songs From the Vault.” Its lyrics describe how she saw herself as the dealer in her own life’s card game, but she made mistakes: “Ooh, I was the dealer, and it wasn’t hard, /I was the mistress of my fate, I was the card shark, /If I’d looked a little ahead, I’d’ve run away…”

“The Gambler,” Kenny Rogers, 1978

Rogers had tasted fame and fortune with his ’60s band The First Edition, who scored hits with pop psychedelia (“Just Dropped In”) as well as pop country (“Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town”). By the late ’70s, he was one of country music’s biggest stars, with multiple Top Five albums and singles on the country charts as well as occasional crossover success on the pop charts. “Lucille” reached #5 in 1977, followed by the Don Schlitz tune “The Gambler” at #16, which became one of Rogers’ signature songs. The lyrics impart a life lesson and a cautionary tale: “You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, /Know when to walk away, and know when to run, /You never count your money when you’re sittin’ at the table, /There’ll be time enough for countin’ when the dealin’s done…”

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Honorable mentions:

There’s a Place in the World For a Gambler,” Dan Fogelberg, 1974; “Ooh Las Vegas,” Gram Parsons, 1973; “Lily, Rosemary & the Jack of Hearts,” Bob Dylan, 1975; “Gambler,” Whitesnake, 1984; “Easy Money,” Billy Joel, 1983; “Shape Of My Heart,” Sting, 1994; “I Feel Lucky,” Mary Chapin Carpenter, 1992; “Gambler’s Blues,” Otis Rush, 1969; “Tumbling Dice,” The Rolling Stones, 1972; “Desperado,” The Eagles, 1973; “The Card Cheat,” The Clash, 1981; “When You’re Hot, You’re Hot,” Jerry Reed, 1971; “Roulette,” Bruce Springsteen, 1980/1998; “Do It Again,” Steely Dan, 1972.

Do you recall what was revealed?

I’ve recently written a couple blogs that delve into the meaning behind some classic rock song lyrics. When I happened to mention to a few folks that I would be writing a blog post solely about Don McLean’s iconic opus “American Pie” — seeing as how it was released 50 years ago this week — one friend said, “Oh God, please don’t. Tell me when that’ll be published so I can skip your blog that week.” Others said they were looking forward to it, recalling the great memories the song evokes for them.

Don McLean, 1972

Either way, here we go.

“American Pie” is quite possibly the most (over)analyzed song in rock history, which was pretty much what McLean, now 76, had been hoping for. “It turned out beyond my wildest dreams,” he said in a 2020 article in American Songwriter. “I wanted to write a big song about America, so I came up with this idea that politics and music influence one another and flow parallel together, forward, but I had no clue how to begin to express that. Then one day, I was singing into the tape recorder, and the first verse all came tumbling out, like a genie from the bottle. ‘A long, long time ago’ all the way through to ‘the day the music died.’ I thought, ‘Whoa, what is that?!'”

One of the motivating factors in McLean’s songwriting through the years has been a family secret that McLean never discussed openly until recently. He had a sister, fifteen years his senior, who was an alcoholic and drug addict “who almost ruined my childhood. It was a disaster to see it. It was just awful. That’s one big reason why I’m a blue guy, I guess. All my songs are about loss – and a certain kind of psychic pain. I’ve never really been happy.”

McLean had a decent career, with several other popular singles like “Vincent” (a #12 hit) and “Dreidel” (#21) and a cover of Roy Orbison’s “Crying” (#5), but without question it was “American Pie” that defined him… and sustained him… and exasperated him as well. It was a mighty bold undertaking to attempt a song that chronicled the rise and fall of rock & roll in an infectious and expansive radio-friendly pop song, and everyone has been relentlessly asking him what the words really mean. His pat answer was always, “It means I don’t have to ever work again if I don’t want to.” (Indeed, he pulls in about $400,000 in annual royalties, and the handwritten lyrics fetched a cool $2 million at auction in 2015.)

But he’s been talking about it more openly these days. I have researched numerous articles and essays, published long ago and more recently, to assess various interpretations that either confirmed my thinking or put forth something entirely different. Today, I offer my view on the words that many of us can and still do sing along to when the song is played.

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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

The site of the plane crash that claimed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper, 1959

McLean was a 14-year-old paper boy on February 4, 1959, when he was sucker-punched by the headline about the plane crash that took the life of Buddy Holly and two other vintage rockers. He had loved Elvis and Chuck Berry and Little Richard, but they had joined the Army, gone to jail and converted to gospel music, so when Holly went down too, McLean felt as if a chapter of his life, and what he regarded as the innocent life of ’50s America, had come to an end. Compounding this in real terms is the fact that McLean’s father died the next year, leaving him on his own to figure things out. He felt it acutely at age 26 as he began writing the song in 1971 and realizing how much had changed in only a dozen years. Something indeed touched him deep inside, and he was moved to write it all down in five more lengthy verses and a repeated chorus.

Buddy Holly

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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”

Here he is singing a fond farewell to childhood, to apple pie and Miss America. Some of you may recall the old TV commercial with the tagline, “See the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet…” That’s how the Chevy reference ties in, but he’s finding the well of innocence has run dry for him. In another nod to Buddy Holly, McLean altered his song “That’ll Be the Day,” turning a romantic negotiation into something far more solemn. McLean’s mourning for simpler times is initially set to a slow, ballad tempo, and again in the song’s coda, but the majority of the record gallops along as an infectious, uptempo romp that kept most of our melancholy musings at bay while we sang along. Very clever of him to put all these thought-provoking lyrics to a pleasant, sing-along melody, or the entire enterprise might have never been noticed in the first place.

Alexis Petridis, music critic for The Guardian, summed it up this way: “Dylan talked to us in dense, cryptic, apocalyptic terms. But McLean says similar ominous things in a pop language that mainstream listeners could understand. The chorus is so good that it lets you wallow in the confusion and wistfulness of that moment, and be comforted at the same time. It’s bubblegum Dylan, really.”

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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

It’s crystal clear that McLean is weaving spiritual thoughts into the lyrics at several points, most notably here, where he uses the 1950s hit songs “The Book of Love” and “The Bible Tells Me So” to compare faith in God with faith in rock ‘n’ roll music (as the Lovin’ Spoonful had asked in “Do You Believe in Magic?” in 1965). McLean takes us back to sock hops, cool cars, great dance tunes and how “I knew I was out of luck” because his innocent childhood had ended. He felt it was useless to keep yearning for those old days now that so much had transpired by the time he wrote the song in 1971, as we shall see.

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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

Here the lyrics start to become a more interesting guessing game. Who is the Jester? The King and Queen? What courtroom?Who is the quartet practicing in the park?

Bob Dylan has dismissed the notion that he might be the Jester in McLean’s story (“A jester?” he scoffed. “Sure, the Jester writes songs like ‘Masters of War’ and ‘A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall’ – some jester. I have to think he’s talking about somebody else.”). But it makes sense from the standpoint of Dylan assuming the musical mantle in 1963 that had been cast aside by The King, who is, of course, Elvis. The coat Dylan borrowed from James Dean — symbolically, anyway — can be seen on the cover of his landmark “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” album.

Some observers saw the lyrics here as more political. The King and Queen, they say, were John and Jackie Kennedy, and the Jester who stole the thorny crown was Lee Harvey Oswald. An intriguing idea…and this would actually tie in nicely to McLean’s premise about our national loss of innocence, but I’m not buying it.

The courtroom was the court of public opinion, where people’s tastes in music were splintering into different factions (folk versus rock, etc.) and, hence, no verdict was returned. Again, in the matter of Kennedy’s assassination, many in the court of public opinion never accepted the Warren Commission’s conclusions, which can translate to a “no verdict.”

The quartet who were honing their skills in 1963, I think we can all agree, were The Beatles, whose seismic impact on rock music was about to be felt. Meantime, pop radio would be filled with inconsequential pablum — “dirges in the dark” — until their arrival.

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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?

The merger of folk and rock symbolized by The Byrds and “Eight Miles High” in 1966-67 was the high point of ’60s optimism, which at first, rivaled the carefree sunniness of the ’50s. The “players” who “tried for a forward pass” were, I submit, The Rolling Stones, who were enjoying a string of edgy yet broadly accessible mid-’60s hits (“Satisfaction,” “Get Off My Cloud,” “Paint It Black”) while Dylan sat “on the sidelines in a cast,” convalescing from a motorcycle accident. With their milestone “Sgt. Pepper” LP in 1967, The Beatles had morphed from the quartet into the Marching Band, hoping to maintain the air of “sweet perfume,” but the false promises of The Summer of Love were dissolving, and “we never got the chance” to dance because psychedelia, acid rock and new tensions were on the rise.

The politically based interpretation says the “players” are the civil rights protesters, and the marching band is the authoritarian establishment who “refused to yield.” And what was it that was revealed? You can make the case that the seemingly intractable division between the political left and right that haunts us even more today than 50 years ago was first on display in the Chicago streets outside the 1968 Democratic Convention. It was the dark underside of the American Dream.

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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

This verse opens with a description of the crowd at a music festival, presumably Woodstock with all its good vibes, but we soon see it’s the darker, violent Altamont festival that McLean is talking about. “Fire is the Devil’s only friend” ties together “Sympathy for the Devil” and The Rolling Stones’ performance there, during which Hell’s Angels “security” beat a concertgoer to death in full of view of the red-caped Mick Jagger and the band on stage. To McLean, this was the nadir of the story’s arc, the moment when any hope of innocence returning had been dashed. The story, and the words he uses to tell it, get a bit melodramatic at this point, but he’s trying to drive the point home that nothing “could break that Satan spell.”

Listeners who were paying attention to the words at this point could be forgiven for concluding, “This is one depressing song.”

The Rolling Stones at Altamont, 1969

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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

Janis Joplin, 1970

As the tempo returns to a slower, more reflective pace, McLean touches on the sad tale of Janis Joplin, whose career briefly shone brightly but ended in tragedy and drug overdose (“she just smiled and turned away”) in 1970. The “sacred store” where “the music wouldn’t play” was, I believe, the neighborhood record store, where there had once been listening rooms for buyers to check out records. More to the point, the music of McLean’s youth was now passé, shoved aside by the cynicism of the newer generation. The faith in music had not been rewarded — instead, “the church bells all were broken.” Everyone had abandoned the chance of innocence, even “the three men I admire the most,” the Holy Trinity, who chose to metaphorically skip town.

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“American Pie” is, in essence, a cautionary tale about how, as Joni Mitchell once sang, “you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.” Any interpretations of the lyrics, including mine, have to be taken with reservations, just as with any cryptic song lyric of that period, or any period. “Basically, in ‘American Pie,’ things are heading in the wrong direction,” concludes McLean. “Life is becoming less idyllic. I don’t know whether you consider that wrong or right, but it is a morality song, in a sense.”

Despite its catchy melody, there’s little to really cheer about in “American Pie.” McLean did come up with one more upbeat verse where the music gets “reborn” at the end, but he ditched it. “Things weren’t going that way,” he said in a 2020 interview. “I didn’t see America improving intellectually or politically. It was going steadily downhill, and so was the music.”

Here in 2021, you can make a convincing case that the innocent, simple days of 1950s America McLean longed for weren’t so innocent nor simple, especially not if you were Black, or Hispanic, or a woman who wanted to be something other than a housewife. And the civil unrest of the ’60s that McLean disparages was, in my view, a necessary battle that brought about some long-needed change in terms of voting rights and job/housing discrimination, to name just two areas.

But we’re talking about one man’s lyrical poetry put to music in 1971, describing the previous ten years. It’s a pop song — a major achievement in pop culture, to be sure — but still just a song. Let’s not assign too much importance to it.

Rob Patterson, a writer at the Best Classic Bands website, put it nicely in perspective: “It’s less important what McLean may say it means, and more important what it means to the listener – not who was what, but how it feels and its emotional impact. One of the true beauties of a great song is how it can become a part of your own experience, your feelings and your life.”

For me personally, “American Pie” is a song I like to play on guitar with a choir of family and friends singing along at the top of their lungs. People have told me they’re amazed I’m able to remember all the words, but that’s because they’re ingrained in my memory since I first learned them.

And to those who are sick to death of “American Pie” or never liked it in the first place, I say, you better look out. McLean announced recently there’ll be a documentary, “The Day The Music Died: The Story Behind Don McLean’s American Pie,” set for release at the end of 2021, and some sort of stage play in 2022 about McLean’s career and the song’s impact, and even a children’s book based on the song.

Don McLean, 2016

Apparently, the music, McLean’s music, never died after all.

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The Spotify playlist below is short and to the point. First, of course, is “American Pie,” followed by eight tracks that are mentioned specifically or alluded to in the lyrics, and then concluding with “Vincent,” McLean’s sad ode to Vincent Van Gogh.