When I was young and they packed me off to school

All the rock stars of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s — every single one of them — started out as a toddler, a youngster, a teenager.

They may have evolved into bombastic vocalists, or hard rock guitarists, or iconic songwriters that changed the direction of rock and roll music. But at one point, they were just darling children, inquisitive kids, awkward adolescents just like the rest of us.

It’s fascinating to think about, and to see these future celebrities at a young age, still innocent and unknowing of what fate had in store for them.

I’ve done some digging in photography archives on the Internet and come up with some great photos of 25 rock and roll legends when they were just kids.

Take a gander at the photos below, make a note of who you think they are, then scroll down to see how you did. You can also read about when and where they were born, their family situations, and how they gravitated toward careers in rock music. I’ve also added a playlist of 25 deep tracks by the 25 artists featured here.

I’m curious to learn how many of these sweet young faces you recognize!

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#1: Roger Daltrey

The eventual singer for The Who was born in 1944 in East Acton, just west of London. He was the oldest of three children, and although he got excellent grades in school, he had a bad temper and would use his fists to settle arguments, which resulted in him getting expelled more than once. He played guitar but preferred singing. He’s now 77 and still performs with Pete Townshend as The Who.

#2: Grace Slick

Recognized as the first female rock singer, Slick was born in 1939 as Grace Wing in Highland Park, Ill. She and her brother and parents were moved several times between Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco, with the family settling in Palo Alto, CA. She married filmmaker Jerry Slick in 1961 and worked as a model for I. Magnin department store. She wrote music for Slick’s films and also joined his band, The Great Society. She was recruited to join Jefferson Airplane in 1966. She’s now 82.

#3: Donald Fagen

Fagen, one half of the spectacular songwriting team behind Steely Dan, was born in 1948 in Passaic, NJ. His mother Elinor had been a swing music singer in her teens. Fagen was 10 when the family moved to the suburbs of South Brunswick, NJ, which he disliked, and he sought solace in late-night jazz radio. He later attended Bard College in New York, where he met like-minded Walter Becker and they began writing songs together. They masterminded Steely Dan’s recording career throughout the ’70s and a resurgence in the 2000s. Now 73, Fagen still performs as Steely Dan.

#4: James Brown

The eventual Godfather of Soul was born in 1933 in Barnwell, SC, to a teenage mother and a family in poverty. They moved to Augusta, GA, in 1938, where he coped with an abusive family dynamic and survived on his own much of the time. He won a talent show singing at age 11, but at 16 served time for robbery, where he met Bobby Byrd and other future band mates and began singing both gospel and R&B music. Brown died in 2006 at age 73.

#5: Freddie Mercury

The future lead singer of Queen was born Farrokh Bulsara in 1946 in the British protectorate of Zanzibar (now part of Tanzania) to Parsi-Indian parents. He was born with four supernumerary incisors, to which he attributed his four-octave vocal range. He spent time in British boarding schools in India, where he played rock and roll and Western pop music in bands with school chums. The family moved to Middlesex, England, outside London when he was 12 and pursued a fanatical passion for heavy rock and blues music, eventually changing his name to Freddie Mercury and forming Queen in 1970. He died in 1991 at age 45.

#6: Eric Clapton

One of rock’s finest blues guitarists was born in Surrey, England, in 1945 to a 16-year-old mother who abandoned him, leaving him to be raised by his grandparents. He acquired an instant love for American blues music at age nine, and once he got a quality guitar, he spent many hours every day for years perfecting his technique. Clapton joined a number of groups but grew restless, never staying for long. The Yardbirds, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Cream, Blind Faith and Derek and the Dominos all came and went before his 26th birthday. He is still an active musician at age 76.

#7: Marvin Gaye

One of soul music’s smoothest vocalists of all time was born Marvin Gay Jr. in 1939 in Washington DC. He was the second oldest of four children, and his father was a Pentecostal minister who ran a strict household. He began singing in church at age four and was encouraged at age 11 to pursue a professional singing career, which put him at odds with his violent father. Hesang with doo-wop and R&B vocal groups, began recording at 20 and became hugely popular on the Motown label in the ’60s and ’70s. He was shot to death by his father in 1984 at age 44.

#8: Jim Morrison

Born in 1943 in Melbourne, FL, Morrison was one of three children who were “military brats” whose father was an admiral in the US Navy, requiring multiple moves throughout childhood. They lived in San Diego; Alexandria, VA; Albuquerque; Kingsville, TX, and Alameda, CA and attended college in Florida and at UCLA in California. He was a voracious reader with a passionate interest in philosophy, poetry and film. While in LA, he befriended the musicians who would comprise the lineup of The Doors. He died in 1971 at age 27.

#9: Elvis Presley

“The King” was born in 1935 in Tupelo, Mississippi. His twin brother was stillborn, leaving Presley to be raised an only child to parents who struggled to make ends meet. Presley sang and learned guitar as a grade-school kid, singing mostly gospel and country music. The family moved to Memphis when he was 13. Despite little encouragement from friends, family or teachers, Presley began performing at school and in talent shows. At 19, he recorded a few tracks at Sun Records, where he was discovered and nurtured as a pioneer of the new hybrid musical genre known as rock and roll. Presley died in 1977 at age 42.

#10: Stevie Nicks

The future star in Fleetwood Mac’s late ’70s lineup was born in 1948 in Phoenix. Nicks was taught by her uncle to sing melodies and harmonies by age four, and her mother instilled a deep love of fairy tales and fantasy literature. Her family moved often, living throughout the West and Southwest US, eventually settling in the Bay Area, where Nicks joined her first band at 19 and met musical and romantic partner Lindsay Buckingham in 1970. Nicks remains an active recording and performing artist at age 73.

#11: Jerry Garcia

The man later known as Captain Trips as leader of The Grateful Dead was born in 1942 in San Francisco to parents of Spanish and Irish-Swedish ancestry. His father died when Garcia was only four, and he and his brother were sent by his mother to live with their grandparents for five years, a period when Garcia was exposed to country music through Grand Ole Opry radio shows. He learned to play piano, guitar and banjo when the family was reunited and lived in Menlo Park, CA. He grew fond of rock and roll and R&B in 1959-60 and and soon met the musicians who would make up the Grateful Dead in the mid-to-late ’60s. Died in 1995.

#12: Diana Ross

Ross was born in 1944 in Detroit as the second oldest of seven children. The family lived in a few different neighborhoods in the Detroit area, and Ross excelled at a magnet school where she learned skills to become a fashion designer. At the same time, she pursued an interest in singing by joining The Primettes, a female offshoot of the male group The Primes, and won a talent contest in Windsor, Ontario. The Primates won an audition with Motown in 1959 and soon became the chart-topping Supremes. Ross is now 77.

#13: Neil Young

Young was born in 1945 in Toronto, Canada. His family lived in the small rural town of Omeemee, about 100 miles northeast of Toronto. At age seven he contracted polio during the last outbreak of that disease there. When his parents divorced, he moved with his mother to Winnipeg in the prairies of central Canada, where joined his first band at age 15. He later joined The Squires, who played hundreds of gigs all over Canada in the early-mid 1960s. He met Stephen Stills and later moved to Los Angeles to form Buffalo Springfield. Young is still a very active singer-songwriter at age 76.

#14: Joni Mitchell

Born Roberta Joan Anderson in 1943 in Alberta, Canada, Mitchell and her parents also lived in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Like her fellow Canadian Neil Young, she contracted polio at age nine which limited her activities to painting and other art forms. She taught herself guitar, and because the polio had weakened her left hand, she devised alternate tunings to compensate. She grew to enjoy country, jazz and rock music but first pursued folk at coffeehouse venues in Canada and then the US. Her marriage to Chuck Mitchell in 1965 was over by 1967. Mitchell no longer performs due to health issues but still makes public appearances at 78.

#15: Bruce Springsteen

The Boss was born in 1949 in Freeport, NJ, as part of a working-class family of five. Springsteen had a difficult relationship with his father, from whom he sought refuge in playing rock guitar, first inspired by seeing Elvis Presley and then The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. He became passionate about playing in rock bands and writing his own songs at age 19, heading up four different bands between 1969 and 1972 when he won a contract from Columbia Records. At 72, Springsteen is still writing, recording and performing with and without his collaborators in The E Street Band.

#16: Mick Jagger

Born in 1943 in Kent, England, Jagger was part of a middle-class family of four. He resisted following his father’s career path as a physical education teacher and gymnast, instead committing to being a singer, both in church choirs as well as pickup rock bands. He did well in school and attended the London School of Economics, and even thought about becoming a politician but chose to return to music with his old friend Keith Richards, joining forces with Brian Jones in Blues, Incorporated. Still active, 78.

#17: Jimi Hendrix

In 1942 in Seattle, Al and Lucille Hendrix had their first son, Johnny, who they renamed James Marshall Hendrix when he turned four. An unstable family life led him to retreat into music, mostly ’50s rock and roll. He learned guitar by ear, practicing relentlessly while listening to blues records. He served in the Army for less than a year, then pursued as musical career with a vengeance, playing in bands led by King Curtis and Little Richard. He moved to England in 1966 to form The Jimi Hendrix Experience, constantly seeking new techniques and sounds from his guitar. He died in 1970 at age 27.

#18: David Bowie

He was born David Jones in 1947 in Brixton, England. He showed significant early aptitude for dance, and his half-brother exposed him to jazz, philosophy, Buddhism, Beat poetry and the occult. He learned guitar, recorder, sax and piano by the time he was 14, and sang in school choirs and vocal ensembles. By the time he was 20, he changed his name to David Bowie to avoid being confused with Davy Jones of The Monkees. Always eager to learn and try new things, his career was marked my numerous stylistic changes. He died in 2016 at age 69.

#19: John Lennon

Lennon was born in 1940 in Liverpool, England. His father abandoned the family and his mother felt unable to handle the responsibility of a child, so Lennon was raised by his strict aunt, although his mother lived nearby and exposed him to rock and roll records and taught him the banjo. He drew cartoons and wrote inventive prose for his school paper, later forming a band called The Quarrymen. He met Paul McCartney at age 17 and formed The Beatles in 1959. Lennon was shot and killed in 1980 at age 40.

#20: Gregg Allman

Allman was born in 1947 in Nashville as the younger of two sons. His father was killed when Gregg was only two, forcing his mother to return to school to become a CPA, which necessitated the Allman brothers attend a military academy. Going to concerts and discovering blues from a neighbor’s record collection set both boys on a path to music, first in Florida, then California before returning to Macon, Georgia, where they formed the Allman Brothers Band in 1968. Duane Allman died at age 24 in 1971 as the band was becoming a success. Gregg Allman died in 2017 at age 69.

#21: Brian Wilson

Wilson, born in 1942 in Inglewood, CA, was the oldest of three brothers. They enjoyed singing and harmonizing with their cousin and friend, under the tutelage of their father Murry Wilson, a songwriter and aspiring business manager. Brian could learn songs by ear and had perfect pitch, and his father supported his dreams of success in the pop music business, although his volcanic temper traumatized Brian, later requiring years of psychotherapy. The Beach Boys became the country’s most popular group in the early/mid ’60s. Wilson’s brothers Carl and Dennis died in 1998 and 1983, respectively, while Brian is still active in the music industry at age 79.

#22: Carole King

Carol Klein was born in 1942 in Manhattan. Her mother, a teacher, played piano, and it was discovered when Carol was only four that she had perfect pitch. She had a natural talent for playing and singing songs from the radio after hearing them only once. In high school, she changed her name to Carole King and began writing songs, competing with New York contemporaries like Neil Sedaka and Paul Simon. With then-husband Gerry Goffin, King wrote dozens of hits for other artists before striking out on her own in 1970. At age 79, she still performs occasionally, sometimes with longtime friend James Taylor.

#23: Glenn Frey

In 1948 in Detroit, Frey was born into a suburban family who encouraged music education. Frey played piano in grade school before switching to guitar in order to play in at least a half-dozen different rock groups in his high school and college years. He learned how to do harmony vocals working with a regional vocal group, and met and became close friends with up-and-coming rocker Bob Seger. He moved to L.A. in 1968 at age 20, where he eventually met Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt and Don Henley, and formed The Eagles. Frey died at age 67 in 2016.

#24: Janis Joplin

Joplin was born in 1943 in Port Arthur, TX, as the oldest of three children. She was bullied and regarded as an outcast by fellow students in high school, which led her to hang out with other like-minded kids, one of whom had a huge record collection of blues singers like Ma Rainey, and Bessie Smith. Exposure to these artists inspired Joplin to seek a career as a blues singer. At 20, she hitchhiked with a friend to San Francisco, where she became enamored by the vibrant music scene there. Seven years later, she died of a drug overdose in 1970 at age 27.

#25: Bob Dylan

Robert Zimmerman was born in 1941 in Duluth, Minnesota, the older of two boys. He was raised most of his childhood in nearby Hibbing, where his mother’s family roots were. He formed bands while at Hibbing High School, playing Elvis and Little Richard covers. He changed his last name to Dylan, moved to New York City and switched from rock to folk music “because the songs were more serious. I liked the deeper feelings.” He began his career in 1961, becoming arguably the voice of his generation through his original music and lyrics. Dylan is still going strong at age 80.

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To accompany these “deep photos,” I’ve assembled a playlist of 25 deep tracks, one by each of the 25 artists. These aren’t songs you hear very often, but they’re favorites of mine. Enjoy!

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.