It’s one of the great, cryptic masterpieces in the history of American music.
But with the original manuscript going up for auction at Christie’s on Tuesday, the singer is opening up – to a degree – about the 1971 song’s dense, epic lyrics.
While hardly explaining every word, or every verse, McLean has shed some light on the song’s meaning in an interview in the Christie’s catalog for the auction.
“Basically, in ‘American Pie’ things are heading in the wrong direction,” says McLean, 69. “It is becoming less ideal, less idyllic. I don’t know whether you consider that wrong or right, but it is a morality song in a sense. I was around in 1970 and now I am around in 2015 there is no poetry and very little romance in anything anymore, so it is really like the last phase of ‘American Pie.’ ”
McLean says he felt an inexorable decline in American culture at the time he wrote the song, and almost saw things getting worse in the future.
“It’s weird,” he says. “I have a weird sense sometimes of what’s going to happen before it happens, and I kind of live by that, which is how my instincts operate, I suppose.”
The song was inspired, first and foremost, by the deaths of musicians Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P “The Big Bopper” Richardson in a plane crash on Feb. 3, 1959 – the “day the music died,” according to the song. (McLean was a 13-year-old paperboy at the time and mourned their deaths greatly.) But the rest of the song is a maelstrom of social, cultural and political allusions.
An essay in the catalog says it is “fair to surmise” that the king in the lyrics is Elvis Presley; that “Helter Skelter” refers to the Charles Manson murders; that the “jester on the sidelines in a cast” is Bob Dylan; and that “Jack Flash” is the Rolling Stones. Beyond that, the lyrics will surely continue to be debated for years to come.
Despite the general bleakness of the song, however, the manuscript also reveals a deleted verse – perhaps hinting that McLean at one point considered a more upbeat ending:
And there I stood alone and afraid
I dropped to my knees and there I prayed
And I promised him everything I could give
If only he would make the music live
And he promised it would live once more
But this time one would equal four
And in five years four had come to mourn
and the music was reborn.
The manuscript could fetch up to $1.5 million at the auction Tuesday.