*Okay, yeah, it’s me again. Bear with me in my foolishness, as the apostle Paul once wrote, as I start yet another project. This one follows along nicely with my Bad Movies project. That’s right, it’s a project dedicated to bad albums. I managed to find a few lists of bad albums on the internet and compiled them. From that list, I will choose one at random every now and again and give it a listen.
*Being compiled from the internet, this list contains some oddities. Legends like Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, U2 and Elvis show up occasionally. There’s plenty of Beatles covers, a couple of spoken word classics, some experimental classical post-modernism, some big hit albums that have faded since their debut and, yes, an album by a guy who farts the classics.
*First up, it’s an album that was something of a big hit when it was first released peaking at number one on the albums chart, driven there by its epic, titular single, which also peaked at number one. How has time treated Don McLean? Let’s find out; it’s track by track through Don McLean’s 1971 opus American Pie.
American Pie (1971) – Don McLean
*Okay, so, I confess that to this point my exposure to Don McLean has been the standard one. I heard American Pie on the radio, enjoyed it quite a bit the first hundred times, cooled significantly over the next fifty-thousand times I heard it, and have spent the last six or seven years of my life trying desperately to avoid it at all costs, so great is my desire to not be subjected to McLean’s warbly, half hour, pretentious ramblings about the state of rock’n’roll in the sixties.
*Beyond that lies nothin’. I’ve never, as far as I know, heard another song by the guy.
*So, let’s jump in with both feet. Looking at that cover, it’s obvious he’s not going to try to be pretentious or anything.
*Hilariously, in the title song, McLean muses on deciding he wanted to be a musician because his dream was to make people dance. Because, yeah, there is perhaps one song on this album that it would even be possible to dance too. That worked out well.
*You know, after my father died when I was fifteen, I went through a pretty grim period where I was sort of afraid that I was going to die as well. I mean, pretty haunted really. I’d take my pulse and such at random moments to assure myself that my heart was still working right.
*Anyway, during that period, I sort of grew a real hatred for this song because it’s so catchy that, if you hear it once, you’ll be singing it for the rest of the day. And I was actually, quite literally afraid that if I sang the line, “This’ll be the day that I die,” that I would actually die that day.
*God, grief messes you up bad. I mean, it sends your head over the deep end. I can’t even fathom it now, but I remember it so vividly, that song going over and over in my head and I was afraid to even hum it because of that one line. I don’t mean superstition; I mean, I literally believed it.
*Admittedly, that one line that is repeated about fifty billion times during the song.
*I really can’t decide if “broncin’ buck” is terrible or brilliant. I have the same problem with that Piano Man song where Billy Joel flips ‘gin and tonic’ into ‘tonic and gin.’ I can’t quite decide if they’re being really creative or just being lazy to get an easy rhyme.
*Okay, the Jester is Dylan, right? And Elvis is the King? And now the ‘dirges in the dark’ refers to S&G, right? But who are ‘the birds?’
*You know, I really, really hate that “eight miles high and falling faaaaaaaaaaaaaaaast.” But it reminds me, have you all heard the Brady Bunch kids version of this song. Oy, is it terrible. That moment is like the pinnacle of the song’s horribleness. I literally could not force myself to listen past that moment.
*The Sergeants played a marching tune. Now that’s a reference to SSgt. Barry Sadler, right?
*Right, right, Altamont, your hands are clenched in fists of rage or whatever, yeah, yeah.
*Okay, I’m tired of this song again already. These ‘coded songs’ sort of don’t have that great a shelf life, do they? I mean, this is why Carly Simon refuses to tell us who You’re So Vain is about. Because once you break the code, the song just seems labored and obvious.
*That’s the reason I love Dylan; his songs are complex and can even sound like code songs, but they aren’t. They just mean what they mean, so they’re forever fresh and funny and incisive. In an attempt to sound like Dylan a lot of people tried to get real clever with their lyrics, but all too often, as with McLean here, they missed that thing that separated them from Dylan, which was he meant what he said, absurd as it was, and they were purposely obfuscating the meaning in order to sound absurd.
*For instance, there’s no code to Quinn the Eskimo. It just means what it means. It’s absurd and occasionally hilarious (“All them pigeons’ll go to him”), but it isn’t hard to understand. And certainly no one’s going to do an annotated Quinn the Eskimo, as people have certainly done with American Pie. And this holds true for almost all of Dylan’s songs, even his most bizarre and seemingly incomprehensible, like Visions of Johanna and Desolation Row. Me, I take Dylan’s lyrics literally; that’s why his songs still work.
*On the other hand, McLean labors his analogies until you feel like you’ve been beaten with a sledgehammer. I mean he literally puts the Jester on the literal sidelines in a literal cast. I mean, DO YOU GET IT? DO YOU GET IT?!
*Til Tomorrow is the second song and not bad. A sort of melancholy, S&G, acoustic song about love. You know, sure, dime a dozen at this point, but it plays okay.
*Okay, third song is Vincent and I instantly realize that in fact I have heard this song, though not this version. It’s about Vincent Van Gogh, nominally, and if I am recalling I heard it in college and all I can think is that some gonzo art teacher played it in class. I am almost certain it was the Josh Groban version.
*Okay, this is an absolutely beautiful song. Quiet, peaceful, heartfelt. McLean has a way with melodies. That is simply undeniable. This is easily the best song on the album, an aching, yearning ode to genius.
*It is, of course, absolute hokum as a real portrait of Van Gogh. His suicide essentially had nothing to do with his depression, as near as I’ve sussed out from reading his letters and the letters to him and about him by his brother Theo.
*Also, I’m sick of the vilification of Van Gogh’s family which has sort of become vogue in art critical circles. Theo Van Gogh remains one of the most significant figures in art history because of the work he did with a number of painters and I’ve read the three volume Complete Letters of Vincent and Theo and there is no way you can come away from that experience without understanding that they loved each other powerfully.
*Anyway, Vincent struggled with manic depression his entire life and a particularly extreme manic depression to boot. But his lucidity never really lost him until after a horrible illness laid him low with an incredibly high fever that, it seems obvious to me, did serious brain damage. After this illness, he began to experience fugue states. He cut a piece of his ear off (not the whole ear, just a single slice from the lobe) during one of them, lost a painting on a train journey during another and, I’m almost certain, accidentally shot himself during another. One hardly shoots oneself in the stomach if one wants to commit suicide.
*The tragedy of his genius and his art remains powerful to me and perhaps even more tragic with this interpretation. He’s surely the greatest painter of the nineteenth century and Starry Night is one of the top five paintings of all time easily. He had serious mental issues and serious physical ones, but it was physical trauma to the brain that led to his suicide, not his depression. In my opinion. And, as I say, I’ve read the Complete Letters, which I bet most people who feel free to venture an opinion or write a song have not.
*Still, beautiful song. I actually quite love it, pernicious slander though it is.
*Crossroads, the fourth track, is a slow piano based dirge. Ode to . . . disaffection, I think, and it’s certainly that.
*It does feature a particularly . . . either great or else terrible line: “I’ve heard about people like me, but I never made the connection.” I think I actually find that rather profound. I’ve certainly realized that about myself.
*Winterwood is another acoustic guitar song about love; some light percussion. Pretty non-remarkable in about every way. I suppose it’s sweet, but not twee. Let’s face it; it’s the kind of song that probably got McLean laid a whole lot. Again, though, it’s catchy.
*Empty Chairs is another acoustic guitar song with a melancholy and beautiful melody. It sounds a lot like Vincent really and I quite like it.
*I suppose that’s a major complaint about McLean as a whole is that you might not really be able to tell Crossroads from Winterwood in a blind listen test, if you know what I mean. I mean, these songs are all sort of mopey, singer-songwriter, ‘I am more sensitive than thou,’ acoustic guitar songs.
*Nick Hornby used to talk about how he used to think all these songs sucked because he had no real frame of reference for being able to tell, for instance, that Yesterday is a better song than Winterwood. Luckily, I can, and he can too now.
*So, Empty Chairs is a standout track here; superficially it sounds very much like the other songs here, but it’s has a much more beautiful melody and its light orchestral backing is the model of restraint. It’s beautiful and evocative.
*And, finally, after six tracks, he finally does what he said on the first song and gives us a song to dance too. It’s a live cut, Everybody Loves Me, Baby. It may just be live in the studio, I’m not sure. There’s some clapping, but on repeated listens, I think maybe it’s just the other musicians.
*Can I just say? He’s better suited to the hushed whispers of heartbreak than this kind of stupid raving. He’s pitchy, if I can actually raise the specter of AI without being stoned.
*However, this song has been deeply misrepresented to me. I’ve heard it bashed as a sort of arrogant egotrip song, which it is not, but is in fact a satire on American Imperialism, not a serious ego song on McLean’s part.
*This doesn’t necessarily make it a good song; in 71, it’s not like the world was crying out for MORE satires on American Imperialism.
*Best in this genre: Phil Ochs’ sing song Cops of the World from his In Concert album with, among its devastating lines, the brilliant couplet, “We’re sorry we killed all your sons, boys, we’re sorry we killed all your sons/But have a piece of our bubble gum, boys, try a piece of our bubble gum.”
*Speaking of Ochs, everyone says that McLean is a Dylan rip-off, but it strikes me that he’s more of an Ochs rip off, singing about fortune and such and in his phrasing he’s definitely more of an Ochsian than a Dylanian. This is sort of minutiae that I suppose most pop critics wouldn’t care about.
*Sister Fatima returns to his acoustic guitar vibe for a completely ridiculous song that’s about something.
*Here’s a lyric: “Sister Fatima has God-given powers/and on 42nd Street, a shop that sells flowers.” That actually is a kind of great lyric; witty, you know.
*The Grave, the ninth track, is pure Ochs. It’s an anti-war song whereby a young soldier goes off to war and sits in a trench and then he tries to dig away from the enemy and then he dies and is buried and it has a Irish lilt and sob sob.
*McLean gets really like hollering and crap at the end of this song. It’s extremely frigging annoying. This was probably the most overtly irritating song on the album. Ochs was better at this.
*And the final track, Babylon, is about a minute and a half and Ochs multi-tracks his voice to sing a round with himself.
*Rounds are never a good idea. Never. I mean, they are never frigging a good idea.
*Also, rather than playing an acoustic guitar, it seems he plays an acoustic mandolin on this track. This passes for massive change on this album, trust me.
*He does a round, oddly, from the Psalms, specifically the same Psalm that the Melodians did such a great job setting to music with their song The Rivers of Babylon on The Harder They Come soundtrack.
*This version isn’t nearly that good, though it is suitably grim and melancholy.
*Hilariously, a friend of mine walked through the room as I was playing this final track and they went on through and then after the track ended, they bellowed back at me, “What in the world was that?”
*This friend has the same reaction to all world music, any post-punk music, anything with dissonance, and Bob Dylan, so that’s not a strict indicator that the song sucks, but even a stopped clock is right twice a day.
*Gee, you know what I have to say though? I have to say that McLean may be unfairly maligned. I mean, yeah, this is definitely wimp rock, but maybe I like a little folk music sometimes (The Great Folk Scare) that’s easy and simple and likable.
*I’d say both Vincent and Empty Chairs are great, melancholy songs and I’d probably pull them both off for an iPod, if you get me. Somewhat lesser is Crossroads, but it’s still a good song. After that they become just passable. But only American Pie and The Grave are flatly annoying. Other than those two, the worst the album gets is bland and forgettable, which is hardly confined to this album. I actually sort of enjoyed the album.
*The next sound you hear will be that of my street cred being trampled to death.
*Okay, well, this wasn’t nearly bad enough for me to be able to really cut loose and make fun of it, which is what I’m hoping to be able to do in these reviews. Maybe next time.
*And the randomizer says that next time I’ll be reviewing . . . Days of Future Passed by the Moody Blue! Oh, yeah, I hate that album. That’ll be fun.