Welcome to part two of my series "How the Music Died." Here I am examining the remarkable transformation (some may go so far as to describe it as a subtle war) rock 'n' roll went through from the period of 1959 to 1969 via the prism of two songs. The first is the classic "American Pie" by Don McLean, which I shall examine in this installment. The second is a song by the 1970s metal band Blue Oyster Cult, which I'll get around to in a future installment.
As many of you are probably aware, the song "American Pie" was partly inspired by the sudden and tragic death of Buddy Holly. Holly's death was incredibly significant in the cultural history of these United States, as I began to explore in part one of this series. Holly's death, which occurred on February 3, 1959, it was one of two events that bookends "American Pie." The other event is the notorious Altamont Free Concert, which went down in 1969. With that in mind, let us begin my examination of McLean's epic.
|Buddy Holly (top) and scenes from Altamont (bottom)|
The American Pie of the title and the chorus is rock 'n' roll itself. Rock 'n' roll is very important, as I hope this post will make clear. It is a quintessential piece of Americana --It is an art form born of many different cultures, taking pieces of blues, R & B, folk, country and even gospel music in its signature sound and emerging with something that is distinctly American. What's more, it was a thoroughly populist movement in its earliest inception, a mutant that stood in contrast to the monolithic record industry of the day that was even then angling for a stranglehold on popular taste. As such, it was almost immediately targeted by what rogue historian Peter Levenda has dubbed 'sinister forces.' Note the twilight language running throughout the following description of the rise of rock 'n' roll:Bye, bye Miss American PieDrove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dryThem good ole boys drinkin' whiskey in RyeSingin' this'll be the day that I dieThis'll be the day that I die
"After World War II music really began to take off. Suddenly whole new fields were emerging: jump blues, hillbilly boogie, Western swing, and Chicago blues with amplified guitars. As grassroots movements, these disparate genres were virtually ignored by the record industry or grudgingly serviced via subsidiary labels. But no matter --the important postwar music was waxed gladly by independent record companies serving local and regional audiences.
"One such label, Memphis' Sun Records, essentially launched rock 'n' roll by discovering a young hillbilly who could sing the blues. As soon as they heard Elvis, thousands of other musicians said, 'I can do that too!' Thus rockabilly was born... in my view, rockabilly was the first wave what we know call 'punk rock,' in which countless local artists defined a kind of uncompromising sound (and style) that was never really commercially successful, yet, in retrospect, can be seen to have been hugely influential.
"Well, as you can imagine, the big record companies didn't care for this one bit. They had stars like Patti Page, whom we were expected to support. So they got behind a few clean-cut teens like Paul Anka and slammed the door on everyone else."Or so the record labels thought. The levee of line two is the well of inspiration that rock 'n' roll inspired, spurring countless kids to begin trying their hand at it. Water, which levees control, is a symbol of life, cleansing, and regeneration. Areas where water has been stored, such as springs or wells, are typically considered joyous places where miracles occur. Noting the Biblical associations of water, Chevalier and Gheerbrant's Dictionary of Symbols remarks "Without water the nomad would have been doomed to burning death under the Palestinian sun, so the water which he found in his wanderings was like manna: as it quenched his thirst it fed him too" (pg. 1083). Holly's death was also the death of rock 'n' roll in its purest form, hence the reason why the levee is now dry. McLean uses a classic image of an American youth driving his pickup to the outskirts of town, possibly for a party or maybe just a little fishing, but finding only disappointment.
(Nuggets Volume I box set booklet, "Sic Transit Gloria...: The Story of Punk Rock in the 60s," Greg Shaw, pg. 18)
The good ole boys drinking whiskey in Rye are clearly Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper, all of whom died in the same plane crash. Holly and the Big Bopper were originally from Texas, which may be why McLean refers to them as 'good ole boys.' Buddy Holly's only number one single was a song called "That'll Be the Day," which is referenced in the fourth and fifth lines. It has long been rumored that Holly, as well as Valens and the Bopper had some kind of forewarning of their respective deaths, as I noted in part one. I suspect this is what is being alluded in the "day that I die" bit.
|Left to right: the Bopper, Valens and Holly, the 'good ole boys'|
In 1959 Don McLean was a paperboy dreaming of becoming a rock star someday. But then February 3rd rolled around, and he learned of Holly's death in the early morning hours as he was doing his paper route. The part about Holly's widowed bride is an allusion to the fact that Maria Elena Holly suffered a miscarriage shortly after learning of her husband's death. At the time McLean was aware that something profound had happened, but he did not understand it. In the second verse, he recounts the era Buddy Holly symbolized:A long, long time agoI can still remember howThat music used to make me smileAnd I knew if I had my chanceThat I could make those people danceAnd maybe they'd be happy for a whileBut February made me shiverWith every paper I deliveredBad news on the door stepI couldn't take one more stepI can't remember if I criedWhen I read about his widowed brideBut something touched me deep insideThe day the music died...
Several of the lyrics in this verse are titles and phrases from several popular 1950s songs, especially the first three lines. The Monotones had a big hit single called "(Who Wrote) The Book of Love" in 1958 while Don Cornell released "The Bible Tells Me So" in 1955. The bit about music saving one's mortal soul is partly a hint at the direct spiritual experience rock offered as opposed to the increasingly sterile environment organized religion was falling prey to; and part an allusion to the social transformation rock 'n' roll was bringing about. The younger generation was slowly turning away from the militarism of their parents and embracing things such as the slow dance. The slow dance was a quintessential part of 1950s rock culture, and a hint at loosening taboos concerning sex. The first three lines of the third verse continue with this theme, using the image of two kids kicking off their shoes (taking ones shoes off is a sign of being comfortable in American culture) for a sock hop to hint at the budding sexuality of the era.Did you write the book of love?And do you have faith in God above?If the Bible tells you soNow do you believe in rock and 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 himCause I saw you dancin' in the gymYou both kicked off your shoesMan I dig them rhythm and bluesI was a lonely teenage broncin' buckWith a pink carnation and a pickup truckBut I knew I was out of luckThe day the music died
|Records from the 1950s (top left and right) and a sock hop (bottom)|
The first two lines introduce the bookend events of the song: Buddy Holly's death and the Altamont Free Concert the Rolling Stones put on in 1969 that was intended to be the West coast's answer to Woodstock. Ten years separated the two events. The jester is superficially Bob Dylan while the King and Queen are JFK and the First Lady, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. Dylan famously referred to himself as the Joker in the opening of his classic "All Along he Watchtower." The Joker and the Jester are both types of the Fool archetype.Now for ten years we've been on our ownAnd moss grows fat on a rolling stoneBut that's not how it used to beWhen the jester sang for the king and queenIn a coat he borrowed from James DeanAnd a voice that came from you and meOh and while the king was looking downThe jester stole his thorny crownThe courtroom was adjournedNo verdict was returnedAnd while Lenin read a book on MarxThe quartet practiced in the parkSinging dirges after in the darkThe day the music died...
|the King and Queen|
|the Jester (top) in a coat he borrowed from James Dean (bottom)|
"Some authors who have analyzed the Beatles' rise in America say the assassination of JFK caused Americans to search for something to help them forget the shock and the pain and the Beatles helped ease it. But the Beatles didn't really need that kind of boost. They'd achieved huge fame in England and it was only a matter of time for America to be conquered. And they were -- America and the rest of the world embraced them after their rise to fame through the rest of the decade. Like the Kennedys, the Beatles were constantly in the news. And like the Kennedys, they were loved and adored.
In 1980, Jack Garner of Gannett News Service wrote, 'The death of JFK swiftly ended the nation's calm optimism, the deceptively carefree feeling that all was right with the world. The young, in particular, felt a distinct loss of leadership and of direction. They also had felt a crumbling of taste and values In the music to which they were listening. The void was filled by a British rock 'n' roll band. Just as most people can remember exactly what they were doing when Kennedy was killed, many can also remember the first time they heard the Beatles.'"
"...the Matriarchal... Age, to the time when succession was not through the first-born son of the King, but through his daughter. The king was therefore not king by inheritance, but by right on conquest. In the most stable dynasties, the new king was always a stranger, a foreigner; what is more, he had to kill the old king and marry that king's daughter. This system ensured the virility and capacity of every king. The stranger had to win his bride in open competition. In the oldest fairy-tales, this motive is continually repeated. The ambitious stranger is often a troubadour; nearly always he is disguised, often in repulsive form... Here then is the foundation of the legend of the Wandering Prince --and, note well, he is always 'the fool of the family.' The connection between foolishness and holiness is traditional."As noted above, both the Joker and the Jester are variations on the Fool archetype. The Fool is in turn a form of the Wandering Prince who slays the king and marries the king's daughter, thus becoming king himself. Those of you that are familiar with James Shelby Downard's concept of the Kennedy assassination as a modern reenactment of the Killing of the Divine King rite should be especially struck by this line. McLean wrote the lyrics to this song in 1971 while Downard's theories concerning the Kennedy assassination did not gain widespread audience until they were briefly mentioned in Robert Anton Wilson's The Cosmic Trigger Volume I in 1977. Whether this is actually what McLean was driving at (highly doubtful) or whether he intuitively sensed the actual nature of the Kennedy assassination, I know not. I suspect he knew something was up as the following lines ("The courtroom was adjourned/No verdict was returned") seem to be a jab at the Warren commission.
(The Book of Thoth, Aleister Crowley, pgs. 54-55)
|And while the King was looking down (top) the Jester (bottom) stole his thorny crown?|
"The Green Man is a personification of the mysterious influence that produces the phenomena of spring. It is hard to say why it should be so, but it is so: there is a connection with the ideas of irresponsibility, of wantonness, of idealization, of romance, of starry dreaming.
"The Fool stirs within all of us the return of Spring, and because we are a little bewildered, a little embarrassed, it has been thought a salutary custom to externalize the subconscious impulse by ceremonial means."
(ibid, pg. 56)
In The White Goddess Robert Graves notes that a common legend associated with the Green Knight is that he and the knight Gawain of the Arthurian cycle make a compact to behead one another in Midsummer and Midwinter. Gawain is a personification of the Oak King, the counterpart to the Green Knight's Holly-king. Each is resurrected with the seasons so that they can endlessly do battle.
"...the holly-king, or green knight, who appears in the old English "Christmas Play', a survival of the Saturnalia, as the Fool who is beheaded but rises again unhurt."This tradition likely originates from ancient times when a ceremonial king was ritualistically sacrificed to replenish the fertility of the land, as Crowley hints at above. In this context, the Holly-king (Buddy Holly) is sacrificed, giving way to the Oak King. In this case, the Oak King is JFK, who was elected president the following year (1960) and inaugurated just 14 days shy of a full two years after Holly's death. When JFK was assassinated (Kennedy was buried next to the famous Arlington Oak, which shaded his grave), he gave way to the new Holly-King: the Beatles, who had their first #1 hit, "I Want to Hold Your Hand," in the US on February 1, 1964 --almost exactly five years after Holly's death.
(The White Goddess, Robert Graves, pg. 196)
The Beatles were in many ways a resurrected form of Buddy Holly --their very name was a play on the insect name of Holly's backing band, the Crickets. The Beatles employed the duel guitar plus rhythm section format Holly popularized and copied some of his sound in their earlier recordings. John Lennon's early image, especially in terms of his glasses, were closely modeled after Holly.
|Holly (top) and John Lennon (bottom) in the early years|
And yet, even as an entire generation became obsessed with Beatlemania, there were countless other local rock acts putting out great, mind-bending music throughout the decade. Many of them used the four piece, two guitar, bass and drums format popularized by Buddy Holly. The performed within their local spheres, but rarely gained national attention, hence they performed "dirges in the dark." We'll get to these groups in just a moment. For the time being, let's move on to the next verse:
The first half of this verse chronicles the rapid descent of the Haight-Ashbury scene, the capital of the US hippie culture, into drug addition and violence.Helter Skelter in the summer swelterThe birds flew off to a fallout shelterEight miles high and falling fastIt landed foul on the grassThe players tried for a forward passWith jester on the sideline in a castNow the half-time air was sweet perfumeWhile sergeant's band played a marching tuneWe all got up to danceOh, but we never got the chanceCause the players tried to take the fieldThe marching band refused to yieldDo you recall what was revealedThe day the music died?
"Enticed by invitations to come live the hippie life, thousands of teenagers from all over the States descended on San Francisco in the summer of 1967. But the psychedelic dream soon became a nightmare. The numbers were too great, and most of the new arrivals ended up hungry and on the streets, prey to the pimps and drug dealers that had quickly moved in. With fifteen thousand hippies already living on the Haight, the original small community of psychedelic mutants found itself swamped by the flood of youth. Discrimination ebbed. Speed --amphetamine-- a cheap substitute for acid, soon became the prevalent drug, and rape was not uncommon."
(Turn Off Your Mind, Gary Lachman, pg. 302)
The first line is a reference to Charles Manson, who allegedly dubbed his killing spree 'Helter Skelter' after a Beatles song he believed chronicled the coming apocalypse. The second, third, and fourth lines are a jab the Byrds, who scored a big hit with "Eight Miles High," the first mainstream bid at a psychedelic number. Terry Melcher, who produced the Byrds, ran afoul of Manson and feared that he was on the Family's hit list. He wasn't the only one.
"By the summer of 1969 fear sent the affluent and decadent denizens of LA's Sunset Strip scurrying out of clubs like the Whiskey A Go Go and into heavily secured safe houses. Eyes peered through bamboo-shaded windows for any sign of the maniac who had it in for the rich and privileged. Manson had turned the good vibrations of surfin' '66 into a fringe-jacketed version of Apocalypse Now.
(ibid, pgs. 329-330)
Perhaps the Byrds, who were based out of LA, flew off to one of these fallout shelters. The last part about landing in the grass could be an allusion to the flight many hippies took out of increasingly violent urban areas into the country side.
"...many other disenchanted hippies and flower children move on in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Many of them found refuge in the hundreds of square miles of sparsely settled wilderness offered by the Santa Cruz Mountains, where the abundance of rich soil and clear, running water provided ideal conditions for communal living and marijuana cultivation. By 1972, some seventeen thousand men, women, and children had taken up residence in the fertile glens and along the rich creek beds of Santa Cruz.
(Programmed to Kill, David McGowan, pgs. 134-135)Talk about landing on the grass. The following lines after this deal with the vast underground rock 'n' roll scene that had developed in the US during the mid-1960s, and how it was relentlessly beaten back by the powers that be. You see, one of the coolest, if rarely mentioned, scenes the 1960s spawned is what is now referred to as 'garage rock.' Originally, though, it was dubbed punk rock by garage enthusiasts like Lenny Kaye, the future guitarist for Patti Smith. The phrase 'punk rock' was later co-opted by British outfits like the Damned and the Sex Pistols to describe the fast, raw, back-to-basics rock they specialized in, but arguably no movement deserved the punk brand more than those 1960s garage bands. Some of them like Blue Cheer and the 13th Floor Elevators released albums on par with anything the big acts of that era released. Others only had one or two big songs, but they still managed sentiments a bunch of rich Brits could never capture --just dig the anti-establishment vibes of the Groupie's "Primitive."
|two classic albums by Blue Cheer (top) and the 13th Floor Elevators (bottom)|
This scene basically consisted of locals bands, many of whom literally wrote and rehearsed songs out of their parents' garage (hence the name), who briefly challenged the big boys in the middle of the decade. This was not especially pleasing to corporate America, which has generally gone out of its way to ignore and downplay the garage rock era. But a few music geeks would preserve the garage sound on assorted complications such as the various Nuggets releases, thus spawning future movements along the same principals (i.e. punk and underground metal) and ensuring a major thorn remained in the music industry's side. But there never was again anything quite like the rebellion garage rock hinted at and the secret it revealed.
"... why rock has been such an unstoppable force in all our lives: anybody can do it!
"If this statement comes as a surprise, or you find yourself saying, 'Wait a minute...,' it's because this is a more closely guarded secret than the recipe for the Colonel's chicken. The record industry goes totally bananas when kids start making their own music. They spend a fortune signing every band in sight, then winnow out the ones who aren't 'professional' enough, lose a million or so bucks on each, and finally market the remaining handful as 'superstars' whose products we, in turn, will consume like dutiful sheep for years and years, until the next upheaval. That's the only way they can keep their fingers around the collective neck of the record buying public.
"I fear that few, if any, of the artists on Nuggets measure up to the record industry's standards. Each came out of some suburban garage, and each, within a brief period (from 1965 to about 1968), somehow got themselves onto the radio with one monster song they created after maybe three weeks of music lessons. Those songs were grabbed up by kids who wanted to be just like them --and tried. It was so out of control that for a few years something like 63 percent of American kids under the age of 20 were in a rock band of some kind, and most of them were making records.
"The only way The Man could put a stop to this barrage of bands was to send half the kids to Vietnam and the change the rules of radio so that DJs weren't allowed to play local records anymore. Finally, around 1970, things settled down. No more Purple Exploding Mushroom Band nonsense --you could have Carole King or Elton John, take it or leave it. (If you behaved yourself and bought all the Taylor family's releases, they might be nice and let you have Badfinger for dessert.) The record companies started getting rich again, and kids forgot about rock 'n' roll... for awhile."For the later part of verse four McLean uses American football as a metaphor for the war that was unfolding within rock 'n' roll. The players are the garage rockers, American teens trying to live out their dreams of becoming rock stars, not unlike McLean himself when Buddy Holly died. The bit about the "jester on the sideline in a cast" is a reference to the motorcycle accident Bob Dylan was in in 1966 which kept him out of music for almost two years. The lines "Now the half time air was sweet perfume/While the sergeant's band played a marching tune" is an allusion to the vast underground music scene of the mid-1960s (the sweet perfume) that was largely ignored while the media remained focused on the Beatles, whose 1967 album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heats Club Band was hailed as the definitive record of the first psychedelic era. The Beatles are described as playing a marching tune as they were a big part of the radicalization of the hippie movement which quickly spiraled into violence, as noted above.
(Nuggets Volume I box set booklet, "Sic Transit Gloria...: The Story of Punk Rock in the '60s," Greg Shaw, pgs. 17-18)
|the Players (top) and the marching band (bottom)|
The fifth verse deals almost solely with the infamous Altamont Free Concert. The Rolling Stones intended for it to be the West Coast's answer to Woodstock but it will forever be linked with the death of the 1960s, along with the Manson killings. At the time of the concert Stones frontman Mick Jagger was under the thumb (har har) of notorious occultist Kenneth Anger (who was, coincidentally, born on the same date Buddy Holly met his demise: February 3). Anger, a filmmaker and follower of Aleister Crowley, is probably best known for the film Lucifer Rising. The film originally cast Manson associate and future convicted murderer Bobby Beausoleil in the lead role, but Beausoleil and Anger had a brief falling out that brought the production a halt when parts of the film turned up missing. Undaunted, Anger approached Mick Jagger about taking up the role of Lucifer that Beausoleil had vacated. At the time the Stones were at the height of their own obsession with the occult, thus Mick warmed up to Anger. Anger would briefly become a kind of spiritual adviser to Mick, with his influence being most evident at Altamont.
More curiously, Altamont occurred ten years and 306 days after the death of Buddy Holly --Note the occurrence of 36 in this sequence. The number 36 has some degree of occult importance.
"Thirty-six is the number of Heaven, seventy-two of Earth and 108 of mankind. Thirty-six, seventy-two and 108 bear the same interrelationship as one, two and three. An isosceles triangle with an angle of 108º at the apex provides the proportions of the Golden Number and, in fact, displays a particularly harmonious appearance. In different ways, thirty-six, seventy-two and 108 were the favorite numbers among secret societies."If Altamont was meant to represent heaven it certainly missed the mark by quite a bit. The date of December 6 has other mystical significance, as I suspect Anger was well aware. In general Anger's influence was evident in numerous aspects of the show.
(Dictionary of Symbols, Jean Chevalier & Alain Gheerbrant, pg. 989)
"Against the advice of local astrologers, who warned that the stars weren't well disposed to the plan, the Stones went ahead with their free concert at the decaying race track on 6 December 1969. During the North American tour Jagger sported a top hat like Beausoleil's and, for the fatal concert itself, his chest was emblazoned with the Greek letter omega, signifying 'the end'. Both seem apt indications of things to come.
"Even before the trouble began, witnesses spoke of the zombie-like look on the people filing in. Anger might have warned the Stones that it wouldn't go down well. 6 December was the date that Crowley and Victor Neuberg raised Choronzon, the demon of chaos and confusion, in the North African desert. But I wonder if Anger's occult tutoring swelled Jagger's head until he thought he really was Lucifer; the magic potions Jagger was partial to might have helped. If so, he had a rude awakening.
"Lulled by their English counterparts into thinking he could control echt Hell's Angels... Jagger hired the Californian counterculture brownshirts to maintain security for the 300,000 plus crowd. Payment was a $500 supply of beer: in those days, a lot of brew. That, combined with the rotten acid that spread through the crowd, led to an invocation of quite a few demon brothers. Timothy Leary, who arrived with the Stones, flashed his trademark manic grin at the sea of imminent bummers. Support acts Santana, Jefferson Airplane and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young could feel the fever rising. The upshot was that a band of skyhigh troglodytes armed with pool cues and carte blanche terrorized a portable hippie city for a day...
"...As the Angels brought their magic wands down on the hapless audience at Altamont, a pale Jagger, out of his depths, made feeble attempts to quell the violence. But the Angels weren't having any of it, and in the film of that fatal tour, Gimmie Shelter, the Stones look as if they are playing for their lives, pouring out a recital of bad taste with numbers like "Sympathy", "Under My Thumb" and "Midnight Rambler," Jagger and Richards ill-chosen paean to serial killer Albert de Salvo, the Boston Strangler. The love and peace of Woodstock, only four months earlier, had dissipated; the Aquarian generation, held together by the myth of the approaching New Age, was coming apart at the seams.
"By the end, one blitzed-out teenager --eighteen-year-old Meredith Hunter-- who for unknown reasons had pulled a gun, was knifed to death by the holy barbarians. Several people were beaten badly, hundreds more terrorized. The Angels themselves, shown scenes of their handiwork... commented 'out of sight...' "
(Turn Off Your Mind, Gary Lachman, pgs. 306-308)
|Jagger at Altamont (top) and below the infamous stabbing of Meredith Hunter (the Green Man)|
"With Neuberg as his chela and scribe, Crowley tramped the North African desert in November and December 1909, invoking the Aethyrs at about one a day...
"Part of the rites included a homosexual act, with Crowley as the passive partner. After invoking the fourteenth Aethyr on 3 December, they climbed Mount Dal'leh Addin, built an altar and magic circle of stones, wrote occult formulae in the sand, and had intercourse. They dedicated the act to the great god Pan.
"But the high point of the... operation was... the tenth Aethyr, the invocation of the demon Chaos and the Abyss, Choronzon. This they performed on 6 December. (Strangely enough, sixty years later the Rolling Stones would give their disastrous concert at Altamont on the same date.)
"In an unprecedented variation, Crowley would not evoke Choronzon to physical appearance within the traditional magic triangle, but would himself sit within it, allowing the demon to possess him. The cabbalistic names of God --Tetragrammaton, Shaddai el Chai and Ararita --were traced in the sand around the magic circle that would protect Neuberg, the scribe. To ensure a successful operation, three pigeons brought from Bou Saada were sacrificed, the blood from their slit throats supplying the subtle energies needed for Choronzon's manifestation."
(ibid, pgs. 197-198)
|The notorious magician Aleister Crowley, who performed a bizarre ritual exactly 60 years prior to the Altamont Free Concert, also appeared on the cover of Sgt. Pepper's (above)|
"The Demon of Dispersion and Confusion. Its number is 333 which is also that of Impotence and lack of control, thus identifying these concepts. Dr. Dee described this 'demon' as quintessentialising the metaphysical antithesis of all that is implied by 'Magic.'"I find it most interesting that this being is associated with antithesis. As noted implied above, the Altamont Free Concert was the antithesis of everything the hippie/peace movement supposedly stood for. I strongly suspect that Kenneth Anger, who was also a follower of Crowley, was well aware of this association when the Stones took the stage at Altamont. Could this be the reason why Jagger was sporting the Greek letter for omega, which means 'the end,' on his shirt?
(The Magical Revival, pgs. 217-218)
If this wasn't ritualistic enough, Meredith Hunter was murdered by the Angels while the Stones were in the midst of performing "Sympathy for the Devil." Of course, this has long been denied. Traditional accounts assert that Hunter was murdered while "Under My Thumb" was being performed, but the great David McGowan has compellingly argued that it was in fact "Sympathy" that was being played:
"The death that the concert at Altamont will always be remembered for, of course, is that of Meredith Hunter, the young man who was stabbed to death by members of the Hell’s Angels right in front of the stage while the band (in this case, the Rolling Stones) played on. The song they were playing, contrary to most accounts of the incident, was Sympathy for the Devil, as was initially reported in Rolling Stone magazine based on the accounts of several reporters on the scene and a review of the unedited film stock.
"Most accounts claim that Hunter was killed while the band performed Under My Thumb. All such claims are based on the mainstream snuff film Gimme Shelter, in which the killing was deliberately presented out of sequence. In the absence of any alternative filmic versions of Hunter’s death, the Maysles brothers’ film became the default official orthodoxy. Of course, someone went to great lengths to insure that there would be only one available version of events; as Rolling Stone also reported, shortly after the concert, 'One weirdWith all of this in mind, now consider the fifth verse of "American Pie":
Altamontstory has to do with a young filmmaker who claims to have gotten 8MM footage of the killing. He got home from the affair Saturday and began telling his friends about his amazing film. His house was knocked over the next night, completely rifled. The thief took only his film, nothing else.'" Berkeley
Oh, and there we were all in one placeA generation lost in spaceWith no time left to start againSo come one Jack be nimble, Jack be quickJack Flash sat on a candlestickCause fire is the devil's only friendAnd as I watched him on the stageMy hands were clenched in fists of ragNo angel born in HellCould break that Satan's spellAnd as the flames climbed high into the nightTo light the sacrificial riteI saw Satan laughing with delightThe day the music died...
|Hell's Angels clubbing folks at Altamont|
It is widely believed that the "girl who sang the blues" mentioned in the first three lines of this verse is Janis Joplin, the most famous female blues singer of her time who died of a heroin overdose in 1970. I see no reason to disagree with this interpretation. The part about the 'sacred store' is a reference to how local underground music was increasingly pushed out of record stores as the 1960s wore on to make way for corporate superstars. The lines about the children, lovers, poets, and church bells are in reference to how the positive parts of the hippie movement (i.e. the opposition to the Vietnam war) were lost in the tide of violence that gripped the scene as the decade came to an end.I met a girl who sang the bluesAnd I asked her for some happy newsBut she just smiled and turned awayI went down to the sacred storeWhere I'd heard the music years beforeBut the men said the music wouldn't playAnd in the streets the children screamedThe lovers cried, and the poets dreamedBut not a word was spokenThe church bells all were brokenAnd the three men I admire mostThe Father, Son, and the Holy GhostThey caught the last train for the coastThe day the music died
|Janis Joplin (top) and the 1968 Democratic National Convention, another disastrous event for the counterculture|
|the legendary assassination trinity of the 1960s|
|the statue of Anubis at the bizarre, occult-laden Denver International Airport|
Mainstream music has largely been the domain of the rich and powerful. Classical music, for instance, was largely sponsored by the aristocracy for the aristocracy. The music of common peoples -i.e. folk, blues, etc, has historically been ridiculed as the music of the ignorant and vulgar. When rock music appeared on the scene in the 1950s, combined with rapid advances in radio and recording technology, it provided a medium for anyone to try their hand at a career in recording. Many did and what's more, the public liked what they heard. Unfortunately, this anarchistic state was not something that major record labels could easily make money off of, nor control the message of. Thus, rock music had to be transformed into something more controllable, something that seemed beyond the abilities of normal people. This transformation was bookmarked by two highly ritualistic events --Buddy Holly's death in 1959 and the Altamont Free Concert in 1969, which completed a kind of alchemical transformation upon rock music (or so it was hoped).
This is of course in stark contrast to official accounts of rock 'n' roll history, which largely present 1950s rock music as a passing fad that had all but died out with Buddy Holly in 1959. Then the Beatles arrived on the scene and resurrected the music in 1964 (as well as symbolically resurrecting the Holly-king), thus spurring the so-called 'Golden Age' of rock that would last until the end of the decade. In reality rock was not dying, as much as some may have wished it was --there was in fact a thriving underground rock scene in the United States between the years of Buddy Holly's death and the rise of the Beatles. In part three I shall examine a Blue Oyster Cult song that addresses this era and tackles some of the same themes McLean address in "American Pie." Stay tuned.