Wednesday, August 29, 2012

How the Music Died Part II

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)
First I'll start with the classic chorus. For those of you that have been living under a rock for the past few decades, it goes:
Bye, bye Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry
Them good ole boys drinkin' whiskey in Rye
Singin' this'll be the day that I die
This'll be the day that I die
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:
"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."
(Nuggets Volume I box set booklet, "Sic Transit Gloria...: The Story of Punk Rock in the 60s," Greg Shaw, pg. 18)
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.

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'
The first verse of the song goes:
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 delivered
Bad news on the door step
I couldn't take one more step
I can't remember if I cried
When I read about his widowed bride
But something touched me deep inside
The day the music died...
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:
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 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 him
Cause I saw you dancin' in the gym
You both kicked off your shoes
Man I dig them rhythm and blues
I was a lonely teenage broncin' buck
With a pink carnation and a pickup truck
But I knew I was out of luck
The 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.

Records from the 1950s (top left and right) and a sock hop (bottom)
Rhythm and blues was what black music was called in those days. McLean's proclamation of "digging those rhythm and blues" is alluding to the racial barriers that were coming down along with the sexual taboos. The final lines are about McLean indulging in the fads of the era (it was fashionable for men to wear a pink carnations during dates, as Marty Robbins' 1957 hit "A White Sport Coat (And a Pink Carnation" attests too), i.e. having sex with girls in the back of his pickup truck. And yet McLean is able sense the hollowness of it all, in contrast to the feeling good rock 'n' roll inspires. The song becomes much more serious in the fourth verse:
Now for ten years we've been on our own
And moss grows fat on a rolling 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
The quartet practiced in the park
Singing dirges after in the dark
The day the music died...
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.

the King and Queen
Bob Dylan performed at the legendary March on Washington where Martin Luther King Jr. famously made his "I Have a Dream" speech. The Kennedys watched the event on television. On the cover of his second and breakthrough album, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, he appears in a jacket remarkably similar to the one James Dean wore the classic Rebel Without a Cause. Dylan spoke with "a voice that came from you and me" because he was influenced by the folk tradition that was historically the music of the common peoples. The combination of the voice of the plebs and Dean's jacket hints at the rapid commercialization of previously underground traditions.

the Jester (top) in a coat he borrowed from James Dean (bottom)
Lines seven and eight deal with the cultural shift that occurred after Kennedy's assassination. The concept of the Kennedy presidency as a kind of modern day Camelot dominated American culture up until JFK's murder. Kennedy's death left a void and it was soon filled by rock 'n' roll. The Examiner remarks:
"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.'"
And yet McLean uses the Jester, who is clearly Dylan, rather than Beatles (who are referenced later in this verse), who most definitely spearheaded rock 'n' roll's rise. This may have simply been poetic license  It also may have been an allusion to the fact that Dylan partly inspired the Beatles to politicalize their music, i.e. he took up the banner from Kennedy and passed it on to the Fabs. Those of you familiar with the mythological concept of the killing of the divine king will find a very different meaning in these lines.
"...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."
(The Book of Thoth, Aleister Crowley, pgs. 54-55)
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.

And while the King was looking down (top) the Jester (bottom) stole his thorny crown?
Another far out possibility is that the Jester in the "Oh and when the king was looking down/The jester stole his thorny crown" line is the Beatles as a resurrected Buddy Holly. In part one of this series I noted that holly is the tree of the mythological figure of the Green Knight, who is sometimes also called the holly-king. Buddy Holly was the reigning king of rock 'n' roll at the time of his death, thus he was a kind of holly-king. The Green Knight, in turn, has been linked with the Green Man, a figure closely associated with the Fool archetype.
"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."
(The White Goddess, Robert Graves, pg. 196)
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 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
As outlandish as this may sound, I don't think that its a coincidence that the next line ("...while Lenin read a book on Marx") after the Warren Commission jab is direct reference to the radical politics and philosophies Lennon would embrace as the 1960s wore on. Lennon's work in the Beatles would in turn spread this ideology to a generation of impressionable teenagers. "The Beatles were the foremost lyrical spokesmen for an entire generation; millions worshiped their verse as holy writing" Lee and Shlain write in Acid Dreams (pg. 179).

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:
Helter Skelter in the summer swelter
The birds flew off to a fallout shelter
Eight miles high and falling fast
It landed foul on the grass
The players tried for a forward pass
With jester on the sideline in a cast
Now the half-time air was sweet perfume
While sergeant's band 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 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.
"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."
(Nuggets Volume I box set booklet, "Sic Transit Gloria...: The Story of Punk Rock in the '60s," Greg Shaw, pgs. 17-18)
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.

the Players (top) and the marching band (bottom)
The part about the players trying to take the field and the marching band refusing to yield is likely a jab at the Beatles for joining the record industry's hierarchy when they founded Apple Records in 1968 (the Beatles were who originally signed Badfinger, one of the 'trailblazers' of soulless arena rock that would begin to dominate the gerne in the 1970s). Again I'm struck by the parallels between the language McLean employs in this song and the theories of Downard and Michael A. Hoffman in regards to the final two lines of this verse: "Do you recall what was revealed/ The day the music died?" This echoes Hoffman's concept of 'Revelation of the method' years before Hoffman likely even coined it.

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.

Kenneth Anger
The Altamont Free Concert occurred on December 6, 1969. This five, almost six, years after the Beatles' rise to stardom. While the Beatles breakthrough is considered the beginning of the 'Golden Age' of rock, Altamont is considered by some to be its end. That the Stones would be the ones to wrap things up is rather fitting. The Stones were always marketed as the dark side of the Beatles --the yin to the Fabs' yang, if you will. The Beatles wanted you to Let It Be; the Stones just wanted you to Let It Bleed. And bleed it did.

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."
(Dictionary of Symbols, Jean Chevalier & Alain Gheerbrant, pg. 989)
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.
"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)
As to the bizarre occult ritual Crowley performed on December 6 years earlier, Lachman writes:
"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)
Another Crowley disciple, Kenneth Grant, had this to say of the demon Choronzon:
"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.'"
(The Magical Revival, pgs. 217-218)
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?

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 weird Altamont story has to do with a young Berkeley 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.'"
With all of this in mind, now consider the fifth verse of "American Pie":
Oh, and there we were all in one place
A generation lost in space
With no time left to start again
So come one Jack be nimble, Jack be quick
Jack Flash sat on a candlestick
Cause fire is the devil's only friend
And as I watched him on the stage
My hands were clenched in fists of rag
No angel born in Hell
Could break that Satan's 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...
Hell's Angels clubbing folks at Altamont
Again, we find traces of Downard and Hoffman. The allusions to the Apollo 11 moon landing (as well as the uber-cheesy 1960s TV series Lost in Space) factor heavily in their theories surrounding the Kennedy assassination, first outlined in the "King Kill 33" essay. The 'Jack' in this verse is both a reference to the famous Stones song "Jumpin Jack Flash" as well as JFK. As the verse progresses, McLean outlines Meredith Hunter's shocking death at the hands of the Hell's Angels while the zombie-like crowd of Altamont did nothing more than watch in morbid fascination. As for the sacrificial rite, I shall let my readers draw their own conclusions from the material I have provided. Needless to say, rock 'n' roll would never be the same after Altamont. Thus, we come to the sixth and final verse:
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 men 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
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.

Janis Joplin (top) and the 1968 Democratic National Convention, another disastrous event for the counterculture
It's widely believed that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper, the three Stars of the Holly-trinity. Some have speculated that this trinity may also be JFK, MLK and RFK, all of whom were assassinated in the 1960s. Interestingly, all three of these men have been subject to conspiracy theories that perceive their deaths as ritualistic murders, as noted above in the case of JFK. There are also highly ritualistic aspects to the death of the Holly-trinity, as I outlined in part one.

the legendary assassination trinity of the 1960s
The bit about catching the last train to the cost is likely an allusion to the geographical shift rock went through as the 1960s wore on. Rock 'n' roll originally began in the East, largely in the South. But by the end of the decade LA was the major rock 'n' roll mecca, which led to its rapid corruption. On the flip side of the coin, Michael A. Hoffman presented an interesting occult interpretation of the American West: "...California in the Mohave desert, which is, for Freemasons, the cosmic graveyard of the West, the final destiny of Anubis, the celestial jackal, otherwise known as Sirius" (Secret Societies and Psychological Warfare, pg. 54) . In this context, it could imply McLean's 'sacrificial rite' moved on from Iowa (where Buddy Holly died) to California.

the statue of Anubis at the bizarre, occult-laden Denver International Airport 
And thus we come to the conclusion of this installment. Over the course of this piece we have briefly considered rock's origins as a local, decentralized phenomenon that gripped the national consciousness upon exposure. As the years rolled along rock was gradually co-opted by major labels that presented the public with superstar acts who perverted rock from its origins and undermined the massive underground rock scene that had developed in the United States. Why rock was such a threat to the establishment was revealed above: Because anyone could do it.

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.


  1. One thing that occurs to me, with respect to the similarity between the lyrics and Downard-Hoffman works, is to mention that Nietzsche seemed to sort of conceive of history as producing "genius." His conception is, thus, deterministic and my mention of it is not an endorsement. However, it's interesting. His general idea was sort of that certain things - insights, perhaps - will just work themselves out.

    The only reference I can put my finger on is in "Twilight of the Idols," and it may have even broader application that my scattered lead-up might suggest: "Great men, like great ages, are explosives in which a tremendous force is stored up; their precondition is always, historically and physiologically, that for a long time much has been gathered, stored up, saved up, and conserved for them — that there has been no explosion for a long time. Once the tension in the mass has become too great, then the most accidental stimulus suffices to summon into the world the 'genius,' the 'deed,' the great destiny. What does the environment matter then, or the age, or the 'spirit of the age,' or 'public opinion'!" (44,

  2. Oh...and you are probably aware (but I just found out, scanning a Wikipedia entry on the man), but John Dee apparently somehow influenced Blue Öyster Cult. (I probably wouldn't even have noted it had I not read your post first!) The link is:

  3. A lot of strange and interesting folks influenced BoC, as you probably saw in the latest post.:)

    Strangely, I think your Nietzsche quote is better suited to BoC producer/manager Sandy Pearlman, though it's apt to McLean as well. Both gentleman were certainly in tune with the zeitgeist, to say the least.