Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Flower Is Free

Original Facebook post here.
Today's formative-album replay: Don McLean, American Pie. McLean was not so much a one-hit wonder as an above-average troubadour who struck zeitgeist gold one magic time, like Eden Ahbez with "Nature Boy" or 4 Non-Blondes with "What's Up?" And gold it is in McLean's case, not the fool's kind; I don't want to overstate this, but the impact of hearing this album's iconic title track fresh after many years avoiding it was bracing and mildly revelatory all over again--not just for the pile-on of evocative pop-history lyrics but for the tight, snappy, lightly rollicking arrangement and McLean's faultless phrasing, which straddle folk and rock effortlessly. It's a great record, in other words, not just a great song. As for the song itself, it sounds to me now like the granddaddy of both "Thunder Road" and "Waiting for the End of the World"--apocalyptic Americana that manages the neat trick of invoking Dylan (the jester) without even a whiff of slavish imitation. It's a perfectly calibrated rock and roll hymn, capacious enough to contain all the ambivalence and self-contradiction that oxymoron implies.

As for the rest of the album--well, like I said, McLean is an above-average troubadour in the Jim Croce or Paul Simon mode, with a gentle white-blues tenor and prickly guitar-picking style that surely caught the ear of a young Lindsey Buckingham. There are some lovely, modest ballads here, a few flower-child banalities, the catchily obnoxious raveup "Everybody Loves Me, Baby," and two ambitious gambits with variable results: the affecting if overwrought "The Grave" and the simpering, dunderheaded "Vincent."

But the song that hit me hardest, apart from the title track, was the one that apparently inspired the (even better) song "Killing Me Softly": that would be "Empty Chairs," with the delicately sad circumlocution, "And I wonder if you know/That I never understood/That although you said you'd go/Until you did, I never thought you would." What always seemed like a simple breakup song to me this time sounded a lot more like a sob of straight-up mourning, made all the more heartrending by its quietness and indirection, its attempt to be tidy and circumspect about a crushing loss. Buddy Holly's death may have inspired McLean's great pop jeremiad about the end of American innocence, but the grief of "Empty Chairs" sounds entirely unsymbolic, and a lot closer to home.

Joe McDade I think you described McLean perfectly. AND: this seems the perfect time to remember how Fr. Renna had theorized that McLean based each line of "Vincent" (which, yeah, you don't seem to care for) on a different Van Gogh painting (or else Fr. Renna linked each line with a painting that "seemed" to fit --I forget). The nexus of McLean, Vincent, and Fr. Renna blew my mind, and based on Fr. Renna's descriptions of Van Gogh's artistry ("It's like a relief painting!"), I could hardly wait to see a portrait up close for myself, so when I finally got to New York on my own (living upstate in Binghamton for grad school, visiting Martin Sliwinski in Long Island City for a week in September), I went to MOMA and sought out, of course, "Starry Night." Worth the wait. Blew me away. (This was before the vandalism episode and the glass encasement ruined the complete effect, perhaps forever, so a sad footnote.)
David Barbour The hours we wasted in high school, pouring over the lyrics, wondering what it meant...
Rob Weinert-Kendt Joe: Yeah, I remember that Renna made us listen to that, and I credit him with making us antsy high school snots take a moment to think about Van Gogh seriously...But listening to it now, McLean's song strikes me as ridiculous and presumptuous: Was Van Gogh really all about conveying love, and was all this manic-depressive genius needed someone to love him? Was his problem that he was really "too beautiful" for this world? Oh, they didn't understand you, says Don, but I did, because of what you said "to me." This is a pretentious flower-child gloss on a great, uncompromising, deeply tragic figure. But hey, it sounds nice.
Joe McDade So here's full circle for you: in what I think was his first video produced directly for MTV, Dylan's "Jokerman" was a series of museum-quality paintings, one after the other. Someone wrote that the video was like "Winchester attempting to inflict his kulture on Hawkeye and BJ in the middle of a war zone."
Rob Weinert-Kendt Thanks for reminding me...I've done BLONDE ON BLONDE but I may have to do INFIDELS again soon.
Jack Lechner Beautifully said, Rob. But McLean wasn't a flower child; he was a frat boy trying to pick up sensitive hippie chicks.
Jack Lechner Must reading: http://wfmu.org/LCD/andy/americanpie.html
Rob Weinert-Kendt I haven't read that story yet, but I begrudge no man his I-got-into-music-to-get-laid rationale.

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