Saturday, June 18, 2011

From the Vault--Happy Father's Day

Don McLean has not aged well. When I was in, oh, eighth grade or so, I thought “American Pie” was a good song, and “Vincent” a better one, but “American Pie” has been reduced to a pile of self-righteous hippy cheese and although “Vincent” still remains a haunting piece of music, when paired with the rest of McLean’s tortured-artist songbook, seems like just another trite piece of “oh, pity the artist” schlock.

I can, however, point out every single reference and allusion in “American Pie.” My dad was a master of drilling us full of two kinds of trivia—music and local history. To this day, I can still point out all the caves between my dad’s house and the church we attended. While all my friends were waiting on their dial-up internet to research each line for a frankly lazy history assignment (which is what we did before Wikipedia and Google) I simply played through the song and wrote it down in numerical order in about 10 minutes. My then-friend Caitlin said it was cheating, but let’s face it—she was just jealous.

Then again, you never know
The song that stays with me is from this same playbook, but it’s a rare one, from his first, eponymous album. “Bronco Bill’s Lament” is the first-person narrative of an ex TV cowboy. It’s sad and it’s beautiful and it’s been forgotten to everyone but vinyl junkies. Even the concept of the singing TV cowboy is something almost too nostalgic for most people. Although the western is making a mini-comeback,  I doubt we’ll see any of the old-timey cowboys with the glittery shirts and the guitars.

It’s sort of like Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind” only simpler, prettier and more haunting. The eponymous narrator has finally accepted his fate and is perhaps singing to some magazine interviewer charged with digging up a fluff piece on an old legend. And he sings:

“Oh I always liked the notion of a cowboy fighting crime
This photograph was taken in my prime
I could beat those desperados,
But there’s no sense fightin’ time . . . .”

The poetics are very basic, almost high-schoolish, but in their simplicity lies their charm. Much like Elton John’s “Your Song,” (which is better sung by Ewan McGregor) “Bronco Bill’s Lament” does not suffer from complexity or an attempt to be deep, which “American Pie” has a fatal case of.

My sister had this song on a mix tape my dad made off the live album, and we used to play it over and over and over on the stereo in the room we shared for ten years. Because when you’re a kid, something like this seems so deep and meaningful, and a lot of that meaning has stayed with me. No one wants to be forgotten. No one wants to be used up and thrown away. In a way, I suppose I feel sorry for Don Mclean. He probably had something to say, in his self-righteous hippy way, and just wasn’t good enough to be remembered for anything but “American Pie.” He had all Dylan’s ambition and much of the same intentions, but his lyrics were too straightforward, too similar-sounding, too whiny. It’s the curse of a lot of musicians, to be damned by their one hit song. Hell, Warren Zevon would forever be the “Werewolves of London” guy, and his entire catalogue is made up of nothing but amazingly genius songs. Even jokey-sounding songs like “Gorilla, You’re a Desperado” still drip with his sarcastic, caustic wit and charm.

But ultimately, my love for this song comes back to my dad. My father is a consummate music lover and a musician himself, the man responsible for most of my music collection--Warren Zevon, the Talking Heads, Steely Dan, Men at Work, Oingo Boingo, the Pretenders, the Vapors, the Gin Blossoms and Cyndi Lauper. One could also accuse him of causing me to hate the Beatles from overplaying, but I say that blame rests more on my sisters than on him. We always had music playing in the car and he was constantly singing—sometimes replacing lyrics with fart noises, other times replacing them with the name of our cat, Scallion (my favorite being, “I see a red cat and I want him painted black”). Music was like breathing to him—it was a constant. My sisters and I all have very different tastes, but we all come back to those few common threads. Driving home from visiting my grandmother in the nursing home for what would be the last time, we played Steely Dan’s Pretzel Logic because it’s hard to be sad during “Barrytown.” Everybody loves “Barrytown.” And it all comes back around to my dad, a quiet man in his own right, the keeper of the sacred songs.

The rest of Don Mclean, except for “On the Amazon” (which always makes me think of my friend Will Ludwigsen) sucks for the same reason the rest of the Don Mclean catalogue sucks—it’s self-righteous hippy garbage.  But this one song almost makes up for it, a gem among rubbish, a reminder that even when we think we are most forgotten, someone somewhere remembers us.

Happy Fathers Day, Dad.

No comments:

Post a Comment