Thursday, January 13, 2011

Bye, Bye, Miss American Pie

It was late afternoon yesterday when, sandwiched between "Our Lips Are Sealed" by the Go-Gos and "Rosalita" by The Boss, the song "American Pie" came on TigerBlog's I-tunes.

TigerBlog first heard the song back at Camp Toledo in the old, old days. For those who don't know, "American Pie" is maybe the most analyzed song in the history of American music, not to mention among the very best.

It's a Don McLean song from 1971, one that starts "A long, long time ago, I can still remember how that music used to make me smile." It's familiar chorus goes: "Bye, bye, Miss American Pie. Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry. Them good ol' boys were drinking whiskey and rye, singing this'll be the day that I die."

Each of the six times the chorus is repeated, it is preceded by the words "the day the music died." From start to finish, the song takes 8:29, extraordinarily long for any song, especially one from 1971. In fact, radio stations then and now have run versions of the song that have been edited for time, something that TB considers to be an unthinkable decision.

The first verse references a happy person touched by a musician and then the cold reality of a February day delivering newspapers when the bad news came, followed by an uncertainty of how exactly he reacted to the bad news, though there was a certainty that "something touched me deep inside," and then, for the first time, "the day the music died."

One thing everyone can agree on about the song is that this part refers to the Feb. 3, 1959, the Day the Music Died. It was on that day that a small plane carrying Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and J.P. Richardson (who performed under the name "the Big Bopper" and had many hits, including "Chantilly Lace") and a pilot crashed in Clear Lake, Iowa, killing all four.

The rest of the song is a mystery. Google "American Pie meaning" and 800,000 responses come up, lead by the website

TigerBlog has heard interpretations that include references to Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Janis Joplin, the Kennedy assassinations, Martin Luther King and others.

For his part, McLean famously said this when asked what the song means: "It means I'll never have to work again."

TigerBlog has heard the song thousands of times. He's seen it included on countdowns of the greatest songs ever, often at the No. 1 spot.

Each time TB hears it, he's reminded why. It's a song of unbelievable depth and power and ultimately simplicity, as McLean simply sings his lyrics, with little in the way of background.

TigerBlog went to Clear Lake, Iowa, once, to check out the field where the plane crashed.

Princeton was playing at Iowa State in basketball (TB's second trip to ISU), and TB and Tom McCarthy flew to Minneapolis to visit TB's childhood friend Larry Zucker. Minneapolis is about a three-hour drive from Ames, right down I-35, and the trip takes you right through Clear Lake.

When TB saw the sign, he and McCarthy decided to get off and look for the site. Of course, this came during a very warm December, one so warm that it melted frozen lakes and created an incredible fog, unlike anything TB has ever seen before.

Still, with a little help, TB and TM were able to find the field, and the little monument that commemorates what happened there.

TB always thinks about that trip when he sees Iowa State on television or when something about ISU athletics comes up. For instance, TB saw yesterday that Iowa State was hosting No. 3 Kansas in men's basketball, and it immediately reminded him of his two trips to Ames, especially the one that went through Clear Lake.

This time, though, when he saw that Iowa State was playing, it also made TigerBlog think about how many Division I games were being played these days.

Yesterday, for instance, there were 60 Division I men's games and 46 Division I women's games. Tonight there are 60 more men's games and 66 more women's games.

This Saturday, there will be 143 men's games.

None of these, of course, involve Princeton, as the Tigers are on an extended break for first-semester exams.

Yesterday afternoon at 4:30, TB walked over to look in the gym to see what was going on. For a normal winter Wednesday, that time would be as busy as it ever gets in Jadwin.

Both basketball teams would be practicing, using the main court and both side courts. The men's and women's track and field teams would be at it as well, with the usual symphonic movements of all the moving parts that track practice entails.

Beyond that, there'd be any number of other athletes from other sports milling around, on their way to the weightroom or the pit downstairs.

Yesterday, though, there were a handful of track athletes and four women's basketball players. There had been two men's players a bit earlier.

Back when Pete Carril was the Princeton coach, he used to say that the best thing his players could do during this break was to come down and shoot around a little to break up their studying. Physical exertion, he would say, was just what the brain needed.

And that's usually been the case through the years. Formal practices are forbidden during reading period and exams, but the athletes always trickle down in groups to get in a workout and get study break.

As for the four women's players, there were two at each end of the court. At the near end, assistant coach Melanie Moore, eight months pregnant, was throwing entry passes as part of a drill.

In all, it was a very quiet time, an oddly quiet time in a place that usually rocks with noise at this time of day, at this time of year.

But not for these two weeks.

This time, all the action is on the other side of Washington Road.

And so TB went back to his desk, where Don McLean was singing about a girl who sang the blues.

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