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What I Spun:
“American Pie” (LP) by Don McLean
Best Use of This Record:
Play track three repeatedly.
“Frameless heads on nameless walls with eyes that watch the world and can’t forget…”
The song American Pie is so ubiquitous that I can’t remember the first time I heard it, or even the first time I started to get what it was about; it has just always been part of my consciousness. My single strongest memory of it is probably that abomination of a cover that Madonna did, and I don’t want to write about that. Instead, I want to write about my first encounter with another great track on the same album.
When I first began collecting music, I started with what I knew. Something that had always been part of my consciousness made sense, so Don McLean was one of the first twenty or thirty CDs I picked up. (Yes, CDs. I had some records and cassettes when I was younger, but when I started buying things for myself, it was CDs). Since I only knew the one song, I opted for the greatest hits (I figured you could get a good sampling of what an artist did; also, for older artists, compilations seem to be cheaper than regular albums – go figure).
Understandably, American Pie was the first track on the disc. I spent eight minutes in the warm embrace of familiarity and sang along as the levee went dry. But then…another song came on – a fragile, half-broken, quietly angry and delicately beautiful song that rattled me as it insisted to be heard.
Vincent, McLean’s tribute to Van Gogh, flooded my mind with the artist’s imagery and the singer’s disdain for those who can’t/won’t acknowledge such art. I have always had a soft spot for songs about people whose art went underappreciated – Jimmy Buffett’s Death of an Unpopular Poet, Skynyrd’s The Ballad of Curtis Loew, Tom T. Hall’s The Year Clayton Delaney Died – the list goes on and on. But Vincent is different somehow. It balances such a sense of beauty and such a sense of rage all at once that it’s almost unbearable. And that is exactly the point.
As soon as the song ended on my greatest hits CD, I played it again. And again. And again. And again. I still play it today.
Whenever American Pie comes on the radio now, I sing along because it is part of my consciousness, but I always pause and smile as I think of that other Don McLean song – the one that affected my consciousness.