real life

Don McLean's 'American Pie': The real meaning of song lyrics we never understood.

I grew up singing ‘American Pie; belting out lyrics about driving a “Chevy to the levee” from the back of our Datsun and around our holiday campfires.

It was an eight-minute epic rock and roll anthem for a generation and a cultural tour de force. If you knew all the lyrics it meant you were cool, but until I was a teenager, I actually thought it was a song about apple pies.

Don McLean.


Don McLean has just sold the original manuscript of his lyrics to 'American Pie' for $US1.2 million.

Its 18 pages even reveal a hidden more optimistic ending that never made the recording. The song has long been memorised, sung, analysed and studied endlessly over the last 44 years. There are books, websites and no doubt many university theses that dive deeply into its poetry.

But it’s generally understood to be an ode to the end of simple times of the fifties as America entered a turbulent upheaval of the new era; an ode to the end of a sweet and good American age. While there’s general agreement about the day the music died being about McLean hearing about the death of Buddy Holly, there have been conspiracy theories galore about other lyrics, beliefs it predicted the future and that it killed off God.

To me as a child I didn’t care that the 'jester sang for the king and queen’ was Bob Dylan and that the King whose thorny crown was stolen was probably Elvis. I had no idea the ‘air of sweet perfume’ was marijuana nor come close to understanding the references to Mick Jagger, the Rolling Stones, The Beatles and Janis Joplin.

But I did as I got older, and if you’re interested this article has a great go at revealing more.

Don McLean may have sold the original lyrics but he’s not stripping the song bare by revealing all.


I'm glad. There should  be theories and disagreements over the meanings of songs because that’s the great thing about music, we all hear and feel it differently. And songs stay with us as a time capsule in our lives; especially as odes to the innocence of our childhoods.

My parents only had three cassette tapes in the car - Bob Dylan, Cat Stevens and the soundtrack to the musical 'Hair'. I remember the day we were all squeezed tight in the back and singing along to one of our favourite songs on the tape.

“Sodomy, fellatio, cunnilingus, pederasty. Father why do these words sound so nasty.

Mastrurbation can be fun … join the holy orgy Kama Sutra everyooooonnnnneeee”

But as our four child crescendo built, my brother’s clear, high, unbroken soprano stopped.

“Mum, what is masturbation anyway?”

The tape was ejected and never seen again.

Many years later I used to sing blissfully along to the radio song “Skyrockets in Sight, Afternoon Delight. AAAAAAAAafternoon delight” thinking it was about fireworks. It was about sex in the afternoon.

The first single I ever bought was ‘Turning Japanese’ by the Vapors. I had no idea it was about masturbation despite the hint “I want a doctor to take a picture so I can look at you from inside as well”.

The same goes for the Violent Femmes song ‘Blister in the Sun’ – staining the sheets didn’t come close to giving that away. I never even considered 'Poison Ivy' was about getting crabs.

As the eighties hit, I danced away with a thin black tie to ‘My Sharona’ blissfully unaware the Knack were singing about sex with ‘the younger kind’

I had no idea ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’ was about a marijuana high, nor that the Beatles ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ was about LSD. I sang Eric Clapton’s Cocaine without knowing what cocaine was.


I thought Van Morison’s Brown Eyed girl was about me not his love for heroin. I sang loudly ‘Everybody must get stoned’ by Bob Dylan thinking it was about rock art. I had no idea ‘Golden Brown’ by the Stranglers was an ode to heroin and that Talking Heads song ‘And She Was” was about a girl tripping out on acid.


Hell it didn't even occur to me that Queen meant gay and that Freddie Mercury was out until the band appeared in drag for the film clip ‘I Want To Break Free’ in 1984.

I almost felt sad when I knew what Madonna was referring to in ‘Like A Virgin’. Because, in some ways, not understanding what we’re singing is a right of childhood.

Hearing now that the lyrics from my favourite song ‘Dancing Queen’ could be referring to venereal disease just makes me feel ill.

‘You’re a teaser you turn ‘em on leave them burning and then your gone’ .

I just don’t want to know that. Let ABBA stay sweet inside my mind in pussycat dresses please!

There are some songs from my childhood I will never understand despite knowing all the lyrics.

I’m still not sure if the Eagles ‘Hotel California’ is about a satanic church, UFOs, or drugs. When I hear it I don’t think of any of those things. I think about doing handstands beside a lake in my flared jeans while some nearby teenagers belted it out across the water.

So thank you Don McLean for revealing more about your seminal song but lets not over dissect every line of the songs of old, lest we make the music die.