Digging for Gold: The Time-Life “AM Gold” Series, Part 28

Written by Digging for Gold, Music

Ready to wrap up our discussion of Time-Life’s “AM Gold: 1968”? Too bad, we’re going to talk about “American Pie” instead.

AM Gold: 1968

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Little did we know when we delved into this, the final installment of AM Gold: 1968, that we would spend a good portion of the discussion on a song that was still three years away when these singles were hits. So sandwiched in between our discussion of ’68 gems like “Wichita Lineman” and “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” is a heated debate over the merits (or lack thereof) of Don McLean’s “American Pie.” Which is not on AM Gold: 1971, by the way.

(Spotify users, you can subscribe to our Best of AM Gold playlist, which is updated regularly.)


Glen Campbell, "Wichita Lineman"#17: Glen Campbell, “Wichita Lineman” – #3 U.S Hot 100, #1 U.S. Country, #7 U.K.

David Lifton – For all the talk we’ve had over the past few weeks about what songs define this series, I can’t think of a more definitive AM Gold song than this. A contemplative lyric set to a pretty tune, and sung gorgeously by a handsome, smiling white guy. I love this record.

Jon Cummings – There’s something about this song, isn’t there? It’s one of the most affecting pop singles I’ve ever heard, even though many of its pieces are quite simple or even trite. The talk of rain and snow and strain in the second verse is something of a non-sequitur — almost to the point of the food references in “Ode to Billie Joe.” And while I love Glen’s vocals, I’m against the unnecessary flourish on the word “vacation” — it’s better when the entire vocal remains understated. But, in the end, it’s the “still on the line” metaphor that puts the song over the top; it is just exquisite. (Interesting, though, that when Glen sang the song live on the Smothers Brothers’ show and elsewhere, he changed the lyric from “And the Wichita lineman is still on the line” to “BUT the Wichita lineman…” It defeats the metaphor almost entirely, changing the meaning from “I’m yours even though I’m away” to “I can’t get home from work.” It’s as though Glen didn’t know what he was singing.)

Dw. Dunphy – I like the song but, damn it, now I can’t get the Homer Simpson version out of my head.

Jack Feerick – There’s something about Jim Webb’s work that gives me a whiff of prog-rock — mostly in the scope of his ambition, but occasionally in a turn of melody; the chorus of “Wichita Lineman” has an echo of “Nights in White Satin,” and the line leading into it reminds me inexplicably of Jethro Tull — but here he keeps his excesses in check, and the result is hugely compelling. There’s a whole novel’s worth of backmatter implied here, or at least a Raymond Carver short story, with the requisite air of doomy blue-collar romance, but we get only hints and innuendo, two verses and a repeat and we’re out. It’s like a cut-up assembled from fragments of some much larger work.

A decent performance from Campbell, too. He could be a dreadful ham, but here he does more with less, keeping it simple and honest.


Dionne Warwick, "(Theme From) Valley of the Dolls"#18: Dionne Warwick, “(Theme From) Valley of the Dolls” – #2 U.S., #28 U.K.; the B-side to “I Say a Little Prayer.”

Lifton – I don’t know anything about the movie, so I have no idea if it works as a theme or not. I see it’s not a Bacharach/David song, but by Andre and Dory Previn, but it seems like they were going for that feel with the melody line in the verse. It’s pleasant enough but it seems to go for an introspection that it doesn’t quite achieve.

Cummings – I swear it’s not a reflection of my general anti-Warwick stance that I find this song maddening. What’s it all about, Alfie? I find it astounding that this song ascended to #2 on the charts — Dionne’s biggest single ever as a solo (i.e., no Spinners or “Friends”) — considering how it meanders and doesn’t really have a point … or chorus, for that matter. (That lack of a discernable point makes the song a good match for the movie, which was a soapy mess.) However, the meandering way that Dionne’s voice got on (and off, and on) this recording is an interesting story. Judy Garland originally was supposed to play a leading role in the film and sing the song, but she got fired for drunkenness (ironically, since the “dolls” of the title are downers). Dionne was hired to sing the song in the film, but for bizarre contractual reasons her vocal didn’t make it onto the film’s soundtrack album (co-author Dory Previn sang it for the record). Then Dionne re-recorded it and put it on one of her own albums, and had the hit with it. It’s a tale even more odd than the saga of LeAnn Rimes and Trisha Yearwood both recording “How Do I Live” for “Con Air.”

Dunphy – I can’t believe there was a (Theme From) Valley of the Dolls, and I can’t believe even more that it was a hit. I can believe this does absolutely zippo for me, though. Alternate lyrics should be, “They like to screw a lot, they’re rich.”

Sort of a fun fact, if I haven’t mixed up details: didn’t a fledgling screenwriter named Roger Ebert write the sequel?

Robert Cashill – “You have to climb Mount Everest to reach the Valley of the Dolls…”

Great campy movie, based on the bestsellers of bestsellers, so of course it was going to be a movie. A bad movie. I don’t even recall the song. But Susan Hayward (Garland’s replacement) dancing around mobiles? Yes.

“There’s only one Helen Lawson in a Helen Lawson show…”

I could go on. Watch it on a twin bill with The Oscar.

Back to your discussion, guys…

Feerick – And here’s the miserable detox at the other end of “Hooked on a Feeling.” Such an exquisite misery, though — fragments of language swirling and coalescing, keys and time signature shifting like a dream just before it turns into a nightmare from which you cannot awaken and you spend the next forty-eight hours shivering and throwing up.


Mama Cass, "Dream a Little Dream of Me"#19: Mama Cass, “Dream a Little Dream of Me” – #12 U.S., #11 U.K.; recorded by the Mamas & the Papas, but credited to Cass on the single.

Lifton – As wonderful as this is, I think it’s gained greater significance in light of the sadness of her life and the circumstances of her death. I’d rather keep them separate and just enjoy this for what it is: an excellent pairing of singer and song.

Cummings – It’s funny to think that for decades this song was linked primarily with male singers — the biggest hit versions were by Wayne King (#1, 1931), Jack Owens and Frankie Laine (both in 1950, when the song’s popularity surged for no good reason). Now it’s impossible to think of anyone but Cass, and those big, open vowel sounds of hers. Her version is quite lovely, and less campy than it could have been. Unfortunately, when I hear this I can never keep myself from associating Cass’ dreams with ham sandwiches.

Dunphy – It makes me sad just thinking about it. Without once again digressing into the MaPops, Cass was a great singer. It is so awful that her legacy will always be shadowed by how big she was. Even today, her music takes a second place to the jokes about her choking on various animal limbs.

I get to thinking if she could have been a (figuratively) bigger star if she was less physically imposing, but then again, would she have had that stunner voice without the physical gravitas? Chicken or the egg? I don’t know.

Feerick – Okay, let’s run down the “old-timey” checklist, here. Tack piano? Got it. Whistling? Check. Ukelele? …shit! Stop the tape, people — we need a ukelele in here, STAT!

I did a long riff on the L.A. scene’s odd fascination with Gilded Age parlor song nostalgia back when we were discussing the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Daydream,” so I’ll just refer you back to that.

It’s a tragedy about Cass Elliott, of course: she did have a lovely voice, and we’ll never know what she might have done with it had she not died so young. But “Dream a Little Dream,” gorgeous though it may be, is pretty inconsequential.


Dion, "Abraham, Martin and John"#20: Dion, “Abraham, Martin and John” – #4 U.S.; Dion’s first Top 10 single since 1963, and his last.

Lifton – Proof that good sentiments don’t always make good art.

Chris Holmes – I first heard this song back in the late ’80s or so, when Howard Stern was goofing on it on his radio show. It’s stuck with me ever since and I genuinely like it now. I’ll give Dion a pass for elevating JFK and RFK into the same league as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Abe Lincoln, as the Kennedy deaths were still fresh and traumatic for many Americans.

I love Dion’s voice on this track, and he nails the folk balladeer vibe perfectly for me. As opposed to, say, this:

Lifton – I remember hearing that, too! Didn’t they do a parody of it a few days later?

Holmes – I think so, but I don’t remember what it was. I do know they did a Connie Francis parody around the same time that was every bit as tasteless and hilarious as vintage Stern could be.

Cummings – Dion’s is not my favorite version of this song (Harry Belafonte’s is), mostly because the arrangement here is so ridiculously busy. Those harps? That “happy organ” after the second chorus? Yuck! Keep it simple, guys. Apart from that, this song is a suitably content-free pop ode to Famous People Who Died, right up there with “Rock and Roll Heaven” and “Nightshift.”

Feerick – Yeah, what’s up with those harp glissandi? Are we going into a flashback to an earlier part of the song?

Talk about a song ripped from the headlines. RFK’s body barely in the ground before this came out. Which gives it a certain power, in a Phil Ochs-ian “singing newspaper” kind of way; but the truth is, it sounds like a rush job.

Part of that’s down to the very busy-ness of the arrangement. Maybe you’ve heard one of those song-poem compilations — you know, those scams where gullible people would send in their poems (and a hefty fee), and some cadre of bottom-feeding studio hacks would set them to a tune, roll tape, and send back a custom-printed 45 single of the result. The performances tend to have a certain… distracted quality, let’s say, especially in the rhythm section.

This veers uncomfortably close to the same territory, especially in those weirdly jaunty runs in the bassline. Maybe it’s me, but I can’t help thinking that this song might have been better suited by something, I dunno, a little more stately. I don’t want it to be a dirge, necessarily, but no part of it should sound like the noodlings of a bored teenager hopped up on diet pills.

Dunphy – This is a beautiful song, but so very earnest and maudlin. It showed the Mr. DiMucci truly could do anything he wanted to, but the tracks intentions fall dead beneath its own weight. Hard to say such things about a tune meant as a tribute and social commentary, but there it is.

It is, in spirit, much like that song about the death of Buddy Holly, Richie Valens & The Big Bopper, only that song was really in the ballpark of “awful.” This track is more like really good high school poetry or nearly adequate college poetry. But wow, does that voice work well, no matter what it is kicking out.

Cummings(“That song was really in the ballpark of “‘awful'”)

… are you discussing “American Pie” here? Are you serious? This must be the first time I have ever heard a discouraging word said about “American Pie.” (Unless we’re talking about Madonna’s version.) In any case, I’ll beg to differ, and suggest that “American Pie” remains, 40 years later, about as great a song as rock-era pop has produced. And to suggest that “Abraham, Martin & John,” with its bland reductivism (“he freed a lot of people, but I guess the good die young”), holds even the haggard wick of a burnt-out candle to the stringing together of reference and metaphor in “American Pie” seems just absurd to me.

Dan Wiencek – You’ve never heard of anyone who doesn’t like “American Pie”? I can’t say I’m very fond of it myself.

Holmes – It never did much for me.

Mike Heyliger – Can’t say I’m crazy about “American Pie,” myself.

Dunphy – I seem to have set off a nerve with Jon.

I was talking about “Three Stars” by Eddie Cochran.

Look up in the sky, up towards the north
There are three new stars, brightly shining forth
They’re shining oh so bright, from heaven above
Gee we’re gonna miss you, everybody sends their love

Ritchie, you were just starting to reallize your dreams
Everyone calls me a kid, but you were only seventeen
Now almighty God has called you, oh so far away
Maybe it’s to save some boy or girl, who might have gone astray
And with your star shining through the dark and lonely night
To light the path and show the way, the way that’s right
Gee we’re gonna miss you, everybody sends their love

Buddy, I can still see you with that shy grin on your face
Seems like your hair was always a little messed up, kinda out of place
Now not many people actually knew you, or understood how you felt
But just a song from, just a song from you could make the coldest heart melt
Well, you’re singing for God now, in his chorus in the sky
Buddy Holly, I’ll always remember you, with tears in my eyes
Gee we’re gonna miss you, everybody sends their love

I see a stout man, the Big Bopper’s your name
God called you to heaven, maybe for new fortune and fame
Keep wearing that big Stetson hat, and ramble up to the mic
And don’t forget those wonderful words, “you know what I like”

Look up in the sky, up towards the north
There are three new stars, brightly shining forth
They’re shining oh so bright, from heaven above
Gee we’re gonna miss you, everybody sends their love

Cashill – I stand (alone?) with Jon on the excellence of “American Pie,” which was in the news recently.

Cummings – Jeez, Dw., I’ve never heard of that EC song. THOSE lyrics blow. As for the rest of you (except Bob) — you’re going to have to explain yourselves, beyond “it never did much for me,” ’cause I just don’t get it. What’s not to love? Perhaps we can have a group throwdown on “AP” if we ever get around to AM Gold #1 Hits of the ’70s — ’70-’74. But at the rate we’re going, with the number of annual volumes left to go before we even get to the era-centric sets, it could take us til 2071.

Don McLean, "American Pie"Matt Springer – Everyone but Bob and Jon is wrong about “American Pie.” Thanks.

Wiencek – It’s not something I feel strongly enough about to write a long, impassioned take-down. It just feels to me like an exercise in cryptography, a coming of age story deliberately and self-consciously dressed up in (overblown) metaphor.

Holmes – What Dan said. Also, an eight-plus minute running time? This ain’t “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

Springer – I’d rather hear eight minutes of Don McLean than eight minutes of David Gilmour noodling.

Holmes – We’ll just have to disagree on that one. I’ll take Gilmour’s noodles over McLean’s cheese any day.

Wiencek – Ditto.

Brian Boone – At least Gilmour’s noodling isn’t fraught with heavy-handed symbolism. It’s complete bullshit, but at least he and I both know that it’s complete bullshit.

Springer – Wow, I just realized what I typed. Probably sounds like heresy to you guys.

I stand by it.

I also have questionable opinions about Elton John’s eighties output so, you know, different strokes and all that.

Dunphy – If I have a beef about American Pie, it is that it has become just another drinkin’ song alongside Piano Man. If you ask people what it’s about, they won’t say Buddy Holly, et. al., they’ll say “Whiskey and Rye!”

Holmes – It’s also a formative piece of Boomer nostalgia, and I can’t abide that.

Wiencek – My wife spent a year in Ireland some years ago and noted how popular “American Pie” was in the pubs over there.

Jeff Giles – If you noticed the music in the pubs, you were doing it wrong.

Wiencek – By “popular” I meant they all sang along to it, usually at the tail end of many a Guinness and Jameson’s.

Holmes – Per Wikipedia:

In 2001 “American Pie” was voted No. 5 in a poll of the 365 Songs of the Century compiled by the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts. The top five were: “Over the Rainbow” written by Harold Arlen and E.Y. “Yip” Harburg (performed by Judy Garland in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz), “White Christmas” written by Irving Berlin (best-known performance by Bing Crosby), “This Land Is Your Land” written and performed by Woody Guthrie, “Respect” written by Otis Redding (best-known performance by Aretha Franklin), and “American Pie.”

Huh? One of these things is not like the others.

Wiencek – That might be the weirdest all-time-best list I’ve ever read.

Cashill – I remember one of my ninth-grade friends deconstructing the lyrics to “American Pie” for an essay and reading it aloud to the class. I was very impressed. (The song was only nine years old at that time.)

Cummings – A few times in high school I decided to see how far a girl would let me get into an exegesis on “American Pie,” as a way of telling whether or not there would be another date. It worked pretty well once, if I remember, and went down in flames at least one other time.

But as for what Dan wrote earlier (calling “AP” “an exercise in cryptography, a coming of age story deliberately and self-consciously dressed up in (overblown) metaphor”) — what are you talking about? It’s not a coming of age story — it’s the history of rock’n’roll (up to 1972) in six verses!

Wiencek – Fine. Then it’s a history of rock n’ roll, deliberately and self-consciously dressed up in (overblown) metaphor.

Cummings – That, I can handle.


Marvin Gaye, "I Heard It Through the Grapevine"#21: Marvin Gaye, “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” – #1 U.S. and U.K.

Lifton – I know some people who prefer Gladys Knight’s version and, while it’s very good, it doesn’t hold a candle to this.

Holmes – The Gladys version is very good but it’s got a totally different vibe and tempo. No one can touch Marvin in prime form, and he’s on fire here.

Watch video, get chills:

Dunphy – The Gladys and Marvin versions come from very different points of view. Marvin sounds hurt, as only he could do, and there is a sense of despair in his voice. Gladys sounds soulful but, at the same time, prepared to rip her man’s nuts off.

Cummings – Wouldn’t it be funny if someone came out and stated, for everyone to see, “God, I hate this song”? Well, it’s not gonna be me. I don’t have much to say about it that hasn’t been said a million times before, except to note what must be Motown’s (and perhaps rock-era pop’s) finest-ever string arrangement. I can also say that I wish I could ever make it through the full 3:15 of this song without thinking about either The Big Chill or the California Raisins.

Dunphy – As I said earlier, Gaye’s and Gladys’ versions are both great and distinct, but because of the betrayal in Gaye’s voice, this is the one that tends to rise above for me. This is the voice of a blindsided man, a do-right kind of guy left alone as his woman leads on with a do-wrong sorta guy.

Feerick – Now this, ladies and gents, is how you arrange for strings and horns. Not just playing block chords, not just padding out the changes, but adding counter-phrases to ramp up the effect of the song. The insinuating whine of the violins, that menacing French horn figure before Marvin’s vocal comes in — just masterful.


Otis Redding, "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay"#22: Otis Redding, “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” – #1 U.S., #3 U.K.; recorded by Redding a few days before his death in 1967, and released posthumously.

Lifton – One of the great unanswered questions in pop history is to wonder where Otis would have gone after this.

Cummings – Sometimes you just have to marvel at the blessings of serendipity. I mean, nobody could ever be happy that Otis passed away in the manner he did — but isn’t his legacy, and pop history in general, fortunate that the song Stax/Volt had waiting in the can when that plane crashed was something as elegiac as “Dock of the Bay,” rather than a relative trifle like “Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa”? Sam Cooke, with “A Change Is Gonna Come,” was similarly lucky … though I suppose you’d have a hard time convincing HIM of that.

Dunphy – This is as simple as a nursery rhyme and, maybe, works as an ultimate epitaph. Otis could tear you apart with songs like “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” which have a real presence there when you listen. This song, while still marvelous, has an absence to it, a resignation. It might be the whistling coda. It’s like he’s saying, “I’m going, but I’ll be around this dock whenever you need, so don’t forget me.” Well, whoever could?

Feerick – Oh, such a perfect little miracle of a song. A brilliantly sustained narrative, a lean groove, deep emotional truth (anyone who’s ever been unemployed, you know that the long afternoons are the worst of it), and a vocal performance that feels real but never oversells the feeling. It’s remarkable just how bleak and uncompromising a song it is, but it doesn’t come off as sad or self-pitying. The resignation of it plays out like a long sigh.