Music Alone

Thinking back to our days in Edinburgh, I had a song come to mind. I could remember only a word or two, but the tune and the cadence were still there. Not a singer, nor even a hummer, the best I could do was ask my wife if she remembered the song based on the two words I could recall. Amazingly, she did. When I went to download it on iTunes, I learned that it isn’t available in the US. Probably copyright laws—these can be quite bizarre. Music has a way of staying with you and one of the songs unforgettable to those of us growing up in the ‘60s is Don McLean’s “American Pie.” In a recent Bloomberg View piece, Stephen L. Carter, a professor at Yale, laments the fact that McLean’s original notes for the song are going up for bids and, after five decades of guessing, we may finally learn what the cryptic lyrics mean. Or will we?


A colleague of mine used to say, “words don’t have meanings, they have usages.” In the literary technique known as reader-response criticism, it is the reader who has the final say in what a passage “means.” An author may intend one thing, but who is the author to control the meme once it’s out? (You can see why some biblical students get upset by such things since the same thing applies, even if the author is God.) While I’m not po-mo enough to accept this completely, it has introduced an edge of caution to my reading. After all, if an author is dead (ahem) we can’t question him or her to find out what they meant. Even if they remember. “American Pie” is notable for its lyrics with religious imagery which, fairly clearly, are not really religious. Or are they?

Carter laments the coming unveiling. The mystery will be gone. Don McLean, the ultimate one-hit wonder, will walk away with the goods yet again. I have no doubt that there will be analyses and hermeneutical disquisitions. The learned will claim that we finally have the answers. I’m not so sure. What if the “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost” turn out to be Buddy Holly, Big Bopper, and Richie Valens? What does that mean? Perhaps Don McLean, like any old prophet, was merely a vehicle for a message received from elsewhere. The questions go back in an endless regression, and no answer will ever be final. We all know the song is about “the day the music died.” As the old camp song says, “music alone shall live, never to die.” And as I sit here trying to remember how a song I last heard two decades ago goes, I’m pretty sure that the camp song is right, whatever it means.

Sinking Feeling

Many readers are aware of the heavily metaphoric nature of many posts on this blog. Sometimes staring directly at something can be too troubling to handle, so metaphors come to the rescue. I was about to board a plane in LaGuardia yesterday when the news about the sinking of the Costa Concordia came onto the news. The wrecks of mass transit carriers—whether trains, planes, buses, or cruise ships—are tragic in terms of the potential for harm to many. Perhaps worse, they are reminders of our own anonymity. It is the rare John Jacob Astor who gets remembered as the victim of a specific mass tragedy. And he was already famous to begin with. We hear more about the Buddy Holly crash than we do the individual names of the many thousands wiped out in the Christmas Tsunami of 2004. What were their names?

As of this morning eleven people are reported dead from the Costa Concordia, one of them notably not being Captain Francesco Schettino, the man who would not go down with the ship. Seafaring lore—surely some of the richest and most inventive in the world—has rules about this kind of thing. The captain goes down with the ship. Ships were (are) generally given feminine names since they are the womb-like protectors of those aboard. Nature knows no better protector than a mother. The captain is the dedicated son who, when his mother sinks, accompanies her to Davy Jones. The Italian coast guard had to order Schettino back aboard his sinking ship after he’d abandoned rescue efforts.

We expect much from our leaders. Things are so complicated in this world we’ve constructed that many of us know we simply couldn’t get along without those smarter than we are. When the car won’t start. When I can’t connect to the Internet. When Wikipedia is shut down for a day. When I watch movies about the last person left alive in some post-apocalyptic scenario. At these times I realize just how little I know. I’ve occasionally been privileged to drive a boat—something I have no business doing—by those who trust my judgment more than I do. Even out on a wide lake the world seems out of control. We need a captain who will stay with the ship. And when all of this is over, whose name will be remembered? Is it the eleven (maybe more) who died? No, it will be Captain Francesco Schettino, the man who refused to go down with his ship.