Jon Reed Goes Off On... June 2007
Tuesday, June, 19 2007
Don McClean Sells a Big Slice of American Pie
Don McClean has always been a sourpuss overshadowed by a few of his own iconic songs. When it comes to the sale of “American Pie” to Chevy, the question for McClean is not so much why as “Why did it take you so long?” McClean has always come off as bitterly cynical about the power of the music he recorded. Perhaps the passing nature of his fame made him realize that for every fan who saw his songs as treasures, ten more saw them as fast food and littered the remnants on his front lawn, inconveniencing his privacy.
I’ll never forget going to see Don McClean live at an outdoor festival in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1986. It was the kind of festival where you have to play “all the great hits” because at that point you have been reduced to a Spinal Tap circus attraction. Bands who love their fans have no shame about this: not long ago I saw Cheap Trick play a kickass show to a small group of loyalists not far from my apartment. But playing to “hot dog and popcorn” festival fans irritated McClean to no end. He responded with contempt, playing a hit-free set and petulantly refusing to play “American Pie” even though that song was the only reason 90 percent of the people were there. Instead of reworking the song in a way that would have been acceptably fresh for him to play, McClean just refused: no, the audience that had once supported his lifestyle was not worthy of hearing a song that, unlike the others in his set, actually meant something, or at least sounded familiar.
“American Pie” was larger than life, perhaps the greatest expression of that elusive loss of national innocence that occurred sometime between the Buddy Holly fifties and the Vietnam War. Perhaps McClean was right to pinpoint the death of Buddy Holly as the harbinger of that loss. The wacky lyrical comparisons of the Stones to Satan’s messengers were a little much, but you could spend hours poring over that song and come away with something new each time. So McClean captured the idealism and lost hopes of a generation in a musical epic that was ready made...for Chevy? Turns out that the most important part of this song was not loss of innocence but taking the Chevy to the levee, a savvy premonition of a future endorsement opportunity.
One day Don would refuse to play this song for fans who yearned to understand it fully, but he would have no such hesitation selling it to Chevy. The song was already gutted by the ultimate wet noodle cover attempt by Madonna channeling Sheryl Crow - now a highway of Chevrolets drives the crumbs of “American Pie” into the footnotes of music history. But Don has every right to exchange a cultural moment for a moment in his wallet - as long as he remembers that you don’t get to bring that particular receipt back. Music is dead, the levee was more than likely leveled to make room for a casino, and Don McClean is for sale.
Wednesday, June, 06 2007
Don't Muzzle Yourself, Educate Yourself
Recently Clinton Portis made some unfortunate comments about dogfighting. But what was more unfortunate was the lesson he supposedly learned from running his mouth. For those who missed it, Portis was asked about Michael Vick and the dogfighting allegations, and he responded with some unflattering quotes that at worst reflected an indifference to the suffering of animals, and at best indicated that Portis doesn’t know what a felony is. Basically, Portis backed up Vick with the good old “anything goes inside the privacy of a man’s home” defense. Of course, there’s one small problem with that. Felonies tend to rub the cops the wrong way, whether or not you are chilling at the crib. While one of his pals laughed in the background, Portis expressed surprise that such a big deal was made about a pastime that could easily be found down backroads where he was raised.
As someone who finds dogfighting abhorrent, I did have a few issues with Portis’ comments, though I would defend to the hilt his right to express them. But should he be a scapegoat for saying what many athletes (and others) who participate in dogfighting were surely thinking? What I really had a problem with, however, was his apology. After a week went by, and Portis took heat from the commissioner of the NFL, animal rights activists, and maybe even from his own fish collection, he stepped back and said he was sorry. Portis’ apology came down to his newfound appreciation for how strongly some people feel about their pets. Portis, who has never had a pet of his own besides his mutually indifferent fish, gained a different perspective. So what’s the problem? The problem is in his final comment in the apology: “From now on, I don’t comment on nobody...my life is the only thing I can control.”
He’s right about that last part, but as for not commenting on nobody, what Portis is saying is that it takes too much energy for him to educate himself on world issues to the point where he can make intelligent comments that won’t cause a backlash against him. That’s a shame. The problem was not that Portis spoke out - the problem was that he opened his mouth and assumed that what would come out of it would make sense. But all of us have to educate ourselves if we want to sound sensible. So now Portis, like so many other athletes, is going to play it safe. He’s going to be careful not to comment on any issue bigger than a football. That’s too bad. Whether athletes are Republicans or Democrats, hunters or animal rights activists, we need more informed and thoughtful opinions from our millionaires, not less.
Portis is hardly the exception - most pro athletes have taken enough bruises from the media to keep their mouths shut. But when mouths close, so does the educational process. Yes, it would have been better if Portis had known something about the issue he was talking about, but it was a good learning experience for him. I give Portis credit for speaking his mind and then for keeping it open when the backlash came.
This process of relearning carries more weight to me than his apology. It’s just too bad his determination not to offend is stronger than his desire to continue to learn. Sure, I get tired of loudmouths like Gary Sheffield, who recently offered one of the most ill-conceived comparisons of black and Latino baseball players since the 1950s. But I’d rather have a loudmouth than an athlete who keeps their mouth shut because they are sweating their endorsement value or don’t want to offend somebody’s mother. Of course, an athlete with intellectual curiosity and strong convictions would be even better, but that’s probably too much to hope for. I guess we’re going to have to settle for bland jocks who keep their sheltered, myopic ideas to themselves.