Verse 5:

The Devil’s Own

American Pie now reaches its apocalyptic climax, as the Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger takes center stage at the bloody concert held at Altamont Motor Speedway, California, in the fall of 1969. The flower children drew together here once more to re-stoke the communal goodwill of the successful Woodstock Music Festival of a few months earlier; but even as Woodstock was seen as a landmark in the Counterculture movement, Altamont is widely regarded as the event that signaled its demise. Reality steps in.

•   •   •

And there we were all in one place

A generation Lost in Space

With no time left to start again 

The flower children gathered at Altamont 300,000 strong, in a frenzy of drugs, alcohol and escalating violence. Woodstock it was not. The grand experiment losing steam, as the solutions endorsed by the drug culture—” turn on, tune in, drop out”—merely left them “lost in space,” adrift, with no place left to go; with no momentum left to start the revolution over again.

So come on, Jack be nimble, Jack be quick Jack

Jack Flash sat on a candlestick 

Cause fire is the Devil’s only friend

Jack Flash is a reference to the Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger and their songJumpin’ Jack Flash, in which the protagonist nimbly plays with fire to boast of his freedom. Darkness now reigned with The Stones, as evidenced by their albums Beggars Banquet in 1968 and Let It Bleed in 1969—works that embraced a more aggressive nihilism than their previous efforts, and which put them at the forefront of rock’s growing cultural estrangement. This allows McLean to use Jagger as representative of someone freely pushing the social envelope and inciting rebellion—and in direct opposition to the values of a previous era. Given the theme of lost faith that runs through the song—and in this atmosphere of anything goes—it is an easy thing to see him as the Devil; the photograph above by Ethan Russell of Jagger onstage at the concert in a flowing red cape only serves to reinforce this imagery. To quote the Stones, “War, children, it’s just a shot away.”

In the documentary film of the concert—1970’s Gimme Shelter (the title taken from the Stones song of the same name)—two concerned young men in the audience can be seen pleading with Jagger to end the show, which he defiantly refuses to do. By the end of the film Jagger is indicted as the key figure who could have brought the violence to a close by simply leaving the stage and ending the concert; whether this might have incited a riot in itself is difficult to say.

As I watched him on the stage

My hands were clenched with fists of rage

No angel born in hell

Could break that satan’s spell

Watching Gimme Shelter one can see that the audience is spellbound by the Stones (just as many were easily carried along by the youth movement’s promises), and many of them storm the stage throughout the day; the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang (“No angel born in hell”), hired as security for the concert, violently defend the stage, but to little avail. Jagger is used in the song as the catalyst for the anarchy unfolding, both at the concert and symbolically in the youth culture at large.

And as the flames climbed high into the night

To moonlight the sacrificial rite

As a black man in the audience wielding a gun moves towards the stage, Hell’s Angels intercept and stab him to death—the “sacrificial rite.” But the sacrifice being offered here is also the burning down of the remnants of the old social order. The Stones, unaware of what is happening, continue to play. And a song they performed shortly before this event—Sympathy for the Devil—serves to further underscore Jagger’s satanic aura:

Pleased to meet you
Hope you guessed my name, oh yeah
But what’s confusing you
Is just the nature of my gameJust as every cop is a criminal
And all the sinners saints
As heads is tails
Just call me Lucifer
‘Cause I’m in need of some restraint

To most observers, the violence and indifference of the crowd at Altamont spelled the end of the sixties cultural revolution, as author Todd Gitlin, in his book The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (and himself an eyewitness to the concert), cogently describes:

…the effect was to burst the bubble of youth culture’s illusions about itself. The Rolling Stones were scarcely the first countercultural heroes to grant cachet to the Hell’s Angels. We had witnessed the famous collectivity of a generation cracking into thousands of shards. Center stage turned out to be another drug. The suburban fans who blithely blocked one another’s views and turned their backs on the bad-trippers were no cultural revolutionaries. Who could any longer harbor the illusion that these hundreds of thousands of spoiled star-hungry children of the Lonely Crowd were the harbingers of a good society?

I saw Satan laughing with delight

The day the music died.

So Mick Jagger, symbolizing the indifference and self-centeredness of the crowd, is the focal point of the evening’s proceedings, and for the narrator bears responsibility for not preventing—and perhaps even provoking—what occurred there. He also epitomizes a threatening, aggresive rebellion inherent in their music, and of how far removed we were from the more benign, harmonious America of the 1950s. He is the song’s Antichrist, completing the apocalyptic work of tearing down the older, peaceful world that the other musical players of the sixties had figuratively already started. And he is one more blow—the final blow—against the innocence of another era.

The verse that follows finds the narrator walking through the aftermath of the 1960s cultural revolution.