A wistful resignation falls over the scene, as the narrator walks among the ruins of his generation, searching for any signs of the world he once knew. And to the numbed surprise of the flower children all was not well either, as their enormous hopes for a Good Society and an American culture of transcendent values had by now begun to seem like so much smoke. Their idealism shattered, what is left in its wake is something of a wasteland, as their illusions fade under the specter of their indifference at Altamont.
• • •
I met a girl who sang the blues
And I asked her for some happy news
But she just smiled and turned away
A cynical figure, who when asked for any “happy news”—any return to the innocence and stability of an earlier time—can only smile knowingly and walk away. This is most likely the rock ‘n’ roll blues singer Janis Joplin, whose death in 1970 of a heroin overdose seemed to reinforce—along with the drug overdose deaths of rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix a few months earlier and The Doors’ Jim Morrison a few months later—the failures of the movement. The requested “happy news” also echoes the “maybe they’d be happy for awhile” music of the first verse, bookending the song.
I went down to the sacred store
Where I’d heard the music years before
But the man there said the music wouldn’t play
The sacred store would be a record store, following on the religious/musical metaphor established in verse two. But the music of years before would no longer play: literally, the music stores that had once provided listening booths for their customers were by this time no longer offering this service. But even more than this, the cynicism of this generation had annihilated the innocent world the narrator had grown up in; that kind of music wouldn’t play anymore. He can’t go home again.
And in the streets the children screamed
The lovers cried and the poets dreamed
But not a word was spoken
The church bells all were broken
Beyond all the noise and violence of this tumultuous era, the America that survives this decade is not the America we knew a scant 10 years earlier. With so many of the assumptions of that older order undermined, little familiar remained to believe in, and our once buoyant faith in American culture appeared irrevocably lost. The old religion was dead: the church bells all were broken.
And the three men I admire most
They caught the last train for the coast
These three enigmatic figures resonate strongly with this period, and carry more than one association—the most obvious being the three performers (Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper) who died in an Iowa cornfield that fateful day in 1959. They could also be symbolic of the three political assassinations of the 1960s—John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King—whose violent deaths shook the foundations of American optimism and naiveté during these years. But given that the “Father, Son and the Holy Ghost” seem to be alive and well and living in the present tense of this verse (1970), we might look elsewhere to identify them. In a quote from a January, 1972 Life magazine article, Don McLean—speaking of Buddy Holly—gives us a better clue to the identity of this trio: “He was a symbol of something deeper than the music he made. His career and the sort of group he created, the interaction between the lead singer and the three men [italics mine] backing him up, was a perfect metaphor for the music of the 60s and for my own youth.” So these three men could also be the Crickets, representing the surviving remnants of Holly’s enthusiastic spirit, and by association symbolic of the happier optimism of their time.
But these religious figures hold an even greater symbolic importance: in the wake of this decade’s disillusioning cynicism and fragmentation, the “Father, Son and the Holy Ghost” represent a faith in America that had once permeated American life, and that—hope against hope—might still redeem the disorder that had befallen us. But the holy trinity, finding no sympathetic hearing and resigning themselves to the inevitable (having held out for “the last train”), pack up their bags and retire to the coast: the believers had lost faith in their gods, and the gods can only retreat.
And they were singin’…