Memoir Mixtapes Vol.1 / Track 29

The Way that Kindness Died: An Updated “American Pie” by Gavin Lakin

The man there said the music wouldn’t play.

Eleven years old, in the sweat and smog of the San Fernando Valley, I learned about the day the music died. Actually, it was my understanding from listening to 93 KHJ that rock music was alive and well. James Taylor was singing “You’ve Got a Friend.” Tapestry, Carole King’s living room album brilliantly produced by Lou Adler was changing the world. With cinnamon bun sugar sticking to our acne-filled faces, as we played triangle-shaped paper football at the lunch tables, Don McLean’s epic lyrical tale resounded over the school’s speakers. Meaning flew over my head like the daily seagulls that swarmed in for scraps. Understanding its many verses wasn’t necessarily the point (or even possible); “American Pie” captured something about my country, about being human, about innocence lost. I may have been a kid, but I was able to innately feel he was speaking for us all.

They took the last train to the coast had a finality to it. My life was ahead of me. This juxtaposition of a much more tranquil and civil American society with an emerging transition toward random violence, abuse and addiction, self-help, and an unwinnable war set the rather shaky foundation upon which I would stand and journey on toward what awaited me. I hoped Satan, jesters and holy ghosts would step aside.

Flash forward to 2015, when James Morgan, BBC correspondent wrote on the topic of the lyrics of Don McLean’s 1971 song, his best-known work that was named Song of the Century by the Recording Industry Association of America in 2001. Citing Jim Fann, author of Understanding American Pie, the line “The man there said the music wouldn’t play” speaks directly to the ’cynicism of this generation had annihilated the innocent world the narrator had grown up in.’ That kind of music simply wouldn’t play anymore.”

For nearly fifty years since Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens died tragically on that chilly February night in an Iowa cornfield, until the original handwritten lyrics were auctioned in New York, McLean kept the song’s meaning close to his vest: “I wanted to capture, probably before it was ever formulated, a rock and roll American dream.” However, he gave us all some answers after its sale: “Basically in ’American Pie’ things are heading in the wrong direction . . . It [life] is becoming less idyllic. I don’t know whether you consider that wrong or right but it is a morality song in a sense.” Historians would likely concur.

Our sparkling democracy; the beacon for the world, right? Well, let’s have a look. Civil War? Indian Wars? Ft. Laramie Treaty (Government promises to Native Americans completely disregarded)? Chinese Exclusion Act? Executive Order 9066 (Japanese-American Internment during WWII)? Initiating the Atomic Age? Jim Crow? HUAC? Vietnam War? Watergate? Please, tell me when to stop. Egregiously poor decisions and misguided leadership, with puppeteers pulling the strings all in the Herculean effort that the rich remain rich through monopolies. And the rest of us? Not their problem. Keep the disenfranchised down where they belong. In fact, while captains of industry are at it, go ahead and create more divisiveness through manipulating the economy, employment, technology and obliterating the pride once omnipresent on products marked Made in USA.

2017 has been the most vitriolic, violent, persistently disturbing and fear-inducing human fault line on record during the modern era. The fissures, cracks, rifts, the palpable divisiveness amongst our fellow countrymen and women exceeds—in cruelty and impulsive action—anything America has ever experienced. Including the above atrocities.

Perhaps Americans have lost what being exceptional means. Or conversely and quite the intriguing point, as Salmon Rushdie commented on Bill Maher’s program a few weeks back, when was America ever great? And how do we define great? For it will not be government or leaders that will save us, or technology gurus and demigods, or even futurists with visionary acumen; it will be the impact of the arts across the genres. Music, with its universal language. Film, where two hours can unite us. When we aren’t binge watching, television can be an event that grasps the nation’s attention. Visual arts such as photography, art, performance art, even flash mobs, if even more a few moments of one’s day, derailing us from our inner white noise. Theatre, with its “in the moment” realism, constantly expressing the human condition.

Dance, its own communication that reaches deep into the soul. Sharing with others in your book group your takeaways from a novel, accessing our emotion in a way that only the written word can.

Kindness is endemic. With a nudge, it can become the most necessary pandemic this planet has needed. It isn’t about “random acts.” That’s a catchphrase. It’s about a cultural commitment. I am not claiming to have the answers. There are literally hundreds of books, articles, research in journals all identifying this downturn of society and approaches to recapture it—only this time, we must embed it into our very sociological foundation.

Dacher Keltner, from his book Born to be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life, has plenty to say on the subject:

“This kind of science gives me many hopes for the future. At the broadest level, I hope that our culture shifts from a consumption-based, materialist culture to one that privileges the social joys (play, caring, touch, mirth) that are our older (in the evolutionary sense) sources of the good life. In more specific terms, I see this new science informing practices in almost every realm of life. Here again are some well-founded examples.

“Medical doctors are now receiving training in the tools of compassion—empathetic listening, warm touch—that almost certainly improve basic health outcomes. Teachers now regularly teach the tools of empathy and respect. Executives are learning the wisdom around the country of emotional intelligence—respect, building trust—that there is more to a company’s thriving than profit or the bottom line. In prisons and juvenile detention centers, meditation is being taught.”

In that spirit, if I could write to Don McLean, the nerdy eleven-year-old in me would offer up a science lesson:

Dear Don McLean,

Let me inform you about the vagus nerve. When active, located at the top of the spinal cord, it is likely to produce a feeling of warm expansion in the chest, as when we are moved by someone’s goodness or when we appreciate a beautiful piece of music. Though I have humbly rewritten your iconic song lyric, with its implied tone of “loss” and “death” so to speak, I am eternally optimistic that our scientific nature is very much alive and won’t be seeing “Satan laughing with delight” but, in the end, our better selves “will catch the last train to the coast.”

Sincerely,
Gavin Lakin

The Way that Kindness Died

Not so many years ago
I wasn’t much more than a child
I said “please” at every chance
“Thank you” in each circumstance
This was just the fashion, just the style

But then there came the red lights flashing
Answering machines amassing
Six rings and you’d listen
I noticed something missing

I felt a rift was growing wide
Just the slightest shift inside
It felt as if a best friend lied
The way that kindness died

So why, why did America buy
Dreamy twilight, iron pyrite when the pyrite was dry?
And the good ole folks turned the latchkey and why?
Thinkin’ this would be their day in the sky
This would be their day in the sky

Did you look out for #1?
And did you scream when all was done
Did the movement make you grow?
Can you believe LPs were tossed?
Replaced by tape and tangled gloss?
And not long after came the video

Well, I know the puppets loved the din
As the disco balls would spin
The twenty rolls and booze
Man, it was hard to refuse

I was a friendly teenage naïve pup
People, I would lift ’em up
But I could sense the turning tide
The way that kindness died

So why, why did America buy
Dreamy twilight, iron pyrite when the pyrite was dry?
And the good ole folks turned the latchkey and why?
Thinkin’ this would be their day in the sky
This would be their day in the sky

Then some eight years trickled down
An actor wore his Bonzo crown
And we were rapt by MTV
I felt it start to slip away
True enough, Spandau Ballet
And big hair, shoulder pads and the CD

Meanwhile out in Northern Cal
A microscopic chip, not HAL
All inertia turned
The algorithm learned

And while we went about our days
These Einstein’s and Da Vinci’s played
And demarcated all the ways
The ways that kindness died

So why, why did America buy
Dreamy twilight, iron pyrite when the pyrite was dry?
And the good ole folks turned the latchkey and why?
Thinkin’ this would be their day in the sky
This would be their day in the sky

Shock and awe and oil-melter
One thousand points of light they dealt her
Surgical strategic blasts
Landing in the sand
Pawns racing through the land
The puppets watch from their ivory masts

Now the end game was a dot.com boom
With all of us, the lemmings’ doom
We bought every floppy
And made another copy

Few could see the trap concealed
The rest of us were wheeled-and-dealed
Do you recall how fate was sealed?
The way that kindness died

So why, why did America buy
Dreamy twilight, iron pyrite when the pyrite was dry?
And the good ole folks turned the latchkey and why?
Thinkin’ this would be their day in the sky
This would be their day in the sky

Oh, we clamored Y2K
A thousand years of hell to pay
Not even silicon could save us then
So, come on, Tech be fly, be sick
Rescued us from the tick, tick, tick
’Cause the puppeteers would never bend

The narrative turned back a page
I felt a generation age
No letters in the mail
And caller ID failed

And road rage by the traffic light
Kids gunned down at school in fright
“Have a nice day,” a flat soundbite
The way that kindness died

So why, why did America buy
Dreamy twilight, iron pyrite when the pyrite was dry?
And the good ole folks turned the latchkey and why?
Thinkin’ this would be their day in the sky
This would be their day in the sky

I met a girl who shared her views
Loudly, in the Starbucks queues
On her mobile phone she had her say
Soon the newest slimy trail
Was “Hey, I’ll shoot you an email”
A cup of coffee face-to-face had gone astray

And when the planes flew through the glass
In that moment normal passed
Where all the rules had changed
America’s twilight rearranged

And my trio of admiration
Presence, Care, and Consideration
They caught the last boat to Libation
The way that kindness died

So why, why did America buy
Dreamy twilight, iron pyrite when the pyrite was dry?
And the good ole folks turned the latchkey and why?
Thinkin’ this would be their day in the sky
This would be their day in the sky

So why, why did America buy
Dreamy twilight, iron pyrite when the pyrite was dry?
And the good ole folks turned the latchkey and why?
And thinkin’ this would be their day in the sky.

About the Author:

Gavin Lakin is a writer of fiction and creative non-fiction, most prominently in the areas of historical fiction, pop culture, music, and the mercurial 1970s. His writings, musings and hazy remembrances are featured on his blog spot seventiesology.com. In the capacity of contributing writer, his works have been published and featured at boomercafe.com, a site dedicated to archiving the Baby Boom generation. Gavin has authored a series of novels and is seeking acquisition and representation. With a songwriting background, Gavin is a twenty-five-year published member of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), the Historical Novel Society (HNS), and the American Writers & Artists, Inc. (AWAI). Gavin originated, designed, and manages his online collectibles business Late Blue Highway, with a tagline “we make it our business to remember”. A native Californian, Gavin lives in the San Francisco Bay Area without a dog, which makes him somewhat of an anomaly.

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