Oh, and there we were, all in one place
A generation lost in space
With no time left to start again
So come on, Jack, be nimble, Jack be quick
Jack Flash sat on a candlestick
'Cause fire is the devils only friend
Oh, and as I watched him on the stage
My hands were clenched in fists of rage
No angel born in Hell
Could break that Satan's spell
And as flames climbed high into the night
To light the sacrificial rite
I saw Satan laughing with delight
The day the music died
He was singing
The first line undoubtedly is about Woodstock music festival (August 15th 1969). The Moon walk in 1969 could play a part in this verse. It could even refer to Irwin Allen's TV show "Lost in Space" which was popular in the U.S in the sixties. This may be a childhood memory of Don's which evokes feelings of the innocence of the space age. This contrasts starkly with the terror of nuclear war mentioned earlier. (Ref: Bob Smith, Fred Robinson, Mark Rushing, Bob Katz)
It also seems to refer to the 'hippie era' where being on drugs is known as 'spaced out'. It was also a time when teenagers seemed alienated from their parents, and disillusioned by the government spending too much money on the space race & Vietnam war instead of solving domestic poverty & social inequities. Cynics even said JFK conceived of the race to the moon to deflect attention from the aborted Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba & Johnson / Nixon continued emphasis on space exploration to instill national pride during the costly & ultimately unsuccessful Vietnam war. The "Generation lost in space" could be those who ignored messages of folk songs of 50s & 60s and dwelled on the spectacle of space exploration rather than solving problems on earth (Ref: Bob Katz)
This generation was called the 'lost generation' The reference to time could be about all the time people spent on drugs, and not living in the 'real world.' However it could also refer to the destruction of the environment and being unable to put it right. Its also been suggested that it could refer to the soldiers generation lost in Vietnam.
"Jack be nimble Jack be quick" may refer to President Kennedy having to use quick diplomacy during the Cuban missile crisis to avert a nuclear war. "Fire is the devils only friend" may be mocking the communists belligerence. (Ref: Asad Jaleel) That said the rest of the verse doesn't really fit. Perhaps Don is once again using double meaning i.e. Cuban missile crisis & the Stones concert.
Jack could be a reference to Mick Jagger (The Rolling Stones) and comes from their song 'Jumpin Jack Flash.' (1968) The Stones, like The Beatles played a number of concerts at Candlestick park ("sat on a candlestick") however it appears, these were 1981 & onwards, after American Pie was written.
Jack Flash is also a term used for the drug Heroin. Fire could also refer to drugs meaning that they are an evil substance. It has been suggested to me that "Fire is the devil's only friend", can also be a reference to The Grateful Dead, because they suggested that Hell's Angels be used for security. (see interpretation of next verse) (George Hartranft, USA)
A detective who works on drugs cases told me that the term "Jack Flash sat on a candlestick" is commonly used to describe the method by which heroin is prepared for consumption. Heroin is usually left cooking on a fire on top of a spoon. Many heroin users use that term to describe the preparation of such drug. This would certainly fit with the rest of the verse.
It has also been suggested that "Jack Flash sat on a candlestick" may refer to the Apollo 1 spacecraft catching fire on the launch pad. "Jack Flash" having been used as a generic astronaut term as in Flash Gordon. (Ref: Thom West, JK)
Could "My hands were clenched in fists of rage" be Don McLean himself at The Stones Altamont concert?
This is about the 'Hell's Angels who worked as security at The Stones concert at Altamont Speedway in December 1969. In the darkness near to the front of the stage where The Stones were playing, the 'Hell's Angels' beat and stabbed a man called Meredith Hunter to death. He was killed during the singing of 'Sympathy for the Devil,' ("satan's spell") which Jagger, at the time, said they would never perform again. Due to McLean's religious grounding, he may have disapproved of The Stones and their songs about the devil. (' Satanic Majesties' Request' & 'Sympathy for the Devil')
The flames could be the bonfires around where the concert was, and Meredith being seen as a sacrifice. Satan therefore appears to be Jagger, as he was prancing about on stage while Meredith was being beaten.
"Rite" is a form of ritual. (Ref: Fred Robinson) This may imply that Hunter's murder was a ritualistic killing or sacrifice.
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