There he learned the wondrous legends from the Dawn Time of Cybernetics: of Babbage, Turing, and Hopper. There he witnessed the original Mark II and its famous moth. There he wrote his famous song, "Vincent", about the popular starfield screen saver (which he erroneously believed was invented by J. Vincent Atanasoff).
There, too, he became acquainted with a teenage prodigy with whom he shared some classes; a boy whom McLean would later characterize as "Satan", who would seize control of the entire world's cybernetic industry. That boy was the young Bill Gates.
McLean, spiritually chilled by his encounters with the ruthless Gates, experienced an uncannily accurate prophetic vision a la Nostradamus and wrote a song, "American Pi" (frequently misspelled "Pie"), reminiscing about the Golden Age of Computing, its contentious present (in 1969) and its apocalyptic future.
Woven into the vision are observations and commentaries on such varied subjects as Kurt Cobain, James Joyce and General Motors. The following is an interpretation of the cryptic lyrics of this enigmatic song.
A long, long time ago...
Computing can be said to have originated with Stonehenge or earlier; but remember, McLean here is speaking from a prophetic dream. "A long, long time ago" is in fact the era before 1969, the year that the Internet, the modern Operating System and "American Pi" itself were born.
I can still remember how
McLean was eventually unsuccessful in his pursuit to safeguard copyrights of musical material from computer duplication. Ironically, his efforts at Harvard in the 60's and 70's may have inspired Gates to formulate a method of compromising these copyrights.
That music used to make me smile.
And I knew if I had my chance,
That I could make those people dance,
And maybe they'd be happy for a while.
But February made me shiver,
February, 1975 marked the delivery of BASIC to Altair Systems, the first step on the road to World Domination for Bill Gates and Microsoft.
With every paper I'd deliver,
Bad news on the doorstep...
I couldn't take one more step.
I can't remember if I cried
A clever play-on-words. The "wi(n)dowed bride", is, of course, the IBM PC. IBM's founder, Thomas J. Watson, died suddenly in 1943 when he was crushed by one of the world's five PCs (which at the time weighed 1.5 tons).
When I read about his widowed bride
But something touched me deep inside,
UNIX time calculations are valid on most processors (i.e., those which store the variable time_val as a 32-bit signed integer) for 2^31 - 1 seconds past 00:00:00 GMT, 1 January 1970 (which coincidently was the moment that "American Pi" was sent to the publisher), or until 03:14:07 GMT, 8 July 2038, when the UNIX time registers will overflow. July 8, 2038, we shall see, will be thought of by future generations as the Day the Music Died.
The day the music died.
So bye bye Miss American Pi,
McLean here decries the strict syntactical rules enforced by the spellchecker in Microsoft Word. Random arrangements of characters, or "Pi", would never be allowed by automatic spellcheckers and would be replaced by similar but inappropriate legal words. (As an example, "goan" would be replaced by "goad", and "frig" by "fig"; James Joyce would never have been a great author had he used Microsoft Word.)
Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry.
A sly chuckle aimed at software used in General Motors (and other manufacturer's) automobiles; even the slightest moisture can destroy the car's computer and render the vehicle worthless. McLean is willing to risk driving his car near the levee, but only because the levee is dry.
Them good ol' boys were drinkin whiskey in Rye
Ryebrook, NY, is where a group of top-level IT executives gathered (no doubt with copious amounts of fine adult beverages) to decide the format of Windows 95 and therefore the hierarchy of the Net for the next ten thousand years.
Singing "This'll be the day that I die,
When the time registers overflow on 8 July 2038, all UNIX-based processes will die. (I don't know about you, but I'm sure not going to be wearing a UNIX-controlled pacemaker then!)
This'll be the day that I die."
Did you write the book of love,
A reference to Waite Group Press, publishers of both the Microsoft/Windows Bibles and Love Bytes, paeans to the slavish adoration which they pay towards their deity, Bill Gates.
And do you have faith in God above,
If the Bible tells you so?
Now do you believe in rock 'n roll?
You don't know what slow dancing is until you try to play your Manhattan Transfer .wav's on a 386SX running Windows.
Can music save your mortal soul?
And can you teach me how to dance real slow?
Well I know you're in love with him
...i.e., they're down to their (Win)Socks.
'Cause I saw you dancing in the gym
You both kicked off your shoes
Man, I dig those rhythm 'n' blues
Carnation, WA is the site of Gates' soon-to-be-completed pink stucco Xanadu. By a cryptic coincidence, it is also the last resting place of that human bucking bronco, Bruce Lee and the place where Kurt Cobain "shot up" just before driving off in his light utility vehicle ("pickup truck") to commit suicide.
I was a lonely teenage broncin' buck
With a pink carnation and a pickup truck
But I knew that I was out of luck
In 1980...or by the AT&T calendar, 10 UE (Unix Epoch)...IBM bypassed UNIX, turned to Microsoft for its operating system, and the age of the PC dawned. From 1970-1980, UNIX was "on its own" with a virtual monopoly on the OS market.
The day the music died
I started singing...
Now for ten years we've been on our own
And MOS grows FAT on a rolling stone
There are several interpretations of this mysterious statement. The Microsoft OS (MOS), Windows, has "grown fat" consistently in terms of market share since 1980, thanks largely to biased comparisons with other OS's using such benchmarks as whetstones and Dhrystones. However, as McLean is cynically suggesting, people who live in glass houses (i.e. with lots of Windows) shouldn't throw stones, or even roll them fast.
On the other hand, Ken Wright (email@example.com) points out that MS-DOS 2 imposed a File Allocation Table (or FAT) structure onto hard disks. The FAT structure was designed for floppies of only 360K or less, and of course the early hard drives, which weighed around 14 pounds (or, in British usage, a stone). The FAT, after installation of Windows, would certainly be overwhelming.
Conversely, Rolling Stones have gotten fat on MOS; see below.
The following passage is a hazy rendition of McLean's vision, told in the past tense, in a manner similar to Dante's Divine Comedy. Frequent references are made to the "King", the "Jester" and "Satan". The King, as we shall see, is (or was) AT&T; the Jester is Apple/Steve Jobs (remember, Apple was founded on April Fool's Day), and Satan is, of course, Bill Gates.
But that's not how it used to be
Steve Jobs cut his teeth on the "blue box", a device which "sang" the 2600Hz tone which allowed him to rip off AT&T for thousands in long distance calls.
When the jester sang for the King and Queen
In a coat he borrowed from James Dean
The image Apple projected in the Macintosh ad campaign was an odd hybrid of a denim-clad, outlaw-like Rebel Without a Cause and a typical, computer-illiterate Everyman.
And a voice that came from you and me
Oh, and while the King was looking down
AT&T suffered from a number of investigations and corporate scandals in the 70's, leading eventually to divestiture in 1983.
The jester stole his thorny crown
Before Microsoft, Jobs and Apple were the only challenge to AT&T's market lock.
The courtroom was adjourned,
This is a reference to the legal hemming and hawing leading to the Sporkin Opinion.
No verdict was returned.
And while Lenin read a book on Marks,
Following the tragedy at the V. I. Lenin Reactor at Chernobyl, U.S. technology firms (including Microsoft) scrambled to introduce their products into the former Soviet market. Even Netscape has tried to market Mozilla Web servers in Russia, including with each package a list of suggested Book-marks.
The quartet practiced in the PARC
The "quartet" consists of Gates, Paul Allen, Jobs and Steve Wozniak. (Actually, a pair of duos, if you think about it.) Michael Haynes (firstname.lastname@example.org) spotted the reference to the Xerox/PARC facility which developed a pre-MS Windows/pre MacOS windowing operating system.
And we sang dirges in the dark
Microsoft has made a headlong rush to release Windows 95 by its summer deadline, even though 32-bit compatibility is absent, making the product useless.
The day the music died.
We were singing...
Helter Skelter in a summer swelter
The birds flew off with the fallout shelter
Refers to the UNIX editor EMACS (Eight megs and constantly swapping). The relevancy is to the constantly changing operating system background of UNIX, missing in all MS products except for NT. This causes MS products to fall from grace in the eyes of most EMACS users. (a.crl.com@A.crl.com (trohling) (hmm...))
Eight miles high and falling fast
It landed foul on the grass
Of course, Microsoft is not alone in its inability to be fully compatible with UNIX usages, such as casts. McLean shows here the frustration of trying to pass arguments using a Mac C++ compiler, and winding up throwing past the sidelines.
The players tried for a forward pass
With the jester on the sidelines in a cast
Now the halftime heir was sweet perfume
What with technological advances, it is estimated that the time it takes a microprocessor to execute an instruction halves every 18 months. Yet technological "advances" at Microsoft involve increases in execution time and memory usage! Something smells here, and it ain't Chanel No. 5.
One contributor also notes the astonishingly accurate prediction of the birth of the Microsoft heir to Gates in the mid-point of his life, a development which must smell sweet to him...until it comes time to change diapers. Of course, this assumes Gates will provide reliable product support.
While sergeants played a marching tune
Let's not forget who started us marching down the ol' Internet road. One hint: check their domain.
We all got up to dance
Between them, Microsoft/UUNET and Apple/AOL are just a few yards short of putting the Net Ownership game in the bag.
Oh, but we never got the chance
'Cause the players tried to take the field,
The marching band refused to yield.
Do you recall what was revealed,
The day the music died?
We started singing
And there we were all in one place
McLean has clearly experienced the futility of trying to use a Memory Manager with Windows, then being unable to save his thesis document generated in MicroSoft Word after running out of storage.
A generation lost in space
With no time left to start again
So come on Jack be nimble Jack be quick
Mick Jagger should catch a lot of heat for selling (for $12 million) the rights to "Start Me Up" to Microsoft for the Windows 95 promo campaign. But then what can you expect from the man responsible for the AOL Interview Fiasco?
Jack Flash sat on a candlestick
'Cause fire is the devil's only friend
And as I watched him on the stage
Who could not feel rage at watching Gates' theatrical presentation at the official unveiling of Windows 95, complete with a 3-d virtual simulation of none other than Jay Leno, whom Aaron Barnhart called part of a "match made in hell"?
My hands were clenched in fists of rage
No angel born in hell
Could break that satan's spell
and as the flames climbed high into the night
One contributor perceived the horrific message implied in these lines. MacWrite (later Claris Write), the original Mac word processor, was "sacrificed" to the market dominance of Microsoft Word. Naturally, highly negative responses ("flames") from Mac users only served to whet Bill's determination to take over not simply the IBM world, but Macintosh as well.
To light the sacrificial Write
I saw satan laughing with delight
The song concludes with a touching lament about the rise, decline and fall of the vast CyberWasteland which is USENET.
The day the music died
He was singing...
I met a girl who sang the blues
And I asked her for some happy news
McLean and Gates were at Harvard at about the same time as Kibo.
But she just smiled and turned away
A touching complaint about McLean's frustrated attempts to play the .au's he downloaded from alt.binaries.sounds.music with the Off-the-Shelf software he bought from Microsoft.
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
And in the streets the children screamed
Over twenty years ahead of its time, an uncannily accurate description of talk.bizarre.
The lovers cried and the poets dreamed
but not a word was spoken
Alert reader Tim Legg observes that this line could be describing a puzzling characteristic of the PC-XT's made in the early 1980s, where the ASCII bell was almost a two second beep. The ASCII bell character on these XTs was the character 04H. But on Pentiums, the ASCII bell is a nearly inaudible click. One could say that the bells are broken since someone didn't calculate for the higher processor speed of a Pentium over an XT.
The church Bells all were broken
Another interpretation is that AT&T's (Bell's) UNIX monopoly was broken with the IBM adoption of Microsoft's OS. (Another, far more sinister interpretation is that McLean, anticipating the posts on alt.2600, has broken AT&T's RSA key!)
And the three men I admire most
David Lawrence,Gene Spafford and Ron "Asbestos" Dippold. What a sad vision. McLean is implying that, in the future, even the three most steadfast rocks of USENET may be co-opted by Gates' empire.
The Father Son and Holy Ghost
They caught the last train for the coast
The day the music died
(Oh yes, and if you spell out words with the chord structure, it reads:)
and they were singing...
WILLIAM GATES III IS SATAN KILL YOUR PARENTS!
The original appeared here
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