Worst Song I Ever Wrote: The Time Hand Habits Tried to Rewrite “American Pie”

Meg Duffy on their thwarted efforts to modernize the Don McLean epic.

A couple months ago I was in therapy, and my therapist had me doing a visualization exercise in order to reprocess and heal some old wounds. I can’t remember how it came up, but I was telling her about a memory I kept having about the first time I could remember music making me feel emotional in an intense way. I described the memory in detail to her. 

I was in the car with an adult caretaker and his friend when I was about 6 or 7 years old. Too young to be inside of a bar late at night, but old enough to wait in the locked car, in the backseat alone while they knocked a few back before bringing the kid home. I remembered falling asleep on the pleather and my cheeks sticking to it like fly paper, the sound of my skin moving on the seat reminding me of those sticky hands you can get from a gumball machine for a quarter that always ended up covered in cat hair and lint and would lose their stickiness fast, but somehow still managed to stain the passenger side window if you pressed the green tiny stretchy hand against it. This specific car I was in was a white Chevy blazer that smelled faintly like cigarettes and stale black coffee — a smell that used to make me nauseous, but now I find incredibly comforting and familiar.

I was describing to my therapist the feeling of being afraid, but I was already used to a scene like this — half asleep on the bench seat with the neon lights glowing red and blue through the window of the bar, ears alert for familiar footsteps from every person who walked outside. Eventually these adults in charge of me for the night  came out of the establishment and it was time to take me home. (Don’t worry, I turned out pretty OK and, as I mentioned, I’m in therapy.) I sat in the middle and one of them turned on the radio as we pulled away from the parking space. I remember the yellow golden light that blanketed the streets on this side of town, and how they were different from the cooler, newer lights near where we lived over the river. The voice of Don McLean was coming through the tiny speakers; nobody in the car was talking in this memory, just the song playing. I remember being groggy but, suddenly, my ears transfixed on the sound of this man’s voice telling a story about the day that the music died. I felt this rush of fear and confusion and heat of sadness in my chest, and as I teared up quickly I asked these adults why the music died, and what did that mean, and is it normal to be crying over a song?

I know that this memory and this specific set of emotions and the context (as my therapist suggested) are unique to me as a child in such circumstances. But now as an adult, when I think about that song I’m met with this eerie feeling of synchronicity and meaning, mixed with compassion for my younger self — a child reacting subconsciously to the lyrics about drinking and driving and mortality, grasping at grief over the loss of my mother when I was 4, but at 6 or 7 still too young to process or comprehend that music can deeply touch and reach people in their isolation and loneliness and fear. 

Occasionally, outside of the context of psychoanalysis, I will dive deep into memories such as this one to search for jumping points for a story or a song. I change up characters, exaggerate a lot of the details, push emotions into directions that feel more extreme than they do in my memory to add to the potency of a lyric. During this specific memory dive, I had what I thought was a great idea (and still kind of do, if I’m being honest): to write a continuation of the Don McLean song “American Pie.” I’d reference modern day musicians’ lyrics, personal tragedies and losses, political commentary on what the arrival of the millennium has done to us, and other various injustices, all the while somehow incorporating my own experience of hearing this music, as a confused child being affected for the first time by the power of a song. It would be about how music is not dead and has never died and, in fact, is very much more alive than ever! I would reference specific scandals — about which journalists would argue over which indie darling a limerick, almost nursery-rhyme-sounding line was about, weaving together the collective traumatic experiences I’ve been a part of. I’d somehow poetically reference Y2K, and wrap it all together with a sing-a-long that would illicit equal feelings of annoyance and nostalgia. 

I must admit, I hope to achieve and maintain some thread of the inspiration I felt when I initially had this idea, but since explaining it to a few friends — and considering the few unsuccessful attempts I’ve made — I’ve talked myself down from my rose-colored-glasses perspective of this being a good idea for a song. Why do we need another “American Pie”? That song is, like, over eight minutes long, and half of it sounds like nonsense. And realistically I don’t think I am up to the task of addressing over 30 years of history, nor do I feel confident in the poetic leaps it would take to gracefully deliver such a piece. The more and more I think about the idea for the song, the bigger the task feels. Too much room for heavy-handed rhyme schemes and references to parts of the internet we all would rather forget. 

(Photo Credit: left, Jacob Boll)

Meg Duffy grew up in a small town in Upstate New York and they cut their teeth as a session guitarist and touring member of Kevin Morby’s band. The Hand Habits project emerged after Meg moved to Los Angeles; it started as a private songwriting outlet but soon evolved into a fully-fledged band with Meg at the helm.

Hand Habits has released two albums, Wildly Idle (2017) and placeholder (2019). With producer Joel Ford, they’ve released a self-titled album as the duo yes/and, via Driftless Recordings.