About the Songwriter

 

Verse 4, continued

Now the half-time air was sweet perfume
While Sergeants played a marching tune

Considered the high point of the sixties Counterculture movement, the brief Summer of Love, spanning the spring and summer of 1967, was viewed by many as the flowering of the movement—the “sweet perfume;” this year also more or less marks the midpoint (the “half-time air”) of the sixties cultural revolution that gained momentum around 1964 and started winding down around 1970 (at least from McLean's perspective in 1971; strictly speaking, the radical sixties sputtered on into 1975). “Sweet perfume” would then obviously have another meaning too, as the “half-time air” was ripe with marijuana. Only a few months before, the Beatles had released arguably their best album, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, which became the defining musical statement for the Summer of Love, and figuratively the “marching tune” of the Counterculture. But the “marching band” also holds a double meaning, as the “Sergeants”—both civilian and military—can be viewed as figuratively waiting in the wings, playing their own "marching tune" in preparation for the rising tide of the youth culture’s rebellion.

We all got up to dance
But we never got the chance

During the brief moment of youth culture harmony that was the Summer of Love, it may well have appeared to the narrator that a different kind of innocence had come along to replace the sort he had grown up with; getting up to dance would then be symbolic of embracing the current euphoria as a kind of throwback to the happier world he once knew. But as events in the coming months were to turn violent, he would not get the chance to dance to this new music. Rock music itself had also by now moved beyond its original dance-based roots towards more experimental and drug related influences—and in stark contrast to the simpler rock ‘n’ roll of the 1950s.

'Cause the players tried to take the field
The marching band refused to yield

As the radical youth culture players began attempting to wrestle civil authority away from the civil authorities (taking the field), they moved away from the peaceful, symbolic tone of the Summer of Love towards the confrontational violence that began with the anti-draft protests in Oakland, California later that fall. The “marching band” now becomes more clearly symbolic of the civil authorities, as the militia—the police in particular—pushed back, and pushed hard: the marching band refusing to yield. But if we are to keep the music as the metaphor of change, what could then be said here too is that the Beatles—a formidable musical force to be reckoned with by now—have at this moment in time supplanted Dylan as spokesmen for their generation, and in so doing gain the field advantage—the marching band refusing to yield. And as the Counterculture is represented by The Beatles in the song, it too briefly gains the high ground, their influence on American culture growing significantly at this time. Which brings us to:

 


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