The lyrics for this iconic but enigmatic song were sold at auction the other day, reaching a price of $US1.2 million. In the 18 pages of scribblings the purchaser discovered a verse had been deleted from the recorded version.
The singer’s comment in the auction catalogue was no help for fans seeking to confirm the identities of the king, the jester or whether McLean saw Mick Jagger as the Devil. He declared that “this song was not a parlour game” but “an indescribable photograph of America that I tried to capture in words and music”.
The missing verse suggests a political or social or religious theme, and perhaps this was something intended to thread through the whole song. In the excluded verse, McLean described God resurrecting music, apparently with a four-piece band that most will assume is the Beatles.
“And there I stood alone and afraid/ I dropped to my knees and there I prayed/ And I promised him everything I could give/ If only he would make the music live/ And he promised it would live once more/ But this time one would equal four/ And in five years four had come to mourn/ And the music was reborn.”
The published song is thought to contain several references to the Beatles such as “the quartet practised in the park” and “sergeants played a marching tune”.
The early draft makes a more explicit reference to the Rolling Stones by rhyming their song title Gimme Shelter with Helter Skelter, a Beatles song. The line later became “Helter skelter in a summer swelter”. The Beatles’ title became associated with a deranged murder while Gimme Shelter was linked to violence at the Altamont Free Concert, where the Rolling Stones continued to play after a crowd member was killed by a member of the Hell’s Angels motorcycle group.
McLean apparently refers to Altamont when he describes how “no angel born in hell/ Could break that Satan’s spell”, prompting speculation that he regarded Jagger as living up to his satanic persona in Sympathy for the Devil.