What's the meaning of "American Pie" Verse 5 ("And there we were...")?

The Rolling Stones at Altamont
The Rolling Stones at Altamont. Getty Images

What's the meaning of "American Pie" Verse 5 ("And there we were, all in one place")?

Verse 5 of "American Pie" is the one where singer Don McLean calls Mick Jagger the Devil -- or at least, the one where he picks up Mick's own metaphor for the death of the Sixties utopian dream and runs with it. What if, McLean seems to be saying, it's the mixture of self-righteousness and celebrity worship that killed generational unity, by creating a fantasy that wasn't ready to manifest itself fully?

Who's the "generation lost in space," and is that space outer or inner? 

Oh, and there we were, all in one place

Some say this is a reference to Woodstock, which found an entire generation of Don's age gathered together "in one place" at Yasgur's Farm. Or it could mean Altamont, a notorious generational gathering that ended in violence, as the verses below suggest. Or it could very well refer to both.

A generation lost in space
With no time left to start again

Man had concluded its space race by landing on the moon on July 20, 1969 (three weeks before Woodstock and five months before Altamont). It also references the popular early-Sixties TV show "Lost in Space," a staple among the singer's generation. "No time left to start again" is likely a reference to the lost innocence that is a recurring theme in "American Pie."

So come on, Jack, be nimble, Jack be quick
Jack Flash sat on a candlestick

Refers to the children's nursery rhyme "Jack be Nimble," but the specific call-out of "Jack Flash" can only indicate The Rolling Stones, specifically singer Mick Jagger, who refers to himself as "Jumping Jack Flash" in the song of the same name.

The remaining lyrics in this verse bear out this common interpretation. (As to the candlestick, the best theory available, if you need one, regards the consumption of heroin, which requires that the drug be cooked in a spoon held over a candle or other open flame.)

'Cause fire is the devil's only friend

Some see this as a reference to the Grateful Dead song "Friend of the Devil," although that's almost certainly coincidental. Bear in mind that the Stones also authored the song "Sympathy for the Devil," which figures in the next rhyme.

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

With the Rolling Stones reference in place, and allusions to an angel from Hell, these lyrics can only refer to the infamous concert at Altamont Speedway in December 1969. The Rolling Stones, mistrustful of policemen, hired Hell's Angels bikers as security, a move which resulted in the stabbing death of a concertgoer named Meredith Hunter. The stabbing took place during the Stones' performance of "Sympathy for the Devil." Altamont has long been considered the moment when the Sixties utopian dream of the hippies died.

And as flames climbed high into the night
To light the sacrificial rite
I saw Satan laughing with delight

Hunter being the sacrifice, and Jagger, in the guise of Jack Flash, as the Devil himself.

The day the music died
He was singing...