Don McLean: American Pie
Following up on Dave’s prior post, the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, along with Ritchie Valens, J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, and pilot Roger Peterson, is commonly known as “The Day the Music Died,” because of Don McLean’s “American Pie.” Even as a 10 year old in 1971 when it was released, I knew that the song was something special. Not just because it was 8 and a half minutes long, and you had to flip over the 45 record to hear the whole thing. I remember reading newspaper articles trying to decipher McLean’s imagery, and the debates over its interpretation. But there was never a debate that “The Day the Music Died,” referred to the death of those four men in a frozen field near Clear Lake, Iowa. If there was any question that this was the case, you can see in the photo above that McLean dedicated the album to Holly, although he generally has refused to comment on others’ interpretation of his lyrics.
I remember understanding that there was a wistfulness about the song, that McLean was bemoaning the loss of something. Although I probably couldn’t have described it well then, I think that I got the gist of his message that the decade between Holly’s death, at the beginning of the song, and the negative, anti-Woodstock violence of Altamont, at the end of the song, was a period in which dreams were smashed, hope was lost, and illusions were shattered. And this was even before Watergate. It was a very political time, and I guess I was kind of a precocious kid.
Dave is right—Holly’s brilliance is magnified by the fact that his career was so short, and it is hard to imagine that he would have been able to maintain that level of quality had he lived, but music definitely would be different had he been able to do so, much like it is hard to conceive what music would be like if The Beatles hadn’t broken up, or if Jimi Hendrix hadn’t died so young. Or if things would have been different if an Hispanic rock star crossed over to mass popularity, had Valens stayed on the bus. (I suspect that The Big Bopper, who was a songwriter and singer but was best known as a disc jockey, would not have been as influential, but he might have ended up as a power in the music industry like his contemporaries, Dick Clark and Casey Kasem).
Of course, we will never know. Holly’s music and death, though, have affected untold millions who have loved his music, been influenced by his sound, covered his songs, read the books, or seen the movies and plays and tribute shows. For Don McLean, it inspired him to write one of the great American songs, a song that brilliantly captured its era, and, yes, made it possible for McLean not to “ever work again,” as he flippantly remarked. For one 10 year old boy in suburban New York, “American Pie” showed that some songs needed to be analyzed and deconstructed and discussed. It only took another 40 years for that boy to start blogging.
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