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.
Friday, September 13, 2013
Thursday, September 12, 2013
I think one of the most incredible things about Buddy Holly is not that he influenced so many other musicians, or that he wrote so many songs that have withstood the test of time and have been re-recorded by so many other bands and singers, but that he did it all at such a young age and in such a short span of time. Holly had his first hit with the Crickets in May of 1957, at the age of 20, and he died in the infamous plane crash in February 1959, at the tender age of 22. Just a little over a year and a half, but what an impact he had in that short time! He was really just a kid through all of it, but he still runs strong in the blood of rock and roll.
Choosing a song to feature here was a tough choice, as there are so many great options. I considered the ones that The Beatles and The Rolling Stones chose to record early in their careers, acknowledging their debt to Holly -- "Words of Love" and "Not Fade Away," respectively -- and "Rave On," which I think could arguably be pointed to as one of the earliest forms of punk and power pop.
But I finally settled on "Well . . . All Right," the flip side to Holly's 1958 single, "Heartbeat." I find the song to be remarkably mature in its melancholy sound and confidently defiant lyrics. The message is actually quite an upbeat one, but there seems to be some element of wisdom beyond his years running through it. The acoustic instrumentation is also something rarely heard in pop music of that time, hinting at Holly's country influences but staying firmly within the bounds of a pop song. It's a sound that the Beatles fleshed out years later with Rubber Soul, an album heralded for its maturity very much thanks to that type of song, but its roots can most definitely be found here.
"Well . . . All Right" was covered quite well by Blind Faith (Steve Winwood, Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker, and Ric Grech) on their one and only album in 1969, but it was much more forceful and lost the quiet fortitude of Holly's original. Listen here to Holly's original for a song truly ahead of its time.