Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Day the Music Died

On Sunday I compared the book Off the Record to a large party comprised of celebrities from the music industry. One of these was Don Maclean, who talked about his megahit American Pie. The famously long eulogy begins like this:

A long, long time ago...
I can still remember
How that music used to make me smile.
And I knew if I had my chance
That I could make those people dance
And, maybe, they'd be happy for a while.

But February made me shiver
With every paper I'd deliver.
Bad news on the doorstep;
I couldn't take one more step.

I can't remember if I cried
When I read about his widowed bride,
But something touched me deep inside
The day the music died.


When I was in college I had a friend named Rob who made it a point to explain the song to me when it became a hit in 1971. I didn't get it at first because, well, I didn't really understand who Buddy Holly really was.

In Off the Record Don McLean says he wrote these opening lines and the chorus, but then let it drop for three months. Then one day he wrote this whole story about the day the music died.

When I was into the karaoke thing in the nineties, American Pie was in most of the books, but with nine minutes length it was a mood killer when anyone chose to sing it. The song is great, but when you're waiting your turn to sing, it feels like an eternity to get through, especially when someone is up there butchering it.

McLean says that even he and his band were butchering it at first when they tried to perform it. The song didn't fully come together until they were in the studio recording it. Paul Griffin, a piano player who had recorded with Dylan, brought the bounce and dynamite to the lively parts and McLean was able to convey the importance of the rhythm variations.

Shortly after the song became a hit, while I was in college in Athens, Ohio, a bus load of young hippies from the Children of God cult came through town, handed out tracts explaining the song American Pie. It was a time of upheaval and confusion, and their answer was that this was a prophetic song for our time because it was the end of the world.

McLean says that when the song become something of an anthem for the generation, it became a difficult cross for him to bear. He had become too famous too fast and it was hard to follow through the normal paces of a developing artist.

Memorial Day weekend this year I attended a special event at Duluth's Armory where many Northlanders (including a young Bob Dylan) heard Buddy Holly's second-to-last concert. From Duluth he and the band went to Milwaukee, their fateful last stop before ending their careers in an Iowa cornfield. The pictures on my blog here are of photos taken backstage and onstage at that last concert... Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper and Richie Valens.

I met a girl who sang the blues
And I asked her for some happy news,
But she just smiled and turned away.
I went down to the sacred store
Where I'd heard the music years before,
But the man there said the music wouldn't play.

And in the streets: the children screamed,
The lovers cried, and the poets dreamed.
But not a word was spoken;
The church bells all were broken.
And the three men I admire most:
The father, son, and the holy ghost,
They caught the last train for the coast
The day the music died.

And they were singing,
"bye-bye, Miss American Pie."
Drove my Chevy to the levee,
But the levee was dry.
And them good old boys were drinkin' whiskey and rye
Singin', "this'll be the day that I die.
"this'll be the day that I die."

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