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."


Anonymous said...

After Buddy's Saturday night show at the Armory in Deluth, Minnesota on Jan. 31st, Buddy and his fellow performers packed up, loaded and boarded an unheated, uninsulated school bus for an all night 340 mile ride to Appleton, Wisconsin for a Sun. matinee show at the Cinderella Ballroom and later on that day, an 8PM show in Green Bay at the Riverside Ballroom, 30 miles north. The low-budget inadequate transportation was supplied by General Artists Corp., the same heartless agency responsible for the poorly planned 24 shows in 24 days, Winter Dance Party, referred to by most of those who were on it as: "The Tour From Hell!", with all it's zig-zag routing in the middle of winter, at some of the country’s coldest cities in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Kentucky and Ohio, without allowing ample travel time for the long distance drives and not leaving any extra time for dangerous winter driving conditions, let alone time for the performers to take a hot shower, do laundry or get adequate rest. The bus traveled east out of Deluth on old coast-to-coast U.S. two-lane Hwy. 2, thru windy sub-zero conditions with ice and snow covered roads. The recorded low temperature in Deluth that night was -7° F with 11" of snow on the ground. The wind averaged 19mph, with gusts up to 28mph, making for a "feels like" temperature of -30°. At the small town of Hurley, WI the bus turned south onto Hwy. 51. The same Highway 51 Dylan wrote and sang about on his self-titled 1962 debut album. Although a basically a 12 bar Blues, Dylan's recording displays a definite Buddy Holly influence, both in his aggressive vocal delivery and in his percussive rhythm guitar playing on the track. After turning south onto Highway 51 in Hurley, at approx. 1:30 AM CST, on a baron stretch of road, approx. 15 miles south of Hurly and one mile north of Pine Lake, the bus threw a piston, leaving Buddy and the rest of the tour party stranded by the side of the road for about 2 hours in the frigid darkness, huddling together and even trying to light newspapers inside the bus for some kind of heat. A semi truck drove by and the driver, after seeing the stranded crew trying to wave him down beside the stalled bus, alerted the Iron County Sheriff's Dept. back in Hurley, by CB radio, about their predicament. A posse was sent out to rescue them in Jeeps. They returned to Hurley in the pre-dawn darkness of Feb. 1st and were deposited at the Club Carnival Café, a former strip club, on Silver Street, only to have the management refuse service to the black bus driver. The musicians ordered food for him and brought it to him at the Iron Co. Garage, where the bus had been towed. Buddy's drummer, Carl Bunch, suffered frostbite in both his feet, having to be rushed to Grand View Hospital, seven miles away. The Appleton show was cancelled and the group traveled by train to Green Bay. 2 hours later the Iron Co. Garage began installing a replacement engine in the bus, after which a driver delivered the bus to Green Bay. Shortly after arriving in Green Bay, J.P. Richardson stopped at nearby Bertrand's Sporting Goods and purchased a sleeping bag, vowing he wasn't going to freeze on that bus again. The tour party was scheduled to have the next day, Monday, Feb. 3rd, off to catch up on laundry and get a much needed break but GAC, greedy to make a buck and not considering any of the performer's needs and with J.P. and Ritchie both coming down with the flu, GAC accepted a last minute call offer from Carroll Anderson, 39 year old manager of the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa. GAC telephoned the troupe in Green Bay and told them they need to board the bus ASAP after their show and travel 350 miles southwest to Clear Lake, with an ETA of 4pm for an 8 o'clock show but the bus kept breaking down across Wisconsin, on into Iowa until the troupe ditched the bus, leaving it along the highway, renting another bus, for the last leg and arriving only a couple hours prior to showtime without any idea of the disaster yet to come.

Unknown said...

Wow! What an incredible nightmare! Thanks so much for all those details. II can't believe how such heartless people can do that to such talented musicians.

Popular Posts