Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Don McLean: American Pie

It was on this date 51 years ago that Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and the Big Bopper were killed when their chartered plane crashed just outside of Mason City, Iowa. They had just finished performing at the Surf Ballroom at Clear Lake, Iowa - an unscheduled stop on their winter tour. The next performance was to be in Moorhead, Minnesota. 

Due to problems with the tour bus, Holly charted a plane intending to fly himself and the two members of his band, Waylon Jennings and Tommy Allsup. J.P. Richardson (The Big Bopper), who was suffering from the flu, asked Jennings for his seat. Richie Valens, who had never flown in a small plane before, asked Allsup for the remaining seat, and Valens inclusion was decided by a toss of a coin.

An old college buddy, Stuart Shepard, worked in Lexington, KY with Bob Hale - who tossed the infamous coin. To read Hale's firsthand account about that infamous evening, see http://chicagoradiospotlight.blogspot.com/2008/04/bob-hale.html.

An FAA investigation concluded that the crash was caused by poor weather and pilot error. Twenty-one year old Roger Peterson had not been satisfactorily warned about the weather and he had not yet passed his instrument rating. This alone should have prevented him from flying during these conditions.

In addition, the plane in which he was piloting had instrumentation that reacted in manner opposite to the craft he normally had flown during his instrument training – leading to his confusion and spatial disorientation. It is thought that he believed that the plane was climbing when it was actually descending. The injuries were so severe, the coroner concluded that all four died upon impact.

Dave Robbins, the Director of the Aviation Program at Mountain State University, tells me that this high profile case was one of a series crashes that led to changes making the FAA Instrument Rating requirement mandatory for all commercial pilots.

Twelve and a half years later, Don McLean released “American Pie” on his second album and gave us the phrase to remember this solemn occasion as “The Day the Music Died.”


When I worked in radio, “American Pie” became known as a bathroom song – which meant it was long enough to leave the control room, use the facilities, and get back to the board before the record finished. There were a number of these including "Layla," the "Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald," and a few others. This rather lengthy song with the cryptic lyrics charted at #1 on the US and Canadian Top 40 and Adult Contemporary charts and charted at #2 in the UK.

I remember the first time I heard this song. It was on a November evening in 1971. At bedtime, I was listening to KQV-1410, Pittsburgh’s Top 40 radio station. Lying in bed, I remember getting up out of bed, and with rapt attention, I hung on every word. I didn’t know the name of the tune at the time, but within days – it was all over the radio and I bought the 45 rpm single – which had the lengthy tune (8:33) split into parts one and two.

There have been many interpretations concerning the song, but McLean has repeatedly refused to discuss the meaning of the lyrics. According to a published letter from McLean, “As you can imagine, over the years I've been asked many times to discuss and explain my song ‘American Pie.’ I have never discussed the lyrics, but have admitted to the Holly reference in the opening stanzas. I dedicated the album American Pie to Buddy Holly as well in order to connect the entire statement to Holly in hopes of bringing about an interest in him, which subsequently did occur.”

In 1993, McLean reinforced his silence on the matter. “You will find many interpretations of my lyrics but none of them by me . . . sorry to leave you all on your own like this but long ago I realized that songwriters should make their statements and move on, maintaining a dignified silence.”

I can remember discussing the meaning of this song with family and friends and thought I had a pretty good understanding of McLean’s intent; however, I have also seen many published interpretations that run the gamut from the sublime to the ridiculous. One attempted to analyze every word in the song – which destroyed the entire poetic license found within this #1 record.

I will honor Don McLean by not attempting an interpretation at this point and let the song speak for itself.

Lyrics


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.

So, Bye, bye Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry
And good ol' boys were drinking whisky and rye?
Singing this will be the day that I die
This will be the day that I die

Did you write the book of love?
And do you have faith in God above?
If the Bible tells you so
Do you believe in rock n’ roll?
Can music save your mortal soul?
Can teach me how to dance real slow?

Well I know that you're in love with him
'Cause I saw you dancing in the gym
You both kicked off your shoes
Then I dig those rhythm and blues

I was a lonely teenage broncin' buck
With a pink carnation and a pickup truck
But I knew that I was out of luck
The day the music died

I started singin'...

Bye, bye Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry
And good ol' boys were drinking whisky and rye?
Singing this will be the day that I die
This will be the day that I die

Now for 10 years we've been on our own
And moss grows fat on a rolling stone
But that's not how it used to be

When the jester sang for the king and queen
In a coat he borrowed from James Dean
In a voice that came from you and me

And while the King was looking down
The jester stole his thorny crown
The courtroom was adjourned
No verdict was returned

While Lennon read the book of Marx
The quartet kept practice in the park
And we sang dirges in the dark
The day the music died

We were singin'

Bye, bye Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry
And good ol' boys were drinking whisky and rye?
Singing this will be the day that I die
This will be the day that I die

Helter Skelter in a summer swelter
The birds flew off with the fallout shelter
Eight miles high and falling fast

It landed foul on the grass
The players tried for a forward pass
With the jester on the sidelines in a cast

Now the halftime air was sweet perfume
While sergeants played a marching tune
We all got up to dance
Oh, but we never got the chance

'Cause the players tried to take the field,
The marching band refused to yield.

Do you recall what was revealed,
The day the music died?
We started singing

Bye, bye Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry
And good ol' boys were drinking whisky and rye?
Singing this will be the day that I die
This will be the day that I die

There we were all in one place
A generation lost in space
With no time left to start again
So come on Jack be nimble, Jack be quick
Jack Flash sat on a candle stick
'Cause fire is the devil's only friend.

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

And as flames climbed high into the night
To light the sacrificial rite
I saw Satan laughing with delight
The day the music died.

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 Holy Ghost
They caught the last train for the coast
The day the music died

They were singin'

Bye, bye Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry
And good ol' boys were drinking whisky and rye?
Singing this will be the day that I die
This will be the day that I die

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