It was February, 1959, and a 13-year-old paperboy in New Rochelle, N.Y. was about to go on his route when he noticed a story. The headline read something like this: “3 Rock and Roll Stars Die in Plane Crash.”
That moment and that story would forever change Don McLean’s life. The plane crash that killed Buddy Holly – along with Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson – was the genesis of the 1971 landmark song “American Pie.”
McLean, 73, plays the Sharon L. Morse Performing Arts Center on Feb. 1 – just two days before the 60th anniversary of that fateful accident on Feb. 3, 1959.
“American Pie” has become one of the most influential records in the history of rock and roll. And it starts out with a memory of a kid delivering newspapers:
“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/Something touched me deep inside/The day the music died.”
McLean stated what the song meant and how it evolved this way to CNN: “As a paperboy, I cut open the stack of papers on February 3, 1959, and saw that Buddy Holly had been killed in the plane crash. The next day I went to school in shock, and guess what? Nobody cared.
“Rock ‘n roll in those days was sort of like hula hoops and Buddy hadn’t had a big hit on the charts since ’57, nor had the others in the plane crash.
“Americans in those days were always looking ahead. Death was not lingered over. We’d had enough of that in World War II. Death and grief did not go with the exuberance and bright colors of the 1950s.
“Since then we have embarked on what I would call the ‘American death trip.’ One simply has to look at the slew of autopsy shows on television and the endless regurgitation of Marilyn, Elvis and JFK death details to get my point.
“Furthermore, because of the ever-growing psychological power of the media, we seem to think we can reach back half a century and touch things as if they are real. We live in a virtual nostalgic world because of this.
“Fortunately, Buddy Holly’s music is forever young and all any young person has to do is listen to it and his life will be changed forever.”
For Baby Boomers, “American Pie” is a heart-wrenching, rock and roll, pop-cultural history lesson.
“It seemed like the song’s cast of characters – which include a jester, a king, a queen, good ol’ boys drinking whiskey and rye as well as ‘Miss American Pie’ herself — were meant to represent real people,” the Washington Post reported.
“The song includes references to Karl Marx; Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (or, more likely, John Lennon); the Fab Four; the Byrds; James Dean; Charles Manson; the Rolling Stones; the “widowed bride,” Jackie Kennedy; and the Vietnam War.”.
“American Pie is the accessible farewell to the Fifties and Sixties,” Guardian music critic Alexis Petridis wrote. “Bob Dylan talked to the counterculture in dense, cryptic, apocalyptic terms.
“But Don McLean says similar ominous things in a pop language that a mainstream listener could understand. The chorus is so good that it lets you wallow in the confusion and wistfulness of that moment and be comforted at the same time. It’s bubblegum Dylan, really.”
As they used to say on “American Bandstand:” “It’s got a good beat and you can dance to it.”
McLean shrugs off such words.
“The first part of the song – up to ‘The day the music died’ – just came out of me one day,” he told the Library of Congress. “(It was) like a genie out of a bottle. I sang it into a tape recorder.
“Then, over a period of a time, I developed an idea: I wanted to write a song about America but not have it be ‘This Land Is Your Land’ or ‘America the Beautiful.’ I was thinking about the size of America, but not about any one thing.
“I had a theory in my head that music and politics were parallel and moved forward. That’s how I thought it out, and I thought, ‘That’s a cool idea.’ So that was the initial idea that was behind it, the germination.”
McLean is far more than a one-hit wonder. His other songs include: “Vincent,” “And I Love You So,” “Castles In the Air” “Wonderful Baby,” and covers of Roy Orbison’s “Crying” and the Skyliners’ “Since I Don’t Have You.”
McLean has spent most of the past five decades touring the world and performing concerts. But he is still defined by the song that cemented his place in music history.
“’American Pie’” has lasted all these…years,” McLean told Baltimore Outloud. “Now … I’m being noticed as a historical figure, I suppose. It makes me feel proud. It makes me feel old. It makes me feel that I gave something to people that they could use and enjoy. That’s what I started out to do.”
Tony Violanti is a veteran journalist and writes for Villages-News.com.