Fifty years ago this morning, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and JP Richardson, better known as “The Big Bopper” bundled into a chartered single-engine plane and flew into eternity. Their plane crashed five minutes after takeoff due to pilot error and horrible weather. All were slain in the crash.
The tragedy left a gaping wound in American Music at a critical time. Ten-plus years after the event, Don McLean wrote about it in one of the classic songs of my generation – “American Pie”. I loved this song and empathized with it as a young teen, and much of what I saw around myself in the early 70s seemed to echo his words. Heck, I even named my first D&D city after it.
But now, years later, I have to admit that the song was not about what I thought it was. It was not about the battle of the sixties, about the loss of JFK and RFK, about Kent State and Vietnam and civil rights. Instead, it was about a generational change in popular music in the late 50s/early 60s, and how McLean , who would these days be stacked near the folk-rock end of the spectrum, didn’t like it one bit.
It is, in effect, McLean was telling people to get off his lawn.
People pore over the lyrics looking for deeper meaning, and part of its longstanding popularity is that his words express themselves in unlooked-for ways. Yet it is to my surprise that I am standing with the “bad guys” that McLean is opining about. I'm standing with the good guys, too, because it was a musical divide that I was not aware of.
The good guys (in the song) were Buddy, Ritchie, the Bopper, and Dylan (the jester). The bad guys are the Beatles (the sergeants played a marching tune), the Byrds (eight miles high) and the Stones (Jagger = Satan laughing with delight?). I loved what we now early rock, and was a big Arlo Guthrie fan. But I also loved the Beatles, Stones, and what we call “classic rock” in these lesser days.
I also realize now that both groups played out this part of the story before I had my musical tastes fully downloaded. I was a toddler when that plane went down. I was 12 in the year of Woodstock and Altamont. If McLean was bemoaning the fall of American music since the passing of three important icons, how would he feel about its stunned-falcon plummet of later decades. His song belongs to a generation that felt betrayed when Dylan went electric. It's important, but to evoke Dylan, that ain’t me, babe.
And part of what bothers me about such nostalgia is that artists evolve. The loss of Holly and the others have frozen them in time, their music in amber. The tragedy is not just that their voices were silenced, but their potential was cut short. McLean seems to feel that, had the three men he admired most not passed into the west from the Grey Havens, they would continue to produce the same danceable folk rock. I’d like to imagine that other, alternate world, where Buddy Holly wrote the “Dukes of Hazzard” theme song (performed by Waylon Jennings, who missed that fateful flight) and the Big Bopper delivered the baseline for a rap version of Chantilly Lace.
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