The Day the Music Died
February 3, 1959, was a rotten day for rock and roll. In the wee hours of that morning, a plane carrying three young pop stars crashed shortly after takeoff from an airfield in Iowa. Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper (along with the pilot) were killed—a tragedy memorialized in Don McLean’s ballad “American Pie.” Unfortunately, that day wouldn’t be the last on which the beat suddenly stopped.
For a monster hit, singer-songwriter Don McLean’s “American Pie” was an unusual record: Clocking in at more than eight and a half minutes, it outdistanced the Beatles’ seven-minute “Hey Jude” and took up more airtime than another superlong 1970s standard, Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” Plus, its preternaturally catchy tune features lyrics—five verses, an intro and a refrain—as obscure as they are memorable. Partly an oblique autobiography, partly an allegory about the first generation raised on rock and roll, “American Pie” amounts to a riddle that listeners have relished trying to solve since its release. Everybody agrees, though, that the “long, long time ago” of the song’s intro refers to the February day in 1959 when a plane carrying Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper went down in an Iowa cornfield. (Then at the height of their popularity, the three were traveling together on a “Winter Dance Party” tour of cities throughout the upper Midwest.) The postwar generation’s anthem for its lost youth, McLean’s song didn’t just recall that plane crash. The lyrics gave that awful accident a name: “the day the music died.”
“American Pie” wasn’t the first song to memorialize the famous victims of the Clear Lake, Iowa, plane crash. Only two months after the tragedy, California DJ Tommy Dee released a record (accompanied by Carol Kay and the Teen-Aires) called “Three Stars”; its treacly lyrics imagine Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper as “three new stars, brightly shining forth” in the firmament. This sincere if gag-inducing homage sold more than a million copies but is now justly forgotten.
Not forgotten are the young men whose lives “Three Stars” celebrated—or two of them, anyway. Bespectacled rockabilly singer-songwriter Buddy Holly (born Charles Hardin Holley) was 22 when he died, and had recorded only three albums, but he was internationally famous. The sound he created influenced generations of musicians. Ritchie Valens (Richard Valenzuela) was even younger, just 17, but he would long be remembered for introducing Latino music into mainstream pop with his Top 40 hit “La Bamba” (a 1958 rock version of a traditional Mexican wedding song). The husky 28-year-old known as the Big Bopper (Jiles Perry Richardson Jr.) was, by contrast, a novelty act with a single hit—the semi-salacious “Chantilly Lace” (1958)—under his girthsome belt.
Three popular musicians died on February 3, 1959, but their music lived on. Jerry Lee Lewis’s 1972 cover of the Big Bopper’s “Chantilly Lace” topped the country charts, and when Los Lobos covered Ritchie Valens’s “La Bamba” for a 1987 Valens biopic, the song reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100. Buddy Holly’s impact on pop music is far wider. His influence on later performers’ style can even be seen in the decision by pop stars—John Lennon, Elvis Costello et al.—to wear glasses onstage. (Holly was the first to flaunt them.) The list of Holly’s songs rerecorded by other artists is extensive. To name a few: “Words of Love,” covered by the Beatles; “That’ll Be the Day” by the Everly Brothers and Linda Ronstadt; “Peggy Sue” by the Hollies (their name is a tribute to the singer) and Lou Reed; and “Maybe Baby” by none other than Don McLean. Among Holly’s indelible tunes is his 1957 hit about everlasting love, “Not Fade Away.” An early Rolling Stones single (featuring a mean harmonica lick by Brian Jones), the song has been covered by many, including the Grateful Dead, who performed it at hundreds of concerts.
“Hope I die before I get old,” sang the Who in “My Generation” (1965), but of that foursome only drummer Keith Moon, who died in 1978, achieved the wished-for consummation. Moon’s death at 32, however, excludes him from the so-called 27 Club—the strangely long, and lengthening, list of pop stars who’ve passed away at age 27. Members of this doleful club include Jimi Hendrix (d. 1970), Janis Joplin (d. 1970), Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain (d. 1994), Amy Winehouse (d. 2011) and Doors frontman Jim Morrison (d. 1971), whose melancholy lyric “When the music’s over / Turn out the lights” may serve as an epitaph for this whole sad clan.
“Not Fade Away,” in turn, could be the motto of the superannuated Rolling Stones, who continue to perform well into their 70s. But the Stones also lost a founding member to the 27 Club: Brian Jones, found drowned in the swimming pool of his East Sussex home in July 1969. The circumstances of his death remain murky, but it seems the music was already over for the drug-abusing Jones by the time he died. He’d recently left the Stones and been replaced by guitarist Mick Taylor.
Don McLean hasn’t provided a horse’s-mouth interpretation of his “American Pie” lyrics. “They’re beyond analysis,” he once said. “They’re poetry.” But they’re surely also a collage of more or less opaque allusions to historical events (e.g., the Kennedy assassinations); to other songs, including the Byrds’ “Eight Miles High” and Marty Robbins’s “A White Sport Coat (and a Pink Carnation)”; and to a raft of mid-century music stars. Among those appearing in poetic disguise are Bob Dylan (as “the jester”), Elvis Presley (“the king”) and the Beatles (“the sergeants,” after their album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band). Three lines of the song’s final and most haunting verse may describe Janis Joplin: “I met a girl who sang the blues / And I asked her for some happy news / But she just smiled and turned away.” Ballsy lead singer for the band Big Brother and the Holding Company before moving on to a solo career, Joplin joined the 27 Club, composed of musicians who died at 27, the year before “American Pie” was released. For her fans, October 4, 1970—when Joplin was found dead of an overdose in a Hollywood hotel room—remains another day the music died.
The music has died on many days; some mark the premature death of performers belonging to the 27 Club. But for many December 6, 1969, sounded a louder death knell, tolling the end of the 1960s peace-and-love era. On that date, which Rolling Stone magazine described as “rock and roll’s all-time worst day,” a free concert was held at Altamont Speedway, a racetrack in northern California near the Bay Area. The Rolling Stones, finishing a multicity U.S. tour, were the headliners, but several other top bands participated, including the Jefferson Airplane and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Planning for the festival, billed as Woodstock West, was piss-poor—among other deficiencies, there were too few portable toilets. But organizers made one truly catastrophic decision: hiring the Hells Angels to provide “security.” The Angels, paid in beer, tussled with fans and performers throughout the day. (The bad vibe prompted the Grateful Dead to bow out of the lineup.) Things got uglier when the Stones went onstage to close out the night. Brawls between bikers and audience members broke out repeatedly, and an Angel stabbed 18-year-old festivalgoer Meredith Hunter to death, just as the Stones were finishing “Under My Thumb.”
While not referring to the Rolling Stones by name, the lyrics of “American Pie” seem to blame the group, especially “Jack Flash”—i.e., singer Mick Jagger—for the Altamont disaster and the growing depravity of the late-1960s counterculture. In the song’s fourth verse, Don McLean casts the Stones’ artistic flirtation with Luciferian themes—in their album Their Satanic Majesties Request (1967) and song “Sympathy for the Devil” (1968)—as actual satanic power, as if Jagger were the sinister mastermind controlling the Hells Angels’ misbehavior at Altamont. “No angel born in hell / Could break that Satan’s spell,” sings McLean, but Albert and David Maysles’s riveting concert film Gimme Shelter (1970), which follows the Stones on their 1969 stateside tour, tells a different story. Onstage at Altamont, Jagger and his bandmates look like fruity poseurs compared with the brutish, leather-clad Angels. In “Sympathy for the Devil,” Jagger-as-Lucifer boasts of his role in the deaths of the Romanovs, the Kennedys and even Jesus Christ, but at Altamont a nervous Jagger interrupted the song to enjoin the crowd and his posse of ostensible protectors to “be cool.” Certainly not spellbound, the hell-born Angels paid Jagger no mind whatsoever.
Its hooks are mostly upbeat, especially the “Bye-bye, Miss American Pie” chorus, but the lyrics to “American Pie” are melancholic, even distraught. Viewing history from the bottom of a long and bumpy slide, the song is a catalog of death and destruction: from the shattered innocence of the 1950s through the political tumult of the ’60s and the blackening cultural mood at that decade’s end, when “Satan” is rising and the “Father, Son and Holy Ghost” have “caught the last train to the coast.” Among the awful events “American Pie” seems to reference—in the line “Helter Skelter in a summer swelter”—are the grisly Tate and LaBianca murders committed by Charles Manson’s followers in Los Angeles in August 1969. Cult leader and wannabe rock star Manson convinced his acolytes that he’d received coded directives from the 1968 album The Beatles (a.k.a. “The White Album”), in particular the song “Helter Skelter.” He claimed the lyrics instructed the group to kindle an apocalyptic race war through horrific crimes. Like the disastrous Altamont Free Concert, the Manson Family murders were emblematic of an era’s end, revealing the dark underside of hippiedom’s utopian vision of peace, love and rock and roll.