‘American Pie’ and the music that died

Published 10:11 pm Tuesday, September 29, 2015

By Frank Roberts

Some moneyed cool-cat spent his kid’s allowance to buy the original lyrics to Don McLean song “American Pie” for a paltry $1.2 million.

That’s a lot of money, sure, but another moneyed gent purchased Bob Dylan’s original musical manuscript of “Like A Rolling Stone” for $2 million.

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I have something I consider even more valuable: a personally autographed copy of “Memphis Blues,” handed to me by its composer — the father of the blues (also composer of the famed “St. Louis Blues”), W.C. Handy.

I’m 86 now. I was 14 or 15 at the time. In a future column I will write more about him. Right now, topic No. 1 is Don McLean.

His sort-of classic song is filled with mysterious meanings, which he doesn’t talk much about.

The Pie piece is interesting, because it tells of the death of some rock ‘n’ roll icons. Some consider the song to be a farewell to the American dream. And British music critic Alexis Petridis gave us this bit of complexity: “American Pie,” he wrote, “is the accessible farewell to the Fifties and Sixties.”

If you say so, Alexis. He also says that the song’s chorus, “is so good, it lets you wallow in the confusion and wistfulness of that moment, and be comforted at the same time.”

The composer’s explanation of his decision to sell the original lyric sheet is less romantic, and maybe less confusing. It’s practical — downright capitalistic, comrade.

McLean told Rolling Stone, “I’m going to be 70 this year. I have two children and a wife. I want to get the best deal that I can for them. It’s time.”

All right — bless you Don. The composer told People Magazine, “There is no poetry and very little romance in anything anymore, so it is really like the last phase of ‘American Pie.’”

The most important part of the song, an explanation we can all understand, has to do with the death of Buddy Holly and some musical friends, Richie Valens, and J.P. Richardson, known as “The Big Bopper.”

The Bopper was the victim of fate. Waylon Jennings had given him his seat in the doomed airplane.

They were part of a tour called “Winter Dance Party” and were ready to take off from Clear Lake, Iowa. Two things worked against them: The weather was bad, and the “pilot” was not certified to fly. Shortly after takeoff, the plane, which was named “American Pie,” (in case you wondered) crashed. All were killed.

Look at the ages: Holly was 22, Valens only 17.

Thirteen years after that tragedy, McLean wrote his 8-1/2 minute song about “the day the music died.”

As a baby of the Swing era, I can’t help thinking about the day swing music died with the death of Glenn Miller, whose plane also took off in bad weather.

McLean admitted that he purposely penned complex lyrics that were open to individual interpretation. He noted that the song was, “an indescribable photograph of America that I tried to capture in words and music. I wanted to make a whole series of complex statements. The lyrics had to do with the state of society at the time.”

To budding songwriters, he offered this advice: “I would say (to them) to immerse yourself in beautiful music and beautiful lyrics and think about every word you say in a song.”

During a 60-year career spanning newspapers, radio and television, Frank Roberts has been there and done that. Today, he’s doing it in retirement from North Carolina, but he continues to keep an eye set on Suffolk and an ear cocked on country music. Email him at froberts73@embarqmail.com.