A long, long time ago — 60 years ago today, to be exact — Buddy Holly, J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson and Richie Valens plummeted to their deaths as their plane crashed in the fields of Clear Lake, Iowa. Eleven years later, a singer-songwriter in Cold Springs, New York, poignantly wrote about the tragedy in the intro to his magnum opus “American Pie,” dubbing it “The Day the Music Died.”
A 13-year-old paperboy at the time of the plane crash (“But February made me shiver/With every paper I’d deliver”), Don McLean was devastated over Holly’s death; he later said that the fallout from the event “created a sense of grief that lived inside of me, until I was able to exorcize it with the opening verse of ‘American Pie.’”
Though McLean has always claimed that except for the first verse of “American Pie,” the rest of the song’s lyrics are pure poetry, references to the 1960s are blatantly obvious, from allusions to icons like Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin to dark events like Altamont and the Charles Manson murders that signified the end of the era. Released only two years after the decade had ended, “American Pie” marks the first inkling of 1960s nostalgia, paving the way for Happy Days, American Graffiti and Grease.
In the above video, McLean performs the nearly nine-minute song live at the BBC in 1972. “You can sing all the words with me all the way through if you want, I don’t care,” he tells the crowd, but he doesn’t have to: The attendees, the women in their headbands and turtlenecks and the men in their mustaches and shag haircuts, are already game. McLean guides them through all six verses, happily singing and strumming along.
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McLean never expected “American Pie” to turn into the iconic hit that it became. “’American Pie’ will self-destruct in a number of months as if it has never been there before,” he predicted to Rolling Stone in 1972. “There might even be a considerable backlash from putting that chorus in millions of people’s heads.”
There are four handwritten copies of the handwritten lyrics to “American Pie.” In April 2015, one copy — 237 lines of manuscript — sold for $1.2 million at an auction. “I have two children and a wife, and none of them seem to have the mercantile instinct,” he said. “I want to get the best deal that I can for them. It’s time.” A second copy sold for $100,000 in August 2017.
Last week, McLean announced a tour to commemorate the 60th anniversary of “The Day the Music Died.” He’s scheduled to appear at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles on March 25th, where he’ll perform and conduct a Q&A. Odds are high that his set will include “American Pie.”