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Music History #6: "American Pie"

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"American Pie”
Written and performed by Don McLean (1971)

The Music

“I can’t remember if I cried when I read about his widowed bride
But something touched me deep inside the day the music died”

The phrase “The day the music died” is familiar to us today as shorthand for the 1959 plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “Big Bopper” Richardson. But when Don McLean coined it in his epic pop song, it was new. So was the idea of nostalgia for the musical past as subject matter for a song.

“Buddy Holly didn’t matter to anyone when I wrote the song,” McLean told me in 1995. “He was long dead and forgotten.” McLean saw Holly’s death as a means to frame his ideas about what had happened to America during the 1960s. Rather than spelling it out clearly, McLean laced his lyric with cryptic, evocative imagery. “I was trying to create a rock ‘n’ roll dream sequence,” he said. “But it was more than rock ‘n’ roll. I was trying to create this American song which connected the parts of America that mattered to me, starting with Buddy Holly.”

“American Pie” was a #1 hit for four weeks during early 1972. At eight and a half minutes, it also ranks as one of the longest singles of the rock era (second to Guns ‘N Roses “November Rain”). It has since been covered by everyone from Weird Al Yankovic to Madonna.

Here’s McLean performing it live in 1972:

http://youtu.be/5QUYvRaQ4XM

The History

Buddy Holly didn’t want to be part of the Winter Dance Party. The prospect of a 24-day package tour of one-nighters through the Midwest wasn’t exactly his idea of a great career move. Especially in January. But he needed the money.

Though Holly had scored seven Top 40 hits since his major label debut eighteen months earlier, like many early rock ‘n’ rollers, he had also made some bad business decisions. Namely, allowing producer Norman Petty to have control over both his publishing and management. After a disagreement about musical direction, Petty had withheld Holly’s royalties (they were paid into an account that only Petty had access to). Petty had also convinced Holly’s backing band The Crickets – drummer Jerry Allison and bassist Joe B. Mauldin – to split with their leader. Holly’s first single without Petty and The Crickets faltered.

On top of all this, Holly’s new wife Maria Elena was a few weeks pregnant with their first child. If the Winter Dance Party wasn’t the bright future he was hoping for, at least it was a paying gig, and a stopgap while his lawyer sorted out the mess with Petty.

Holly was the tour’s headliner. Sharing the bill were J.P. “Big Bopper” Richardson, Ritchie Valens and Dion & The Belmonts. The tour began on January 23rd in Milwaukee.

Cold Comfort
The winter of 1959 was a brutal one. Record-setting sub-zero temperatures, snow and ice paralyzed the Midwest. The hastily-organized itinerary had the musicians zigzagging three states, with up to 400 miles between dates. They traveled in a succession of broken-down, drafty buses, with heaters that kept freezing up.

Remember, these were nationally-known stars. Knowing how bands travel today, in plush tour buses with full kitchens, bathrooms and sleeping bunks, the conditions that Holly and company endured are almost unthinkable.

By the end of the first week, morale was low and tempers were growing short. The Big Bopper came down with a bad chest cold, and Holly’s drummer Carl Bunch was hospitalized with frostbitten feet (the new Crickets also included guitarist Tommy Allsup and, on bass, future country star Waylon Jennings). As they navigated the icy roads, the tired musicians often huddled together under blankets, drinking whiskey to stay warm. They’d catch a few hours of sleep at the local hotels, play their show, then it was back on the bus, into the frozen darkness.

Despite the weather, the shows went pretty well. Local radio stations helped out with ticket and record giveaways. And at a succession of ballrooms, the bands played their hits for enthusiastic teenage rock ‘n’ roll fans. The average crowd size was 1,200.

But the brief glory on stage didn’t make up for all the bone-chilling travel. When they’d reached Clear Lake, Iowa, Holly had decided to charter a small plane for himself and his band to fly ahead to their next show in Minnesota.

Flipping A Coin
Holly had grown weary of the bus rides, and wanted a chance to do laundry and get a good eight hours of sleep at a hotel. When the other performers found out, they tried to angle their way on the plane.

Ritchie Valens badgered Tommy Allsup for his seat. Finally, they flipped a coin. Valens won.

Waylon Jennings willingly gave up his seat to Richardson, whose cold had worsened. When Holly found out, he teased his friend.

“So you’re not going on that plane with me tonight, huh?”

When Jennings said no, Holly replied, “Well, I hope your old bus freezes up again.”

Jennings said, “Well, hell, I hope your old plane crashes.”

For the rest of his life, Jennings would be haunted by the exchange, and by the moment he surrendered his seat to Richardson.

The Day The Music Died
After the show in Clear Lake, Holly, Richardson and Valens were driven to Mason City Airport, where their chartered aircraft was waiting. It was a Beechcraft Bonanza, a four-seater. The pilot was Roger Peterson. The 21-year old had had his private plane license for four years and had just qualified for a commercial pilot’s license. He’d flown in wintry weather before.

At about 12:50 am on February 3rd, the small plane took off from Mason City Airport. The wind roared around it. The swirling snow made visibility near impossible. A few minutes into the flight, the plane dipped. The wing hit the ground and was torn from the fuselage. The plane flipped over and crashed in a corn field. All four passengers were killed.

Buddy Holly was 22. Ritchie Valens was 17. J.P. Richardson was 28.

A song memorializing the crash, “Three Stars,” was released shortly after, first by Ruby Wright, then Eddie Cochran, another early rock ‘n’ roller who died tragically young in a car crash.

Meanwhile, in New Rochelle, New York, a thirteen-year old paperboy named Don McLean stared at the headline about Buddy Holly, his favorite singer, and the seed was planted for a future classic song.

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15 Fascinating Facts About David Bowie
BERTRAND GUAY/AFP/Getty Images
BERTRAND GUAY/AFP/Getty Images

The music industry lost one of its most iconic artists when David Bowie passed away from liver cancer on January 10, 2016. Bowie’s death came as a surprise to music fans around the world, as he kept his diagnosis quiet. Which isn’t all that surprising when you consider the often-elusive nature of Bowie over the years. Here are 15 things you might not have known about David Bowie, on what would have been his 71st birthday.

1. HE CHANGED HIS NAME SO HE WOULDN'T BE CONFUSED WITH THE MONKEES’S DAVY JONES.

David Bowie was born in London on January 8, 1947 as David Robert Jones. But as he readied to embark on his musical career as a teen, there was a problem: Davy Jones, the lead singer of The Monkees, was already a known quantity in the music industry, and the aspiring artist was afraid they might be confused. So David Jones changed his name to David Bowie.

In 1967, 14-year-old Sandra Dodd sent Bowie what would be his first fan letter from America, in which she asked him about his name. Bowie quipped: “In answer to your questions, my real name is David Jones and I don’t have to tell you why I changed it. ‘Nobody’s going to make a monkey out of you’ said my manager.”

2. NO, HIS EYES ARE NOT TWO DIFFERENT COLORS.

While people often claim that Bowie had heterochromia, a genetic condition that results in having two different colored eyes, that is incorrect. Both of his eyes are blue; the ocular oddity that you do notice is what is known as aniscoria, or a permanently dilated pupil—which happened when Bowie was 15 years old and got into a fight with his friend, George Underwood, over a girl. "I was so aggrieved I walked over to him, basically, turned him around and went 'whack' without even thinking," Underwood explained. (His fingernail sliced into Bowie’s eye.)

Fortunately, there were no hard feelings; the two later collaborated on an album as The King Bees and Underwood went on to design the album covers for some of Bowie’s most famous records, including The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.

3. THAT WASN’T THE ONLY TIME BOWIE'S EYE TOOK A BEATING.

In 2004, while performing in Oslo, Norway, a “fan” threw a lollipop onto the stage, which somehow managed to strike Bowie in the eye—and get stuck. A member of his crew was able to remove it, and Bowie went on with the concert. Rebel rebel indeed.

4. HE WAS BOYHOOD FRIENDS WITH PETER FRAMPTON.

Despite Bowie being more than three years older than Peter Frampton, the two struck up a friendship as youngsters. Both attended Bromley Technical High School, where Frampton’s dad was Bowie’s art teacher. The two shared a unique bond over music, and remained close friends until Bowie’s death. "He really introduced me, along with George Underwood, to Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran, people I wasn't aware of at that age," Frampton once said of his childhood friend. The two would collaborate a number of times over the years.

5. BOWIE AND ELTON JOHN WERE PALS AS TEENS, TOO.

Back in their teens—when Bowie was still known as David Jones and Elton John went by Reginald Kenneth Dwight—the two future rock icons became quick friends and would frequently get together to talk about music. But shortly after Bowie’s death, John admitted that they had a falling out and hadn’t talked much in about 40 years.

“David and I were not the best of friends towards the end,” John said. “We started out being really good friends. We used to hang out together with Marc Bolan, going to gay clubs, but I think we just drifted apart. He once called me ‘rock ’n’ roll’s token queen’ in an interview with Rolling Stone, which I thought was a bit snooty. He wasn’t my cup of tea. No; I wasn’t his cup of tea.”

6. AS A TEEN, HE FOUNDED THE SOCIETY FOR THE PREVENTION OF CRUELTY TO LONG-HAIRED MEN.

In 1964, when he was just 17 years old, Bowie formed The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Long-Haired Men, an organization aimed at protesting the treatment that he and other men with long hair received on the streets of London. He took the matter seriously, as you can see from the BBC interview above.

That BBC spot led to an interview with the London Evening News, where Bowie explained that the organization was “really for the protection of pop musicians and those who wear their hair long. Anyone who has the courage to wear their hair down to his shoulders has to go through hell. It’s time we were united and stood up for our curls.”

7. HIS FIRST HIT, “SPACE ODDITY,” WAS PERFECTLY TIMED.

On July 11, 1969, Bowie released the single “Space Oddity.” The timing could not have been more perfect. Nine days after its release, the BBC ran the song over its coverage of Apollo 11’s lunar landing. It would end up being his first big hit in the UK.

8. HIS BROTHER WAS A MAJOR INSPIRATION FOR HIS MUSIC.

In 1985, Bowie’s half-brother Terry Burns, who battled mental health issues throughout his life, escaped from the hospital where he had been admitted and killed himself. In Nicholas Pegg's The Complete David Bowie, the writer reveals that Burns had quite an impact on Bowie’s writing. He was reportedly the inspiration for a number of his songs, including “Aladdin Sane,” “All the Madmen,” and “Jump They Say.”

9. BEING ZIGGY STARDUST LED HIM TO QUESTION HIS SANITY.

3rd July 1973: David Bowie performs his final concert as Ziggy Stardust at the Hammersmith Odeon, London. The concert later became known as the Retirement Gig
Express/Getty Images

Though Bowie had many alter egos over the years, Ziggy Stardust was the most famous of them. From 1972 to 1973 he toured in character as the glam rock persona until he abruptly announced that he would be retiring Ziggy during a concert in 1973. “Not only is this the last show of the tour, but it's the last show that we'll ever do,” Bowie said of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.

He later admitted that Ziggy “wouldn't leave me alone for years. That was when it all started to go sour ... My whole personality was affected. It became very dangerous. I really did have doubts about my sanity."

10. FOR A TIME, HE FEARED A WIZARD MIGHT STEAL HIS URINE.

Four years after his Ziggy Stardust period, Bowie became the Thin White Duke. It was during this period that he struggled with both drug and emotional problems. In David Buckley’s book, Strange Fascination: David Bowie—The Definitive Story, the author wrote that by 1975, Bowie was "living a cocooned existence [in Los Angeles], disconnected from the real world.” He was apparently subsisting on a diet of peppers and milk, and exhibited some truly strange behaviors—like keeping his urine in his refrigerator so that "no other wizard could use it to enchant him.”

11. HE WAS A BIT OF A FUTURIST.

Not only was Bowie ahead of his time when it came to his art, but he also seemed to foretell the rise of the internet. In 1999, while discussing a newfangled invention known as the world wide web with Jeremy Paxman of the BBC, the host suggests that the internet’s potential has been “hugely exaggerated.” Bowie was quick to make it clear that he didn’t agree. “I really embrace the idea that there’s a new demystification process between the artist and the audience,” Bowie said “The interplay between the user and the provider will be so in sympatico it’s going to crush our ideas of what mediums are all about.”

12. HE WAS A PIONEER OF MUSIC STREAMING.

In September 1996, Bowie became the first major artist to release a single via internet download only with “Telling Lies.” It took about 11 minutes to download. (Times have changed.) That was just the beginning: In 1998, Bowie announced that he’d be launching his own internet service provider, known as BowieNet.

13. HE WAS A VORACIOUS READER.

May 1973: In a black and white horizontally striped jacket with wide lapels glam rock star David Bowie
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

While he was mostly known for his musical output, Bowie was a major bookworm who often read a book a day. In 2013, the curators at the Art Gallery of Ontario compiled a list of the artist’s 100 favorite books as part of an exhibition, “David Bowie Is.” It was an eclectic list, encompassing everything from Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz to Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary to Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys.

14. HIS SON RECENTLY CREATED A BOOK CLUB IN BOWIE’S HONOR.

In late December, Bowie’s son—filmmaker Duncan Jones—announced via Twitter that he would be paying tribute to his father’s love of reading with an online-based book club.

The club will kick off with Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor, and the conversation will begin on February 1.

15. A LOCK OF HIS HAIR SOLD FOR $18,750.

In June 2016, just a few months after the singer’s passing, a lock of Bowie’s hair—which had been snipped in 1983 by a wig mistress at Madame Tussauds in London—went up for auction as part of Entertainment & Music Memorabilia Signature Auction held by Heritage Auctions and sold for a hair-raising $18,750.

“David Bowie changed music forever and fans are hungry for related precious objects that bring them closer to their favorite musician," Margaret Barrett, Heritage’s director of entertainment and music auctions, said at the time. "What brings you closer than a lock of hair?" (The bidding started at $2000 and early estimates thought it might only go as high as $4000.)

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20 Memorable Elvis Presley Quotes
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Hulton Archive/Getty Images

More than 40 years after his death, Elvis Presley remains a rock ‘n' roll icon and has yet to be ousted from his position as “The King.” Yet the Tupelo, Mississippi-born, Memphis, Tennessee-raised superstar never took his fame for granted, nor did he forget his roots. On what would have been his 83rd birthday, here are 20 memorable quotes about Elvis’s life and legacy.

ON AMBITION

“Ambition is a dream with a V8 engine.”

ON MAINTAINING YOUR VALUES

“It's not how much you have that makes people look up to you, it's who you are.”

“Values are like fingerprints. Nobody's are the same, but you leave 'em all over everything you do.”

ON THE MUSIC INDUSTRY

“I happened to come along in the music business when there was no trend.”

“I've never written a song in my life. It's all a big hoax.”

“I don't know anything about music. In my line you don't have to.”

ON THE ARMY

“After a hard day of basic training, you could eat a rattlesnake.”

“The army teaches boys to think like men.”

ON TRUTH

“Truth is like the sun. You can shut it out for a time, but it ain't goin' away.”

ON THOSE LEGENDARY DANCE MOVES

“Rock and roll music, if you like it, if you feel it, you can't help but move to it. That's what happens to me. I can't help it.”

“Some people tap their feet, some people snap their fingers, and some people sway back and forth. I just sorta do 'em all together, I guess.”

ON KEEPING POSITIVE

“When things go wrong, don't go with them.”

ON STARDOM

“If you let your head get too big, it'll break your neck.”

“I have no use for bodyguards, but I have very specific use for two highly trained certified public accountants.”

“The image is one thing and the human being is another. It's very hard to live up to an image, put it that way.”

“The Lord can give, and the Lord can take away. I might be herding sheep next year.”

ON LOVE

“Sad thing is, you can still love someone and be wrong for them.”

ON THE PITFALLS OF HOLLYWOOD

“I sure lost my musical direction in Hollywood. My songs were the same conveyer belt mass production, just like most of my movies were.”

ON GETTING OLDER

“Every time I think that I'm getting old, and gradually going to the grave, something else happens.”

ON LEAVING A LEGACY

“Do something worth remembering.”

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