A long, long time ago . . .
I can still remember
How that music used to make me smile.
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.
So said Don McLean in his iconic 1971 song “American Pie,” about the death in a light-plane crash of three of my generation’s childhood heroes: Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson, who was known as The Big Bopper.
Next Tuesday, Feb. 3, it is 50 years since “the day the music died.”
Nothing defines a generation like its music; and for my generation — we were teenagers in the late 1950s — Feb. 3, 1959, was a truly disastrous day.
The three musicians had just finished their gig at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, and were about to leave for the airport to board a four-seat Beech Bonanza for Fargo, North Dakota. Buddy allocated a seat to The Big Bopper, and with pilot Roger Peterson in his place, the last seat was up for grabs. Ritchie Valens and guitarist Tommy Allsup flipped a coin for it, and Allsup lost. (The fateful toss took place at the Surf Ballroom, not at the airport, as was erroneously but dramatically depicted in “La Bamba,” the film about Ritchie Valens’ life.)
The U.S. weather bureaus in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Kansas City, Missouri, had both issued flash advisories indicating bands of snow over the region that would severely hamper visibility. These advisories were not, however, called to the attention of pilot Peterson, who didn’t therefore expect that instrument flying would be necessary.
However, according to the Civil Aeronautics Board’s subsequent accident report, “The company was certificated to fly in accordance with visual flight rules only, both day and night, [and] together with the pilot’s unproved ability to fly by instrument, the decision to go seems most imprudent.”
The report also states . . .
“It is believed that shortly after takeoff, pilot Peterson entered an area of complete darkness and one in which there was no definite horizon [and] that the snow conditions and the lack of horizon required him to rely solely on flight instruments for aircraft attitude and orientation. . . . The weather briefing supplied to the pilot was seriously inadequate in that it failed to even mention adverse flying conditions which should have been highlighted.
“The Board determines that the probable cause of this accident was the pilot’s unwise decision to embark on a flight which would necessitate flying solely by instruments when he was not properly certificated or qualified to do so.”
Buddy Holly, with his big-frame black glasses and kindly smile, was only 22 when he died. It may be hard to imagine today, but even though he was wildly popular with young people — his singles “That’ll be the Day” and “Peggy Sue” were both No. 1 Billboard hits in 1957 — my parents and those of their generation generally regarded him with a jaundiced and severely critical eye. In that era of an acute generation gap, though, he was the prime idol of the young. Bob Dylan was clearly influenced by his music, as were The Beatles, who derived their name from Buddy’s group, The Crickets.
For my generation, rock ‘n’ roll, and the cool lifestyle it suggested to us, was our Bible, our dictionary and our textbook all rolled into one. We called our teachers “Daddy-O” — originally a beatnik term for a hip older guy, but used by us in derision.
We had a different dance for every rhythmic type of rock ‘n’ roll. We did The Watusi and The Swim. We eased into The Stroll, shook to The Monkey and pranced about with The Chicken . . . or dared to slip into The Dirty Chicken. You may remember The Twist and The Bop, but who remembers The Slop and The Pony? Well, I do. These helped us cope with our generation’s growing pains. We were not so much dancing as expressing what we took to be our individuality, literally thrusting ourselves ahead of the adults who could only stand on the sidelines and shake their heads in utter disapproval at us jiggling and squirming our way into the 1960s.
When you look back at us, or, for that matter, at Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper, you see that we were meticulously cleancut. If a longish strand of hair slipped out of its wave (a wave plastered together with enough grease to sink a bathtub duck), we were mortified. The tousled hair of The Beatles shocked us as much as it did our elders.
A look at the hits of Jan. 9, 1958, from Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand,” a television show that was the teen “Gospel Hour,” demonstrates how our morals were shifting from a harmless and unworldly romanticism (Pat Boone’s “April Love” was No. 10) to a more gritty, open-ended sexuality (Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire” was No. 2; and Bill Justis’ “Raunchy” was No. 4). We were reaching out clumsily into adulthood through our music. No. 1 on the list that January 9 was our true favorite: “At the Hop” by Danny and the Juniors. All we wanted to do was bebop forever — until we got too old to move . . .
But the death of three of our greatest heroes on Feb. 3, 1959 brought it all to a screeching halt. In a few years’ time, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963, and a war in Vietnam, faraway from where I was brought up, were to alert us to a new reality, one that urged us to turn on to psychotropics, tune in to protest, or drop out and leave our country. We were, without doubt, the last innocent generation of America.
Roger Peterson, the pilot of the plane that crashed, was only 21. He had married his high-school sweetheart in September 1958. Tommy Allsup, the guitarist who would have been on the plane but for a toss of the coin, is now 77 years old and still performing as a musician today.
Don McLean’s “American Pie” sums it up this way . . .
And the three men I admire most: The father, son, and the holy ghost, They caught the last train for the coast The day the music died.
Yes, we were America’s last innocent youth, though that innocence, too, was not to be long for the world.