Editor’s Note: Singer-songwriter Don McLean’s hit song “American Pie” calls the 1959 plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson “the day the music died.” The original manuscript of McLean’s lyrics to “American Pie” is being auctioned by Christie’s on April 7. His new song “Waving Man,” an unreleased track from a forthcoming album “Botanical Gardens,” can be seen on YouTube. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Don McLean: It's bad idea for NTSB to re-examine 1959 crash that killed Buddy Holly, "Big Bopper," Ritchie Valens
He says it's distasteful; they should "rest in peace"
He says looking at crash case again is only part of the "American death trip" that pervades our culture
Many years ago I performed at the Surf Ballroom, in Clear Lake, Iowa, which was the last stop on Buddy Holly’s final tour. He was killed in a plane crash in 1959 that also took the lives of singers J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson and Ritchie Valens.
By this time, Buddy Holly and I had had a pretty long history together. The concert that I performed at had all the old members of his group. Donna, who Ritchie Valens wrote a song about, was also there. Peggy Sue, who Buddy Holly sang about, was there too. The Picks were there – they sang background vocals on Buddy’s records – as well as singer Tommy Allsup, who claimed that years later he got his wallet back from the crash site.
Unfortunately some fans at this show were selling crash-site photos, which I thought was in extremely bad taste. I think the prospect of the National Transportation Safety Board delving into the crash again, which might mean exhuming bodies and all the rest, would be in similarly bad taste. I think there’s a reason we say, “rest in peace.”
Buddy Holly would have the same stature musically whether he would have lived or died, because of his accomplishments which, in retrospect, nobody – and I mean nobody, not the Beatles the Rolling Stones or anyone else – can beat, for these reasons: By the time he was 22 years old he had recorded some 50 tracks, most of which he had written himself and each of them, in my view and the view of many others, a hit.
Buddy Holly and the Crickets were the template for all the rock bands that followed. No rock ‘n’ roll records can touch songs like “Rave On,” “Think it Over,” “Not Fade Away,” “Peggy Sue” and many, many more. He was also a sensitive, ballad composer and singer, which people often overlook, with songs like “Moondreams” and “True Love Ways,” among many.
As a paperboy, I cut open the stack of papers on February 3, 1959, and saw that Buddy Holly had been killed in the plane crash. The next day I went to school in shock, and guess what? Nobody cared. Rock ‘n roll in those days was sort of like hula hoops and Buddy hadn’t had a big hit on the charts since ’57, nor had the others in the plane crash.
Americans in those days were always looking ahead. Death was not lingered over. We’d had enough of that in World War II. Death and grief did not go with the exuberance and bright colors of the 1950s.
Since then we have embarked on what I would call the “American death trip.” One simply has to look at the slew of autopsy shows on television and the endless regurgitation of Marilyn, Elvis and JFK death details to get my point.
Furthermore, because of the ever-growing psychological power of the media, we seem to think we can reach back half a century and touch things as if they are real. We live in a virtual nostalgic world because of this. Fortunately, Buddy Holly’s music is forever young and all any young person has to do is listen to it and his life will be changed forever.