The Day the Music Died, Redux

The Day the Music Died, Redux

My apologies.  I wanted to mention the subject of today’s note during the month of February, but even with the extra day, I somehow managed not to get around to it.  In theory, I know how calendars work, but in practice…not so much.

In any case, four weeks ago tomorrow – February 3 – was the 65th anniversary of the second-most important event in the history of Clear Lake, Iowa.  The most important event in that town’s history, of course, also took place in February, although 19 years earlier, when Clayton and Fern Melcher welcomed into the world their second child, the legendary Wall Street/Washington analyst, Mark Melcher.  But that’s a story for another day – and for a several-volume biography.

Our story today is about a bitterly cold and dreary night in 1959, when Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. Richardson (aka, “The Big Bopper”) performed at Clear Lake’s vaunted Surf Ballroom and then headed out with the rest of the Winter Dance Party tour for their next gig in Moorhead, Minnesota.  Holly, the headliner of the tour, had grown weary of the broken-down, frostbite-inducing bus and had chartered a plane that would take him and a couple of members of his band on to Moorhead.  As fate would have it, the band members gave their seats up to Valens and Richardson, both of whom were suffering from the flu, and the three rising stars, along with their pilot, crashed not long after takeoff.  Everyone on board was killed.  Just over a decade later, in his song “American Pie,” folk singer Don McLean famously memorialized the events of February 3 as “the day the music died.”

“The day the music died,” is an interesting moniker.  Clearly, that’s what it must have felt like at the time to fans of American rhythm and blues music, an event shocking in its abruptness and significance – killing not one, but three prominent artists.  At the same time, things like this happen.  Entertainers die abruptly all the time, and a surprising number have died in plane crashes:  Glenn Miller, Patsy Cline, Otis Redding, Jim Croce, Ronnie Van Zandt and Steve Gaines of Lynyrd Skynyrd, Stevie Ray Vaughn (helicopter), John Denver, and so on.

Given this, we can presume that McLean meant to suggest that these three particular deaths were important culturally, in addition to musically (or personally).  Holly, Valens, and Richardson happened to die at a cultural inflection point at which the nature and purpose of popular music were changing, making their deaths seem far more meaningful in the nation’s cultural evolution.  They died on the cusp of the 1960s, after all, which were, indeed, transformative.

One can look at the cultural significance of February 3, 1959 and Mclean’s lament in one of two ways.  First, one can infer that McLean meant the lyrics of “American Pie” to be interpreted plainly, that he believed that that day was literally the day that American rhythm and blues died, giving way presently to the British invasion and a radical change in musical and cultural bearing.  This interpretation makes a certain amount of sense but can ultimately be dismissed.

American rhythm and blues didn’t die that day.  It merely took on a new direction – or rather, two new directions.  Up to that point, “rock n’ roll” had been a diffuse musical phenomenon.  Holly was from Texas; Valens from Los Angeles; Little Richard from Macon, Georgia; Bill Haley from Pennsylvania; Chuck Berry from St. Louis; and Elvis Presley from Memphis. In the years after the plane crash, American rhythm and blues broke into two strains, each of which coalesced around a single geographic location, one in Detroit (i.e. “Motown”) and the other in Nashville – the latter thanks, in part, to a hauntingly fortuitous act of kindness by the bass player in Budd Holly’s backing band that fateful night.

Given this, the second and more obvious way to look at “American Pie” is symbolically.  The song isn’t really about the music at all, and it’s certainly not about how it died.  Rather, it’s about the rise of cynicism and irony in American culture and the way the attendant attitudes and worldviews were transmitted through popular music, both perverting the formerly pure art form and more efficiently inculcating the nation’s masses with the pathologies of the nihilistic elites.

And if you think I’m exaggerating the hermeneutic meaning of a catchy pop song with a snappy refrain, you should listen to it again…and again…and again, paying close attention to the seething frustration and resentment with which McLean practically spits out the lyrics of the less-snappy verses.

Over the years, music experts and other assorted weirdos (yours truly, included) have heatedly debated whether “the jester” in the song is Bob Dylan.  McLean denies that this is true, but in his shoes, we would deny it as well.  How’s a folk singer to maintain a career and reputation after trashing Bob Frickin’ Dylan?  In any case, the jester is Dylan.  McLean concedes that the Lennon/Lenin who read the book on Marx (thereby politicizing his art) is John, not Vlad.  The girl who sang the blues but refused to give Don any happy news is Janis Joplin, who smiled, turned away, and drank herself to death.  McLean kicks back especially hard at Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones (…“Jack Flash sat on a candle stick, cuz fire is the Devil’s only friend…”)  And anyway, you get the point.

McLean was ticked off.  Not only did his heroes die, but they were replaced by a bunch of cynical and self-absorbed jackasses.  And between their personal nihilism/hedonism/politicism and the legacy which they passed down to their successors, those jackasses made damn sure that the music was dead, buried, and never coming back.  Or, as we put it almost exactly two years ago:

The day it all started, more or less, was March 19, 1990, when Andrew Wood, the singer for the Seattle-area grunge-rock band Mother Love Bone was found dead after a massive heroin overdose.  In honor of Wood and as a fundraiser for his family, Mother Love Bone reformed almost immediately into a band called Temple of the Dog, featuring the addition of two new vocalists, Eddie Vedder and Wood’s roommate and best friend, Chris Cornell.  The band, along with Vedder, would go on to form Pearl Jam, while Cornell would go on to massive success of his own with Soundgarden and Audioslave.  Nevertheless, it was all downhill from there.

In the three decades after Wood’s death, the Gen-X rockers came of age, became global sensations, and then started killing themselves – either literally or accidentally, via overdose.  Sociologists call these “deaths of despair,” indicating that they are depression and despair-related, even if they don’t all manifest explicitly as suicide.  And Gen-Xers despaired quite heavily.

The list of those who died deaths of despair might not be enormous or overwhelming, but it is telling.  Think of a band that was played heavily on the radio in the 1990s, a band that either was or could have been a global monster.  Chances are someone in the band died either from suicide or an overdose. 

Pearl Jam, obviously was the phoenix that rose from the ashes of Andrew Wood’s overdose.  Soundgarden (and Audioslave)?  The aforementioned Chris Cornell hanged himself in his hotel room in 2017.  Nirvana?  Kurt Cobain committed suicide by gun in 1994.  Alice in Chains?  Both Layne Staley and Mike Starr overdosed on heroin.  Blind Melon?  Sublime?  Both Shannon Hoon and Bradley Nowell overdosed on heroin.  Smashing Pumpkins?  Jonathan Melvoin overdosed on heroin.  Stone Temple Pilots?  Scott Weiland overdosed on heroin and a handful of other drugs.  The Killers?  Tommy Martin committed suicide.  Something a little softer, less grungy, maybe The Cranberries?  Dolores O’Riordan got drunk and (intentionally) drown herself.  Blues Traveler, maybe?  Robby Sheehan overdosed on heroin.  Linkin Park?  Chester Bennington hanged himself about a month after Cornell did.  And so it has gone….

So, what could possibly make an entire generation of people that depressed, that despondent, that gloomy, and miserable despite obvious material success?  What could make people feel that they had fallen on black days, even as they owned their homes, had good jobs, were married and had kids, etc.?  That’s hard to say, obviously, but it probably has a great deal to do with what Cornell describes above as everything feeling…off.  It has much to do with the fact that material fulness cannot compensate for spiritual emptiness.  It has something to do with the position in history that Gen-Xers have occupied.  And it has everything to do with nihilism….

Long story short (if that’s even possible now), the hedonism of the ‘60s gave way to the misery of the ‘70s and the ‘80s – divorce, out-of-wedlock births, emotional, physical, and mental illnesses derived from lack of emotional and spiritual contact, AIDS, and so on.  In brief, the new revolution, like the old revolution, gave way to nihilism and despair.  And because of its nature as an explicitly anti-family enterprise, this revolution visited the bulk of that despair on the children it produced, i.e. Generation-X.

Don McLean is a famous man – largely because of one song.  We dare you to name two other Don McLean songs without looking it up.  (There’s “Vincent (Starry, Starry Night)” and…well…uhhhh…).  McLean aptly and cogently summed up the cultural destruction that followed in the wake of “the day the music died.”  If only more people understood the potency of his social critique and the fact that we are still dealing with the aftermath of that day today, some 65 years (and four weeks) later.

Stephen Soukup
Stephen Soukup
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Steve Soukup is the Vice President and Publisher of The Political Forum, an “independent research provider” that delivers research and consulting services to the institutional investment community, with an emphasis on economic, social, political, and geopolitical events that are likely to have an impact on the financial markets in the United States and abroad.