I often hear Don McLean’s masterpiece of a song, “American Pie.” It almost always tears up my eyes. Maybe, because I lived through the loss of the America that it’s written about—that over the years since has become as lost as my long, blonde hair.
A couple mornings ago, on the car radio, I heard it again. This time, it struck me that “the day the music died,” February 3, 1959, that McLean began his song with has, in fact, happened again—recently.
I’m not saying that there has literally been another plane crash, stealing another young life like that of Buddy Holly’s. I am saying that something has happened in the same kind of specific, pinpoint manner of the plane crash that, in Holly’s case, forever separated the America before his death (the Fifties and the late Forties) from the America after the singer/songwriter’s death (The Sixties and the early Seventies—and beyond).
There’s so much to glean from McLean’s song, recorded on May 26, 1971. This link to an understanding of the song dissects it verse-by-verse.
This second link is a youtube video of the song set to archival images that sync with each musical and cultural reference that McLean makes in his lyrics.
There was definitely a post WWII, chicken in every pot and a car in every backyard, to boot, live and let live, romantic innocence that underscored Holly’s music and that preceded his death. Then, as with a flash of lightning, there came the Sixties—and with it, a rising hell of violent turmoil, culminating with the December 6, 1969 Rolling Stones Altamont Speedway Free Concert, during which four festivalgoers died (one of which having been brutally knifed and kicked to death by members of the infamous Hells Angels motorcycle gang right in front of the stage, causing Mick Jagger to stop the band in the middle of their song “Sympathy For The Devil” while he shouted out for a doctor to help the victim).
For an excellent, almost minute-by-minute account of that Stones concert, here is a link to a January 21, 1970 Rolling Stone Magazine article—from little more than one month after the tragic event. A truly frightening read that, really, sums up that whole decade! A 1970 feature-length documentary of the Altamont Free Concert also was made, complete with all of its madness and aptly titled “Gimme Shelter.”
I heard about the concert on the TV news, just as I had heard about the Charles Manson murders only four months before Altamont, in August of 1969. The year before, Martin Luther King had been assassinated on April 4, and Bobby Kennedy was assassinated on June 5. On February 21, 1965, Malcolm X was gunned down with a sawed-off shotgun and then pistols. The Gulf of Tonkin Incident occurred on August 2, and 4, 1964, which caused Lyndon Johnson to escalate U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, approved by Congress on August 10, 1964. And, on November 22, 1963, John Kennedy had been assassinated in Texas.
Perhaps JFK’s death was the real pivot point, but still, it was Buddy Holly’s bone-scattering death in that frozen Iowa cornfield that foreshadowed the rampant bloodshed that accompanied the ten years that followed.
Whoever thinks that the Sixties was all tie-dyes, bell-bottoms, leather sandals, and sunrise doobies in the park must not have been there.
One thing that I think has not been so discussed, though, about that decade, regards the Democratic-Socialist revolutionaries who began, in earnest, to act upon their political beliefs, first using riots, stones, molotov cocktails, and improvised explosive devices to attack the American “establishment” from the outside. The Students For A Democratic Society (SDS). The Weather Underground. The Black Panthers. Just to name the big three.
Influential mentors appeared, some employed as professors at universities like those at Berkeley and Columbia, for example, Richard Andrew Cloward and his wife Frances Fox Piven, and Saul Alinsky, the author of Rules For Radicals. They began to teach many of those revolutionaries that the more effective way to fundamentally transform America was not from the outside, with stones and bombs, but from the inside—by rising up within. And, so they did.
Sixties revolutionaries, like Bill Ayers and his wife Bernadine Dohrn, became small-community organizers, school and small-town administrators, and worked their way up through civic and educational systems. Ayers, ultimately, became an instructor at the University of Chicago, where he, his wife, and the young Barack Obama socialized and practiced community organizing together. Obama worked his way farther up to the Illinois Senate, and from there, he obtained the ultimate prize—the American presidency. The idea for how they made that happen originated, primarily, with the “Cloward-Pivens Strategy” and Alinsky’s book of rules for radicals, in the Sixties, not so long after Holly’s death.
Which brings me back to the other morning when I was listening to “American Pie” on the car radio and came to a clear belief that once more, a plane had crashed, shattering what came before and heralding another violent tumult, so far, too close to being alike the Sixties. Not yet the Sixties. It would take an awful lot to match that decade, but already too close! Antifah. The Occupy Movement. The Squad. Maybe, that could be what tears up my eyes when I hear the song.
There was the time before November 8, 2016, and there has been the time that has come after and that is now racing recklessly forward, already dangerously close to out-of-control. Instead of Buddy Holly nose-diving into an icy Iowa cornfield and dying instantly upon impact on February 3, 1959, Hillary Clinton’s campaign for following upon Obama’s heels into the American presidency crashed, burned, and died on that November election day, 2016. Then, as with a flash of lightning, there came Donald Trump.
Don McLean mourned, “bye, bye, Miss American Pie,” and Trump shouted out, “Make America Great Again!”
s.a. bort / 10 August 2019