The Day the Music Died: A Look Back 60 Years Later
Why we make the pilgrimage to the past
The upper Midwest recovers from another arctic winter this weekend. As it does, the tragic plane crash that claimed the lives of Buddy Holly (22), Richie Valens (17) and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson (28) turns 60.
It’s widely regarded as ‘The Day the Music Died’, a phrase coined by Don McLean’s 1971 autobiographical song “American Pie”. McLean’s retrospective track is said to symbolize the end of American innocence. For McLean this reaches back to his own experiences as a newspaper delivery boy. He was just 13 years old when the headlines ran.
McLean’s memories — and his song — color the American consciousness. The United States was on the cusp of radical social and political change and the music that would define the era was about to change with it.
Outside of a few poignant references, “American Pie” doesn’t linger in the present. Instead, it stays lodged in the past, like a time-capsule lost to a bygone era, stuck on the loop of its infectious chorus. You know the one I’m referring to.
“American Pie” commemorates the purity of a moment in [both] Rock and Roll and in time. It’s illustrative of a generation on the verge of adulthood and revolution, before the revolution. It’s the coming of age tale that never comes of age.
The narrative from the night that Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper lost their lives has been played and replayed. The three stars were on a flight that Holly chartered after a gig in Clear Lake, Iowa, a gig that was added at the last second to fill a vacancy in the Winter Party Dance Tour.
The Tour From Hell
The three week, 24 date tour, organized by General Artists Corp had zero regard for logistical planning. The tour zig-zagged across the upper Midwest, often backtracking over the previous day’s journey, all in reconditioned school busses.
Two-lane highways, 400 mile treks and -30º temperatures were standard. Holly historian Bill Griggs estimates that the musicians changed buses 5 different times before reaching Clear Lake.
The February 1st bus breakdown has received attention over the years as the final straw for Holly and his decision to charter the plane. Rolling Stone and The Star Tribune discuss it in detail. The tour was headed back through Minnesota on Highway 51 after a stop in Duluth.
The show finished at 11pm — a show that Bob Dylan attended — and the band members loaded their equipment into the bus and set off.
Just 100 miles into the 440 mile journey, a piston punched a hole through the engine block and the bus stalled in the middle of the pitch-black highway. Band members took to burning newspapers in the aisles for warmth. Some jammed in tightly huddled circles in the back of the bus to pass the time.
Dion, of Dion and the Belmonts, recounts his experience for Rolling Stone:
“Buddy and I huddled together under a blanket, and just to pass the time, I’d tell him stories of the Bronx — about Ralphie Mooch, Frankie Yunk Yunk and Joe BB-Eyes — and he’d tell me stories about Baptists in Lubbock, Texas. One of the Belmonts had a bottle of scotch, so we’d all take a shot. We were laughin’, and to me it seemed like a field trip! I didn’t know 30 below zero.”
They waited for several hours before a trucker spotted the bus and alerted a local sheriff who then arranged four cars to rescue them.
They boarded another bus in Green Bay, Wisconsin to make the 340 mile trek to Clear Lake. When the heaters failed, they were forced to stop off in Prairie du Chien to repair them. They arrived in Clear Lake at 8pm, just in time to take the stage at the Surf Ballroom.
It’s here where Holly asked the club manager to charter the plane.
Holly offered one of the seats in the 4-seat, single-engine Beechcraft Bonanza aircraft up to Dion, who balked at the $36 price tag. Crickets band members Tommy Allsup and Waylon Jennings were next up. Jennings handed over his seat to Richardson who was struggling with the flu, and Valens won a coin flip for Allsup’s seat.
When Valen’s joked with Allsup, telling him to enjoy the bus ride, Allsup jabbed back, saying ‘I hope your plane crashes.’ Allsup is still haunted by the flip remark.
At 1 am, 21-year old pilot Roger Peterson set out of Clear Lake, Iowa for Fargo, North Dakota. Claire Suddath of Time Magazine observes:
The plane stayed in the sky for only a few minutes; no one is quite sure what went wrong. The best guess is that Peterson flew directly into the blizzard, lost visual reference and accidentally flew down instead of up. The four-passenger plane plowed into a nearby cornfield at over 170 mph, flipping over on itself and tossing the passengers into the air. Their bodies landed yards away from the wreckage and stayed there for ten hours as snowdrifts formed around them.
Commemoration, Canonization and a Fascination with Death
The Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa celebrates the 60th anniversary of Holly, Valens and Richardson’s final performance this weekend. The festivities stretch across 4 days, embracing the fashion and the music of the era, and include dance lessons, a sock hop, film screenings and live music.
The Surf Ballroom’s 50th anniversary’s line-up featured Graham Nash, Bobby Vee (who was on the 1959 Winter Dance Party Tour), and Los Lobos. This year, Albert Lee, Chubby Checker, The Chiffons and Johnny Tillotson are all on the bill. They’re expecting a sold-out crowd with attendees from 4 countries and 36 states.
Sure enough, the festivities include a bus tour to the memorial site for $8. The tour sold out weeks ago.
It feels morbid to even consider visiting the cornfield that claimed the lives of the men that cold February morning, but it speaks to a cultural fascination with how we engage with celebrity deaths.
There’s an entire culture surrounding it.
When Graceland opened to the public in 1982 it sealed off access to the 2nd floor to skirt macabre attention to the scene of Elvis Presley’s death. In doing so, it only piqued fan’s curiosity. Sites like linkydinky.com filled in the clinical details with photos and itemized lists of the suite, which is said to remain as it was when Elvis was still living.
In the same vein, websites like Rock and Roll Roadmaps and Where the Stars Died pedantically catalog the nitty gritty crime scene details of celebrity deaths, adding precise geolocations for fans to reference and seek out.
Memorials for James Dean, Marc Bolan, Stevie Ray Vaughn and Gram Parsons serve as stamps in the physical landscape of time and history. Flowers, graffiti, and candles crowd plaques that mark the official site of impact, a testament to the emotional and physical impact that the lives — and deaths — of our icons have on us.
Fans of Janis Joplin created a makeshift shrine in the room where she died of an accidental overdose. Fans of Gram Parsons constructed a memorial in Joshua Tree National Park at the site of his partial cremation. For $140 a night, fans can complete the experience up the road by staying in the room Parsons overdosed in at the Joshua Tree Inn. It’s complete with its own shrine and memorabilia.
These makeshift shrines prove that there’s a cosmic pull to these spaces, that there’s spiritual value to them, and an inherent need make pilgrimages to the sites where death claimed life.
Dearly Departed’s ‘Tragical History Tour’ is a 2.5-hour tour that explores the lives and deaths of some of Hollywood’s most famous celebrities. The multimedia bus tour visits close to 75 famous sites, offering film clips and 911 sound bites to color the experience.
Michaels has since written and produced several documentary features on the subjects of crime and death. In “Hollywood Death Trip”, a feature he wrote, produced and co-hosted for E! Television, Michaels states, “If you wanna see the creepy side of Hollywood, I’m your guy.”
Dead Apple Tours, operates out of New York and is billed as “an intimate journey to the sites where famous New Yorkers have died and famous New York City deaths have taken place.” The most unique thing about Dead Apple Tours is that the tour takes place within the comforts of a 1960 Cadillac Superior Crown Royale Hearse, which they’re quick to remind, “has been customized for a comfortable ride… sitting up.”
And it feels like I’m just scratching the surface here.
There is a cultural fascination with the deaths of our icons. In my rabbit-hole research for this piece, I found myself reading Trip Advisor reviews for informal memorial sites. The unifying thread within these comments speaks to a desire to pay some sort of respect.
But it’s much more than that. Death is mystifying, but it’s also universal. It’s what binds us as human beings. Death is something we all share. As Jim Morrison, infamous frontman for The Doors and subject of his own mysterious death, once sang in “Five to One”, “no one here gets out alive.” It’s worth noting that Morrison’s final resting place is one of the most visited grave sites in the world.
This weekend, as fans stand at the foot of the sculpture that resembles Holly’s black horn-rimmed glasses, they’ll undoubtedly reminisce about the story that began 60 years ago. As they retrace that narrative, I’m willing to bet they’ll find little pockets to connect it to their own lives and experiences. After all, that’s the real reason we make these kinds of pilgrimages, to find a little bit of ourselves in the rubble.
This was just too good to leave out:
Nicholas Cage, who was married to Lisa Marie Presley, is rumored to be one of the few to have seen the 2nd floor at Graceland. According to linkydinky.com, Cage was supposedly granted access around the 25th anniversary of Presley’s death. The website reports that, while he was there, he “sat on the King’s ‘throne’, assumed the prone posture in which Elvis died, laid on the singer’s bed and tried on a leather jacket.”