A slice of American Pie

Life Happens - Jeff Gates

Remembering the day the music cried.

Long, long time ago, I can still remember how that music used to make me smile.

There was a day when I knew every word to the countless verses of the Don McLean classic “American Pie.”

At Buffalo State College, one of the most anticipated times of the week was the 10 cent wing nights, where an on campus eatery would offer the area’s trademark delicacy at that reduced rate.

My friends and I would venture up to the top floor of Moot Hall (conveniently located just across from my dorm, Neumann Hall), slap down our four bucks each, and sit and wait for that steaming bucket of Buffalo goodness.

Looking for a way to pass the time, my friend Craig suggested we sing some songs. Through trial and error (and surely getting some strange looks from our fellow famished college students), we found that the timing was almost perfect if we started “American Pie” just after we ordered, and by the time all verses were finished, so were our wings.

We were no strangers to bizarre musical linkage. In addition to my coffee house version of “You Light Up My Life” as chronicled in a previous column, we would do everything from recording our interpretation of the voices of “We Are the World” to requesting all of their versions of “O Canada” from a local call-in music program. Incidentally, they played 18 different ones — which I still have on cassette tape. What else are they going to play at two in the morning?

On this date — Feb. 3 — back in 1959, a plane carrying Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and JP “Big Bopper” Richardson crashed near Clear Fork, Iowa. The three musicians, as well as the pilot, were killed.

I remember as a kid being drawn to the movie “The Buddy Holly Story,” as a youthful Gary Busey portrayed the musician. With his trademark glasses, Holly was the nerd version of Elvis. In addition to the spectacles, the other iconic piece of Holly equipment was his Fender Stratocaster guitar, an instrument that conveyed the mood of the song as much as his voice did.

I became fascinated with the story. It was an atypical-looking matinee idol whose music was infectious. As I began to learn more about him over the years, I was astonished at what an impact this talented singer had in his too-short 22 years of life.

What is more impressive is how many musicians of my youth have credited Holly with being their role model as far as both performing and song writing. The Beatles’ name supposedly came about to pay homage to Holly’s insect-inspired backup group The Crickets. Elton John famously started wearing Holly-type glasses, thus altering his eyesight.

Musical storytellers Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and Bruce Springsteen were all influenced to varying lengths by the “Peggy Sue” performer.

It was a unique mash-up of Rock, Pop and symphonic blends that morphed the scream-inducing sounds of Elvis with the classic harmonious tones of the Everly Brothers.

Carrying on Holly’s legacy in another musical genre was Waylon Jennings. One of country music’s self-proclaimed outlaws, Jennings was a member of Holly’s touring band who infamously gave up his seat on the plane to an ill Big Bopper that fateful night.

Through Jennings, Dylan, Springsteen and others, it was not really the day the music died, but rather when the music began to thrive as these famous performers chose to keep Holly’s legacy going through their talents.

So, on this ominous anniversary, while feeling bad for lives tragically lost young, appreciate how their legacies continue through the variety of music we have enjoyed for generations.

Because “That’ll Be the Day” we make sure his contribution to music will “Not Fade Away.”


Life Happens

Jeff Gates

Jeff Gates has been a freelance writer for The Madison Press since 1996. Future column suggestions and/or comments? Contact: lifehappenscolumn@gmail.com.

Jeff Gates has been a freelance writer for The Madison Press since 1996. Future column suggestions and/or comments? Contact: lifehappenscolumn@gmail.com.