Don McLean wrote a song about “the day the music died.” The song was “American Pie,” and the song made a killing.
Years ago, when asked to explain the eight-and-a-half-minute song’s rambling, cryptic lyrics, McLean famously replied, “It means I don't ever have to work again if I don't want to.”
McLean has continued to mine gold from his 1971 hit. Last week in New York City, his original working manuscript for “American Pie” went on the auction block at Christie’s, where it sold for $1,205,000.
Like the song, the auction contained a lot of words. It was titled The Complete Working Manuscript for the Song “American Pie,” with Numerous Revisions and Unpublished Deleted Sections. [Cold Spring, NY and Philadelphia, PA, 1970-71]. The item for sale consisted of 17 sheets of paper on which McLean worked out the song’s lyrics, including an additional verse that McLean deleted from the song.
“American Pie” is often seen as an exploration of lost innocence—both personal and societal—through the cultural landscape of rock and roll. It’s safe to say the line “the day the music died” is about Buddy Holly’s death in an airplane crash on February 3, 1959. McLean has acknowledged that he learned about the guitarist’s death while folding newspapers for his paper route on the following morning. He also spoke of his shock when he went to school that day and no one shared his sorrow.
“As a child, a 15-year-old, I had no idea that nobody else felt that way much,” he said. “I mean, I went to school and mentioned it and they said, ‘So what?’ ”
But apart from that, McLean remained silent on the matter until the Christie’s sale. In the notes accompanying the auction catalog, he described the song as a tune that charts America’s loss of innocence and the decline of morality.
“Basically in ‘American Pie’ things are heading in the wrong direction,” he said. “It is becoming less idyllic. I don’t know whether you consider that wrong or right but it is a morality song in a sense.”
In the video below, McLean sits down for an interview with British talk show host Alan Titchmarsh. He talks about “American Pie” around the three-minute mark and then performs a verse and chorus of another of his hits, “Vincent.” It’s a wonderful, intimate performance.