NEW YORK, NY—’s handwritten lyrics for “,” in which the folk troubadour famously sings about “the day the music died,” have sold at auction for $1.2 million. This falls far short of the $2 million realized in June of last year by the lyrics to ’s equally iconic “Like a Rolling Stone,” but it’s nevertheless a pretty good chunk of change for a few pieces of paper scrawled on in pencil, plus typed drafts for the song.
Of course, the anonymous bidder who won the lyrics to “” bought much more than simple manuscript pages. He or she purchased a piece of history—the genesis, realization, and thought process that went behind penning the Vietnam-era, post-Altamont epic that helped define a generation “lost in space.” In some respects, “American Pie,” written in 1970 and ’71 and reaching #1 on the Billboard charts in 1972, reflects the innocence of the 1950s, the ideals and turbulence of the ’60s, and the birth of 1970s cynicism.
On the surface and at its core, “” was inspired by the deaths of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, who were victims of a bad-weather plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa, on Feb. 3, 1959—the day the music died—during the “Winter Dance Party” tour of the Midwest. Pilot Roger Peterson, who reportedly wasn’t certified for an instrument-guided flight, was also killed.
Holly, famous for such songs as “Peggy Sue” and “That’ll Be the Day,” was only 22 when he died but is widely regarded as one of the most influential rockers of all time. Because of logistical frustrations with the tour (broken heaters on busses, lack of clothes laundering services), he chartered the plane for himself, guitarist Tommy Allsup, and bassist (and future country legend) . As fate would have it, Allsup lost his spot on the plane via a flip of the coin with Valens while Jennings gave up his seat to The Big Bopper, who had the flu.
Up until the sale of the lyrics, which was hosted by Christie’s on April 7, McLean has been reluctant to talk about the meaning of “American Pie,” beyond the fact that it was inspired by the plane crash. “People ask me if I left the lyrics open to ambiguity,” he said years ago. “Of course I did. I wanted to make a whole series of complex statements. The lyrics had to do with the state of society at the time. They're beyond analysis. They're poetry.”
And, when in a comical mood, he has frequently said, “It means I never have to work again.”
Now, as promised, McLean has come clean about the ubiquitous song, which references everyone from Karl Marx to to the to to the “widowed bride,” . “Basically in ‘American Pie,’ things are heading in the wrong direction,” he told Christie’s. “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.”
McLean continued: “For more than 40 years I have rambled around every state of the union and many, many countries of the world. My primary interests in life have been America, singing, songwriting, and the English language. I love the English language as much as anything in life and words really do mean something. I thought it would be interesting as I reach age 70 to release this work product on the song ‘American Pie’ so that anyone who might be interested will learn that this song was not a parlor game. It was an indescribable photograph of America that I tried to capture in words and music and then was fortunate enough through the help of others to make a successful recording.”
At the eight-and-a-half-minutes, “,” which is the first track on the album of the same name, is the longest song to ever hit #1 in America. In 2001, it was voted #5 on the list of “Songs of the Century,” an educational project hosted by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), the National Endowment for the Arts, and Scholastic Inc.
Today, “American Pie” remains a beloved staple of classic rock radio.
As music critic Douglas Brinkley states, “When ‘’ suddenly is played on a or radio it’s almost impossible to not sing along…After all these years later ‘American Pie’ still makes me feel empowered and yet filled with a sense of loss. The song is alive and joyful, yet fretful about a world gone wrong. It is a song that will never die. A reverie for the ages.”