Today is the 50th anniversary of the plane crash that famously became known as “the day the music died.”
For those not consigned to the generational hell that is Baby Boomerdom, on this day 50 years ago a small plane carrying three important rock stars of their time – Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and J.P. “Big Bopper” Richardson – crashed in a snow storm.
All three men died, as did the pilot, a 21 year old with, evidently, about 30 minutes of flying experience.
There has been much weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth over the years due to this event. Most of this has been over Holly, considered still one of the greatest talents rock music has ever produced and an enormously influential figure among what became “the next big thing” in rock – the British Invasion that began just over five years later with The Beatles’ appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.
Over a decade after that snowy February rock and roll tragedy, singer/songwriter Don McLean had a gigantic hit with his song “American Pie” which prominently referenced the crash – and singled out Holly with the following lines:”I can’t remember if I cried/When I read about his widowed bride/But something touched me deep inside/The Day the Music Died….”
But What Does It Mean?
A lot of ink is being spilled today about this anniversary (here’s a typical example) – and about whether February 3, 1959, truly is “the day the music died” – or, as the above article argues, one of those reminders of the fragility of human life, something even “the power of rock” cannot triumph over. Reference September 18, 1970, April 5, 1994, or, most famously, December 8, 1980. (Apologies in advance if the date of death of your favorite rock star is not listed here.)
But there’s another question I haven’t noticed anyone (including me) ask about this or any other, measured by “pre-media culture” standards, sad anniversary.
Why do we care?
As I have heard no less a personage than Michael Caine observe, “Nobody really goes away anymore.” Caine was referencing Turner Classic Movies, a channel that feeds viewers a constant diet of films starring long dead movie stars, but his observation is easily applied to VH-1 Classic’s treatment of dead rock stars, the History Channel’s treatment of dead politicians, or any of our myriad of outlets that constantly give us that experience that McLuhan famously (if politically incorrectly) termed “Orientalizing” – that sense that neither JFK, John Lennon, or John Wayne has gone anywhere – we constantly live with them even if it is “virtual.”
So why should I be sad? I have almost the entire Buddy Holly catalog that I can listen to at will. Buddy plays for me whenever I want him to. I have both Valens’ major tunes and somewhere I even have “Chantilly Lace.” (Hello, Baby….”)
So it’s all good…right?
Loss of Affect
This sounds shallow and superficial. But we live in a shallow and superficial culture, don’t we? A culture of 24 hour news that fails to make us informed, responsible citizens. A culture where we’re expected to choose our Buddy Hollys via a glorified game show.
So I sit here listening to Buddy as I write this and his last hit comes on:
“It Doesn’t Matter Anymore.”
The irony for both Buddy and our culture is not lost on me.
Virtual V. Reality
Buddy Holly died at 22; J.P. Richardson at 28; Richie Valens at (almost unbelievably) 17.
Their combined life spans, 67 years, are less than the average American life span. Bob Dylan is currently 67. Paul McCartney will be 67 in June.
With all the recordings and films we have of Holly, Valens, and the Bopper, whatever virtual eternal youth and joy those technological renderings offer us, what we don’t have are all those years of productivity, artistry, life they and we might have had.
When people die, they die. They’re gone. We don’t have them anymore. We miss them. We’ve suffered a loss.
And sometimes, on a day like this, we remember our loss – and it makes us sad.
That’s the reality. Nothing virtual about it.