Thursday, August 23, 2012

How the Music Died Part I

"American Pie" is a song that grabbed the national consciousness immediately upon its release and has yet to let go over 40 years later. To be sure, there are many out there that would love nothing more than for us to forget Don McLean's timeless anthem --This is why my generation is more apt to associate the phrase 'American pie' with sticking one's genitals in a warm pie than with the King and Queen, the Jester, the Players, and numerous other figures the song speaks of. But anyone whose given the lyrics even a precursory consideration will soon realize that something truly profound and tragic is being explained.

It's truly grotesque one of the most subversive songs ever will forever be tainted by this piece of shit
Over the course of this post and future installments I will attempt to explain the song's rich symbolism and connect it with a similarly themed song by Blue Oyster Cult released in 1974. I suspect that this is the first time "American Pie" has ever been linked with BoC and that there are no doubt a few 'serious' music buffs out there scratching their heads. After all, BoC is about the epitome of bloated 70s hard rock to many. But McLean and BoC both recorded epic songs that subtly denounced the mythology of the 1960s in part by showing that the social revolutions often associated with this era was well underway long before the Beatles touched down in 1964.

McLean (top) and BoC (bottom) in all their 70s hideousness
Anyway, "American Pie." The first key to understanding this song is recognizing the two pivotal events that bookend it's narrative. The first event is extremely well known --the death of Buddy Holly, which occurred in 1959. The phrase 'the day the music died' that is now widely applied to Holly's death originated in "American Pie," at the end of the first verse ("But something touched me deep inside/The day the music died"). The second pivotal event alluded to throughout the song and directly referenced in the sixth verse is the notorious Altamont Free Concert, which unfolded on December 6, 1969. The period of ten years mentioned in the song ("Now, for ten years we've been on our own/And moss grows fat on a rolling stone") is in reference to the time that passed between these two events and the profound transformation that occurred therein.

the Altamont Free Concert
Now, before I really delve into the lyrics I must address Buddy Holly and his death, which will take up the rest of this post --Yes, it really is that significant. To put it bluntly, Holly was a true revolutionary, and not in the faux political sense that many 60s rockers  would take up. Holly would not just have a profound influence on rock 'n' roll itself, but his brief career would go a long toward breaking down social barriers and challenging social norms. Holly was playing and performing with black musicians and even married a Puerto Rican woman in era when this type of thing wasn't exactly common. Even more striking, his fans were accepting of these practices.
 "Holly was one of the first white artists to take the black man's music and adapt it to a more diverse audience. When he and his band the Crickets were signed to their first label, Brunswick, the record executives had first thought that the band was a lack group. Little did they know that an all-white southern band from Texas would take the legendary all-black Apollo Theater in New York by storm. Did this diffusion of musical styles help lead the country to denounce the Jim Crow laws and lay the first foundation for the establishment of the Civil Rights movement? Maybe; this is a point that could be well argued. When Holly appeared on stage and on national television wearing his trademark black horned-rimmed glasses, he gave other musicians, including a very nearsighted John Lennon, the courage to appear naturally on stage wearing glasses and not be hung up promoting a cool stereotypical image.  
"If the cultural acceptance of Buddy Holly was important, even more so was his music. The secret to his songs was primarily the clever wordplay and an infectious beat. Holly's playing did more to promote the Fender Stratocaster guitar than any other artist (notwithstanding Jimi Hendrix, of course!). In a time filled with the terrible uncertainty of the Cold War, Buddy Holly and his music provided a much-needed reprieve."
(Take a Walk on the Dark Side, R. Gary Patterson, pgs. XV-XVI)
Holly broke barriers down, but he did it in a fashion that kept the kids dancing. Sadly, his career was cut short on February 3, 1959 by a fatal plane crash that would also claim the lives of two other rising rock 'n' rollers: J.P. 'the Big Bopper' Richardson and Ritchie Valens, one of the first Mexican-American celebrities who recorded the legendary "La Bamba." These three men were in the midst of a grueling winter tour that was spreading the rock 'n' roll evangelical to the Midwest when the crash brought things to a screeching halt. The death of these three figures has been the subject of much mystery and speculation for decades and for good reason: there are numerous bizarre instances of synchronicity and twilight language surrounding the plane crash. Even when one strips away the urban legends that build up around these types of events there's still much to marvel at. So, let us first ponder some of the well known facts and urban legends surrounding Holly's death.

Ritchie Valens (top) and the Big Bopper (bottom)
Consider Ritchie Valens' curious encounters with planes. On January 31, 1957, there was a plane crash in the school yard of Pacoima Junior High School, which Valens was attending at the time. That particular day he happened to have missed school due to his grandfather's funeral. The event would haunt him, however, and he would have a fear of planes for the rest of his (brief) life that he was only beginning to overcome at the time of his death. The plane crash that killed Valens would occur almost exactly two years after the crash at Pacoima. He was not even supposed to be on the plane originally. He famously acquired the seat from Buddy Holly's backup guitarist, Tommy Allsup, via a coin flip which Valens 'won' by calling 'heads.'

the school yard of Pacoima Junior High School after a plane crash that occurred almost exactly two years to the day of the one that killed former alumni, Ritchie Valens

Ritchie Valens was not the only one that wasn't supposed to be on the plane that night. Buddy Holly's bass player, future country star Waylon Jennings, was originally scheduled to fly on the plane with Holly. Jennings gave up his seat at the last minute to the Big Bopper, who was coming down with a bad cold so that he could get to the next destination early and visit a doctor. Upon learning that Jennings had given up his seat, Holly jokingly told Jennings that he hoped the tour bus would freeze up. Jennings returned the quip by saying to Holly "Yeah, and I hope your old plane crashes." Those words haunted Jennings for the rest of his life.

country star Waylon Jennings, who was originally supposed to be on the plane
The Big Bopper supposedly had a premonition of his death. In 1957 the Big Bopper pulled a 122 hour sleepless Disk-A-Thon after which he was carried away to the hospital for sever exhaustion. During the Disk-A-Thon the Bopper began to hallucinate. In one hallucination he apparently foresaw his own death and remarked "the other side wasn't that bad."

The Big Bopper was apparently not the only one that had some inclination of what was coming. It has long been alleged that Buddy Holly had premonitions of his own death. There are two main accounts along these lines. One revolved around a simultaneous dreams that he and his wife, Maria Elena Holly, had shortly before Buddy departed for his final tour that deeply disturbed both. Maria dreamed that she was in an open field resembling a farm and witnessed a flaming object falling from the sky. Buddy dreamed that he was in a plane with his Maria and his brother. His brother convinced Buddy to leave Maria on top of a building while they flew away. The dream left Buddy with a profound sense of guilt. The Winter Dance Party tour, Buddy's last, was the first and only tour Maria (who had just found out she was pregnant) did not go along with him on.

Buddy Holly and wife Maria Elena Holly
Stranger still is the second account of Holly having forewarning of his death. The famed British producer and occultist Joe Meek allegedly attempted to warn Holly of his death on February third almost a full year before the plane crash. Meek and some friends had apparently been playing around with a deck of Tarot cards when they received a messaging stating "February the third Buddy Holly dies." When Holly toured the UK in 1958 Meek personally delivered Holly a letter recounting this prediction. Reportedly Holly thanked him and promised to always be careful on the third of February from then on, a promise he obviously didn't keep.

Holly's death would effect Meek for the rest of his life. From time to time he would even claim that Holly was communicating with him in his dreams from beyond the grave. Eventually Meek would murder his landlady with a single barreled shotgun before turning the rifle on himself. His murder-suicide occurred on February 3, 1967, the eight year anniversary of Holly's death.

Joe Meek, the famed British producer and occultist who allegedly foresaw Holly's death and continued communicating with him from beyond the dead
At this point I should note that some of the above information should be taken with a major grain of salt. My sole source for many of the antidotes surrounding Holly's death is R. Gary Patterson's Take a Walk on the Dark Side which, despite being an interesting read, doesn't display especially credible sources. Many of these events such as the Pacoima plane crash and Waylon Jenning's final words to Buddy Holly did in fact happen, but I have found no evidence outside of Mr. Patterson's book (and blogs quoting from it) to confirm other events such as Joe Meek's warning to Buddy Holly about February third (though Meek most certainly did murder his landlady before killing himself on the anniversary of Holly's death).

Now that most of the major urban legends are out of the way (aside from the Buddy Holly 'death curse,' which you can find more about here), let's get into the twilight language of Holly's death. We'll start with the name game. Holly's last name is spelled just like the tree of the same name. Holly trees are loaded with symbolism. Holly is also closely associated with the mythological figure of the Green Knight, who is symbolic of death and rebirth.
"The Green Knight is an immortal giant whose club is a holly-bush. He and Sir Gawain... make a compact to behead one another at alternative New Years --meaning midsummer and midwinter --but, in effect, the Holy Knight spares the Oak Knight... 
" Welsh myth, the Oak Knight and Holly Knight fought every first of May until Doomsday. Since in mediaeval practice St. John the Baptist, who lost his head on St. John's Day, took over the oak-king's titles and customs, it was natural to let Jesus, as John's merciful successor, take over the holly-king's."
(The White Goddess, Robert Graves, pgs. 179-180)

The holly-king always met a bloody end as well.
"...the holly-king, or green knight, who appears in the old English 'Christmas Play,' a survival of the Saturnalia, as the Fool who is beheaded but rises up again unhurt..."
(ibid, pg. 196)
Valens is also an interesting name. Ritchie Valens real name was Richard Steven Valenzuela. He adopted Ritchie Valens to 'broaden' his appeal (i.e., get white people to buy his music). Prior to the 1950s, the name Valens was primarily associated with the Romans, from where it originated, and meant 'worthy.' By far the most famous Valens up to that point was the Emperor Valens, who lost his life at the legendary Battle of Adrianople, a defeat that utterly devastated ancient Rome and opened the floodgates for Gothic hordes to enter the empire.

the Emperor Valens
While it is usually reported that Holly, Valens, and the Big Bopper set off from Clear Lake, Iowa on the flight that cost them their lives, it was actually the nearby Mason City where the plane took off. The town was originally called Masonic Groves, which was apparently inspired by Freemasonry. Shortly thereafter the name was changed to Shibboleth, which is a kind of pass word. After one of the founder's children, who was named Mason, died, it took on the moniker of Masonville. Finally it became Mason City in the late 1850s when it was found that another Masonville existed in the Iowa.

Various numbers associated with Holly, Valens and the Big Bopper are also curious. Consider the ages of the three at the time of their deaths: Valens was 17, Holly 22 and the Big Bopper the old man at 28. The number 17 is highly significant in the occult, especially to the Sirius tradition, which I've noted before here. Strangely, the plane also took off from Runway 17.

As noted above, Holly was 22 at the time of his death. He was also carrying a .22 pistol on his person when the plane crashed. 22 is the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet and branches on the Kabbalahistic Tree of Life. There are 22 trumps in the tarot. It is also the number of Abra-Melin. JFK was assassinated on the twenty-second of November, 1963. What's more, it can be achieved by multiplying two by eleven. Eleven, the number of magic, and other numbers associated with it (22, 33, 66, etc), are highly important in the occult.
"The secret Star of Magick is also elevenfold; it is the Unicursal Hexagram of the Beast plus the five-petalled Rose typical of Babalon, for the flower (flow-er) is the symbol of her magical function."
(The Magical Revival, Kenneth Grant, pg. 23)

Interestingly, there are also eleven years separating the youngest member of the group (Valens, at 17) from the oldest member of the group, the Big Bopper, who was 28. 28 is the mystic number of Netzach, the seventh of the ten Sephirot of the Kabbalah. Pioneering twilight language researcher James Shelby Downard applied some interesting attributes to the number 28 as well. Of it, he writes "The number 28 is one of the correspondences of Solomon in kabbalistic numerology; the Solomonic name assigned to 28 is 'Beale'" (Secret and Suppressed, "Sorcery, Sex, Assassinations and the Science of Symbolism," pg. 75).

Ever since the crash, Holly, Valens and the Big Bopper have formed a kind of rock 'n' roll trinity. The trinity association of Holly, Valens, and the Big Bopper was initially introduced in the first song tribute to them, Tommy Dee's "Three Stars," which was written and recorded on the same day of the crash. Don McLean certainly seems to play into the notion of Holly and Co as a trinity in "American Pie," as we'll discuss in the next installment. Trinities have a long occult history that goes well beyond the Holy Trinity of Christianity. One of the earliest trinities was associated with the witch goddess Hecate.
"Hecate is triple-countenanced, and being three-fold in aspect she is known as Diana on earth, Luna in heaven, and Hecate in hell. These three women comprise one of the triads of western mythology. Such triads were a central part of ancient religions, and the 'mystical triad' idea became part of Masonic symbolism. There is in fact a triad of three governing officers to be found in almost every degree, and in the higher degrees there exists a symbolical triad that presides under various names, just as Hecate presides in different places under various names."
(Secret and Suppressed, "Sex, Sorcery, Assassination and the Science of Symbolism, James Shelby Downard, pg. 63)
Holly, Valens and the Big Bopper died on the third day of February, the second month of the year. With these two numbers --2 and 3 --we also have an occurrence of the 23 enigma. The number 23 is also linked with 17 at times, as I've written of before here. The 23 enigma was first introduced to the public by the great Robert Anton Wilson. Of it, he writes:
"I first heard of the 23 enigma from William S Burroughs, author ofNaked Lunch, Nova Express, etc. According to Burroughs, he had known a certain Captain Clark, around 1960 in Tangier, who once bragged that he had been sailing 23 years without an accident. That very day, Clark’s ship had an accident that killed him and everybody else aboard. Furthermore, while Burroughs was thinking about this crude example of the irony of the gods that evening, a bulletin on the radio announced the crash of an airliner in Florida, USA. The pilot was another captain Clark and the flight was Flight 23... 
"In conception, Mom and Dad each contribute 23 chromosomes to the fœtus. DNA, the carrier of the genetic information, has bonding irregularities every 23rd Angstrom. Aleister Crowley, in his Cabalistic Dictionary, defines 23 as the number of 'life' or 'a thread', hauntingly suggestive of the DNA life-script. On the other hand, 23 has many links with termination: in telegraphers’ code, 23 means 'bust' or 'break the line', and Hexagram 23 in I Ching means 'breaking apart'. Sidney Carton is the 23rd man guillotined in the old stage productions of A Tale of Two Cities. (A few lexicographers believe this is the origin of the mysterious slang expression '23 Skiddoo!'.)
"Some people are clusters of bloody synchronicities in 23. Burroughs discovered that the bootlegger 'Dutch Schultz' (real name: Arthur Flegenheimer) had Vincent 'Mad Dog' Coll assassinated on 23rd Street in New York when Coll was 23 years old. Schultz himself was assassinated on 23 October. Looking further into the Dutch Schultz case, I found that Charlie Workman, the man convicted of shooting Schultz, served 23 years of a life sentence and was then paroled."
Robert Anton Wilson with the number 23
Finally, the date of Holly and Co's deaths, 2/3, is the day after a major holiday of European paganism. Much of the Christian world celebrates February 2 as Candlemas (or Groundhog Day in the US) but originally it was the date of the Celtic fire festival of Imbolc.
"The important Celtic feast of Candlemas ... (February 2nd). It was held to mark the quickening of the year, and was the first of the four 'cross-quarter days' on which British witches celebrated their Sabbaths, the other being May Eve, Lammas (August 2nd) and All Hallow E'en, when the year died. These days correspond with the four great Irish fire-feasts mentioned by Cormac the tenth-century Archbishop of Cashel. In Ireland and the Highlands February 2nd is, very properly, the day of St. Bright, formerly the White Goddess, the quickening Triple Muse."
(The White Goddess, Robert Graves, pg. 168)
modern Imbolc celebration
Celtic fire festivals were typically marked by a wide variety of human sacrifice.
"Condemned criminals were reserved by the Celts in order to be sacrificed to the gods at a great festival which took place once in every five years. The more there were of such victims, the greater was believed to be the fertility of the land. If there were not enough criminals to furnish victims, captives taken in war were immolated to supply the deficiency. When the time came the victims were sacrificed by the Druids or priests. Some they shot down with arrows, some the impaled, and some they burned alive in the following manner. Colossal images of wicker-work or of wood and grass were constructed; these were filled with live men, cattle, and animals of other kinds; fire was then applied to the images, and they were burned with their living contents.
"Such were the great festivals held once every five years. But besides these quinquennial festivals, celebrated on so grand a scale, and with, apparently, so large an expenditure of human life, it seemed reasonable to suppose that festivals of the same sort, only on a lesser scale, were held annually, and that from these annual festivals are lineally descended some at least of the fire-festivals which, with their traces of human sacrifice, are still celebrated year by year in many parts of Europe. The gigantic images constructed of osiers or covered with grass in which the Druids enclosed their victims remind us of the leafy framework in which the human representative of the tree-spirit is still so often encased."
(The Golden Bough, James Frazer, pg. 745-746)

Frazer only mentions two of the Celtic fire-festivals, Beltane and Samhain. These were definitely the two main fire-festivals, but Imbolc and Lammas were also celebrated on a large scale. While the bulk of the sacrifices would have been performed at Beltane and Samhain, its likely that a few were also conducted on Imbolc and Lammas. Interestingly, Frazer asserts that many of the 'criminals' sacrificed at these festivals were in fact religious heretics. This is merely Frazer's opinion, as he makes clear, but he makes a compelling case for this belief none the less.

Buddy Holly was not killed by fire, nor was anyone else on the plane that night --all died from blunt trauma from the crash. In fact, I've found no indication that there was any kind of fire from the crash, which is rather curious. What's more, Holly and Co did not died on Imbolc, but just a little over an hour after it had ended. On the flip side of the coin, Imbolc had not come to an end across the whole United States yet (Holly would have died right around midnight Mountain Time, for instance). And while fire was the preferred form of sacrifice during Celtic fire-festivals, it was not the only one used.

an image of Buddy Holly's crash site
Now, let us step back and look at Holly's death through the prism of twilight language. We have the Holly-king and two other stars forming a kind of trinity; a holly-trinity. Their ages are 17, 22 and 28 --All highly mystical numbers. Eleven years of age separates the youngest member of the holly-trinity (Valens) from the oldest (the Bopper). The Holly-king trinity then departs from an airport in Mason City (an area originally named after Freemasonry) just as the Celtic fire festival of Imbolc is coming to an end. Within ten minutes or so of takeoff all three men are dead. They are not burned, but are in the type of accident with a high probability of fire. Another victim, Holly's unborn son with Maria Elena Holly, added to this tragedy the following day when she had a miscarriage.

Did the death of the Holly-king then represent some kind of sacrificial rite? Don McLean certainly would not shy away from using such a phrase (though likely in reference to Altamont) in "American Pie," as we shall see in the next installment. Stay tuned.


  1. Very cool post! Just a few quick points:

    1. The Wikipedia article "Buddy Holly" mentions that "His headstone carries the correct spelling of his surname (Holley)..." so there's a peak-a-book "e."

    2. The link you provided for "Mason City" says: "Mason City, above all else is known for its outstanding musical heritage, consistently producing successful performers and educators. Mason City's "favorite son" Meredith Willson grew up in Mason City, having played in the Mason City Symphonic Band as a student at Mason City High School. Willson's crowning achievement was the famous musical The Music Man" (,_Iowa#Musical_heritage).

    3. Regarding Downard's comments that "...the Solomonic name assigned to 28 is 'Beale'," I observe that Brandon lists "...Bell, Beall and variants" together as names of interest. And it seems obvious that "Beale" counts as a relevant "variant." Of course, there's a famous "Beale ciper"/"treasure" related to "Bufords, in Bedford County, Virginia" and there's a "Bell witch" in Tennessee which supposedly inspired the "Blair Witch" film.

  2. 4. With respect to Joe Meek, as synchronicity would have it, just the other day I had occasion to quote the saying, attributed to Albert Camus, that "To be famous, in fact, one has only to kill one's landlady."

    5. You mention connections to mystical numbers - 17, 22, & 28 - and the Tarot. But card number 17 is "The Star" (quite fitting in the context of the three "stars," as you make plain). Additionally, as the "trump" link you provide acknowledges, card 0 is "The Fool," but this card can also be considered card number 22 (and can allegedly occur "anywhere" in the deck). Furthermore, the Crowley-Harris Tarot deck represents the Fool as the "Green Man" which fits in with your quotation of Graves concerning the "Holly-King": "...the holly-king, or green knight... appears ... as the Fool ...".

    6. With respect to Buddy Holly "breaking down social barriers", Downard has quite a lot to say in The Carnivals of Life and Death regarding Masonic magica sexualis that, in his view, was designed to promote race-mixing and could be summarized by the alchemical "coniunctio oppositorum" or "conjunction of opposites" represented (for one example) in "the banner of the Knight's Templar" (black and white) "which is a banner of individuation" (in Downard's words). Your language of barrier-breakdown can also be connected directly to "Valens" since you note that the Emperor's "defeat ...utterly devastated ancient Rome and opened the floodgates for Gothic hordes to enter the empire." The alchemical procedure is "solve et coagula" an old composition is broken down (dissolved) and from the parts a new mixture is created (through a mystical impregnation-fermentation) and rises like a Phoenix from the old mixture.

    7. Finally, Bob Dobbs, in his book "Phatic Communion with" represents the following statement: "The distinguishing feature of rock, of Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, and other aspects of the guitar-strumming 'modern folk-song' cults is that they combine monotony with arbitrary dissonances." This is related in the text to a rational-human versus irrational-bestial distinction. And the suggestion is that the sort of music for which the Holly-Buddy-King is an emblem, is also an ensign of homogeneity and control (via monotony) and also psychology's so-called "cognitive dissonance" (via the sonic dissonance of the music). I think that the *wrong* (that is, unproductive) way to take this is in a racist direction. But there may be a productive angle - possibly a lurking connection with the "ObZen" you've written about before. Allegedly, Plato thought that there were only two sorts of music that had utility for a State. Number one, there was a style that promoted deep thought, say harmonious, complex, and ethereal, etc. (of a sort that we might today term "classical" although the term would be anarchronistic if retroactively applied); and number two, there was a style that promoted war, say, angry, beat-driven, and simple (of a sort that we might associate with rock or, perhaps closer, metal). Everything else (like, for example, "easy-listening" or "pop") should go the way of poetry or, well...that "fool-bird," the dodo.

  3. Very interesting stuff, looking forward to reading more.


  4. Marie-



    Good call about the Star card. The fact that it has three stars totally slipped my mind (though I wrote about it in one of my "Psychedlia in Diablous" posts just recently). I knew there was something significant to three stars.:)

    I don't know that certain peoples wanted Holly to break down such barrier at the time. Holly's death occurred at a time when rock had already lost several key artists (Elvis was drafted into the service, Chuck Berry had numerous legal woes, etc) and rock as a whole was in midst of the 'payola' scandal (payolas have been used in all types of music over the years, but only rock artists were targeted at the time). There's one thing I don't think that can be disputed about Holly's barrier breaking: It was far more innocent that the full on radicalism the 1960s would bring on. This is something I'm going to get into more in the second part.

    I agree with a lot of your final sentiments. Rock, especially the cultures of some subgernes (i.e. metal and punk), are in many ways the true descendants of the ancient Mystery traditions as well as some of the shamanistic ones of the Americas. Whether this is good or bad or somewhere in between is an interesting question. It's something that I've already written on before and hope to continue writing on until I find the answer I'm looking for.:)

    Thank you for your excellent response, BTW.:)

  5. This is going to sound nitpicky, sorry. But a shotgun is not a rifle. A rifle is called by that name because the inside of the barrel has rifling which causes the bullet to spin allowing it to maintain its velocity meaning it is a more accurate weapon. Shotguns have smooth barrels and fire shells which contain either bird shot or buck shot, or slugs. There's a lot of significance if someone uses a shotgun to commit suicide. Especially in the case you quote where he'd just killed a woman with the gun. I am not exactly a gun expert, but everything else was so carefully researched.

  6. Anon-

    Good point and yes, a shotgun blast to the head is more symbolic and dramatic (and messy) than a rifle.

    Luckily, I've never claimed editing is my strong suit.:)