The Day the Music Died
I remember very vividly the day my father explained the meaning of Don McClean’s classic “American Pie.” I listened to a lot of oldies, doo-wop, and classic rock growing up and this was a song I knew by heart before I knew how to write in cursive. We were driving in our old station wagon and I asked him, “When was the day the music died?”
“Well kiddo,” my father said in his thick, impossible to mistake Brooklyn accent, “It was a day when Buddy Holly, the guy who sang ‘ That’ll Be the Day ‘ Ritchie Valens who sang ‘La Bamba‘ and the Big Boppah who sang ‘Chantilly Lace ‘ were all on the same plane and it crashed. It was a very bad accident.”
Even as a kid I thought how tragic it would be if music suddenly died one day. If it too was met my some strange fate on an airplane and left the world. And I felt sad for my father in that moment too. Something in his demeanor changed, he looked deflated, almost. Remembering the loss of that music still resonated – because my father still loved those artists, their music still helped write his story, his growing up in New York and experiencing the birth of Rock and Roll.
I do remember when Kurt Cobain died, but I was still too young for it to hurt. I mostly knew Nirvana post-mortem. It wasn’t until George Harrison and Joe Strummer passed that I felt that wincing pain my father did. George Harrison’s voice was played to me before I was born and carried through to the rainy days now, when I need the company of his songs. I met Joe Strummer at the time in my life when I needed music to tell me it was okay to be different and that if I felt strongly about something, I should speak it. I cried when I read those headlines. The world felt suddenly less.
Very recently, the world lost two more artist ; Levon Helm of The Band and Adam Yauch (MCA) of the Beastie Boys. Again, I feel that very same deflation; the sort of sadness that doesn’t sit low in the gut, but in your head where it just sort of taps around and you feel suddenly weary.
The Band helped me understand my mom. My parents were always the ones to drive my friends and I into concerts in the city when I was a teenager. I asked my mom once on one of those trips into Philadelphia who was her favorite band when she was my age (14 or 15 at the time). Her response, without any hesitation was The Band. Which then sent her into stories from the 60s and 70s, the tight jeans and terrible (or great) hair and how she, her best friend Cathy, and my uncle Marty used to drive around and listen to music. I loved those stories – imagining my mom young, wild, and free. Then, she dropped me off at the Trocadero Theatre on 10th and Arch. On pulling up she said, “Oh! I’ve been here – this is where I saw David Bowie when he was Ziggy Stardust.” I suddenly realized, my mom was cool.
And from there on out, I noticed any time music came on the radio that my mom loved, I loved it too. We’d sing the lyrics together (painfully out of tune), bob our heads to the same beat – I got it, we got it. The Band represented a whole era of my mom’s life and helped me connect with her in my own coming of age. Thank you, Mr. Helm.
And then there is the Beastie Boys and Adam Yauch. Licensed to Ill was released nine days after I was born. I can’t imagine the soundtrack to my life in suburbia without “No Sleep Til Brooklyn” or “Fight for Your Right.” Blasting the Beastie Boys with my friends, celebrating my new drivers license transported us – out of the suburbs and in to the streets of New York. It always felt slightly rebellious to know the lyrics to songs like “Girls” or “Sabotage” and sing it in the car with my parents after changing the station from Oldies 98 to Y100. But then I realized they knew the words too and really loved “Brass Monkey.” My dad was blown away when I told them they were three Jewish white rappers from New York. And when the towers fell, they gave us “An Open Letter to NYC.” The Beastie Boys brought my parents to me like the way The Band and the Beatles brought me to my parents. Maybe it was because they both lived in New York and just got it or that something about the Beastie Boys that make you want to shout, laugh, dance, and stand up. So thank you too, Mr. Yauch.
The good thing is, the music has never died. That’s the glorious legacy they’ve left behind for us. We get to hang out with Levon Helm and Adam Yauch any time we feel like sitting around a friend’s back yard and strum an acoustic guitar and have everyone sing along; or any time we want to play that song during the middle of a road trip and see everyone in the car suddenly sit up and go, “Intergallactic plane-TAR-Y!”
Music writes our memories. It traces my earliest years dancing in front of the TV in diapers with my sister (who wrote a beautiful article on the passing of Adam Yauch) to discovering punk rock to first loves, first heart breaks, loss of loved ones to long drives with friends and the mix tapes we used to make for trips and dressing rooms – to the moments when I went out in the world by myself and felt comforted and less alone, by music.