Music, Pop Culture, The Beatles

Paul is Dead. The rumor revisited. Part II

Part Two Magical Mystery Tour

Original publish date:  June 15, 2015

Reissue date:  April 25, 2019

Last week, we revisited the famous “Paul is Dead” rumor swirling around the Beatles rock band during the last few years of the turbulent sixties decade. The rumor that Paul McCartney died in a November 1966 car crash seems silly to us now, but it was pervasive back in the day. As we covered in Part I of this series, the album “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” was released in June of 1967 to much well deserved fanfare. Both for the music it contained and the supposed references it made to the death of the Beatles’ heartthrob bass player.
z 514EFDAnUSLMagical Mystery Tour was released on December 8, 1967. After the success of Sgt. Pepper’s, Paul McCartney wanted to create a film based upon The Beatles and their music. The film was to be unscripted and would “star” various “ordinary” people who were to travel the countryside on a bus and experience “magical” adventures on film. The Magical Mystery Tour film was made and included six new Beatles songs. The film was universally panned and largely forgotten, but the resulting album / soundtrack is considered a classic. Produced by George Martin, Magical Mystery Tour was packaged by Capitol records as a full LP with a 24-page companion picture booklet.
The booklet was eagerly devoured by the “Paul is dead” theorists and the clues it supposedly offered only fueled the ever-growing conspiracy. So, dear readers go and dust off your copies of Magical Mystery tour as we thumb through it and decipher the clues. On page 3 of the booklet, Paul is dressed in a British military uniform posed seated behind a desk with a nameplate that reads “I Was” in front of him. Further interpretations of the nameplate claim it reads either “I You Was” or “I Was You,” both suggesting that Paul had disappeared and been replaced by a double. Also, the British Union Jack flags behind Paul are crossed as they would traditionally appear at a military funeral.z 5cc0bc9bb6d5645e975a0238
On page 6, John Lennon appears as a carnival barker manning a ticket booth with a sign reading: “The best way to go is by M&D Co.” According to the “Paul is dead” rumor, M&D Co. was a funeral parlor, but such a place never existed. Theorists also note that in the picture, a departure time is given but the return time is blank.z d76c076b0c7bc4a2699c0a574cc06d94
On page 9, “Fool on the Hill” is shown next to a cartoon image of Paul who appears to be standing on a grave shaped mound of grass. The second “L” in the title extends above Paul’s head and dribbles into his scalp as though his head were split open. This picture hints at the devastating head injury that Paul allegedly sustained in his fatal accident.
In the band photos on pages 10, 11 and 12, Paul appears without shoes, which would become a recurring theme among the “Paul is Dead” crowd in years to come. Also, on Ringo’s bass drum between the word “Love” and the name “The Beatles”, the numeral “3” can plainly be seen which seems to spell out the cryptic phrase “Love the 3 Beatles”. Eerily, in that same photo, blood appears to be dripping from Paul’s shoes resting next to the drum. Theorists assert that “empty shoes were a Grecian symbol of death.”
z magical_st1_2emi_emirim_bookh3_largeOn page 23, the Beatles are all wearing stark white tuxedos with carnations in the lapels. Paul’s flower is black while the other Beatles have red flowers. Years later, Paul denied that the black carnation had any significance at all; “I was wearing a black flower because they ran out of red ones.”

 

 

z carnations_zps14423978And on the final page of the photo booklet, once again, a hand appears over Paul’s head. Although this instance of a hand over Paul’s head isn’t nearly as dramatic as the Sgt. Pepper’s cover photo because several people have their hands raised above their heads in this picture. But it certainly did nothing to ease the conspiracies.
z nZ75ZWFHowever, there is one compelling image in the pages of the pictorial book that, when analyzed, virtually screamed out to all those looking for signs of death in the Beatles’ works to substantiate the rumors of Paul’s premature passing. On page 8 of the booklet, a dining scene, at the left of the image (but on the right as the image is rotated one turn clockwise), with a little imagination, you can see a skull in this picture. It occupies the left side of the picture, with the beret of the person seated at the table forming the eye and the hair of the woman seated next to him the mouth. Like a “Magic Eye” painting, once you’ve accepted it as a skull, it’s easy to see the damage to the top of the head. This grisly image suggests the damage to Paul’s head as a result of his car crash. The fact that this picture, unlike all of the other images in the booklet, does not appear in the movie again only encouraged the “Paul is Dead” crowd as proof of his passing.z none-magical-mystery-tour-skull-3-pau
Then there’s the cover image. The bandmates appear on the cover, as they did in the companion film, dressed in outlandish animal costumes. The animal costumes were in keeping with the predominantly psychedelic themes of the music on the LP. It’s a common misconception that Paul was the walrus, no doubt made famous by the lyric in Glass Onion on “The White Album” and the song’s innumerable references to it in the ‘Paul is Dead’ conspiracy. However, Paul isn’t the walrus, John is. This can be seen in the ‘I Am The Walrus’ segment of the Magical Mystery Tour film where the walrus is seated at the piano singing the song (just as John was at the start of the song). The hippo is standing in front playing left-handed bass guitar. In truth, Paul was the Hippo, John was the Walrus, George was the Rabbit and Ringo was the Chicken.
walrustourTheorists would claim a connection between Paul’s supposed Walrus costume and the death rumor, but the real controversy revolved around the word “Beatles” above the lad’s heads that purportedly reveal a secret phone number. As Rolling Stone famously pointed out, it’s not exactly clear what that phone number is supposed to be. Depending on whom you ask it could be read as “231-7438, 834-7135, 536-0195, 510-6643, 546-3663, 624-7125, no telling what city, maybe London.” If you turn the album cover upside down and hold it in front of a mirror you can see the numbers 8341735, which is a stretch because the threes, the seven and the five are backwards. If you simply hold the album cover upside-down, the numbers could be 5371438. Of course, there is no area code. The rumor claimed that when this number was dialed, the caller would receive information about Paul’s death, or the person would be able to take a trip to “Magical Beatle Mystery Island”, or maybe even speak to Paul in the hereafter. Stories circulated about the strange responses callers were receiving from the voices on the other end of the phone line. Later it was discovered that one of the phone numbers belonged to a journalist who was nearly driven crazy by the numerous phone calls from people hoping to connect with the late Paul McCartney.
z R-7799943-1449024243-9186But it was the music contained on the album that offered the clue seekers the most tantalizing hints at Paul’s demise. One of the best known “Paul is dead” audio clues comes at the end of “Strawberry Fields Forever”. As the song fades out for the second time, John allegedly says “I buried Paul.”‘ This audio clue can be heard more clearly when the record is played at 45 rpm as John’s voice is slowed down to a virtual crawl. Years later, John admitted that he was really saying “cranberry sauce,” which became evident on the “take 7 and edit piece” version of the song that appeared on Anthology II in 1996. Paul explained “That’s John’s humor. John would say something totally out of sync, like ‘cranberry sauce.’ If you don’t realize that John’s apt to say something like ‘cranberry sauce’ when he feels like it, then you start to hear a funny little word there, and you think aha!”
The “Paul is Dead” theorists prophetically point to the song, “I am the Walrus” on the album as definitive proof of McCartney’s death. The very fact that theorists looked for clues in “I Am the Walrus” was ironic, since John’s intent was to write a song with nonsensical imagery to poke fun at all those people looking for clues in every Beatle lyric. Still, John’s explanation didn’t stop them from looking for “Paul is Dead” clues in the song.
According to the “Paul is Dead” rumor: Paul left the recording studio in anger on a “stupid bloody Tuesday” after a quarrel with his bandmates. The refrain “I’m crying” is John expressing his grief over Paul’s death. The references to “pretty little policemen” and “waiting for the van to come” refer to the police present at the site of Paul’s fatal accident. The opening line of the song, “I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together” suggests that all of the Beatles were aware of the death and ensuing cover-up. In the “Paul is dead” mythology, the walrus is an image of death. But no evidence for this statement has ever surfaced to explain why.
z Booklet 1-10The album, movie and pictorial booklet are arguably the most ambitious effort ever attempted by the Fab Four. Completed at a time when the Beatles were still having fun, but questioning their viability at the same time. Although they saw themselves as a rock band, their fans were looking at them as modern day prophets. Undoubtedly, this view was responsible in large part for the devastation perceived by the “Paul is Dead” rumors that continued to swirl around the band. The band’s next effort, “The White Album”, would do nothing to help end the controversy.

Music, Pop Culture, The Beatles

Paul is Dead. The rumor revisited. Part I

Part one sgt peppers lonely hearts club band

Original publish date:  June 8, 2015

Reissue date:  April 18, 2019

It has been over half a century since one of the most famous hoaxes in Rock-N-Roll history began. On Wednesday November 9, 1966 at 5 am, Paul McCartney, while working on the album “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, stormed out of the studio during a recording session after an argument with the other members of the group. He jumped into his Austin-Healey and sped off down the road, lost control of his sportscar and crashed into a telephone pole. Paul McCartney was dead. Well, that was the rumor anyway.
Although teen-agers and music fans all over Britain began to panic upon circulation of the shocking rumor, Paul’s bandmates and the band’s management quickly discovered that there was absolutely no truth to it at all. As the Beatles’ Press Officer Derek Taylor found out when he telephoned Paul’s St. John’s Wood home and the voice responding on the other end of the line was Paul himself. Paul calmly explained that he had been at home all day and his black Mini Cooper (NOT an Austin Healey) was safely locked up in his garage. The Beatles management addressed the rumor in the February 1967 issue # 43 of “The Beatles Monthly Book” (the Beatles’ official fan club magazine) with a short blurb that appeared in the “Beatle News” section, entitled “FALSE RUMOUR”. Far from calming nervous Beatles fans, this only intensified the ferocity of the “Paul is Dead” rumor.z Mc 1966 1
Suddenly, the “Paul is dead” urban legend spread throughout the world. Now, not only was Paul dead, he had been secretly replaced in the band by a look-alike. The rumor could not have come at a worse time for the band. To say the Beatles were going through a rough patch would be an understatement. After releasing “Revolver” in August 1966, the band quickly grew tired of touring. They were frustrated with not being able to hear themselves onstage, due to the incessant shrieks and screams of their female fans at shows. The band had been touring and recording in the studio non-stop for nearly 2 years. They were growing tired of life on the road and not being able to play the songs they liked, to say nothing about debuting new material on stage.
z original_101During that last tour, the airplane they were traveling in was shot at as they landed in Texas, and a prankster threw a firecracker at the stage during their Memphis show which everyone thought at first was a gunshot. The Beatles were burnt out and the band had had enough. The band’s attitude and message became darker and soon, concerts became dangerous as the Beatles’ started to receive death threats after some comments made by John Lennon at a press conference that year. John’s quote “the Beatles are bigger than Jesus” was taken out of context and according to John Lennon, “upset the very Christian KKK”. In the Philippines they unintentionally offended Imelda Marcos, a former beauty queen, by not meeting with her privately before their show. Filipino citizens took this as an excuse to rob, harass and threaten death to the Beatles. They stopped touring soon after the show at Candlestick Park in San Francisco on August 29, 1966. Less than six months later, the McCartney death rumor had reached a fever pitch worldwide and just like Paul himself, it refused to die.

z Making The Cover for Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1)
John Lennon & Ringo Starr at the cover shoot.

Okay Baby Boomers, go dust off your “Sgt. Pepper’s” album for the rest of this article. For it is that cover and the songs found on it that fueled the mania. Released on June 1, 1967, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was rife with “Paul is dead” clues. Turns out, it was Paul’s idea that the Beatles immerse themselves in a new identity for the album’s release. The original idea behind the album cover was to show the Beatles assuming a new identity while laying to rest their earlier “Fab Four” image. The wax images of the younger Beatles look mournfully on the gravesite because the Beatles were no longer the same band. The “Paul is dead” crowd interpreted the cover as representing a funeral for Paul. z sgt_pepper_cover_promo_cropped_4jpg
Looking at the modern, psychedelic Beatles posed on the cover, one notices that, while three of the Beatles are standing at an angle, Paul is facing the camera as if his body was being propped up by his bandmates standing at his sides like a scene out of “Weekend at Bernie’s”. John, George & Ringo are holding shiny gold band instruments, but Paul’s cor anglaise woodwind instrument is black. A disembodied hand appears above Paul’s head, as though he is being blessed by a priest before being interred.
Across the gravesite is a bass guitar oriented the way that left-hander McCartney would have played it. The strings of the bass are made of sticks but there are only three sticks rather than four, representing the three Beatles without Paul. Some rumorists claimed that the yellow hyacinth flowers spell out the name “PAUL?” or that when the album is turned sideways, the flowers form the letter “P”.z untitled3
Another rumor claimed that if you held the album cover up to a mirror, the words “LONELY HEARTS” written across the front of the bass drum reflect back as “IONEIX HE<>DIE”. When arranged as “I ONE IX HE <> DIE,” this image suggests the date (11-9, or November 9, 1966) that Paul died and the diamond between the words “HE” and “DIE” points directly at Paul. Another interpretation suggests this could also be read as “1 ONE 1 X”, meaning that one of the four is gone, and then the “HE DIE” along with the ever present diamond / arrow pointing to Paul as the missing Beatle.

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Shirley Temple Doll.

The Shirley Temple doll at the right of the picture wears a sweater that reads “WELCOME THE ROLLING STONES”. Hinting that the Rolling Stones were involved in the conspiracy. After all, without the Beatles the Rolling Stones would have been the undisputed leading rock and roll band. A model of an Aston-Martin, the type of car that Paul was supposedly driving at the time of his fatal accident, is leaning against the doll’s leg. The interior of the car is red, symbolizing Paul’s bloody accident. Also, the doll rests on the lap of a cloth draped figure (which is creepy all by itself) that is wearing a blood stained driving glove.
The Japanese stone figure at the feet of the wax images of the younger Beatles has a line on its head, rumored to represent the head wound that Paul sustained in the fatal accident. The four-armed Indian doll at the front of the picture is Shiva, symbol of both destruction and creation. Two of the doll’s arms are raised, one pointing at the wax image of the younger Paul and the other pointing at Paul himself. The television set on the ground to the right of the Beatles is turned off, suggesting that the news of the tragedy had been suppressed.
The “Paul is Dead” controversy is not the only thing that the Sgt. Pepper’s album cover is known for. It was one of the first to feature a center gatefold sleeve and it was also the first album to have the song lyrics printed on the cover. Of course, a bi-fold album had never been seen before so rumors began that it was made this way to resemble a prayer book or funeral program. Naturally, clues were found within the folds of the album as well.
inside LPOn the inside photo, Paul is wearing a patch on his band uniform with the letters “O.P.D.” that theorists interpreted as “Officially Pronounced Dead.” According to tradition, this British Police jargon “O.P.D.” phrase is the equivalent of American police forces use of “D.O.A.” (Dead On Arrival). (Much later, in a Life magazine article Paul stated, “It is all bloody stupid. I picked up the O.P.D. badge in Canada. It was a police badge. Perhaps it means Ontario Police Department or something.” Actually, the badge Paul was wearing reads “O.P.P.”, which stands for the Ontario Provincial Police. The angle of the photograph makes the final “P” look like a “D”.)
On the original album the song lyrics are printed on the back cover over a picture of the Beatles. Unlike the rest of the Beatles, Paul has his back turned to the camera which, by its very appearance, further fueled rumors that he was dead. z sgt-pepper-the-beatles-back-cover-620Furthermore, the three black buttons on the waist above the tail of Paul’s coat are supposed to represent the mourning of the remaining Beatles. Although John, Paul and George were all about the same height (Ringo, much shorter), in the gatefold photo, Paul appears taller than the other Beatles, suggesting that he is ascending to the heavens. Another clue points out that next to Paul’s head are the words “WITHOUT YOU” from the song title “Within You Without You”.
Also, George appears to be pointing at the words “Wednesday morning at five o’clock as the day begins”, which was supposed to have been the time of Paul’s fatal accident. In reality, George deliberately positioned his hand in this way not to point to the printed lyrics, but to make the letter “L”, the first letter in the word “LOVE”. His fellow Beatles appear to be spelling out the word “LOVE” with their hands as well. John’s hands are arranged in a “V” shape, and Ringo’s clasped hands form an “E”. The “O” is missing as Paul’s hands are not visible.
The lyrics themselves added to Paul’s death legend and to his replacement by a look-alike. The title song introduces Billy Shears (Paul’s alleged replacement) in “With a Little Help from My Friends”. Insiders hint that Paul’s rumored replacement, a man named William Campbell Shears, was still working on perfecting his singing voice. This theory was again referred to in the same song with the line: “Lend me your ears and I’ll sing you a song/And I’ll try not to sing out of key”.

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Paul and his 1966 Aston Martin DB6.

Several other “Sgt. Peppers” songs purportedly make reference to Paul’s tragic accident. “Good Morning, Good Morning” opens with the line “Nothing to do to save his life call his wife in.” One version of Paul’s fatal accident story was that he had picked up a female hitch-hiker named Rita and she became so excited when she realized she was in a car with Paul McCartney that she threw herself on him, thereby causing the wreck. As told in the song “Lovely Rita,” “I took her home/I nearly made it”.
In “A Day in the Life” John sings “He blew his mind out in a car/He hadn’t noticed that the lights had changed/A crowd of people stood and stared/They’d seen his face before/Nobody was really sure if he was from the House of Lords”. This last lyric was, at the time, perhaps the most convincing argument that Paul McCartney was dead. Years later, John Lennon revealed that the inspiration for the spooky song lyrics was the death of Tara Browne, the 21-year-old heir to the Guinness fortune and close friend of Lennon and McCartney, who had crashed his Lotus Elan on December 18, 1966 in Redcliffe Gardens, Earls Court. Producer George Martin however, believes that the entire song, including this morose verse, is a drug reference and that Lennon was imagining a stoned politician who had stopped at a set of traffic lights.
z DRUMahiVAAAaazzRegardless, the album did nothing to quell the rumor that “Paul was Dead.” The Beatles, who were by this time totally fed up with dealing with the press, did little to dissuade the discussion of demise. Some pundits have speculated over the years that the entire affair was a ploy by the Beatles’ and their management designed to sell more albums. Which makes sense when you consider that the McCartney death rumor would continue to swirl around future album releases by the Fab Four in the coming years.
What cannot be denied about “Sgt. Pepper” was its impact on music history. The album regularly appears at the top of most music critic’s lists of “Greatest albums of all time.” The influence obviously extended beyond the music itself, as our short analysis of the cover art suggests, by changing the way the jackets containing the music told a story of its own. In pop-culture, the heavy moustaches worn by all of the Beatles band members swiftly became a hallmark of hippie style. The brightly colored parodies of military uniforms worn by the band on the cover have been, at least in part, attributed by cultural historians as fueling the anti-authoritarian and anti-establishment movement of the hippy era.

z brianepstein_2403025b
John Lennon, Brian Epstein & Paul McCartney

Nearly 3 months after Sgt. Pepper’s release, an incident occurred that further fueled the death rumor, changed the Beatles forever, and drove them further into seclusion. In August 1967, the band was informed of the death of the man responsible in large part for their success; manager Brian Epstein. The coroner ruled Epstein’s death an accidental overdose, but it was widely rumored that a suicide note had been discovered among his possessions. Epstein worried that the band might not renew his management contract, due to expire in October. Epstein’s death left the group confused and fearful about the future and did nothing to extinguish the rumors of Paul McCartney’s death. In fact, Brian Epstein’s death just added fuel to the fire.

 

Music, Pop Culture

The Band. Woodstock Comes To Irvington.

d The Band 1aaaaa

Original publish date:  April 11, 2019

You are cordially invited to come over to the Irving theatre this Saturday, April 13th from 2 PM to 4 PM and talk about music. This is the 50th anniversary year of Woodstock, the concert that changed both the culture and history of music while defining a generation. More importantly, this event will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first live concert by The Band at the Winterland ballroom in San Francisco California. The Band (Levon Helm, Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson) not only change the face of rock ‘n roll, they almost single-handedly created the movement that became known as “Americana” music. Although known by many as Bob Dylan’s backup band, as we shall see this Saturday, there is more to the fellas than meets the eye.z big pink 3c
When these five self-described bearded “Cowboys” appeared on the January 12, 1970 cover of Time magazine (a first for an American band by the way) they were described as “The New Sound of Country Rock.” They came to epitomize Woodstock, the community and the concert, although they landed at both quite coincidentally. In an era when other bands were writing and performing songs about sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll, The Band were performing songs about reflection and history created in the basement of a little pink house in the Catskill Mountains. The songs dripped with sentiment, depth and meaning straight out of the pages of American history even though four out of the five members were Canadians.Woodstock-poster
This Saturday I will host an in depth discussion about The Band and its impact on American music. Joining me will be local radio legends Dave “the King” Wilson, Ed Wenck and Jay Baker. The program will start at 1:30 p.m. with live music in the Irving theatre performed by The Mud Creek Conservancy, the acoustic duo of Ed Wenck and Josh Gillespie. Occurring before the presentation this will be their first live performance. The duo will play and explain a couple of The Band’s best-known songs for us during the discussion as well. The program will also include a live podcast of “Firehouse Irvington” by Kevin Friedly and Jay Baker after the show. We invite you to come out, share thoughts, ask questions and even bring your guitar to play and sing along in what promises to be a show for the ages.The Band
Channel 13’s Nicole Misensik and Brandon Kline will be on hand to assist with questions from the audience and Dave Wilson will act as the official emcee. The program will feature film clips of The Band on stage, taped interviews and historic photographs that, combined with the discussion, will help form a more complete history of what many critics believe was the greatest band in the history of rock ‘n roll. The band’s iconic lyrics will be discussed as well as their motivation and meaning and songwriting process. Not to mention some interesting connections to pop culture events and personalities that lasted well before and long after their breakup in 1976.
bd triumphThe Band was born only after the near fatal motorcycle accident involving the world’s most famous electric folksinger changed their direction. And, although The Band’s first album “Music From Big Pink” debuted on July 1st, 1968, the band from West Saugerties, New York did not perform live until the spring of 1969 a continent away in San Francisco. The album was created start to finish in two weeks time with no overdubbing, unheard of for its day. What’s more, The Band very nearly didn’t take the stage at all; saved only after legendary promoter Bill Graham picked a hypnotist out of a bay area phonebook to right the ship. The little-known stories of these great incidents will be discussed this Saturday.
Most people forget that The Band even performed at Woodstock, let alone was a headliner. We will discuss how mismanagement not only kept The Band out of the film and off of the soundtrack, it kept Bob Dylan off of the stage. All but only the most devoted fans realize that The Band not only performed at Woodstock, but also at the largest concert in the history of music alongside the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers at Watkins Glen New York four years later. And then there was the 1970 Festival Express tour across Canada featuring Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead and The Band. The Festival Express was a 14 car long train that stopped in three Canadian cities: Toronto, Winnipeg and Calgary, during the summer of 1970, that ultimately became one long non-stop jam session and never ending party fueled by drugs and alcohol.
2To understand The Band, one must also understand the era into which it was born. Big Pink’s 1968 debut was also the year of student protests against the Vietnam War, Martin Luther King and Robert F Kennedy’s assassination, riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Black Panther demonstrations, feminists protesting the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City, Apollo 7 and 8’s moon landing rehearsal flights, Charles Manson gathering his cult members at Spahn Ranch and Nixon’s nomination for president. To many, America was coming apart at the seams and the divide between generations had never seemed wider. This band, formed out of a classically trained musician, a teenaged alcoholic, a butche’rs apprentice, a Jewish Native American grifter and a veteran performer from the Mississippi Delta, stepped forward to bridge the gap.
The Band 19While considered the fathers of the history conscious “Americana” music movement, make no mistake about it, these guys were quintessential rock and rollers. Fast cars, fast women, and fast times punctuated the lives of each member of The Band. They started in the age of rockabilly, while Elvis Presley was still shaking things, up and finished at the dawn of hip-hop. They crossed paths with Hollywood movie stars, gangsters and presidents. Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, Dr. John, Sonny Boy Williamson, Muddy Waters, Conway Twitty, Tiny Tim, Jack Ruby, Martin Scorsese and Jimmy Carter all play a part in the story of these four Canadians and one self-described “cracker” from Arkansas to create a mystique that still surrounds them today, long after three out of the five band members have passed.
Not only is this Saturday’s event timed to coincide with an important anniversary in the history of The Band, it is also taking place on “National Record Store Day”. There will be live music outside the Irving theatre beginning early in the day and lasting long after this presentation concludes. The program will start at 2 PM, admission is free, but we ask that you please make a donation at the door to the weekly view newspaper to help support the Free Press of Indianapolis.

Art, Homosexuality, Pop Culture

Oscar Wilde In Indianapolis.

Oscar_Wilde

Original publish date:  February 28, 2019

It would be harder to find a more quintessential Victorian Era Englishman than Oscar Wilde, especially if you were to ask a literate American. Who was Oscar Wilde you ask? Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde (October 16,1854-November 30, 1900) was THE flamboyant Irish poet and playwright. He became one of London’s most popular playwrights in the early 1890s and is perhaps best remembered for his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, and the peculiar circumstances of his imprisonment and early death. What is largely forgotten is his visit to America in 1882, including two stops in the Hoosier state.
On January 3, 1882, 27-year-old Oscar Wilde arrived in New York on what would become a year long 15,000 mile visit to 150 American cities. The Dublin-born Oxford educated man was at the pinnacle of his personal eccentricity. His garish fashion sense, acerbic wit, and extravagant passion for art and home design had made such a spectacle in London that none other than Gilbert & Sullivan penned an operetta named “Patience” that lampooned Wilde as the champion of England’s aesthetic movement of the 1870s and ’80s . He was hired to go to America to lecture on interior decorating but in the end, it turned out to be a way for Wilde to promote himself. His visit may well have been one of the very first examples of “branding” as we know it today. It was on this lecture tour where most of the iconic photographic images so associated with Wilde and his “fierce” fashion sense were made.z Wilde-Sarony1
Despite the fact that at the time of his visit, Wilde was only the author of one self-published book of poems and a single unproduced play, he often proclaimed himself a “star”. His established routine was to appear on stage dressed in satin breeches and a velvet coat with lace trim crowned by a velvet feathered slouch hat perched at a jaunty angle as he advocated the importance of sconces and embroidered pillows—and himself. Wilde was among the first “celebrity” to understand that fame for it’s own sake could launch a career and sustain one. Good or bad, no matter, Wilde’s only concern what that they spell his name right.z wilde 1
According to biographer David M. Friedman (Wilde in America) Widle’s tour of nineteenth-century America ranged “from the mansions of Gilded Age Manhattan to roller-skating rinks in Indiana, from an opium den in San Francisco to the bottom of the Matchless silver mine in Colorado—then the richest on earth—where Wilde dined with twelve gobsmacked miners, later describing their feast to his friends in London as “First course: whiskey. Second course: whiskey. Third course: whiskey.” Wilde gave 100 interviews in America, more than anyone else in the world in 1882. Wilde arrived in an America whose news headlines were populated by outlaws (Jesse James), Presidential assassins (Charles Guiteau), legendary showmen (P.T. Barnum), and inventors (Thomas Edison). Where grabbing headlines are concerned, Oscar Wilde went toe-to-toe with them all. The difference being that Oscar Wilde was the first to become famous for being famous.
The first stop in Indiana on Wilde’s tour came in Fort Wayne on February 16, 1882. Wilde appeared at a facility known as “The Rink” located at 215 East Berry St. in the city (between Clinton and Barr streets). As the name denotes, it was opened as a rollerskating rink in 1869 and was converted into a public house known as “The Academy of Music” for the next decade before it became “The People’s Theatre” before being demolished in 1901. According to the “Pictorial History of Fort Wayne” the building stood on the site of the present Lincoln Memorial Life Insurance Building and was 60 feet wide by 150 feet long with a floor space capable of accommodating 500 ice skaters.

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Fort Wayne Indiana Map.

The Fort Wayne daily Gazette reported, “the Academy was about three quarters filled last night to hear Oscar Wilde, the greatly advertised lecturer, who has carried with him the lovers of the beautiful and his ideas of art. His lecture, in the main, is certainly an elaborately written, beautifully worded piece of literature; but for Oscar Wilde he is not an elocutionist, his voice is as effeminate as a school girl’s, and he becomes very tiresome to his auditors, even those who admire the lily and sunflower theory of the aesthetic genius. That Oscar Wilde is a cultured man no one will deny, that he is an orator, every one will hold up their hands in horror against such an insinuation.” The Fort Wayne News called the talk a “languid, monotonous stream of mechanically arranged words … scholarly but pointless; as instructive as a tax list to a pauper, and scarcely as interesting.” From Fort Wayne, Wilde circled around to Detroit, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Louisville, and Indianapolis.
Wilde’s February visit to Indianapolis came at a busy time in the city with 3 major conventions taking place: A veterans of the Mexican War reunion, the GAR reunion of Civil War Vets and the Greenback Party convention. Wilde appeared in person for one of his fashion lectures at the English Opera House on the northwest quadrant Monument Circle on February 22, 1882. A full color poster inside the opera house’s marble entryway declared that Wilde’s visit would be “The Fashionable event of the season.” The building was constructed by the Honorable William H. English, a businessman, banker, historian, and politician. Opened on September 20, 1880, the English immediately became the city’s leading theatre and remained so for the next 68 years. Widle’s visit came two years after Hancock ran for Vice-President with Civil War Hero of Gettysburg, General Winfield Scott Hancock.

 

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The English Opera House.

A crowd of 500 people crowded the opera house to witness Wilde’s 75 minute performance titled “The Decorative Arts”. The Feb. 23, 1883 issue of the Indianapolis News reported, “Oscar Wilde delivered his lecture on “The English Renaissance” last evening at English’s Opera House, to a large audience. He appeared half an hour late, and was greeted with a tender murmur of applause. He came upon the stage alone and proceeded to his lecture without formal introduction. He was dressed partly in the style made familiar to most of his hearers by “Grosvernor” in “Patience.” He wore a dress coat, double-breasted white vest, exposing a wide expanse of unsullied shirt front, in the middle of which glowed a single stud of gold, a standing collar, dead white silk necktie most artistically knotted, knee breeches, black silk stockings and low-cut shoes… Mr. Wilde has been has been variously criticized, but all agree that he is well worth seeing and listening to. Some can make nothing out of his lecture while others are delighted with it. The only way to judge is for each to go and hear for yourself.”
z strike-me-sunflowerNo less than five separate newspaper columns excoriated Wilde or his performance. The Indianapolis Journal newspaper said “We have grown sunflowers for many a year, suddenly, we are told there is a beauty in them our eyes have never been able to see. And hundreds of youths are smitten with the love of the helianthus. Alackaday! We must have our farces and our clowns. What fool next?” Soon, gaggles of admiring young men sporting sunflowers in their velvet lapels formed clubs known as “sunflower boys” to sit front and center at Wilde’s appearances. At Wilde’s other appearances, so many young street toughs interrupted Wilde’s shows that he sent advance notice to Denver that he would no longer act the gentleman and that he was “practicing with my new revolver by shooting at sparrows on telegraph wires from my car. My aim is as lethal as lighting. — O. Wilde.”

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“He knows uncommonly well what he is doing,” said the Indianapolis News. The Indianapolis Daily Sentinel reported that “from pit to dome,” most came to make fun of him, but many soon realized that he had something to say. “It would be safe to wage a cigar that if Oscar can be induced by his manager to be a little more utilitarian, he will not want for appreciate or applause.” Wilde took the conservative criticism seriously and decided to tone down his outlandish stage costumes. Wilde later noted that his next night’s audience was “dreadfully disappointed at Cincinnati at my not wearing knee breeches.” Of the Queen City, Wilde quipped, “I wonder that no criminal has ever pleaded the ugliness of your city as an excuse for his crimes.”

1882-2-22-indianapolis-news-341 Morris Ross, one of the “legendary foursome” staff of writers and editors for the Indianapolis News (including Hilton U. Brown, Meredith Nicholson and Louis Howland), said that Wilde gained attention “mainly by adopting knee breeches and a lily. The latter’s lecture at the last-named city was by no means successful. One reporter caught him using the word “handicrawftsmen” seventeen times and noted his pronunciation of “teel-e-phone,” “eye-solate,” and “vawse.” The same newsman disliked Wilde’s legs, which he said had no more symmetry than the same length of garden hose. Wilde was invited to the governor’s party that evening and on the way he was asked why he came to America. “For recreation and pleasure,” he answered with his typical wit, “but I have not, as yet, found any Americans. There are English, French, Danes, and Spaniards in New York; but I have yet to see an American.” This was a common British criticism of this country during the nineteenth century. At dinner with the governor and his family, Wilde ate greedily. The Saturday Review reported that when he was introduced to ice cream he spooned it up “with the languor of a debilitated duck.”29 Indiana of the 1880’s was truly unsympathetic to Wilde and the aesthetic movement.”
z OSCAR-WILDE-Signed-Photograph-Writer-AuthorOn his 1882 lecture tour of America drank elderberry wine with Walt Whitman in Camden (of whom he said, “I have the kiss of Walt Whitman still on my lips.”), conversed chillily with Henry James in Washington (who called Wilde “the most gruesome object I ever saw”), lectured in Saint Joseph, Missouri (two weeks after the death of Jesse James), called on an elderly Jefferson Davis at his Mississippi plantation (of whom Wilde inexplicably remarked, “The principles for which Jefferson Davis and the South went to war cannot suffer defeat.”), and fell prey to a con-man in New York’s Tenderloin (he lost $ 5,000 to legendary Gotham City conman Hungry Joe Lewis in a rigged Bunco game).
However, my favorite encounter story from Wilde’s American tour comes from his visit to Hildene. the New Hampshire estate of President Abraham Lincoln’s son Robert Todd Lincoln. Wilde ate dinner with the former Secretary of War and his wife Mary. Mrs. Lincoln was apparently entranced by Wilde but Robert remained silent throughout the encounter. The visit culminated with Mr. Lincoln’s sudden rise and push back from the table followed by a slamming of his napkin onto his dinner plate and announcement, “I do not care for that man!” Years after Lincoln’s death in 1926, an imperial sized cabinet photo of Wilde (dressed in all his finery) was found in the Secretary’s estate signed “To Robert T. Lincoln, with my very best wishes, Oscar Wilde”. Oh, if they only knew.

Music, Pop Culture, The Beatles

The Quiet Ronette and the Quiet Beatle.

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Original publish date:  February 14, 2019

Ten years ago, the dead body of a 67-year old woman was discovered in Engkewood, New Jersey. Her death came sometime that week and, for the most part, her passing went unnoticed. It remains so a decade later. But, in the weeks and months before the British invasion hit our shores, she was the hottest third of a fairy-tale girl group featured on magazine covers, 45 sleeves and album covers all over the world. She dated George Harrison, Mick Jagger, George Hamilton and Johnny Mathis. Her name was Estelle Bennett and together with her sister Veronica and cousin Nedra Talley, they were known the world over as The Ronettes.

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The Ronettes. L.to R. Nedra, Ronnie and Estelle

One of the most popular groups (male or female) from the 1960s, they charted nine songs on the Billboard Hot 100, five of which became Top 40 hits. The trio came from Washington Heights in New York City, and took their name from lead singer Veronica; better known as Ronnie Spector. The Ronettes’ most famous songs were “Be My Baby”, “Baby, I Love You”, “(The Best Part of) Breakin’ Up”, and “Walking in the Rain”. The later won a Grammy Award in 1965, and “Be My Baby” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999. The Ronettes were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007, just a couple years before Estelle’s death, officially from colon cancer, but those who knew her said she died of a broken heart.
The girls had been singing together since they were teenagers in Spanish Harlem. In 1959, they entered a talent show at the Apollo Theater and won as “The Darling Sisters.” Ronnie was then 16, Estelle 17, and Nedra 13. Soon they were appearing at local sock hops and charity shows. By 1961 they were dancing and singing at New York’s Peppermint Lounge during the Chubby Checker “twist” dance-craze. They were featured in “Twist-A-Rama” shows and toured with Joey Dee and the Starlighters, whose song “Peppermint Twist” was a standard of the era. In time, they were discovered by New York city’s famous disc jockey “Murray the K,” who had them appear in his “rock ‘n roll revues” held at the Brooklyn Fox Theater. In March of 1963, they moved to Phil Spector’s Philles Records and changed their name to “The Ronettes”.

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Estelle

The Ronettes were an exotic contradiction, singing songs in flirting tones about puppy love like edgy big apple street sirens while still looking somehow lonesome and vulnerable. Their heavy mascara framed Cleopatra eyes, their tight slit skirts exposed shapely legs and their tall, jet-black beehive hairdos screamed sex appeal… and danger. All three girls were of mixed-race decent and all three were undeniable young beauties. Ronnie and Estelle had a white father and a mother of African-American and Cherokee descent. Nedra Talley was black, Indian and Puerto Rican. Despite their vampish appearance, the girls were kept off the street by their parents and led tame, sheltered lives. Sometimes at school, they were bullied for their mixed-race looks. Hard to imagine from the girls who Darlene Love (He’s a Rebel) described as “the bad girls of the ’60s.”
Estelle Bennett (July 22, 1941 – February 11, 2009) was the quieter of the two Bennett sisters. When they were in school, Estelle concentrated on her homework and brought home good grades. Ronnie, more of an extrovert, spent her time singing and cultivating her “look”. Estelle was thr fashionista of the two, always reading Glamour, Vogue, and other fashion magazines. Estelle was valedictorian of her class at George Washington High School in Manhattan and went on to study at Manhattan’s Fashion Institute of Technology. Estelle worked at Macy’s durig the day, attended fashion school at night, and sang with The Ronettes on the weekends. And above all, Estelle loved singing and the recognition that came with it. She was the “pretty” Ronette, the one whose dance card was always the fullest. Although content to remain in the shadow of her younger sister, Estelle always soaked up her fair share of the spotlight. Those who knew Estelle described her as gentle and intelligent, and the driving force behind the Ronettes’ style. As cousin Nedra recalled: “She was not pretentious at all, but she carried herself with a sophistication that a lot of guys thought was really sexy. And she had a very, very good heart.”
z 61GlwzA3WkLBy the time the girls signed with Phil Spector in 1963, thanks mostly to Estelle, the Ronettes had their look precisely calibrated. In August of 1963 “Be My Baby” was released and by October, it had shot to No. 2 on the Billboard pop chart, making the Ronettes instant stars. The girls embarked on a tour of Britain in December of 1963 into early 1964. The Ronettes were the only girl group to tour with the Beatles. The Rolling Stiones were their opening act. When they toured, the Ronettes always traveled with at least one family member. In late 1964, the group released their only studio album, Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes Featuring Veronica, which entered the Billboard charts at number 96.

 

 

It was during that tour of ’63-’64 when The Beatles George Harrison, the “quiet Beatle”, began dating Estelle Bennett. The two hit it off immediately. According to Estelle, “We kept running into each other at parties and gatherings and always found our eyes meeting no matter how many other people were in the room. George and I talked whenever we’d see each other. We found we liked the same things, long walks while wearing comfortable clothes and being with sincere people who liked us for ourselves and not because we were in show business. I think I was the happiest when I was talking with George. There was something about him that made me open up and spill out anything that was on my mind. I think he felt the same way, for he’d often call late in the evening and talk on the phone for hours.”

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Estelle Bennett and Paul McCartney

z EstThe duo were inseperable for the remainder of the English tour until The Beatles left for Paris. When The Beatles came to America, the Ronettes met them at their hotel in New York City. The Ronettes, in fact, were on hand February 8, 1964 to welcome the Beatles as they arrived in New York for their first U.S. visit and Ed Sullivan Show appearance. But the relationship fizzled out, Estelle saying, “We saw each other many times. I was with him at the party after their concert and on other evenings when we just sat around the hotel with the rest of the group. But somehow things weren’t the same. We couldn’t recreate the same relationship we had when I was in London…Over there he’s at his best, he’s relaxed, he’s George Harrison, Englishman and not George Harrison, Beatle.”
During that same tour, Estelle was also romantically linked with Mick Jagger.

 

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The Rolling Stones and The Ronettes.

z esIn Keith Richards autobiography “Life” he admitted that he was dating Ronnie when the Stones toured with the Ronettes in 1963. He recalled there that Mick Jagger got with Estelle because she was less “chaperoned” than Ronnie. The pairings were viewed as controversial for a couple of reasons. One was that management, particularly The Beatles’ Brian Epstein, wanted “the boys” to remain single for fans’ sake. And two, interracial pairings were taboo back in those days. Frowned upon in the U.K. and nearly suicidal in parts of the U.S.A.
z 1012_large_1In 1965, the Ronettes continued to record and tour while making a few appearances on television, including a CBS special and the NBC pop music show, Hullabaloo. However by this time, Phil Spector was busy with other artists. The 1965 song “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” produced and co-written by Spector for The Righteous Brothers, became a No. 1 hit. And by early 1966, he was preoccupied with Ike & Tina Turner. By now, The Ronettes were being moved to the back burner by Spector and some of their songs, such as “I Wish I Never Saw the Sunshine”, and two songs co-written by Harry Nilsson, “Paradise” and “Here I Sit,” were held back for decades. They had one last hurrah in August 1966 when the Ronettes (minus Ronnie) joined the Beatles on their 14-city U.S./Canada tour as one of the opening acts. As for the Rolling Stones, during one visit they made to New York in the 1960s, Ronnie’s mother ended up cooking for them at her Gotham City home.

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John Lennon and Estelle Bennett

In late 1966, after several singles failed to make the charts, Phil Spector stopped releasing new records, the Philles label shut down and the Ronettes disbanded. Nedra Talley married New York radio station programming director Scott Ross. Estelle Bennett married road manager Joe Dong and the couple had a daughter, Toyin. After the Ronettes’ break-up, Estelle took it hard. Her cousin, Nedra said “Estelle did not want the Ronettes to end.” Estelle recorded one single for Laurie Records, “The Year 2000/The Naked Boy.” It didn’t do well and she quit the music business. After she left music, her life began a descent into another world.
By 1968, Estelle seemed to lose her moorings. At one point, she was hospitalized with anorexia. Not long after her grip on reality began to loosen considerably. Estelle was often seen wandering the streets of New York, telling people she would be performing with the Ronettes at a particular jazz nightclub. Estelle’s daughter Toyin explained she had never really known who her mother was. “From the time I was born she suffered with mental illness. I never really got to know Estelle in a good mental state.” Cousin Nedra Talley Ross, reported that Estelle had led a hard life, struggling with schizophrenia and anorexia.
z 5001334_wenn1183096Fellow 1960s singer Darlene Love, who once described The Ronettes as Rock’s tough girls, said the last time she saw Estelle, “She didn’t remember me.” By the early 2000s, Estelle Bennett was homeless. In 2007, The Ronettes were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Love recalled seeing Estelle at the induction ceremony. “They cleaned her up and made her look as well as possible…She looked the best she could for somebody who lived on the street. It broke my heart.” It was decided that she was too fragile to perform. A back-up singer with Ronnie Specter’s new group stood in for an encore performance of “Be My Baby”.

 

“Be My Baby” sold millions of copies, both in the 1960s and since then, having been used in the opening segments of films such as Martin Scorsese’s 1973 film Mean Streets and 1987’s Dirty Dancing. In 2004, Rolling Stone ranked the song at No. 22 on their list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time”. Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys has called “Be My Baby” one of the greatest pop records ever made and is his “all-time favorite song.” Wilson was in his car when he first heard the tune on the radio, and being the composer and arranger that he was, stopped the car to give the song a closer listen. “I had to pull off the road,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it. The choruses blew me away.” Wilson, in fact, wrote a famous Beach Boys song, “Don’t Worry Baby,” initially as a follow-up intended for the Ronettes, but it was turned down for that purpose.

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Estelle Bennett of The Ronettes with daughter Toyin March 2007

When Estelle was found dead in her apartment by police, after relatives had been unable to contact her, Kevin Dilworth, a friend and former Newark, New Jersey Star-Ledger newspaper reporter said, “I think she really just died of a broken heart. After the Ronettes disbanded in 1966, I don’t think she was ever right again…” Dillworth added that the only time he really saw her come to life was at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame of March 2007: “When they came out of the main ceremony… when she walked down the hallway, and the paparazzi … all the flashing cameras, and the people asking for autographs … her eyes just lit up. She was so excited, and she was back on top of the world again. But she went right back to anonymity.”
z 33775602_130379126909Posthumously, all agreed that growing up, Estelle had been a force in creating the Ronettes’ style and act – and that she had a heart of gold. “Estelle had such an extraordinary life,” said her cousin, Nedra. “To have the fame, and all that she had at an early age, and for it all to come to an end abruptly. Not everybody can let that go and then go on with life.” “Not a bad bone in her body,” said her sister Ronnie in a press statement. “Just kindness.” At that 2007 Hall of Fame ceremony, Estelle spoke only two sentences during her acceptance speech, “I would just like to say, thank you very much for giving us this award. I’m Estelle of the Ronettes, thank you.” No, Estelle, we thank you.

 

Auctions, John F. Kennedy, Music, Pop Culture

American Pie and the Day the Music Died. Part II

American Pie part II

Original publish date:  February 7, 2019

Sixty years ago, February 3, 1959, three of Rock ‘n Roll’s biggest stars- Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson, known as the Big Bopper- were killed in a plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa. The day became known as, “The Day the Music Died.” 13-year-old Don McLean was folding newspapers for his paper route in the early morning hours of February 4, 1959 when he got the news. Ten years later, McLean recorded an album in Berkeley, California called “Tapestry” in 1969. After being rejected 72 times by multiple labels, the album was picked up and released by Mediarts, a label that had not existed when he first started looking. It attracted good reviews but little notice outside the folk community. McLean’s major break came when Mediarts was bought by United Artists, paving the way for his second album, “American Pie”.
z 10713201_1The album launched two number one hits in the title song and “Vincent”. American Pie’s success made McLean an international star. The title track went on to become an anthem for late stage baby boomers. Decyphering the song’s lyrics became a national pasttime, sparking rumors that persist to this day. “American Pie” was the number-one US hit for four weeks in 1972. The song was listed as the No. 5 song on the RIAA project Songs of the Century and was selected for preservation in the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress.
z 74282792McLean has really never divulged the song lyrics meanings. He has said: “They’re beyond analysis. They’re poetry.” His silence has simply added fuel to the speculation. In 2009, on the 50th anniversary of the crash, he stated that writing the first verse of the song exorcised his long-running grief over Holly’s death and that he considers the song to be “a big song … that summed up the world known as America”. It should be noted that McLean dedicated his album to Holly. Every line of the 8 1/2 minute song has been carefully culled over and, rightly or wrongly, “explained” by fans and pundits alike ever since. Some of them are simple, others, not so much.
z don-mclean-american-pie-part-one-1972“A long, long time ago.”: American Pie was written in 1971 but talks about the 1950’s. “I can still remember how that music used to make me smile.”: McLean’s favorite music were the golden oldies of the 50’s. “And I knew if I had my chance, that I could make those people dance, and maybe they’d be happy for a while…”: Fifities music was primarily made for school dances and sock hops and McLean was waxing nostalgic about creating the same atmosphere with his music. “But February made me shiver.”: His idol, Buddy Holly died in a February plane crash in Iowa. “With every paper I’d deliver.”: He was a newspaper delivery boy in New Rochelle, New York. “Bad news on the doorstep, I couldn’t take one more step.”: Denotes the day he got the news of the plane crash. “I can’t remember if I cried, when I read about his widowed bride.”: Buddy Holly’s wife was pregnant when the accident occurred and soon after had a miscarriage. “But something touched me deep inside, the day the music died.”: Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper died together on the same day and fans felt that these three were that only major artists left. Elvis got drafted, Little Richard turned gospel, Bill Haley was forgotten, Jerry Lee Lewis was scandalous and Chuck Berry was a convicted criminal.
z monotones-book-of-love-56a96b6d3df78cf772a6cf2a“Did you write the book of love?”:”The Book of Love” was a hit in 1968 by the Monotones. “And do you have faith in God above, if the Bible tells you so?”: Don Cornell’s book “The Bible Tells Me So” (1955) and the Sunday School song “Jesus Loves Me,” with the line “For the Bible tells me so.” were presumed memories from McLean’s childhood. “Now do you believe in rock & roll?”: McLean was a former folk singer, a medium supplanted by Rock n’ Roll. “Can music save your mortal soul?”: Music may be the only thing that can save the listener from the social upheaval of the sixties. “And, can you teach me how to dance real slow?”: another perceived reference to the innocence of the 1950s. “Now I know that you’re in love with him, ’cause I saw you dancing in the gym.”: Buddy’s widow Maria Elena remarried. “You both kicked off your shoes.”: 1950s sock hop reference. “Man, I dig those rhythm and blues.”: Buddy Holly was living in Greenwich Village at the time of his death and frequenting the Jazz bars with his young wife. “I was a lonely teenage broncin’ buck with a pink carnation and a pickup truck.”: likely a tip of the cap to Marty Robbins 1957 song A White sport Coat (And a Pink Carnation). “But I knew I was out of luck, the day the music died.”: Holly’s death presaged an end of innocence.
z R-9587200-1483213325-5153“Now for ten years we’ve been on our own.”: It was a decade after Holly’s death when McLean put out his first album in 1969. “And moss grows fat on a rolling stone.”: Bob Dylan’s song “Like a Rolling Stone” signified (to many) the death of folk music. “but that’s not how it used to be.”: Again referring to Dylan’s musical changes. “When the jester sang for the king and queen.”: A veiled reference to Dylan as the jester. The king was Peter Seger and the queen Joan Baez. The two biggest names in folk music in the ’60’s. “In a coat he borrowed from James Dean.”: Although some see this as reference of Dylan’s “Freewheelin'” album cover where he is wearing a red windbreaker, it has also been explained as the movie idol’s death coming so close to Holly’s. “And a voice that came from you and me.”: again a reference to Dylan being the voice of his generation. “Oh, and while the king was looking down the jester stole his thorny crown.”: When Elvis “The King” left for the Army, Dylan stepped up to take his place. “The courtroom was adjourned, no verdict was returned.”: Dylan left the folk scene and went electric, then had his motorcycle wreck and disappeared for awhile. “And while Lennon read a book of Marx.”: Like Dylan, John Lennon and The Beatles switched genres from a pop band to serious musicians with an even more serious message. “The quartet practiced in the park and we sang dirges in the dark, the day the music died.”: The Beatles performed their last live concert at Candlestick Park and were broken up by the time this song became well known. There are many music aficionados out there who will argue that this verse is not about Bob Dylan at all but rather about the Kennedys. In that case, the lyrics should be pretty self explanatory.
z manson01_300x300“Helter Skelter in a summer swelter.”: In the summer of 1968, Charles Manson massacred an entire family spurred on by the Beatles song “Helter Skelter” from the white album. “The Byrd flew off with to a fallout shelter.”: The Byrd’s were a popular folk-rock group who had a hit with Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” in 1965. Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” appeared on his “Bringing It All Back Home” record, which features the image of a fallout shelter sign in the lower left corner. “Eight miles high and falling fast then landed in the foul grass.”: Eight Miles High was the first ever psychedelic song by the Byrds and tall grass refers to marijuana. “The players tried for a forward pass with the jester, on the sidelines in a cast.” Bob Dylan’s 1966 motorcycle wreck sidelined him and led to the success (out of necessity) of his back-up band, “The Band” whose 1968 and 1969 albums are considered classics. “Now the half time air was sweet perfume while sergeants played a marching tune.” Perceived reference to Dylan’s time off and the 1967 Beatles album Sgt. Pepper. “We all got up to dance, but we never got the chance.”: reference to the protests at the 1968 Chicago DNC and Kent State massacre of 1970. “Cause the players tried to take the field.”: The National Guard at Kent State University. “The marching band refused to yield.”: resulting in the deaths of of four students and wounding of nine others. “Do you recall what was revealed, the day the music died.”: Kent State University in Kent, Ohio.
z woodstock_a-G-5129968-0“And then we were all in one place.”: The Woodstock Festival took place in August 1969. 400,000 of McLean’s generation were there. “A generation lost in space.”: with the Apollo 11 moonlanding, the kids who grew up watching Lost in Space were coming of age. “With no time left to start again.”: The deaths of Buddy Holly and James Dean were harbingers for assassinations of the 1960s that could not be undone. “So come on Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, Jack flash sat on a candlestick.”: Reference to the Rolling Stones song Jumpin’ Jack Flash. “cause fire is the devil’s only friend.”: The Rolling Stones 1968 album Sympathy for the devil. “Oh, and as I watched him on the stage.”: In December of 1969, the Stones attempted another Woodstock at Altamont Speedway. A free concert with the Hell’s Angel’s handling the security. The Stones paid them with beer and handfuls of acid and during the performance of “Sympathy for the Devil,” a black man was beaten and stabbed to death by the Hell’s Angels. “My hands were clenched in fists of rage no angel born in hell could brake that Satan’s spell.”: The Hell’s Angels. “As the flames climbed high into the night, to light the sacrificial rite.”: The stones were helicoptered out after the murder and mayhem ensued. “I saw Satan laughing with delight, the day the music died.”: Historians point to the Stones at Altamont as the death of the sixties and good no longer triumphed over evil.
“I met a girl who sang the blues and I asked her for some happy news, but she just smiled and turned away.”: Considered as a reference to Janis Joplin’s death by an accidental heroin overdose on October 4, 1970. “I went down to the sacred store.”: Nostalgic return to a once safe place. “Where I heard the music years before, but the man said the music wouldn’t play.”: pining for the forgotten golden oldies of the good old days. “And in the streets the children screamed.”: Race riots, political protests and militant groups now ruled the streets. “The lovers cried and the poets dreamed.”: The political assassinations of the sixties had destroyed the promise of the future. “But not a word was spoken. The church bells all were broken.”: The age of Nixon-Agnew & Reagan was now usurping religion as their mantra fueled by the so-called silent majority. “And the three men I admire most, the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.”: McLean is Catholic and this is a tribute to the Holy Trinity. “They caught the last train for the coast.”: The April 8, 1966 Time magazine cover had asked the question “Is God Dead?” and The Beatles John Lennon had echoed the sentiment the same year. “The day the music died. And we were singing.”: McLean’s shock and despair at Holly’s death seemed insurmountable but it in fact led to his own birth as a musician and after all, music soothes the savage beast.
z 079402b9031ff1066dbb65cdf00c801aThis song’s refrain may be the hardest part of the song to explain. “So bye, bye Miss American Pie. Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry. And them good old boys were drinking whiskey and rye singing This will be the day that I die, this will be the day that I die.” The rumor was that American Pie was the name of the doomed plane carrying Holly, Valens and Richardson. Not true. It was also suggested that McLean was dating a Miss America contestant while writing the song. Also not true. Years later, McLean stated that Miss American Pie is as “American as apple pie, so the saying goes.” When taken on the face of it, I believe the refrain came together as a chorus simply because it was catchy. All hidden meanings aside, that may also be true about the entire song. Practically speaking “Chevy” rhymes with “levee”, it’s that simple. Still, theorists propose that the song’s refrain comes from Buddy Holly’s “That’ll be the day,” that eventually says “that I die.”
To further confuse the issue, an internet site notes that the Levee was a bar in Purchase, NY near McLean’s hometown and that there is also a town named Levee located about 15 minutes from his old school. According to local lore, McLean first wrote the lyrics on paper napkins in a bar in between gigs at Caffe Lena coffeehouse. A plaque on the wall of the Tin & Lint bar reads: “American Pie written by Don McLean, summer 1970.” McLean denies that story and in 2011 he told a local newspaper reporter that he wrote the song with the famous line “Bye, bye Miss American Pie” in Philadelphia. McLean himself said the chorus came to him suddenly while out shopping in a pharmacy in Cold Spring, New York. “I drove as fast as I could back home-I didn’t have a pencil and paper with me-and scribbled that down and put it in the tape recorder.”
McLean bristled when asked about the meaning of the song; “Over the years I’ve dealt with all these stupid questions of ‘Who’s that?’ and ‘Who’s that?’ These are things I never had in my head for a second when I wrote the song. I was trying to capture something very ephemeral and I did, but it took a long time. You will find many interpretations of my lyrics but none of them by me… Sorry to leave you all on your own like this but long ago I realized that songwriters should make their statements and move on, maintaining a dignified silence.”
z Don-McLean-American-Pie-Handwritten-Lyrics-52711In February 2015, McLean announced that Christies Auction House in New York City would sell his original lyrics for the iconic song. McLean explained his reasoning in Rolling Stone magazine: “I’m going to be 70 this year. I have two children and a wife, and none of them seem to have the mercantile instinct. I want to get the best deal that I can for them. It’s time.” The lyrics are 18 pages and contain 237 lines of manuscript and 26 lines of typed text and includes lines that didn’t make the final version as well as extensive notes. Christie’s described the lot as “Comprising: 4 pages manuscript in pencil on four sheets of blue paper stock, 11 pages manuscript on 10 sheets in pencil and ink on ruled spiral paper (including one a half sheet), 2 pages manuscript in pencil on two sheets of yellow paper stock, and one page typed manuscript on blue paper (with four lines holograph notes on verso in purple ink and pencil). Together 18 pages of manuscript on 17 sheets. ” The lot sold on April 7, 2015 for $1.2 million ($1.57 million with buyer’s premium).
After the auction when asked what “American Pie” meant, McLean jokingly replied, “It means I don’t ever have to work again if I don’t want to.” McLean said he would reveal the meaning of the song’s lyrics after the original manuscript was auctioned off. In the auction catalog, McLean revealed: “Basically in American Pie things are heading in the wrong direction. … It [life] is becoming less idyllic. I don’t know whether you consider that wrong or right but it is a morality song in a sense.” The catalog confirmed some of the better known references in the song’s lyrics, including Elvis Presley (“the king”) and Bob Dylan (“the jester”), and confirmed that the song culminates with a near-verbatim description of the death of Meredith Hunter at the Altamont Free Concert, ten years after the plane crash that killed Holly, Valens, and Richardson.
After the sale, McLean said that he would be selling off more from his music collection adding that he had just embarked on a program to lighten the load and get rid of things. “I hadn’t thought about the lyrics much. They were upstairs in a box of lyrics probably a foot thick with all kinds of songs I’d written that people know. But, of course there’s no song like that song and so I decided to sell them and see what happens. I know that people feel like that song belongs to the public so I thought a public auction would be the best thing to do.” McLean added that the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame wanted his lyrics but he refused because “they didn’t want me. I’ve never been in the rock n roll Hall of Fame, I’m an outsider. I’ve been very famous all my life. Many people have been inducted into the Hall of Fame but I haven’t because I’m a contrarian. The wanted my lyrics but I said to them ‘well, you don’t want me in the Hall of Fame so to hell with you’.” Fits in well with American Pie’s loss of innocence, don’t you think?

Music, Pop Culture

American Pie and the Day the Music Died. Part I

Bye Bye American Pie Part I

Original publish date:  January 31, 2019

60 years ago this Sunday was the day the music died. On February 3, 1959, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson were killed along with pilot Roger Peterson in a plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa. The event was immortalized by Don McLean in his 1971 song “American Pie”. Sixty years of rumors, innuendo and urban legends have followed since that frozen Tuesday morning. The facts get twisted, the accusations become tangled and conspiracy theories are contorted to fit a new narrative. One thing that never changes are the facts.

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Richie Valens, Buddy Holly & The Big Bopper

Three months before the crash Buddy Holly terminated his association with the Crickets. For his prophetic “Winter Dance Party” tour of 24 Midwestern cities in 24 days, he assembled a new band consisting of Waylon Jennings on bass, Tommy Allsup on guitar, and Carl Bunch on drums. The tour also featured Ritchie Valens, J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson and Dion DiMucci and his band The Belmonts. To save room (and money) Holly’s group was utilized as the backing band for all of the acts. The tour began in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on January 23, 1959. The rigorous travel schedule soon became a logistical problem; instead of hopping from town-to-town in a logical pattern, the tour zig-zagged chaotically, sometimes with distances between cities over 400 miles.

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All of the musicians traveled together in a series of reconditioned school buses prone to breaking down and poorly heated inside. Five separate buses were used in the first eleven days of the tour. The bands had no “roadies” back then, so the artists themselves were responsible for loading and unloading equipment at each stop. Because the tour was scheduled in winter, the travel route consisted of waist-deep snow and the weather featured temperatures from the 20s to as low as −36 °F. Shortly after the tour began, Richardson and Valens began experiencing flu-like symptoms. A bus breakdown in the middle of the highway near Ironwood, Michigan in subzero temperatures resulted in drummer Bunch being hospitalized for severely frostbitten feet. While Bunch recovered in the hospital, Carlo Mastrangelo of The Belmonts took over the drumming duties for Buddy Holly. When Dion and The Belmonts were performing, either Valens or Holly manned the drums. On Monday, February 2, Dion DiMucci took over the drums for the performance in Green Bay, Wisconsin and, after driving 350 miles, again took over the drum stool for that final concert in Clear Lake, Iowa.z surfballroom99
Clear Lake had not been a scheduled stop, but the tour promoters, hoping to fill an open date, called the manager of the local Surf Ballroom and offered to do the show. When Holly arrived at the venue that evening, he was visibly angry with the ongoing problems with the bus. The next gig was 365-miles north / northwest to Moorhead, Minnesota, which took them directly back through two towns they had already played within the last week. To make matters worse, the following day, they were scheduled to travel back directly south to Sioux City, Iowa, a 325-mile trip. Holly decided to charter a plane to take himself and his band to the Fargo, North Dakota airport, a 2 1/2 mile drive to Moorhead.
A 1947 single-engine, V-tailed Beechcraft 35 Bonanza airplane was chartered from the Dwyer Flying Service of Mason City, Iowa to fly Holly and his band to Hector Airport in Fargo. Tickets were $36 per passenger on the single-engine plane that could seat three passengers plus the pilot. One of the urban legends that sprang up years later was that the plane was called American Pie. In fact, the plane had no name other than its NAA code of N3794N.

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Waylon Jennings & Buddy Holly

Richardson was still battling the flu and asked Waylon Jennings for his seat on the plane. When Holly learned that Jennings was taking the bus, he teased the future country legend by joking, “Well, Hoss, I hope your ol’ bus freezes up.” Jennings responded: “Well, then I hope your ol’ plane crashes.” Jennings, who would be known by the nickname “Hoss” given him by Holly, was haunted by that bad joke for the rest of his life. Richie Valens, who was also struggling with the flu, asked Allsup for his seat on the plane even though he had an admitted fear of flying. Valens had witnessed a plane crash that took the life of his best friend on January 13, 1957. The two agreed to toss a coin to decide. Valens won the seat but lost his life.
Dion later said that Holly approached him along with Valens and Richardson to join the flight (the plane had 6 seats). In a 2009 interview, Dion claimed that Holly called him, Valens, and Richardson into a vacant dressing room and said “I’ve chartered a plane, we’re the guys making the money [we should be the ones flying ahead]…the only problem is there are only two available seats.” According to Dion, the coin toss for the seat was between Dion and Valens. Dion said that he won the toss, but ultimately balked at the $36 fare ($310 in today’s money) which equaled the monthly rent his parents paid for his childhood apartment, he could not justify the expense and opted for the bus instead. One report claimed that Buddy Holly wanted to charter the plane so that he could do his laundry. Reportedly, Holly was tired of traveling in cold uncomfortable buses and rattling through the Midwest wearing dirty clothes. Some witnesses claim that he chartered the plane in part so that he could arrive early and find a washing machine.
Holly, Valens, and Richardson departed from the Mason City Municipal Airport. The weather at the time of departure was reported as light snow, a ceiling of 3,000 feet AMSL (above mean sea level) with sky obscured, visibility 6 miles, and winds from 20 to 30 mph. And it was going to get worse. The plane took off normally from runway 17 (today’s runway 18) at 12:55 am CST. A witness watching the take-off from a platform outside the control tower was able to see clearly the aircraft’s tail light for most of the brief flight, which started with an initial left turn onto a northwesterly heading and a climb to 800 ft. The tail light was then observed gradually descending until it disappeared out of view. Eight hours later, with no news from the pilot or sign of the passengers, airport owner Hubert Jerry Dwyer retraced the doomed planes route in another airplane. At around 9:35 am, he spotted the wreckage less than 6 miles northwest of the airport. The sheriff’s office dispatched Deputy Bill McGill, who drove to the crash site, a cornfield belonging to Albert Juhl.
z 21885S17-Buddy-Crash 1 jpgThe Bonanza had banked steeply to the right and entered a nose-down death spiral before it augured in at around 170 mph. The right wing tip hit the ground first, sending the aircraft cartwheeling across the frozen field for 540 feet before coming to rest against a wire fence at the edge of Juhl’s property. The bodies of Holly and Valens had been ejected from the torn fuselage and lay near the plane’s wreckage. Richardson’s body had been thrown over the fence and into the cornfield of Juhl’s neighbor Oscar Moffett, while Peterson’s body was entangled in the wreckage. The County coroner certified that all four victims died instantly, citing the cause of death as “gross trauma to brain” for the three artists and “brain damage” for the pilot.
The official investigation was carried out by the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB, precursor to the NTSB) later concluded that the accident was due to “the pilot’s unwise decision to embark on a flight” that required instrument flying skills he had not proved to have. A contributing factor was the “seriously inadequate” weather briefing provided to Peterson, which “failed to even mention adverse flying condition which should have been highlighted”.
z 453458f69e2f0ed48916ea5c5d248be1The charter plane’s wreckage was strewn across nearly 300 yards of snow-covered cornfields. The death certificate issued by the Cerro Gordo County Coroner noted the clothing Holly was wearing, the presence of a leather suitcase near his body and the following personal effects: Cash $193.00 less $11.65 coroner’s fees – $181.35, 2 Cuff links: silver 1/2 in. balls having jeweled band, Top portion of ball point pen. Notably missing from the list were Holly’s signature eyeglasses.
On February 29, 1980, a pair of glasses were found in a filing cabinet of the Cerro Gordo County Sheriff’s office in Mason City, Iowa. The glasses were found in a manila envelope marked simply, “Charles Hardin Holley received April 7, 1959”. Along with the glasses, four dice, a cigarette lighter and a watch belonging to one Jiles Perry Richardson were also in the envelope. The lenses of the glasses were missing but the watch still ran pretty well. The relics had been resting unrecognized for nearly twenty-one years. They had been found at the scene of the February 3, 1959 plane crash, placed in storage as evidence and forgotten.buddyholly
The wristwatch and cigarette lighter belonged to the Big Bopper and the horn rimmed glasses belonged to Buddy Holly. It is widely believed that the envelope had remained undiscovered because nobody recognized the innocuous plain sounding name Charles Hardin Holley written on the outside. The envelope was found while some records were being moved. Officials speculated that the leftover items had been found by a farmer two months later after the snow melted. The coroner’s office collected (and then misplaced) them in the process of moving to a new county courthouse. Buddy’s glasses had been thrown clear of the plane wreckage and buried in the snow. Those glasses were special, they were Buddy Holly’s trademark. The focal point of a carefully crafted look. They became the single item most remembered by his fans.
The Big Bopper’s watch was inscribed on back for a 1957 disc-a-thon, representing an important milestone in his life. In May 1957, at the Jefferson Theater in Beaumont Texas broadcasting from radio station KTRM, the Big Bopper beat the record for continuous broadcasting. His record was marked at 122 hours and 8 minutes (a little over 5 days) during which the Big Bopper stayed on air and awake the entire time. The dice were unattributed but played into an urban legend that circulated claiming that the crash happened after a game of chance went bad and one of the performers shot another (usually told as Holly and Richardson) which, like most urban legends, has no basis in fact whatsoever.
Another urban legend claimed that the plane crash was caused by some mysterious in-flight gunplay. The rumor claimed that Richardson’s death was the result of an accidental firearm discharge on board the aircraft that caused the crash. The rumor began two months after the crash when a farmer found a .22 pistol known to have belonged to Holly at the crash site. The rumor further claimed that Richardson survived the initial impact and froze to death while crawling out of the aircraft in search of help. The fact that his body was found farther from the wreckage than the other three was offered as proof of that theory.

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THE BIG BOPPER

On March 6, 2007, at the direction of the musician’s son Jay Perry, Richardson’s body was exhumed from it’s Lone Star grave for reburial in a more fitting part of Beaumont, Texas’s Forest Lawn cemetery. According to the autopsy report, when the casket lid was raised, it revealed a fairly well-preserved corpse dressed in a black suit with a blue & gray striped tie. The Bopper wore socks, but no shoes. The mottled, bluish face was slightly moldy and misshapen, no doubt owing to the shifting of mortician’s putty used to reconstruct the crushed skull. The fingers had “mummified into curled, dark brown talons.” X-rays of Richardson’s body concluded that the musician had indeed died instantly from extensive, non-survivable fractures to almost all of his bones; no traces of lead were found from any bullet. The report further stated that Richardson had probably died quickly from massive head injuries suffered in the plane crash. Putting any unsavory internet rumors to rest forever.
z Photo-of-JP-The-Big-Bopper-Richardson-casket-from-1959Remarkably, The Bopper’s thick brown hair was “still perfectly coiffed in his familiar, 1950s flat-top.” Strangely, the Bopper’s son Jay was present during the entire autopsy. On the subject of the Bopper’s still perfect flattop, his son stated, “It was awesome.” and went on to say, “I talked to him. I got to know my dad a little better.” Jay, showing signs that he inherited his father’s droll humor, joked that the Big Bopper would never have chosen to be buried in such a tie. The Bopper was re-interred in a replacement casket donated by the Batesville Casket Co. of Batesville, Indiana in March of 2007.
The toll was incalculable: The singers of “Peggy Sue” and “Come On Let’s Go” and “Donna” and “La Bamba” were all dead. Holly was just 22 and Valens only 17. Rock and roll would never be the same. Holly’s pregnant wife, María Elena, learned of his death by watching television. A widow after only six months of marriage, she suffered a miscarriage shortly after, reportedly due to “psychological trauma”. Holly’s mother, at home in Lubbock, Texas, heard the news on the radio before she screamed and fainted. Following these inexcusable death notification circumstances, a policy was adopted by authorities not to disclose victims’ names until after their families have been informed. That policy remains in affect today. Holly’s widow did not attend the funeral and has never visited the gravesite. Holly and Richardson were buried in Texas, Valens in California, and Peterson in Iowa.
Photo of Buddy HOLLYAnd whatever happened to those glasses? When that envelope was discovered, Holly’s parents claimed the glasses, as did his widow, and on March 20, 1981, a judge awarded the eyeglasses to María Elena in the same Mason City courthouse where they were discovered. Maria kept them until October 1998, when she sold them to Civic Lubbock, the nonprofit cultural organization that created the Buddy Holly Center. The price was $80,000. Today the glasses, visibly scarred from the plane crash, are on exhibit at the center, in a case near Holly’s Fender Strato-caster guitar. Other pieces in the collection include Buddy’s stage clothing, letters, photos, and a book containing handwritten song lyrics.
Thirteen years after the crash, Don McLean wrote a song about the tragedy: “American Pie,” an 8½-minute epic with an iconic lyric about “the day the music died.” Next week, in part II of this story, we’ll take a look at that song.