Earlier this week, we marked an anniversary that has been made the stuff of legends, but it seemed to pass without a lot of fanfare.
Maybe it is because of time, the great leveler, as other more recent events grab our attention, or maybe it is simply a function of there being actually less and less people who have a clear memory of the headlines of the event.
Don McLean’s song, “American Pie,” dubbed it “the day the music died,” when rock ’n’ roll musicians Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson perished in a plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa, on February 3, 1959—55 years ago.
This was what we now see as a simpler era, and the deaths signaled a loss of innocence at the beginning of early rock ’n’ roll, before the election and then assassination of JFK.
Dion DiMucci was supposed to be on that plane as part of the group of musicians on this Midwestern tour.
I had a chance to talk to Dion in his home a couple of years ago about that day. And while more than half a century had passed, there was still a great deal of emotion in his eyes and in his throat as he discussed it.
In his 2011 book Dion: The Wanderer Talks Truth (Stories, Humor & Music) (Servant Books), Dion talked about the events of that day and the days immediately proceeding, of the numbing cold he and the other musicians felt as they traveled on the three-week tour through America’s heartland. He reports in the book temperatures dropping to 25 below zero (one band member actually got frostbite!) and promoters scheduling new and more bookings along the way that meant more time, more misery traveling in a too-cold bus.
That led Buddy Holly to decide he couldn’t take it anymore and “found a single-engine craft that could seat three in addition to the pilot.” The problem was that there were four headliners and one needed to take the bus. And while Dion won a coin toss to get a seat, he could not “bring myself to spend a month’s rent ($36) on an hour’s flight,” and suggested Richie Valens to go in his place.
After the crash, Dion was left to deal with the loss as “there weren’t any grief counselors in the Bronx in 1959,” he wrote, and, as a survivor feeling that survivor’s guilt, “leaned into my addictions” as “my heart was dragging in the depths.”
A “surreal” month later, Dion and the Belmonts hit the big time with the release of “A Teenager in Love,” which climbed to number five in the charts. He is also known for the singles “Runaround Sue,” “The Wanderer,” and “Abraham, Martin and John.”
But for Dion, that day is better thought of as “the day the music was born,” when the news “touched a lot of people deep inside and made them love their music all the more because they knew the artists were mortal.”
He was able to be philosophic about the personal and societal tragedy, finding in Scripture some sense out of it: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth, and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (Jn 12:24).
I was touched by my personal connection made at that interview to a man who rose from that moment to touch us all through his music and his faith.