Songwriter Don McLean's manuscript for the classic song "American Pie" sold at an auction for $1.2 million . (Reuters)

The music died because Buddy Holly merely wanted what every touring musician wants: to do laundry.

Shoved into unheated buses on a “Winter Dance Party” tour in 1959, Holly — tired of rattling through the Midwest with dirty clothes — chartered a plane on Feb. 3 to fly from Clear Lake, Iowa, to Fargo, N.D., where he hoped he could make an appointment with a washing machine. Joining him on the plane were Ritchie Valens and, after future country star Waylon Jennings gave up his seat, J.P. Richardson, a.k.a. “the Big Bopper.” Taking off in bad weather with a pilot not certified to do so, the plane crashed, killing everyone aboard. The toll was incalculable: The singers of “Peggy Sue” and “Come On Let’s Go” and “Donna” and “La Bamba” were dead. Holly was just 22; incredibly, Valens was just 17. Rock and roll would never be the same.

Thirteen years later, Don McLean wrote a song about this tragedy: “American Pie,” an 8½-minute epic with an iconic lyric about “the day the music died.” Now, the original 16-page working manuscript of the lyrics has been sold at auction for $1.2 million.

“I thought it would be interesting as I reach age 70 to release this work product on the song American Pie so that anyone who might be interested will learn that this song was not a parlor game,” McLean said in a Christie’s catalogue ahead of the sale. “It was an indescribable photograph of America that I tried to capture in words and music.”

That photograph was always a little bit blurry. At more than 800 words, the meaning of “American Pie” proved elusive even for a generation used to parsing inscrutable Bob Dylan and Beatles lyrics. McLean has said the song was inspired by the 1959 plane crash, but has been cagey about other details.

“People ask me if I left the lyrics open to ambiguity,” McLean said in an early interview, as the Guardian reported. “Of course I did. I wanted to make a whole series of complex statements. The lyrics had to do with the state of society at the time.”

But what state was that? It seemed like the song’s cast of characters — which include a jester, a king, a queen, good ol’ boys drinking whiskey and rye as well as “Miss American Pie” herself — were meant to represent real people. The song includes references to Karl Marx; Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (or, more likely, John Lennon); the Fab Four; the Byrds; James Dean; Charles Manson; the Rolling Stones; the “widowed bride,” Jackie Kennedy; and the Vietnam War.


Left: Don McLean in 1972. Right: McLean in Waterford, N.Y., in 1968. (Photos by AP)

What does it all mean? Just what a song about the day the music died seems like it might be about: the end of the American Dream.

“Basically in ‘American Pie,’ things are heading in the wrong direction,” he told Christie’s, as the Newcastle Herald reported. “It is becoming less idyllic. I don’t know whether you consider that wrong or right but it is a morality song in a sense.”

As ideals of the 1960s turned into the cynicism of the 1970s, this feeling was widespread enough to send the song to No. 1 in 1972.

“American Pie is the accessible farewell to the Fifties and Sixties,” Guardian music critic Alexis Petridis wrote in the catalogue. “Bob Dylan talked to the counterculture in dense, cryptic, apocalyptic terms. But Don McLean says similar ominous things in a pop language that a mainstream listener could understand. The chorus is so good that it lets you wallow in the confusion and wistfulness of that moment, and be comforted at the same time. It’s bubblegum Dylan, really.” (Perhaps of note: Dylan’s manuscript of “Like a Rolling Stone” sold for $2 million in June, besting McLean’s measly $1.2 million.)

Forty-four years after “American Pie’s” release, McLean, 69, wasn’t much more positive about the state of the world than he was a generation ago.

“I was around in 1970 and now I am around in 2015,” McLean said, as People Magazine reported. “There is no poetry and very little romance in anything anymore, so it is really like the last phase of ‘American Pie.’ ”

Nor was there romance in McLean’s decision to sell the manuscript. He did it for the dough.

“I’m going to be 70 this year,” he told Rolling Stone. “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.”

Ahead of the Christie’s auction, McLean did offer some advice to all the budding Don McLeans out here.

“I would say to young songwriters who are starting out to immerse yourself in beautiful music and beautiful lyrics and think about every word you say in a song,” he said.

Here are the words of “American Pie” as transcribed by azlyrics.com, the savior of cover bands everywhere. (Note: AZ creatively transcribes what many hear as “whiskey and rye” as “whiskey in Rye.”)

[Intro]
A long, long time ago
I can still remember how that music used to make me smile
And I knew if I had my chance
That I could make those people dance
And maybe they’d be happy for a while

But February made me shiver
With every paper I’d deliver
Bad news on the doorstep
I couldn’t take one more step

I can’t remember if I cried
When I read about his widowed bride
But something touched me deep inside
The day the music died

[Chorus]
So bye-bye, Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry
And them good old boys were drinkin’ whiskey in Rye
Singin’ “This’ll be the day that I die
This’ll be the day that I die”

[Verse 1]
Did you write the book of love
And do you have faith in God above
If the Bible tells you so?
Now do you believe in rock and roll?
Can music save your mortal soul?
And can you teach me how to dance real slow?

Well, I know that you’re in love with him
‘Cause I saw you dancin’ in the gym
You both kicked off your shoes
Man, I dig those rhythm and blues

I was a lonely teenage broncin’ buck
With a pink carnation and a pickup truck
But I knew I was out of luck
The day the music died

[Chorus]
I started singin’ bye-bye, Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry
Them good old boys were drinkin’ whiskey in Rye
Singin’ “This’ll be the day that I die
This’ll be the day that I die”

[Verse 2]
Now for 10 years we’ve been on our own
And moss grows fat on a rollin’ stone
But that’s not how it used to be
When the jester sang for the king and queen
In a coat he borrowed from James Dean
And a voice that came from you and me

Oh, and while the king was looking down
The jester stole his thorny crown
The courtroom was adjourned
No verdict was returned

And while Lenin read a book on Marx
The quartet practiced in the park
And we sang dirges in the dark
The day the music died

[Chorus]
We were singin’ bye-bye, Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry
Them good old boys were drinkin’ whiskey in Rye
Singin’ “This’ll be the day that I die
This’ll be the day that I die”

[Verse 3]
Helter skelter in a summer swelter
The birds flew off with a fallout shelter
Eight miles high and falling fast
It landed foul on the grass
The players tried for a forward pass
With the jester on the sidelines in a cast

Now the halftime air was sweet perfume
While the sergeants played a marching tune
We all got up to dance
Oh, but we never got the chance

‘Cause the players tried to take the field
The marching band refused to yield
Do you recall what was revealed
The day the music died?

[Chorus]
We started singin’ bye-bye, Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry
Them good old boys were drinkin’ whiskey in Rye
And singin’ “This’ll be the day that I die
This’ll be the day that I die”

[Verse 4]
Oh, and there we were all in one place
A generation lost in space
With no time left to start again
So come on, Jack be nimble, Jack be quick
Jack Flash sat on a candlestick
‘Cause fire is the devil’s only friend

Oh, and as I watched him on the stage
My hands were clenched in fists of rage
No angel born in Hell
Could break that Satan’s spell

And as the flames climbed high into the night
To light the sacrificial rite
I saw Satan laughing with delight
The day the music died

He was singin’ bye-bye, Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry
Them good old boys were drinkin’ whiskey in Rye
And singin’ “This’ll be the day that I die
This’ll be the day that I die”

[Outro]
I met a girl who sang the blues
And I asked her for some happy news
But she just smiled and turned away
I went down to the sacred store
Where I’d heard the music years before
But the man there said the music wouldn’t play

And in the streets, the children screamed
The lovers cried and the poets dreamed
But not a word was spoken
The church bells all were broken

And the three men I admire most
The Father, Son and the Holy Ghost
They caught the last train for the coast
The day the music died

And they were singin’ bye-bye, Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry
And them good old boys were drinkin’ whiskey in Rye
Singin’ “This’ll be the day that I die
This’ll be the day that I die”

[Chorus]
They were singin’ bye-bye, Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry
Them good old boys were drinkin’ whiskey in Rye
And singin’ “This’ll be the day that I die”