The Day The Music Died

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The Day The Music Died
E.S. Wynn (
For Don McLean

A long, long time ago,
I can still remember how that music used to make me smile.

Days blend into weeks, blur to months, years. Maybe it's only been a few hours. Maybe everything that's happened since the music of the world went silent – maybe it's all just been one long, bad dream.

Clothes dingy and torn, I stand at the corner where the house I grew up in once stood. Only ashes now. Ashes and burnt timbers, a crumpled heap over a scorched foundation. I learned to play the guitar in that house, learned so many songs from my favorite records, and as I remember bits of them, my hands start to mimic the movements that once brought strum to strings, once brought music to the air, to the ears of the people who would pass by, the girls who would glance up at the window where I sat, smiling down at them.

And I knew if I had my chance,
That I could make those people dance,
And maybe they'd be happy for a while.

Only skeletal faces smile to hear the music now, the music I can hear only in my own mind as my fingers stir the dust instead of strings. Skulls, all of them stripped of skin, burnt to black and crumbling in the ashes of their clothes. Skulls. That's all that's left of most of us now. That's all that's left, since the music died.

But February made me shiver,
With every paper I'd deliver.

Winter came and went, lingered on with storms as much ash as they were snow. All the roads are dark and burnt to glassy now, and here and there I catch some remnant of something blowing in the wind like newspapers used to. Newspapers – I brought them to the people of this town once, remember every headline leading up to the last days, to the day when everything ended.

Bad news on the doorstep.
I couldn't take one more step.

War, the papers were predicting. A war to end all wars. A war to prove that we as a species have never learned from our mistakes, not really. When the first skirmishes broke out, when the papers announced the first missile exchanges between interceptors, between us and some new “Axis of Evil,” I called in sick. I took the week off, drove into the country to see my brother.

I can't remember if I cried,
When I read about his widowed bride.

The last paper to reach my brother's doorstep came on the Thursday when everything ended. A bomb in the fuselage of Air Force One – that was the front page article. No survivors. A picture of the Vice President's wife wiping tears from her eyes, trying to keep her composure, trying to look dignified.

And a single General taking command of the nation's nuclear arsenal, red-faced and shaking his fist, promising retribution.

But something touched me deep inside,
The day the music died.

Retribution. Less than three hours, and that General had missiles in the air, all headed west. All headed toward some series of targets we were told would be announced after they were hit. But the announcement never came. Only bombs and more bombs, more and more, until there was nothing left on either side to bomb.

Did you write the book of love,
And do you have faith in God above,
If the Bible tells you so?

I put the thought out of my head, look down the street to the stack of ashes that were once a church. Only ashes – and I remember sitting in the pews there every Sunday, listening to the sermons on brotherly love, on faith and goodwill towards my fellow man. I remember wondering how the men in suits who shouted sermons of war from the glass of our television screens could claim to be Christian, could claim to be men of God.

Now do you believe in rock and roll?
Can music save your mortal soul?
And can you teach me how to dance real slow?

I remember watching the last election day pass while I put records on, one after another, trying to drown out the sound of my nagging conscience. Records, and as I listened, I read through my father's copy of the bible, then eventually set it aside to make a phone call to a girl who is probably just drifting ash now too. Drifting, just dust dancing in the radioactive wind.

Well, I know that you're in love with him,
'Cause I saw you dancin' in the gym.

Even then, I knew she was in love with someone else. She was in love with a lot of guys. Dancing every night, dancing late into the night, peering from the rolled-down window of a different car every time I saw her. I made her smile. We all did, but I was foolish enough to think she only smiled for me.

You both kicked off your shoes,
Man, I dig those rhythm and blues.

That crush – that crush crashed hard when I stopped by her house one day to share a flower and one of my favorite records with her. Another car was already in her driveway. Sleek and black, and even before I could step out of my truck, I spotted the shoes by the door, hers and someone else's – a man's shoes, and a pair of lacy panties kicked off to the side, half-hidden in the grass.

I was a lonely teenage broncin' buck,
With a pink carnation and a pickup truck.

I don't think I cried. I don't remember. I remember taking the flower and the record and setting them on the dashboard, staring at them as if they were relics of something more than a naïve fantasy. I remember cranking up the radio, popping the pickup into first and rolling on back into town, trying not to think of those panties in the grass. I never called her again, never picked up the phone when she called me, left sad, hopeful messages on the machine that I would listen to, delete, then forget.

But I knew I was out of luck,
The day the music died.

And then the bombs fell. Then the music died and I found myself on the phone again, dialing her number, getting nothing but silence and static. Nothing.

That day, I know that I cried. I cried for her. For us. For all of us.

Now for ten years we've been on our own,
And moss grows fat on a rollin' stone,
But that's not how it used to be.

Days blend into weeks now, blur to months, years. Feels like years. Feels like a decade that the sky has been a swirling, choking morass of ice and dust. Only the snow gets thicker, fatter, and the few of us who are left to watch it fall are all bone-thin and covered in sores. Shadows of ourselves, ghosts lingering on among the ruins.

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.

I remember how well fed we all used to be, how easy it was to get fat in those long ago days. The General, the man who had vowed vengeance – I remember seeing him on the television in the hours before the end, remember the way his jowls jiggled as he delivered a rousing speech with a portrait of the fallen President and the First Lady looking on from behind him. I remember the clothes he was wearing – not a uniform, but civilian clothes, like the media had caught him on vacation, or on his way out of town. The buttons of his jacket could barely restrain his bulk, and when he spoke, he sounded like a regular guy, like an old man you might meet at the bait and tackle shop, or might find yelling at kids amidst the aisles of a big box ultramart.

Oh, and while the king was looking down,
The jester stole his thorny crown.

Even then, it was hard to think of him as a leader. Even harder to think that the rumors we were already hearing, the rumors that he had been involved in the assassination of his superiors could possibly be true. But there he was, leading the nation, his fist raised, his face red and purple with indignant rage. The news captured every word, cut into the speech with images of missiles rising through the sky on roiling columns of fire and chalky smoke.

The courtroom was adjourned.
No verdict was returned.

I heard later that some radio pundit even called for an investigation, claimed he had evidence that the destruction of Air Force One could be firmly pinned on the General, but no one ever heard what that evidence was. The radios went out that night, and when the morning came, there were no courts or offices to open, no committees to form. Nothing but the lost, the few drifting souls with heads full of rumors and maybes.

And while Lenin read a book on Marx,
The quartet practiced in the park.

As night fell, my brother and I wandered down to the park, gathered there with others who were already fighting about who to blame for the bombs speeding towards us, the annihilation we all knew was only hours away. Some blamed the Chinese, others, the Russians. Some pinned the blame on the Taliban, on Iraq, Iran or even Afghanistan. Amateurs all, someone said, laying the blame on larger forces at work behind the scenes. Left me wondering, left us all wondering, until it really kicked in that we might only have moments left to live. That was when someone put on a record, something I recognized, and one by one, we all began to sing.

And we sang dirges in the dark,
The day the music died.

Sad songs, or maybe just songs that made me sad because the record was the same record I'd taken to share with that girl all those years ago. Every song reminded me of her. Maybe that's why I called her, tried to call her, tried to reach out to her in those final few moments at the end of everything. And then the needle reached the grooves at the end of the last song and I set my phone down and cried while I sang those parting bars. I felt my brother's hand on my shoulder, and together, alone, we watched the first flashes of the first bombs as they lit the sky, as the lights around us went out one by one and the record player spun to a sluggish stop.

Until there was only the darkness and gusting breezes warm with the smoke and dust of distant destruction.

Helter skelter in a summer swelter,
The birds flew off with a fallout shelter,
Eight miles high and falling fast.

There was chaos in the streets that night. Chaos in the park. Swarms of animals, swarms of crows, ravens and blackbirds rushed through the darkness, scattered and came together in terrified knots. People were screaming as waves of fire cut open the night sky, boiled away the clouds with red light and a glittering blizzard of hot, raining ash. Someone grabbed my arm, yanked me into the night, and when I looked back, my brother was gone, lost in the wild, flash-lit crowd.

It landed foul on the grass,
The players tried for a forward pass,
With the jester on the sidelines in a cast.

The first flakes of ash were settling in the grass by the time a knot of us escaped the park, made our way into the basement of the town hall. Closest thing to a fallout shelter we could reach, and there were only a few of us. We were all strangers to each other, yet we all huddled together in the darkness while the earth shook, cracked with the thunder of rockets burning through the sky overhead. Someone had a radio, and through the washes of heavy static and the sounds of bombs bursting in air, we caught the General's final speech, his demand that we stay strong, that we keep hope, stay alive and someday emerge from our shelters to rebuild our broken nation from the ashes of our manmade apocalypse.

Now the halftime air was sweet perfume,
While the sergeants played a marching tune.

We were all so close in the darkness, jammed and packed so close together that the air was thick with sweat and terror and all the myriad ways we've invented to cover up those human smells. The radio cut in and out all night, rang with calls for action, calls for help, the muffled orders urging men to movement, as if amidst all the fire from the sky, an invasion might spill out onto our native soil. In the end, nothing came of it. A bugle cry, scattered and rattled by static, was the last thing we heard before the radio snapped off, suddenly dead, never to sing again.

We all got up to dance,
Oh, but we never got the chance.

Morning came, and eventually hunger drove us out into the half-light of the day. Town hall had been packed with canned goods, but the boxes had been torn open and scorched, picked almost totally clean. What was left, some of us fought over. Instead of staying, I picked my way over a swarm of blackened skeletons to the hanging door, crossed out to the ash-dusted lawn and looked on toward the park, toward the last place I'd seen my brother.

'Cause the players tried to take the field,
The marching band refused to yield.

I heard rumors later that there had indeed been an invasion, or an attempt at an invasion, but that it had happened far, far away from where we were. Soldiers from both sides had rushed in and been cut down, left to bleed out on foreign soil while the world burned around them. I heard rumors that aid groups had been assembled in an attempt to round up and save survivors, but there was too much to do, too much dangerous ground to cover, and in the end it was all they could do to save themselves.

Do you recall what was revealed,
The day the music died?

I still remember how I felt when I crossed into the park again, when I waded in among the charred corpses sprawled through the blackened grass. So much death, and all of it barely registered, like something out a film, something too surreal to be real.

But it was real, and as I looked to the sky, I remember feeling as if a part of me had died, perhaps some innocent, optimistic part of me fed for so long on faith. I was numb, and it was enough to know that my brother was likely among the dead, that the girl I had tried to call was probably lying lifeless in some other field somewhere. It was enough to know that I'd probably never see either of them again. Without trying to identify a specific corpse, I remember that I turned toward home, turned toward home and simply started to walk.

Oh, and there we were all in one place,
A generation lost in space,
With no time left to start again.

That was how I ended up back on the corner where the house I grew up in once stood. That was how I ended up here, adrift, in search of purpose. I felt drawn to this place, felt drawn on beyond to other places steeped in memory, other shards of the world as it once was.

I suppose I should have felt lucky to have survived, but most days, I envied the dead. Picking through ash for undamaged cans, picking the grizzled jerky from the bones of dead pets, just trying to find enough to eat to keep my rotting body moving. Eating only when the hunger was stronger than the pain, stronger than the loss gnawing at my insides. Picking at my scabbed and peeling lips until it felt like I no longer had any blood left in me to bleed. Hair falling out in patches, skin thinning to waxy and sallow. Me, just another specter haunting the ruins, unable or unwilling to settle, to claim some piece of the new world as my own. What would be the point, anyway, with so much gone, so little to live on for? No, there will be no phoenixes to rise from the drifts of radioactive ash that cloak the world now. The clock is running down for all of us, and it's running down fast. Soon, there'll be nothing left but the dust, the blackened skeletons and shattered relics of a people who foolishly cut themselves and their world to pieces.

So come on, Jack be nimble, Jack be quick,
Jack Flash sat on a candlestick,
'Cause fire is the devil's only friend.

There are slurs I could level at the men who did this, ideas and ideologies I could blame. There are curses and words I could rail against the memory of the General who pushed the big red button without waiting to consider the world that would be left in the wake of his moment of war-hawk bravado. Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent, I've heard it said. How foolish we are as a species to be so brilliant, so precise as to engineer our own destruction so completely. Fight fire with fire and the whole world burns.

Oh, and as I watched him on the stage,
My hands were clenched in fists of rage.

The thoughts stop me, leave me standing while the wind shifts the ash and dust around me, bows me at the knees and back like a sail, like it might push me over at any moment. Only my hands betray the strength still left in me, only my curled fingers pressed so hard into my palms that fresh blood begins to run down to my knuckles, drips color into the monochrome world around me. God, if only I could bring color back to the world with nothing but my blood, nothing but the color still remaining in me. I would spill it all if it could bring back even one inch of the world as it was. If I could paint the past back to life, I would give every inch of me, every bit of flesh and soul still left in me.

No angel born in Hell,
Could break that Satan's spell.

But no amount of blood spilled could resurrect this world. No amount of life given could turn back the tide of what we've done to ourselves, reverse what we've already sacrificed to satisfy one man's ego with a shortsighted stab at solving the problem of peace. How I wish I could be a phoenix! How I wish I had a reason and a way to grow wings of fire and fly from this wasteland, ascend into the sky and leave this dream, this twisting nightmare.

And as the flames climbed high into the night,
To light the sacrificial rite.

How I wish I could fly as the birds flew that night, backlit by the blossoms of fiery clouds bursting from the earth. How I wish I could rise past and over it all, see the Earth from above, leave this cinder charred by our self-sacrificing ways and ascend until it is only a dot, only a memory lost in the void.

I saw Satan laughing with delight,
The day the music died.

How I wish I could fly, find myself somewhere safe. Even a bunker. Even a valley, untouched. A desert– anything but this scorched wasteland.

In the moment, I think of the General, wonder if he might still be alive. I can almost see him in my mind, a caricature of a villain bathed in the light of a film projector, his jowls flapping as he laughs at the movements of some inane comedy spreading across the wall before him. I can almost hear him grunting and cackling in my mind as his meaty hands shovel microwaved popcorn into his mouth. I can almost see him, and if I reach out my shaking hands – if I just. . .

I met a girl who sang the blues,

The tickle of a familiar sound trickles through my rage, brings some clarity and color back to the world. For a moment, all I can do is stand there, listen, soak it in. It doesn't feel real at first, and the notes come disconnected, indecipherable, but when the first bars of a familiar song soar into the sound, I feel a chill creep through my feeble form. That song. That record, the record that I'd brought to share with that girl from years ago – only now it's her singing the words. Her voice – and it stirs me to movement.

And I asked her for some happy news,
But she just smiled and turned away.

Like a pilgrim moved by the voice of God, I follow that sound, follow those words, pick my way through twisted knots of rubble and whispering ash, follow her voice until I find myself standing before her. Eyes closed, she doesn't see me until the song ends, until I take her outstretched hands in mine and meet her uncertain stare. For a moment, neither of us speak, and in the pause, I find myself wondering if she's really there, if she's really the same woman from before. She's so pale now, thin and ghost-like, her dress hanging off her bony shoulders in transparent tatters. Through the grit and ash smeared across her face, I can see traces of that woman, that lost crush, but –

And then, before I can say anything, she smiles at me, squeezes my hands and lets me go, as if it's enough, as if it's enough that we've met again one last time before the end. When she turns, I croak out some edge of a word, something hopeful, but she doesn't stop, doesn't look back, just ignores my rasps, my pleas. Just ignores me like I'd ignored all those messages, all those long, hopeful messages left so long ago.

I went down to the sacred store,
Where I'd heard the music years before.

I don't follow her. When a wave of windblown ash and dust washes her away, leaves only the endless, colorless wastes in her wake, I let my eyes fall back to the street. Gone, if ever she was even there. Gone without a word, without even a whispered goodbye.

Adrift again, I look around, recognize this block, this place, recognize the ruins of a shop I once used to frequent. It's all facade now, I realize. The glittering suns once painted beside the open door have faded to pale. The gems of polished glass hanging from the tangled snarls of broken wind chimes no longer shine, and inside, in the light of the gaping ceiling, I see a man cradling a radio, rocking it as if it were a sick child, whispering to it.

But the man there said the music wouldn't play.

He doesn't look up, even as I linger at the threshold of the doorway. All around him, stone statues of Buddha, Jesus, Gaia, Shiva – they stand out in the dust and desolation like gravestones, like markers for the dead. They peer at me from every sagging shelf, every inch of floor, not hateful or accusing, but as if they're disappointed. Worse, as if they understand.

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.

The radio doesn't sing anymore. The music of humanity has died. I leave the man with his memories, his dreams. I leave the store, the silent stares of better men behind and cross back into the street. None of the life, the sounds that once rang out or pulsed through the arteries of this town remains in the wake of the bombs. Nothing is left but the ashes, the memories. Screams and tears linger silent, stay only as ghosts among the lipless skulls and bones of the dead. No one remains to hold a wake for the fallen. No one remains to read the rites for even a single, quiet funeral for the world, for the many, endless dead.

And the three men I admire most,
The Father, Son and the Holy Ghost,

And as I stand, I notice a pickup parked atop the rubble. Beaten, rusty, it looks like mine, only older. The keys are still in the ignition, and as I sit with them heavy in my hand, I think about where I could go, what point there would be in going anywhere. No one comes to claim the truck. No one comes, even as dusk falls, and so I turn the key, find some solace in the sound of the engine as it comes to life, as the tape deck in the truck clicks and spins, brings music back to the world, even if only for a moment. Gospel music. A southern spiritual sung so soulfully that it brings tears to my dusty eyes. For a moment, all I can do is listen, soak it in, lose myself in it, and when I finally shift the pickup into reverse, track my way slowly back toward the outskirts of town, it's the music that carries me, keeps me moving, moving toward hope, however pale, however fleeting.

They caught the last train for the coast,
The day the music died.

The coast, I decide. The beach. Hours away, but it's a destination. It's a destination that feels worth the drive. As clogged as they are with traffic, I avoid the highways, track my way across the yellowing grass of a cow pasture to a lazy, country rail that wanders south, south-west. The pickup rattles and rolls over gravel and ties, finally sputters to a stop sometime around midnight. The lights flicker and die as the music goes silent, and no matter how I try, I can't coax them back to life. In the end, I abandon the truck, take to the rails on foot.

But at least, for a moment, I had music again. I had hope again, and that's enough to bring song my lips while I still have voice. That album, that record that I'd wanted to share with that girl from so long ago, that record that played in the park until the music died – the songs come back in pieces.

And as I follow the rails past dry canals and billboards advertising the luxuries of a world now at rest, I sing those songs, sing until there is no song left in me, sing until the sun comes, and I rise into the day on wings of ash and light.

Rise to sing with all the departed souls of our wasted world.

Rise, and leave my beaten body behind at last.

And we 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"
A vision I had in the car the other day while I was listening to Don McLean's "American Pie." Similar to the piece I did years ago for The Avalanches - Frontier Psychiatrist, this is, in a sense, a form of “fan-art” using literary means (without crossing the line into fan-fiction) and using a piece of music as the target. Just something fun. :)
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