Nyack, New Rochelle, and the song about 'Day the Music Died'

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A screenshot of a Midnight Special television broadcast shot by Rob Stoner’s father, Arthur Rothstein, with Stoner standing behind Don McLean.

A long, long time ago, well, 50 years ago, to be precise, Don McLean’s American Pie was the No. 1 record on Billboard’s charts.

The eight-and-a-half-minute opus that begins on “the Day the Music Died” in February 1959 and winds through the musical and political tumult of the 1960s, reached the top spot on Jan. 15, 1972, and stayed there for four weeks.

The song was recorded in a single afternoon in 1971 at the Record Plant in New York City, with McLean backed by session men who’d never recorded together before, recalled Rob Stoner, who played electric bass that day. Stoner also harmonized with McLean on the song’s “bye-bye” chorus.

No one in the studio that day expected the tune to be a hit, never mind become immortalized as an anthem of lost innocence for millions of listeners.

“It was definitely not the kind of thing one would expect to hear on AM Top 40 radio, which was the prevalent tool for marketing music at the time,” Stoner, a Nyack musician who’s performed with many of rock’n’roll’s elite, said recently. “So, we were all surprised. And also the lyrics are so murky and dense, which of course was the thing that eventually made it fascinating to people, the decoding game. The song seemed to have too many layers for the public’s patience.”

Coincidentally, McLean and Stoner (born Rothstein) both grew up in New Rochelle at almost the same time — McLean is 76, Stoner 74 — but never crossed paths until Stoner was hired as a session man on McLean’s first album, Tapestry.

“He was a folk singer and I was a rocker and the folk singers and the rockers were like two tribes that never intermingled,” Stoner said recently. “He would never be playing in the kind of places I would be playing.”

McLean was delivering newspapers for the Standard Star in New Rochelle in the winter of 1959 when he read about the plane crash that claimed the lives of Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper — the tragedy that frames his song.

The folk troubadour for years declined to explain the lyrics of American Pie, although he once joked that the song “means I don’t ever have to work again if I don’t want to.”

McLean hit the jackpot in 2015 when the manuscript for American Pie was sold at auction for more than $1.2 million. He’s made headlines of a different sort in recent years, attempting to fend off abuse claims by his ex-wife and daughter.

‘An intergenerational game’

A half-century after American Pie hit the airwaves, Stoner mused about the enduring popularity of a song even his grandchildren know.

He rattled off his gigs with some of the encrypted names referenced in American Pie, including Roger McGuinn of the Byrds (“the birds flew off with a fallout shelter'') Bob Dylan (“the jester on the sidelines in a cast”) and Ringo Starr (“the quartet practiced in the park”).

“It’s taken on a life that very few songs have been able to,” he said. “It’s become this kind of cryptic, encoded thing which people are so anxious to decode. It’s sort of an intergenerational game that’s been going on for so long that people just don’t seem to get tired of.”

He continued: “His widowed bride, is he talking about JFK? Bad news on the doorstep, is he talking about JFK or Buddy Holly? There’s a lot of stuff in there and it’s ambiguous and McLean of course has gone out of his way to never answer questions about this because that would spoil the fun for people trying to guess what it is. But it’s all quite clear. It’s not really that deep."

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