The Appeal of an Enigma

by AndreChevalier on April 9, 2015 · The Book Trade

Don McLean manuscript

A 16-page Don McLean manuscript, featuring the lyrics of the iconic song, American Pie, including the writer’s notes and an extra verse which was never recorded, was auctioned by Christie’s in New York on April 7, 2015. The manuscript achieved the 3rd highest auction price for an American literary manuscript selling for $1,205,000 (€1,109,182), including buyer premium. The complete work that includes some typed drafts was written in Cold Spring, NY and Philadelphia, PA, during the period of 1970-71.

It has long been established that the “The day the music died” line of the song referred to the death of Buddy Holly, but other than that it remained a cryptic masterpiece in the history of American music until the time of the auction. The singer finally opened up about the song’s meaning and revealed that he “wanted to make a whole series of complex statements. Basically in ‘American Pie,’ things are heading in the wrong direction.”   The lyrics had to do with the state of American society at the time; 1972.

Despite the general gloom embedded in the lyrics of the song, the manuscript contains a deleted verse from the song which suggests that McLean at one point considered a more upbeat ending:

And there I stood alone and afraid

I dropped to my knees and there I prayed

And I promised him everything I could give

If only he would make the music live

And he promised it would live once more

But this time one would equal four

And in five years four had come to mourn

and the music was reborn.

Much more so than books, manuscripts connect us to the person behind the work. Handwriting is a pictograph of the writer’s abstract portrait. In a way, it is an emotional contact to him through the handwriting, the spelling, the corrections, the ideas, the deletions, the style, the paper, the ink, the stains, the wear, the tears, the creases, the touch, the smell; a record of part of the writer’s creative process. Manuscripts have the ability to speak to us in a way by opening up windows into the author’s soul. As the English poet, John Clare, once said: “The Soul lies buried in the ink that writes”

Back in 2010, $1.2 million was paid for John Lennon’s lyrics to “A Day in the Life” from “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” It registers a price that is a bit higher than the price paid for “American Pie” after adjusting for inflation. The record holder of handwritten manuscript lyrics is Bob Dylan, whose “Like a Rolling Stone” sold for just over $2 million at Sotheby’s in June of 2014. The four small sheets of paper contained, in addition to the original working manuscript, the corrections, revisions and additions to the song.

Don McLean helped attract interest and promote the intellectual, aesthetic, emotional and financial aspects of his manuscript through the enigmatic lyrics that cultivated ambiguity. Interesting content that relates to significant events or themes is fundamental to a manuscript’s valuation. On the other hand, an example of a work lacking interest, is an original manuscript by Joey Ramone for an unrecorded Ramones song, “Let’s Go Playmates.” It is currently offered for sale on Abebooks by Baltimore book dealer, Royal Books, Inc., and is described as a “messy gathering of ideas–some crossed through–rather than a finished song.” Written around 1978, it is posted on Abebooks for a mere $6,500.

Drafts in particular are viewed as one of the unclaimed wonders of the world. However, good content is the pivotal attribute and number one ingredient to high valuation. I wonder if it was Christie’s knowhow that pushed McLean beyond his infamous explanation that the “American Pie” song “means I don’t ever have to work again if I don’t want to” or the realization that the music did indeed live on.


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Article by Andre Chevalier. You can connect with Andre Chevalier on Andre+

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