December 1995: I was seven months out of college, and rather the worse for wear after a couple of rough introductions to the real world. But I did have a car, and that was what mattered on that snowy morning when my best friend needed a ride to the Des Moines airport. He was a Rhodes Scholarship finalist, off to Minneapolis for his interview – if the snow allowed it. That was looking like a big if, though. Even our drive to the airport almost didn’t happen, not because of the snow (you can’t scare a guy who learned to drive in Northern New England in winter, and then lived in Iowa for five years besides), but because my friend was in a foul mood. I’d known him for three years, and it had always been the same – when he got stressed out, he got real nasty real fast. Exactly what he said that morning has been lost to history, but I do recall being more than a bit aggravated before we even got out of his dorm.
After one too many snotty remarks while I waited for him to finish packing, I lost my cool and told him I would be just as happy to go back to bed, and cooled my heels out in the hallway. Only a hug from his girlfriend (who explained to me that he’d been “so nervous he’s shaking” all morning) and a reluctant apology from him mollified me. Even then, the first few minutes of our drive passed in stony silence except for the oldies station on the radio. As is so often the case, music soothed the savage beast, though in an off the wall way on this occasion. When “Peggy Sue” came bursting forth from the speakers, I quickly changed the station. Sardonically I announced, “No. We are not going to listen to Buddy Holly on the way to the airport in a blizzard in Iowa.” A morbid joke, and yes, a rather tasteless one, but it got the job done: we shared an uneasy laugh that slowly turned into a somewhat easier one, and the earlier tension was forgotten as we made our way into Des Moines.
I have since lost touch with that friend. (He did make it to Minneapolis, by the way, but he didn’t get the Rhodes; and my car got stuck in a ditch off I-80 on the way home, but my insurance paid for the tow.) But the unfortunate association that melted the tension between us is a memory that bubbles up every February 3. This diary is my exploration of why that might be. Buddy Holly occupies a unique spot in my appreciation of rock and roll (which is vast, as any of my friends will tell you). Like it or not, his long-before-its-time death is part and parcel of that uniqueness. It casts a long shadow over his small yet timeless body of music, and it poses the impossible question of just what he might have accomplished had he lived. But ultimately, that cliché about celebrating people’s lives rather than their death is as true as ever here. It’s his brilliant, vibrant songs that have kept his legend alive for 54 years beyond his too-short stay in this world, that have brought so much joy to myself and millions of others, that once inspired me to drive two days out of my way to visit his grave (completely worth it, by the way). And yet, his tragic demise is unavoidably linked to every note he ever recorded. That is what I’d like to explore here, because I’m really not sure that I understand it myself.
Of course, Buddy Holly is all but universally recognized as one of rock’s earliest and biggest geniuses. He not only pioneered the venerable two guitars, bass, drums lineup that went on to define the best classic rock of subsequent decades, he was also among the first rockers to fight for – and win – creative input for himself and his band on his records. One measure of Holly’s genius is that his insistence on creative freedom was the result of his first recordings for Decca Records. By all accounts he was very dissatisfied with those recordings, due in large part to the lack of artistic freedom he had with them – and yet, some of them show all the promise of the legend he was to become:
He also showed an open mind to unorthodox touches on some of his recordings that have helped keep them fresher than most of what was being recorded at the time. Take “Everyday” for example:
That irresistible percussion is drummer Jerry Allison slapping his leg, the result of a bet he made with Holly that he could keep time throughout the song in that manner. And the solo? It’s a celeste (played by producer Norman Petty’s wife), the sort of classical touch that progressive rockers were known for well over a decade later. The really fascinating thing about all this, from where I stand at least, is that “Everyday” would otherwise be a forgettable bubblegum song. The lyrics couldn’t be much sillier – I consider James Taylor’s more conventional cover version of it excruciating, to be honest – but those offbeat touches make us forgive the original for its cutesiness.
So it’s no surprise that his music has held up so well, despite its occasionally cloying innocence. But rock had plenty of innovators in that era. You could even argue that everyone playing rock and roll in those days was an innovator, though I wouldn’t go quite that far myself. So that alone isn’t what sets Buddy Holly apart.
Regrettably, his tragic death is unique only in such that it was the first such death after rock entered the mainstream. And just barely at that: R&B great Johnny Ace died playing Russian Roulette backstage in Houston on Christmas Eve 1954, but that was several months before rock and roll really came into its own, and Ace wasn’t really a rock and roll singer anyway. Still, his death does force us to put an asterisk next to the Day the Music Died as rock’s first great tragedy. It also left us with at least one five-star classic that belongs on your iTunes if it’s not already there:
If Holly was rock’s first tragedy, was he its worst? Debatable at best. Jackie Wilson gets my vote for that unfortunate title, with Syd Barrett a close second. A depressingly high number of pre-rock musicians who are revered by today’s rock fans were also lost to us long before their time: Bessie Smith, Robert Johnson, Glenn Miller, Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie…it would probably be easier to list early influences who didn't suffer tragic ends. So that alone isn’t what gives Buddy Holly such a unique place in rock history.
What, then, does? I think – for me at least – it’s a combination of his brilliant musicianship, his death, and the innocence I alluded to above. Innocence is a problematic subject, especially when it comes to the 1950s. Let me make it clear, then, that I am under no illusions about the Republicans’ beloved Father Knows Best-style fifties being either real or positive. Racial segregation was still in full force almost everywhere, a woman’s place was in the home, men were emotionless drones, and as for gay rights, forget it! While I love the music and movies of the era, I am very much aware whenever I listen or watch that what I am experiencing is an extremely distorted and limited view of what life was really like back then, and if I could experience the real thing, I wouldn’t like it at all.
But there is value in the positive side of the image we now have of the era, as long as we keep it in perspective. And that image meant the world to me as a jaded teenager growing up in Reagan’s America. I have discussed that in some detail in this diary, and there’s no need for me to depress you with a reprise of that here. What does matter is how I survived those difficult years, and rock and roll oldies had everything to do with that. Whatever nastiness I had to cope with at school and at home throughout the week, late nights in my bed meant listening to Oldies 103 from Boston on my headphones and drinking in all the classics that were mostly new to me at the time. No matter how lonely I was on my own at lunch time, or how worthless certain of my teachers made me feel (most of them were great, but it’s the nasty ones that stick out in my memory now), or whatever new ways my family devised to make me feel like an emotional punching bag, closing my eyes and imagining myself at a sock-hop with my crush of the week in a poodle skirt and saddle shoes - and me in her arms - was always good for what ailed me.
Yeah, that makes me laugh now too, and not entirely in a good way. I know a lot more about the fifties now than I did then, of course. But that’s beside the point. The point is that the very idealized image I had of those days was immensely comforting at a time in my life when not much else was, and for that reason, it had (and still has) real value for me. And although the singers and songs I admired the most back then would make a list too long to complete here, Buddy Holly was very high on that list from the very beginning. That is at least partially because, for all the innocence I mentioned earlier, there is more than a bit of danger slipped under the radar here and there:
“Tonight there’ll be no hesitatin’?” Even as a naïve young teenager, I got the message between the lines, and I loved it. For a more recent example, consider the movie Pleasantville and the brilliant placement of “Rave On” (my favorite of his songs, by the way) at the point in the movie when the kids are declaring their independence from their ultra-conformist community…and yet they still just want to dance and have a good time.
So there’s a knowing worldliness in a lot of those lyrics, yet it’s always presented in a necessarily tasteful manner. I’m pretty sure I didn’t appreciate that fully when I was a kid, but it makes perfect sense to me now that I’d have felt it even if I didn’t quite think it.
Sometimes, of course, I did get exactly what the lyrics were saying, and they were just what a lovesick teenager needed…
(Yeah, I know Paul Anka wrote that. Now let us never speak of it again.) Nothing like that in the top 40 in the late eighties, that's for damn sure. So the sometimes-deceptive innocence of his songs are a perfect reflection of the definitely-deceptive image so many of us have of the 1950s. (It was never lost on me that my parents, who were kids then, did not share my fascination with the era!) But together, for me at least, they carried an immense punch. And then there is the sad end that he came to. Like it or not, it’s always there and it’s always an issue, and always has been for me. Since I think even as a kid I was aware that the real fifties weren’t all sweetness and light, the fact that my favorite musician of the era came to such a sad end shortly before the end of the decade only added to the mystique of it all. Even a defiantly jaunty number like “That’ll Be the Day” or “Peggy Sue” always had a touch of melancholy amidst the joyful noise. But for me at least, that only added to their power and their brilliance. As danceable as so many of his songs are, for that reason, I always found them most powerful when I was listening to them alone in my room.
Does that mean those songs would seem less brilliant now had Holly lived? Well, of course not…but like it or not, we’ll never know just how those songs would grab us without the sad connotation.
Last but not least, see what I wrote above about how the plane crash has “always been an issue” for me? That brings to mind another thing about Buddy Holly: I can’t remember a time when the man’s music and his story didn’t speak to me in a very powerful way. I’m pretty sure he’s the only of my musical heroes about which I can say that. You could more than reasonably divide my life into a “before” and “after” of the day shortly after my fourteenth birthday when I “got” The Beatles for the first time, after finding my mother’s old copy of The Beatles’ Second Album in our attic. I can at least vaguely remember the first time Dylan, Hendrix, Springsteen, the Who and U2 among others really grabbed me as well. But Buddy Holly has always had that presence for me, whether I understand why or not.
Well, I set out to make the case for what made Buddy Holly great, and honestly, I don’t feel I’ve quite succeeded. All I know is, it’s something about the joyful noise rock was then, and the brilliant flair with which he practiced it, and the comforting thought that I could at least imagine myself in the happy ending of a fifties movie with his music as the soundtrack, and the unfortunate but effective analogy of his death to the end of rock’s innocence. If that isn’t very articulate, ultimately it doesn’t really have to be: we’ll always have the music! And that's why I raise a glass to the man every February 3.
And since no one needs to hear “American Pie” for the nine millionth time, here are a couple of other songs you shouldn’t miss if you’re a fan:
Waylon Jennings' first-ever record, "Jole Blon", with Holly producing and on guitar, and King Curtis on sax...the lyrics are complete gibberish, as neither Holly nor Jennings spoke Cajun and they tried to learn it phonetically without much success, but that just adds to the mystique for me.
And from the Smithereens, a tribute to his widow from the criminally under-appreciated 11 album: