I can tell you the first time I read about Buddy Holly. It was a Life magazine story in January 1972, what turned out to be the final year of this great publication. (It was the Super Bowl issue, a white cover with a smallish photo of Roger Staubach conferring with Tom Landry.)
One of the stories was about this phenom of a record at the time — the No. 1 single of 1971, by a singer/songwriter from suburban New York. Not only was “American Pie” about seven minutes long — it was a hit in spite of the length and because of the imagery in evoked and because the lyrics were so simple to remember. (It was my first record — 69 cents at Bradlees, and I was bewildered at how the DJ could get the song to play all the way through, while my 45 was broken into parts 1 and 2.)
And as a fifth-grader, I had no idea what the words were about — this Chevy-to-the-levee stuff and the eight miles high and falling fast and, of course, the day the music died.
And on the second or third page of the story, there was the picture of the guy McLean was singing about. The photo was already horribly dated in the Age of Very Long Hair: a kid who looked like he belonged on the GE College Bowl in the early ’60s, with short, curly hair and big, equally outdated horn-rimmed glasses — and in a goofy pose, with a big grin and his hands poised in the air, mid-finger-snap. It just seemed so goofy and foofy and flippy and I thought a couple things: Why was this goofball so important to write a hit song about? and If he was so big, why haven’t I heard of him? Of course, I knew who The Beatles and Elvis were, and I knew about the posthumous praise being heaped on Hendrix and Joplin. But who was this goofy guy?
I didn’t hear a Buddy Holly song until years later. It must’ve been before Linda Ronstadt’s terrible versions of “That’ll Be the Day” and “It’s So Easy.” I couldn’t tell you off the bat which song it was: “That’ll Be the Day,” “Peggy Sue,” “Rave On,” “Oh Boy,” probably one of those four. And I’m banking that I heard it on a Sunday night in the early-to-mid-’70s on WNVR in Naugatuck, John Bunnell spinning it among the tens of thousands of 45s in his collection on his “JB’s Solid Gold Rock’n'Roll Party.” But that was when I finally got it. Maybe the goofy guy wasn’t so goofy after all. Holly was one of my earliest lessons in how you can’t judge a book by its cover. (Besides, I read years later about how much he hated that photo.)
It’s now been 50 years and a few hours since Tommy Allsup and Waylon Jennings gave up their seats on a charter plane so the young Ritchie Valenzuela and Jape Richardson could catch a quick flight to eternity with Holly instead of freezing their asses off on the tour bus. And, of course, we ‘murricans love our milestones, so here I am — mainly because I don’t hear much talk about Holly anymore, or about Valens, the first big Mexican-American rock star. (You’d think I’d hear more about Pacoima’s favorite son in an area of the country that’s heavily Mexican …)
Holly’s influence has gone well beyond his 22 years, of course. The greatest band of all named themselves The Silver Beatles as a sideways tribute to The Crickets. The Hollies, of course. Another great west Texas rocker who had his life cut short at 22, Bobby Fuller, was incredibly influenced by Holly, and his one lasting hit, “I Fought the Law,” was a song written and recorded by Sonny Curtis, with The Crickets. Holly also was the first rocker to really explore beyond the traditional rock’n'roll combo and start using strings and lavish arrangements in his songs (a lot of the songs that came out after his death, such as “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore” and “Raining in My Heart,” hinted at what could have been). Waylon went on to team with Willie and create the whole outlaw country thing. One of my favorites, another bespectacled rocker, Marshall Crenshaw, recorded a neat little version of “Rave On” on Joe From Chicago’s show on WPLR in New Haven in the summer of ’82, and it became a single B-side. Marshall and his band then went on to play the high school reunion band in the beginning of the film “Peggy Sue Got Married,” doing the posthumous Holly hit that gave the film its title. And he got to play Buddy himself in “La Bamba,” performing yet another posthumously released tune, “Crying, Waiting, Hoping.” Weezer turned on a bunch of younger, less-traditional listeners to Buddy Holly just by name-checking him in the ’90s. And how much did Holly prey on the mind of a kid from Modesto who used Buddy’s music in a film about nights of cars and goofing around at the drive-in in his hometown? After all, George Lucas practically invented the modern wave of nostalgia when he made “American Graffiti.”
And Valens, cut short at 17, left his mark on every band of young Mexican-Americans looking for that piece of the rock’n'roll success story, from Thee Midniters to ? and the Mysterians to his most famous and enduring spiritual proteges, one of the truly great American bands, Los Lobos. (And certainly not just because they recorded “La Bamba” for the film and had their biggest smash with it. That was just a big, aberrant moment in a rich history.)
Coming from the school of Everything for a Reason, there always seems to be a (collectively selfish) reason why brilliant performers die so soon. We get to remember them as they were, and we conjecture what would’ve happened had they not been permanently frozen in time. And chances are we wouldn’t have given them the due they have reaped over the years. Holly would’ve been 72 today. Would he have totally ditched rock’n'roll for over-orchestrated easy listening stuff? Would he have become highly successful yet dull? Would he have had a revival in the ’80s and found his old music again and enjoyed a resurgence? And would he still be alive now, plane crash or not?
And what about Ritchie? He’d have been 67 right now, “Donna” a long-distant memory. Instead of being commemorated on a postage stamp and in a movie, would he have made just a few more hits and then dropped off the radar — perhaps become a bitter, miserable old man ahead of his time, stewing over beers in Pacoima? Would he have become a music teacher? (This is a kid who made his guitar in shop class, after all …) Or would he have been a big star anyway? It’s not much of a choice, is it — be dead and immortal, or alive and forgotten or trivialized?
Ah, but what does anyone care? Kids don’t even know what a holly bush is, let alone Buddy Holly … I’m not even sure what immortalization means anymore. It probably means that as long as someone’s music is still available and there’s a person affected by it, then the artist is still alive somewhere. Just not as many places as before …
Tags: ? and the Mysterians, American Graffiti, American Pie, Bobby Fuller, Buddy Holly, Crying Waiting Hoping, Don McLean, Donna, Fran Fried, Franorama World, George Lucas, I Fought the Law, It Doesn't Matter Anymore, It's So Easy, La Bamba, Los Lobos, Marshall Crenshaw, Oh Boy, Peggy Sue, Peggy Sue Got Married, Raining in My Heart, Rave On, Ritchie Valens, rock'n'roll, Sonny Curtis, That'll Be the Day, The Big Bopper, The Hollies, Thee Midniters, Tommy Allsup, Waylon Jennings