The Father, Son and The Holy Ghost,
They caught the last train for The Coast
The day the music died.
So bye bye, Miss American Pie...
This'll be the day that I die.
Don McLean, 1971
The music didn't exactly die in the early hours of February 3, 1959, when a plane leaving Clear Lake, Iowa, crashed, killing J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson (the Father), Ritchie Valens (the son) and Buddy Holly (the Holly Ghost). But that was surely the day that rock 'n roll, barely four years old, gained its first posthumous heroes: Holly, who had recently broken up with his band The Crickets; Valens, the first Chicano rock star; and Richardson, the Texas disc jockey with a single hit, "Chantilly Lace." These three were the first of many way too many who through accident (the taxi crash that totaled Eddie Cochran in 1960), misadventure (a motel manager's shooting of Sam Cooke in 1964) or design (the self-abuse by drugs that helped kill dozens of rock stars) insured themselves a creepy species of pop immortality by putting the exclamation point of sudden death to their careers.
And a big boost in the compilation and "cover" markets. Holly, like Elvis, sold more records after his death than when he was alive. In the '70s, his songs were covered in hit versions by Linda Ronstadt ("That'll Be the Day" went to #11 in 1976, "It's So Easy" topped out at #5 a year later) and Mickey Gilley ("True Love Ways" was a #1 country single in 1980). And Don McLean whose elegiac "American Pie" reworked the Holly line "That'll be the day, when I die" into "This'll be the day that I die" recorded Buddy's "Everyday" and "Fool's Paradise." A fond tribute to a fallen idol: nothing wrong with that. It extends good songs to a new generation; it ensures that the music doesn't die.
Yet there are other, darker aspects to rock necrology. In pop culture, the dead are barely cold before the vultures start circling to pick at their remains. They devise TV tributes, hagiographic movies and Broadway-style shows of the kind I saw in London last week and will be telling you about later in this column. They find businesses willing to turn a dead man's songs into corporate jingles; just now I heard Holly's "It's So Easy" in an ad that trumpeted Mail Boxes Etc. Not that you can blame the perps of these post-mortem rip-offs. They are feeding on the stars, yes, but they are also feeding the public's bizarrely moralistic belief that early fame carries the exorbitant price tag of early and violent death, as if it had been ordained by the cranky Old Testament gods of showbiz.
In that sense, we are all cultural predators vultures with dewy eyes, sentimentalizing the dead, attaching meaning to an awful fluke, as when car collides with car, or plane with frozen earth. There must be something in us that wants finality, the dramatically satisfying capper to a star's life. We want our stars to die. After all, which musicians get the bigger-than-life big-screen treatment? All right, Jerry Lee Lewis, who made an exemplary mess of a life that isn't over yet. But, mostly, the prematurely kaput: Patsy Cline, Ritchie Valens, Jim Morrison ... and Buddy Holly. And which ones are the subjects of stage musicals, especially in London? Presley ("Elvis: The Musical"), Cline ("The Patsy Cline Story"), Roy Orbison ("Only the Lonely") ... and Buddy Holly.
Whatever the excuse, I'll catch any tribute to Holly. As a kid I was enraptured by his music. I remember the day the music died, but that fades as I bathe in the simple magic of the recordings. And I know that Holly, purely apart from the pleasure his songs gave, helped shape five crucial areas of pop performance:
THE SINGING. Buddy's enunciation stretched, or twisted, the limits of acceptable vocalizing. "Rave On" begins with no instrumental vamp, only the throwaway word, "Well." But in his hands (mouth) it becomes a six-syllable crescendo "Ah-weh-heh-heh-heh-hell" that ascends by thirds every two notes, until it reaches orgasm with the songs first real words ("The little things you say and do/ Make me what to be with you-ah-hoo"). He took Nat King Cole's palatized delivery and pushed it beyond parody; to imitate him, you practically have to glue your tongue down ("I love you, Peggy Sue,/ With a love so rare and true,"), then switch into hiccup mode ("A-ho Peggy, my Peggy Sue/ Ooh-a-ooh-a-ooh-hoo"). As one Website chronicler of the Holly sound has observed, Buddy seemed determined while recording that song to pronounce "Peggy Sue" a different way each time he sang it.
Vocal lines get extended with the sighs of an ecstatic child ("Let me hear you say the words I long to hear-ah/ Darling, when you're near-ah" in "Words of Love"). Or he'll fashion an entire four-line chorus out of a kids' singalong: the "Aah, haa, haa-ha-haa-haa-ha" intro to "I'm Gonna Love You Too." And when the moment is right, he unleashes his mad falsetto rebel yell, or West Texas yodel. You hear it at the end of the first guitar bridge on "Oh Boy"; Buddy sounds like a guy who's tickled to death to be falling off an Alpine cliff.
THE PLAYING. Many of the first great rock 'n rollers were pianists: Fats Domino, Ray Charles, Jerry Lee. And though Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry and Mickey "Guitar" Baker made a hard art of strumming and picking, white guys weren't so adept. Elvis wore a guitar (as both a phallic symbol and a fig leaf) but didn't play it much. Holly turned out to be the first white guy to be a rock guitar virtuoso. He was what's the word? instrumental in making the guitar the prime ax of rock 'n roll. And that's because he was so imaginative a composer of riffs, rather more than of melodies. If "That'll Be the Day" or "Peggy Sue" didn't have catchy tunes or beguiling vocals, they'd still be enthralling for their intros and guitar solos.
THE LOOK. What was the deal, early promoters wanted to know, with the horn-rimmed glasses? Elvis didn't wear glasses. Elvis didn't look like a high-school social studies teacher. Elvis was sexy too sexy for TV. Buddy had a face made for radio. But with his cowboy-formal bow tie, the military crease in his trousers, and the glasses, Holly democratized the look of a rock star, as well as influencing future hipster-geeks from Elvis Costello to David Byrne. His whole appearance told the perplexed TV viewer one thing: Look at the music.
THE PRODUCTION. The studio magic of "Peggy Sue" still astonishes. The song couldn't be simpler: seven choruses of an uptempo 12-bar blues. Yet right from the start that bass-drum paradiddle with a percussive undercurrent that sounds like the rattle of a stage thunder machine the recording is downright witty in its sonic (and vocal) variations. It's one of the little masterpieces to emerge from the intense 18-month working relationship of Holly and Norman Petty in the latter's NorVaJac studio in Clovis, New Mexico.
Before meeting Holly, Petty had helmed his own instrumental trio, including his wife Vi, who would play celeste on Holly's "Everyday." In 1956 he produced two hits by the West Texas band the Rhythm Orchids: Buddy Knox's "Party Doll" and Jimmy Bowen's "I'm Stickin' With You." (Later he masterminded Jimmy Gilmer's Top 40 hit "Sugar Shack.") So the man had a résumé that predated and outlived his Holly time. Maybe Buddy was the presiding genius of those sessions; maybe Petty took writer's credit on Crickets songs he didn't help compose; surely the two men had their, eh, Petty squabbles. Fact is, the music recorded in Clovis was better, more vital and lasting, than anything Holly waxed before, in Nashville, or after, in New York. Petty must have had something to do with that. Indeed, Holly's New York work suggested the direction he might have gone in had he survived: backward. The happy new groom now wanted to write ballads, add strings, foreground his love lyrics. And these weren't his strengths, at least at the time of his death.