[Today: Rock’s first martyr…]
Lubbock. Glasses. Stratocaster. Peggy Sue. Plane crash. What most people know about Buddy Holly can fit in a thimble. Because he was one of the founding fathers of rock, he has influenced an entire wing of the rock and roll hall of fame, including luminaries such as Dylan, the Stones, Byrds and Dead. But his notoriety as rock’s first martyr has helped obscure a catalogue of songs that still sound surprisingly contemporary. That Holly recorded all of it by the time he was 23, and that many of his songs were demos meant for later re-recording only enhances the legend of the man in the black-rim glasses.
Just one of the 20 songs compiled here touches three minutes (‘Listen To Me’ checks in at 3:26). That fact, combined with Holly’s standing as the first rocker to dedicate himself to love’s concerns, has led some to dismiss him as a lightweight. On their surface they tick and tock like watches, but each of these songs has been finely crafted, and they’re full of more intricate moving parts than first appearance would grant. Offering advice to would-be rock stars, Holly said “If anyone asks you what kind of music you play, tell him ‘pop.’ Don’t tell him ‘rock’n’roll’ or they won’t even let you in the hotel.” He wasn’t considered a pop singer in his own day, but his craftsmanship has been a key component in the evolution of what is now called pop.
When he died in a plane crash in an Iowa cornfield in early February of 1959, the man born Charles Hardin Holley became the first rock star to leave a long, seemingly hit-filled career on the table. It’s always tricky to speculate on what an artist might have accomplished had they not died, but Holly’s music left plenty of clues to where he might have headed. The growl in his voice in ‘It’s So Easy’ shows that he could have handled harder rock, while the connection between ‘Peggy Sue’ and ‘Peggy Sue Got Married’ indicates that he might have been ahead of the curve in creating concept albums. The jangle of ‘Bo Diddley’ is proto-blues/rock and ‘Brown Eyed Handsome Man’ betrays some country flavor. These songs provided so many avenues that his music might have traveled, but what seemed like such a promising start instead became the whole show.
It’s a shame that Holly didn’t live to see the 60s – there’s no reason to think that he wouldn’t have continued to make outstanding music, and his love-first message would have been right at home with the hippies (as umpteen Dead covers of ‘Not Fade Away’ more than attest). That his music is so innocent, bright-eyed and hopeful only amplifies the tragedy of his young death. In the essential book Rock Dreams, Nik Cohn wrote about stardom from the point of view of Buddy Holly: “I like it. Everywhere I go, girls scream at me, boys ask for my autograph, and I ride around in a Cadillac. But sometimes I can’t believe it – I remember Lubbock, Texas and everybody laughing and I ask myself, can it last?”
Listen: That’ll Be The Day
Listen: Peggy Sue
Listen: Not Fade Away
Listen: It’s So Easy