Showing posts with label Buddy Holly. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Buddy Holly. Show all posts

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Rave On

Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J. P. Richardson (“The Big Bopper”) died fifty years ago today in a plane crash that occurred just a few miles from Clear Lake, Iowa. Of course, this is not “news” as such, but the commemoration of the event serves two important functions. One is that such anniversaries give newspapers and websites (and bloggers) a readymade topic. Always on the search for information to fill a news hole (blank space on the page), the dredging up of old news, using as an excuse its intrinsic historicity, gives editors (and bloggers) a slight reprieve from the daily grind. Even stories tangential to the core event, such as the identity of Peggy Sue, becomes news fodder. The second function of such commemorations is, of course, a commercial one: it helps sell merchandise and helps sell tickets to nostalgic concerts. A recent article in the newspaper discussed the economic boon that Clear Lake, Iowa has received as a result of its historic relation to the rock ‘n’ roller’s death: the small resort town has a multimillion-dollar tourist industry as a consequence of being near the location of the fatal crash.

There are very few individuals living today who can claim they knew Buddy Holly. I don’t mean those individuals who claim to have run into him at the drug store one day, or once filled his gas tank. I mean those individuals who were personally close to him. I say this because, even though I was “alive” at the time he died—I was a small boy at the time—he has never existed to me as anything more than a media construct: his image, the lore, the movies and music about him all are products of the mass media. There’s the biopic, THE BUDDY HOLLY STORY (1978), which garnered Gary Busey an Academy Award nomination, and there’s THE REAL BUDDY HOLLY STORY (1986), which Paul McCartney produced in response to the biopic because he was unhappy with it. And there’s LA BAMBA (1987), the biopic of Ritchie Valens—has anyone made a biopic or documentary on J. P. Richardson? The cultural memory desires Holly to not fade away. There is a waiter dressed up as Buddy Holly (Steve Buscemi) in PULP FICTION (1994), and the John Milner character (Paul Le Mat) in AMERICAN GRAFFITI (1973) laments the fact that “Rock ‘n’ roll’s been going downhill ever since Buddy Holly died,” a line that makes perfect sense as art, but is implausible in the given historic context of the film (set in the fall of 1962, the characters do not have the requisite historical perspective for the line to resonate properly, although presumably it did to audiences in 1973 when the film was released, and perhaps still does). And there’s the instance of 1980s nostalgia for the Fifties in the Kathleen Turner-starring movie PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED (1986).

There have been several songs written about Buddy Holly: Eddie Cochran’s “Three Stars,” The Smithereens’ “Maria Elena” (for Holly’s widow), and Weezer’s “Buddy Holly” are a few examples, but the most famous, and perhaps most successful is, of course, Don McLean’s willfully obscure “American Pie.” A web search will lead to several sites dedicated to the interpretation of the lyrics to McLean’s song, but the song’s meaning has never seemed that difficult to me. Perhaps I’m jaded. Elvis’s phenomenal popularity in 1956 enabled nascent rock ‘n’ rollers to respond in at least two ways: imitate him (which was artistic death, although many tried), or opportunistically use the space he opened up to create one’s own unique form of expression, which is precisely what Buddy Holly did. His records never achieved the phenomenal sales of Elvis, but he is a nostalgic figure nonetheless. His life resonates as myth because of what might have been. I’ve always wondered what sort of album Buddy Holly might have made once he heard the Beatles. It’s one of those great “lost albums” of rock history.

Don McLean’s “American Pie,” released in 1971, is a response, on the one hand, to the events of the winter of 1958-59 (“A long, long time ago/I can still remember/How that music used to make me smile”) and on the other to the Sixties (“Now for ten years we’ve been on our own”). Elvis had been in the service about five months (departing for Germany late September 1958) when Buddy Holly was killed on 3 February 1959. Hence, within the space of only a few months, both of them were gone: Elvis was overseas in the service, in figurative terms never really to “return” (“While the king was looking down/The jester stole his thorny crown/The courtroom was adjourned/No verdict was returned”), and Buddy Holly was killed (“February made me shiver”). Both events are condensed into the hyperbolic, cryptic phrase, “the day the music the died.” Most of the lyrical content is devoted to the Rolling Stones and Beatles, those two emblems of the so-called “British Invasion” of the mid-1960s; the song is at least in part a reaction to the usurpation of American rock ‘n’ roll by the British “pretenders” (“Now for ten years we’ve been on our own/And moss grows fat on a rollin’ stone/But that’s not how it used to be”). Of course, interpretation is not meaning in the sense that “decoding” this phrase or that symbol reveals to us what the song is “all about.” But most certainly it is not simply or only about Buddy Holly; the allusion to his death is really only the point of departure, the starting point. To me, the song expresses a sort of conservative reaction against the Sixties, a compressed social history that contains both an expression of belatedness (having missed, or arrived too late for, the Golden Age) as well as nostalgia for a “simpler” time. Most of us form emotionally strong attachments to the music of our youth, in this case the rock ‘n’ roll of the 1950s, and the song expresses that, but it is a mistake to think the song is merely “about” Buddy Holly. As far as I know, Don McLean didn’t know him, and that makes all the difference.