On the third of February 1959, Richie Valens, the Big Bopper and Buddy Holly were killed in a plane crash near Mason City, Iowa. Don McLean famously sang of it as “the day the music died”. Critics and historians of rock ‘n’ roll have linked the tragedy to Jerry Lee Lewis’ disappearance from public life after marrying his 13-year-old cousin and Elvis going into the army, both events harbingers of the death of an American style of rock ‘n’ roll.
I guess “the day the music died and triggered a seemingly endless stream of biographies” doesn’t really work as a song title, but it gets closer to the truth than Mclean’s beautiful dirge. A Buddy Holly memorial industry very quickly developed after the 22-year-old’s death. Its pace seems to pick up at every anniversary of the accident that robbed American rock ‘n’ roll of one of its emerging performers and, given more time to develop, one of its most interesting innovators.
There are a number of recent additions to Hollyography, largely because of the 50th anniversary of that fateful plane ride. In the last year, two major Holly biographies have been released including one “definitive biography” (which makes it the second “definitive” study).
Dave Laing’s new study Buddy Holly, part of Indiana University Press’ Icons of Pop Music Series, examines the life, discography, public performances, memory and representation of Holly. Packing a wealth of information into a relatively short book, Laing’s work provides a good, if dry, guide to the performer’s short life and career.
One of the strengths of Laing’s work is the careful attention to detail that provides the reader with a very clear understanding of Holly’s musical influences, the role played by his West Texas background and a close history and analytical reading of his recordings. Excellent graphs chart out both Holly’s tours and the composers of his songs. The chapters on recordings digs deep into the lyrical structure of Holly’s work and his vocal techniques (sometimes becoming a bit too anthropological).
Laing also does some good work exploring the role of race and the influence of African American music on Holly. The author consistently examines this question even though his exploration is not as exhaustive as it could have been.Conventional wisdom has it that Holly fused rhythm and blues with country to create his distinctive style. Laing discusses the question of how much contact would have occurred between Holly and African American performers. He comes up with some interesting conclusions, but only spends a few paragraphs exploring the question in depth. His other references to the issue are brief and scattered.
The brevity of some Lang’s analysis points to the larger problem with Buddy Holly. Unfortunately, this is a book that doesn’t really know what it wants to be. Any of the topics that Laing’s chooses would have made a full-length study. His last two chapters on memory and representation seem incredibly fruitful and yet never quite bear fruit as he selects one interesting cultural echo of Holly’s career after another and then leaves them in the dust. At a certain point, the authorial voice feels like it’s in a race to reach the end of the brief 166-pages of text.
Laing’s book ends up being a real mishmash of biographical detail and cultural study written in sometimes dense academese. Frankly, the reader will know they are in trouble at the beginning of the first chapter when what is supposed to be a study of Holly’s West Texas background opens with an exposition of something called ANT (Actor-Network Theory). This more or less means that students of a particular artist should view their subjects in the context of personal relations, musical influences, cultural history and technological innovation.
This theoretical construction haunts the rest of the work. Throughout the book, friends and relations of Holly become part of “the Holly network”, giving an impersonal feeling to every aspect of the rock ‘n’ roller’s life and experience. The musician who bopped and hiccupped through “Peggy Sue” is turned into a sociological abstraction.
I couldn’t help but wish for a better book, a guide through the tangled underbrush of Hollyography that went even further than Laing did in explaining the cultural echoes of Holly in American and British culture. I wanted more on Elvis Costello and the glasses and was fascinated by the British children’s author who wrote a whole series on a character loosely based on Holly. The series went to the BBC in 1990 and then became a feature film that included Roger Daltrey of The Who. We only get a couple of sentences on these odd cultural blips. They illustrate what this book could have been.
Useful but limited, Laing’s Buddy Holly provides some good basic facts on the life of the icon. I’m just not sure he really got behind the glasses in any meaningful way.