Turn Me On, Dead Man
Outsiders best know Iowa musically for three things: the Broadway show The Music Man, those mask-wearing devils Slipknot, and as the place where Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and J.P. Richards (the Big Bopper) died. Of these three, the last item is by far the most famous. Here it is five decades after the event, and reporters from around the world again descend to the Hawkeye State to question locals about what happened. The Surf Ballroom (where Holly last played) hosts another tribute concert, and the nearby cornfields are filled with tourists gawking in the snow at the barren fields where the fatal plane crash took place.
What is it about Buddy Holly that inspires such devotion? He wasn’t the first rock ‘n’ roller. He didn’t have very many hits during his less than two-year recording career. He wasn’t particularly sexy or charismatic. Critics have long pondered Holly’s legend, and usually attribute his celebrity to a combination of Holly’s innocent charm, his commonplace appearance, the fact that he wrote his own songs, and his early, tragic death. He was the first rock and roller to die before this time.
This is why Don McLean’s 1971 hit “American Pie”, with its lyric about “the day the music died”, resonated with so many people. This is why the Beatles named themselves in tribute to Holly’s band, the Crickets. This is why Hollywood movies, Broadway plays, numerous books, and musicians born way after Holly’s death (re: Weezer) continue to examine Holly’s life in search of the magical, mysterious essence of the man.
Now, 50 years after Holly’s death, a new double-CD set of unreleased material has come out on a major label. The 59 songs here on Down the Line: Rarities are meant primarily for diehard fans. The two CDs are too full of ephemera, outtakes, and low fidelity early recordings to be of interest to casual listeners. However, in this age of computer downloading, MP3 players, and playlists, one could easily create a wonderful 20-track compilation of the best tunes from the two discs that would turn into an apathetic listener into a Holly enthusiast.
Down the Line: Rarities begins with a scratchy 1949 recording by a 14-year-old Holly singing Hank Snow’s “My Two-Timin’ Woman”. His high-pitched voice suggests he has either not reached puberty or was embarrassed to sing in his real voice. He does play the guitar energetically, but if Holly hadn’t become famous this song would be of little interest to most listeners. The same could be said for the next eight tracks that follow, recorded with Bob Montgomery as Buddy and Bob. Three of these cuts are released here for the first time, but they are conventional-sounding country and western compositions.
But then, in 1955, Holly discovered rock and roll. Elvis Presley came to Holly’s hometown of Lubbock. Buddy and Bob even opened for the King at a couple of gigs. Presley’s influence takes hold immediately. Holly records Arthur Gunter’s “Baby, Let’s Play House” the way Presley did and really cooks. He shouts out instructions to his band (“Go around again boys!”) and seems to be having a ball. He writes four rockers of his own. The poor fidelity of the recordings can’t hide the fact that something special was happening.
These are followed by “The Garage Tapes”, a baker’s dozen of current rock hits by Elvis (“Good Rockin’ Tonight”, “Blue Suede Shoes”), Chuck Berry (“Brown Eyed Handsome Man”), Little Richard (“Rip it Up”), and such, recorded informally in Holly’s family’s garage. Producer Norman Petty cleaned up these tracks, added instrumentation, and released them after Holly’s death, but they appear here in their original, unvarnished form. Holly, drummer Jerry Allison, and Joe Mauldin on bass, rip through these songs like a Texas tornado. Holly’s not afraid to howl the lyrics or play these songs faster than the original artists, because he is clearly enthused. The disc ends with a self-penned Holly composition, the rockabilly instrumental “Holly Hop”.
The second disc begins with a batch of alternate takes and undubbed versions of more familiar Holly compositions, including “Not Fade Away”, “Peggy Sue”, and “Oh Boy”, recorded in late 1957/early 1958 with the Crickets at Petty‘s Clovis, New Mexico, studio. These three cuts in particular are revelatory. Holly’s voice is rich and full, and he knows how to use it for maximum effect. His guitar picking is clear and crisp. The Crickets do themselves proud, keeping the rhythm flowing and the beat hard and steady. There’s a lot of filler here, too. Holly and the Crickets taped greetings to friends and business associates, and there are several recordings of the same songs here with false starts or abrupt endings as they work things out.
The best stuff comes last: the “Apartment Tapes”. Holly taped working drafts of his new material while living in New York City. It’s just him singing and playing acoustic guitar. These are Holly’s last recordings and include 14 full songs. After Holly’s death, the original tapes were overdubbed with a full band for commercial reasons, and some became hits. However, the original recordings have never been officially released until now. The raw versions of “Peggy Sue Got Married” and “Crying, Waiting, and Hoping” are especially fresh and beautiful in their unadorned state. He also does some wonderful covers, including a slow and sultry version of Little Richard’s “Slippin’ and Slidin’” (as well as a fast rendition), a romantic interpretation of Mickey and Sylvia’s “Love Is Strange”, and an emotive take on the Coasters’ “Smokey Joe’s Café”.
There is an Iowa legend that when the weather is very cold and the air is still, you can hear the last song Holly ever wrote—the one he composed on the way down as the plane is crashing. It’s not one of the gentle ballads. Holly rages against death, “Rave On”-style. Long before Neil Young and Kurt Cobain, Holly understood the importance of not fading away. That’s why his music remains with us.