[13 November 2011]
The majority of the contributors to the musical tribute to Buddy Holly, Listen to Me, offer reverent takes on the rock ‘n’ roll pioneer’s tunes. That’s kind of ironic, as Holly’s music itself was known for its irreverence. Holly added classical flourishes to pop songs during a period when the two genres were seen as total opposites. He poked fun at the drama of teenage romance by highlighting the effervescence of its joys and pains. He even transformed the boastful words of John Wayne in the classic horse opera The Searchers into that of a lover’s challenge. His very image as that of the boy next door with his thick black glasses and friendly face went against the more prevalent stereotype of the dangerous rocker. That’s why his death at a young age was such a shock. Other rock stars were known for their risky behavior. Holly was viewed as the safe and normal alternative to the wild men of the time.
It’s not surprising that modern artists treat the Holly catalogue with deference. He has become a legend, thanks to Don McLean’s “American Pie”, the Hollywood biopic and the strong influence he has had on artists that followed. Holly was one of the first people inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and even 40-plus years after his death Holly’s passing is still commemorated at various events around the globe.
The respectful renditions of Holly’s tunes do have merit as the songs are good enough to stand up without changes even after all these years. The guitars on Jeff Lynne’s take on “Words of Love” sound eerily close to the original but with better fidelity, so the sound rings out the way one imagines it did in concert rather than on the primitive recording equipment of the ‘50s. Lyle Lovett brings out Holly’s Texas roots on “Well All Right”, but he seems to take out the implicit sexuality of the song. Where Holly was not afraid to deepen his voice on lines like “We’ll live and love with all our might”, Lovett plays it safe and doesn’t change inflection. The same could be said of Zooey Deschanel’s take on “It’s So Easy”. Holly would growl the words one second and then make pure pop squeals the next to show how thin the line was between teenage love and lust. Deschanel’s quiet version almost seems like a folk song with pop accoutrements.
Perhaps Deschanel does not want to compete against Linda Ronstadt’s popular loud and rowdy version of the song. Here Ronstadt reprises her version of her 1976 hit take on “That’ll Be the Day”. This rendition is very similar to her earlier one, if a bit more bloodless. There are also solid performances from such notables as Brian Wilson, Chris Isaak, Imelda May and Stevie Nicks that are heavily grounded in the originals.
The most reverential take on Holly’s material has to be Natalie Merchant’s “Learning the Game”, but in a much different manner. Merchant takes the song’s lyrics about heartbreak as a serious topic and slows the pace and adds quiet violin and piano instrumentation in a way that suggests something quite different than the original. For Holly, love was an experiment that one had to try and learn from, even when it hurt. Merchant sings as one who has experienced the pain of unrequited love and isn’t sure if it was worth the trouble.
Some of the artists took different approaches with varying degrees of success. Ringo Starr tosses off “Think it Over” as if it is one of those songs played at an amusement park ride, meant to serve as background for a good time more than listened to for its depth of expression. Cobra Starship turn “Peggy Sue” into a space age ditty, complete with odd effects. Both Starr and Starship evoke the ‘50s through musical memories of the post-World War II era and its popular culture.
The wildest approach must be Monty Python’s Eric Idle’s comedic take on “Raining in My Heart”, complete with Spike Jones-type sound effects, overemotional reading of the lyrics, and bantering with the musicians. It’s freaking hilarious, and may be worth the price of the disc itself. The money earned by the disc will benefit a wide range of music charity programs for the younger generation. Judging by this disc, they need it. Some of the worst tracks are by the more modern acts: Patrick Stump of Fall Out Boy, Pat Monahan of Train, and the Fray. Holly’s been dead for more than 50 years. If his reputation has survived this long, it will take more than a few bad performances to ruin it.