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Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Remembering Buddy Holly

February 3, 1959. 50 years ago. 9 years before I was even born. It was a day that changed my life. It was the day one of my greatest inspirations died.

Buddy Holly means the world to me. His songs touch my soul the way few other artists' could ever hope to do. In the pantheon of music I can listen to over and over and over and never tire, and can study and digest and find new meaning or new inspiration each and every time I hear it, Holly's songs rank second to nobody's. Sure, The Beatles, The Who, Tom Petty and a few others have reached that same pinnacle of adulation from me, but out of them all, Buddy Holly reigns supreme.

It should be obvious. Look at the music that I am drawn to the most. The Beatles, Webb Wilder, Tom Petty, John Hiatt, etc, etc. Do you see a pattern emerging? Everybody, each and every musical artist I listen to in glee, is a direct descendant of Buddy Holly's musical pedigree. He is the Alpha of my musical alphabet. He is the great Zeus among my particular pantheon of musical gods.

His lyrical skills mesmerize me. The love songs all have a dark underside that can be hard to fathom through his trademark exuberant delivery. His lyrics have layers of meanings that continue to unfold hidden meanings even after hundreds of listens, a trait picked up by Bob Dylan, John Hiatt, Richard Thompson, Scott Miller and Webb Wilder, among others.

The performances, whether on a rocker or a ballad, is always exhilarating and fervent. Even Holly's saddest songs can make me smile, just as his sunniest rockers can make me cry. He's an amazing vocal stylist, with the way sings the lyrics conveying just as much meaning as the words in the lyrics. Paul McCartney, John Lennon, and Mick Jagger certainly learned that from him.

And what can I say about the music? Holly was an amazingly advanced arranger and musician. Those trademark staccato Stratocaster riffs... what fantastic technique. The mirroring of the style with his other trademark, the hiccup vocal delivery, was as ingenious as it was original. The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and way too many others have copied this to the point that it has become rock 'n' roll cliché these days.

Sometimes, I go months without listening to any Buddy Holly music. Then I get that urge and throw a "hits" collection on my Zune. Always, without fail, less than two songs in, I'm wondering why I ever decided to go so long without listening to anything from him. It's impossible to listen to anything with his name on it without tapping your feet and bopping your head.

I read somewhere, while digging for news about this anniversary, from some commentator, that if Holly had not died in that plane crash, that he would not be as fondly remembered as he is today. I call bullshit on that. The commentator backed up that assertion with the facts that Holly used strings on his last recordings and was an admirer of Paul Anka. So? The Beatles covered several show tunes in their early days and were admirers of Cliff Richard. Plus, they used strings on "Yesterday" and other tunes. Yet they never turned in pop crooners. The solo acoustic tracks that Holly recorded at home shortly before his death contain multiple songs that, if recorded with his then band, would have rocked as much as anything Buddy Holly ever recorded. How can anybody listen to "Crying, Waiting, Hoping" and hear a pop crooner in front of an orchestra?

I'm also not going to claim that Buddy Holly would never fade to irrelevance. That happens to every artist over time. However, knowing about his passion for experimentation and self reliance in the studio, it's clear that he would constantly push to reinvent himself and would never be content to just lay back and rest on past achievements. Johnny Cash was another musician who shared that drive, and even though he faded to irrelevance briefly through the 1980's, he pulled himself back up and became more relevant than ever through the late 1990's until his death. I honestly believe that would be the same path down which Holly would have travelled, if he had the chance.

He was arguably the first self-contained musical artist. One could almost say the same about Chuck Berry, except Berry never took the initiative to produce his own recordings. Plus, at the time of his death, Holly was making the moves to start his own publishing company and record label.

My mind boggles thinking about what else he could have accomplished had he lived past 22.

If I had a time machine, I wouldn't go back in time and beg Holly not to get on the plane, but I would most definitely go to see that final night's concert.

Sorry this post is dis-jointed and rambling. It probably could have used some editing and clean-up. But, it really is just a stream of consciousness rant that I wanted to get it posted today, on the day it matters.

The man named Charles Hardin Holley might have died on February 3, 1959, but Buddy Holly lives forever in the souls of the lives his music touched.


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