January 1959, late at night in a Greenwich village apartment, his pregnant wife asleep, Buddy Holly is recording. He’s been recording obsessively since he was 14, and for the last couple of years camped in the studio in Clovis, New Mexico, learning how to write, how to record, what makes a record. He has style and command, as strong in his way as Elvis. He is a master of the catchy look, the catchy song, the catchy sound. He is ambitious. He is 22.
Buddy’s last official recordings, made in New York in October 1958, were string arrangements of two songs written by professional writers, in which his only contribution was to sing. He hadn’t recorded like this since his frustrating and abortive time with Decca in Nashville – after which he returned to Clovis, and wrote, arranged, played guitar, sang and recorded ‘That’ll be the Day’, his first hit. In the next 18 months he established the template for the adventurous pop musicians of the next generation – the need for a look, a sound, and control.
He recorded 12 songs in his apartment. What to make of these tapes, as enigmatic and suggestive in their way as Dylan’s basement tapes? The six songs he’d written, ‘among the most angst-ridden in the entire canon of rock’, ‘clearly reveal that Holly was not a happy Buddy.’ (Julian Lloyd Webber, Daily Telegraph, 3 Feb 2015.) And at first they seem to be the songs of a lost soul: refusing to accept another’s marriage; doubting that true love exists; expressing the pain of being dumped; helplessly longing for a lost love; unable to get over a high-school romance; realising that love is ‘a game’. And seemingly confirmed by the story put across by the Crickets, and other home-town friends left behind in Texas: small-town boy Buddy, seduced by a New York Latina beauty who’s taken over his life, separated him from his old buddies and childhood sweetheart, and dragged him off to New York. The 6 songs as the 2 a.m. howls of a man trapped in a loveless marriage by a controlling wife. Maybe, even, the plane flight was a desperate man flirting with death? It fits the image of the artist as tortured autobiographer, his art a distorted mirror of his life. And it feeds off the jealousy of those who were left behind, who hadn’t dared break away.
But, listen to the songs. They were so well written and recorded that, overdubbed with (unfortunate) accompaniments, they sustained a posthumous career. So, listen to the originals, with the intimacy of Buddy switching the tape on and off, false starts, alternate takes, chatter from Maria Elena. Hear them at edsel.myrmid.com. They are carefully worked, ready for studio recording. For Holly was a professional. And a professional writer, for a specific market, the teens of the late 1950s, self-absorbed, anxious, tasting a new freedom, obsessed with love, extravagant nursers of broken hearts. Just as Paul Anka, Neil Sedaka, Felice Bryant could write ‘Lonely Boy’, ‘Breaking up is Hard to Do’, and ‘Love Hurts’, songs that strike directly the adolescent heart, without being emotional wrecks, so could Buddy write ‘Crying, Waiting, Hoping’. His 6 songs are well-worked expressions of the adolescent experience, by one who understands it, but has passed beyond it.
The cleverest is ‘Peggy Sue got Married.’ I’ve written a separate blog on it – see ‘Buddy Holly “Please Don’t Tell”’. He must have been squeezing himself at the development in his craft in the 18 months since ‘Peggy Sue’!
‘What to Do?’ in 8 lines encapsulates the desolation of the adolescent lost love, ‘what to do, now that she doesn’t want me, that’s what haunts me, what to do? … the record hops and all the happy times we had, the soda shop, the walks to school now make me sad.’ Devastated, haunted, lonely, sad, heartbroken, the end of the world. Buddy’s nostalgia is as strong as ‘Bob Dylan’s Dream’, similarly written from the point of view of having moved on.
‘Crying, Waiting, Hoping’ catches all the vainglorious self-absorption of adolescent desolation, ‘crying, my tears keep falling, waiting, it feels so useless … hoping you’ll come back, maybe sometime soon.’
‘That’s what They Say’ examines society’s promise, that true love will come. It’s the adolescent questioning for the first time, the beginning of existential angst. What if it’s not true, a story to keep us believing in family, to keep us conforming? It’s the older brother, gently hinting. ‘That’s what they tell us, that’s what they say. I didn’t hear them say a word of when that time will be.’
‘That makes it Tough’ is another break-up song, ‘memories will follow me for ever, though I know our dreams can’t be true. All those precious things we shared together, time goes by, I’ll remember you.’ Here there’s the moving on, from the rawness of pain, to the enclosure of the raw place so it’s preserved as an access point to that golden past, which we can visit as nostalgia, which means ‘the pain of returning home’.
‘Learning the Game’ is a tiny gem, of music, words and performance. ‘Hearts that are broken, and love that’s untrue, these go with learning the game.’It’s that growing–up point, the loss of innocence – life, love is a game, that you have to learn the rules of, and how to play.
Five of the songs have upbeat, jaunty tunes, the sixth the cowboy lope that could easily become a close dance.
I don’t see these as midnight revelations of a broken heart, rather carefully crafted, ninety-second lessons in life, offering the solid advice of the older brother who’s been through the mill of adolescence, and is beginning to come out the other side. You grew up much earlier in those days – a twenty-two year old was supposed to be past all that; being married with a child on the way was the norm.
So, what would have happened, if Buddy had given his seat on that plane to his bass player, Waylon Jennings? Yes, that Waylon Jennings. Nashville would have lost one of its future Outlaws. And Buddy? He was ambitious, professional. He’d already started his own production company, signed an artist. Maybe he would, like Paul Anka, Neil Sedaka, Bobby Darin, have settled profitably into comfortable song-writing, and supper-club singing. Maybe, like Roy Orbison and the Everly Brothers, he would have settled into his carefully made image and style, and traded off it as long as he could.
But other songs on the apartment tapes make me doubt it. ‘Wait for the sunshine, Nellie’ was his mother’s favourite – and he lifted the tune for ‘That’s what they Say’. ‘Love is Strange’ and ‘Dearest’ are songs for Maria Elena, but with curious phrasing that sound like a vocal experiments. He was always experimenting. ‘Slipping and Sliding’ is a Little Richard song – he made 4 recordings, each in a different style. And he’d shown, with his version ‘Bo Diddley’ that he was happy to use Black music and translate it for the White market. And ‘Smokey Joe’s Café’, a lovingly crafted performance of a classic Leiber and Stoller song show his interest in story-telling and the craft of song-writing.
Maybe he would have settled into middle-age, that began in those days in one’s mid-twenties. Maybe he was just the wrong side of the age divide that separates those who could embrace the sixties, and those who couldn’t. Although he was the template that John Lennon and Paul McCartney modelled themselves on, perhaps Buddy was just too old.
But Willie Nelson was 3 years older, and Waylon Jennings just a year younger, and they did it. Maybe we’d be seeing Buddy, a bright-eyed 78-year-old, still thin as a whip, big grin, big glasses, performing with Willie. Or perhaps Phil Spector is the model, and he would have become the great producer and impresario of the sixties. Maybe he was already exploring the music of Greenwich village, the jazz and the folk. Maybe he would still have been there when Dylan arrived the following year …
Instead of the glutinous, sentimental confection of ‘American Pie’, we need to listen to the Apartment tapes to hear Buddy’s possible future, his death not the day the music died, but when one of the most vital growing shoots of possibility was snapped off, a future music silenced, lost.