On the Enduring Genius of Buddy Holly, Sixty Years After His Death

Buddy Holly perished sixty years ago, on February 3 in an Iowa cornfield, along with the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens—the so-called “day the music died,” immortalized in Don McLean’s weepy, chorus-upon-never-ending-chorus number “American Pie.” They were on tour, worn down by the cold and the grind of the tour bus, and opted for an aerial shortcut to the next gig, with a pilot who hadn’t received his license to fly solely by instruments, in the dead of winter.

This tragic demise can dominate Holly’s story, shifting our focus from how radical a musician the man, who only made it to 22, was. He wore horn-rimmed glass, which made him, from a certain point of view, look slightly milksoppish—but in an earnest, quick-with-a-smile way. This was not someone you’d expect to be a rock and roll kicker of asses, especially at a time when rock-and-roll badassery wasn’t just in vogue, but represented by some seriously tough (or tough-looking) cats—Elvis, Gene Vincent, Jerry Lee Lewis.

But it was Holly who strapped on the Fender Stratocaster, he big-boy weaponry. This made Buddy Holly loud. The loudest. He could pick it, too, and Buddy Holly’s right hand was among the strongest in rock history. His band the Crickets followed in attitude, teaming with Holly to formulate the classic line-up of lead guitar, rhythm guitar, bass, and drums, which the Beatles correctly recognized as the right way for them to go, insect name and all.

What does a person achieve in this world as an artist by the age of 22? How possible is it to show more than a flash of the ability you were born with? Part of the miracle that was Buddy Holly was how fully-formed he was by this age—which isn’t to say that if you’re fully-formed, you won’t be able to extend your growth, producing oohs and aahhs with your latest direction, your latest invention. Buddy Holly was a kicker of ass in terms of physicality, for his music felt like something that was launching itself bodily at you, but he could also kick your ass mentally, making listeners reconsider how far one might push rock’s geographical boundaries, until any conception of them vanished.

The first Buddy Holly song I remember hearing was “It’s So Easy.” The guitar riff is lissome but sinewy, like a piece of wire that threads through the song, with the lyrics, via Holly’s vocal panache, akin to program music for how, exactly, love works. Accept what I say and don’t be a sucker! the singer seems to attest. And I totally accepted this. That combo of the melody and the beat owned me, and while I didn’t put it this way at the time, I realized later on that this was melody in its absolutely purest form, atop which nothing could be added, and from which nothing could be taken. And Buddy Holly had taken me.

“Not Fade Away,” one of his biggest hits, showed that he could venture into Bo Diddley territory and own a portion of it, this thin little white dude from Texas. He had rhythm and blues gusto. Elvis had rhythm and blues attitude and the voice for it, but Holly understood the bedrock of the genre better. He was the master geologist who knew exactly how the layers of the land were stacked, how to drill to its core.

He could out-blues you, out-rhythm you, out-rock you, but he also could out-think you. He double-tracked his vocals, played with overdubs, used fade-ins, utilized vari-speed. He was Brian Wilson and John Lennon and Paul McCartney as a studio wizard—Rock Wizard #1, if we are to assign Les Paul to jazzier fields—and no one began to catch up until the Beatles in ’66, following his example in using the studio as an instrument. There is a lot of Buddy Holly in Revolver.

Holly signed up for acting classes, believing that a better understanding of the thespian’s art would help his development as a musician. He was all-in. His was an age where you found something you did reasonably well, and you did it to death.

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