Buddy Holly appeared on the mid-'50s pop music scene as a complete rock ‘n’ roll package. The exuberant youngster from Lubbock, Texas, was a capable songwriter, an exciting guitarist and an innovative vocalist. He departed the scene--and this world--on “the day the music died,” killed in the crash of a light plane into a frozen Iowa cornfield on Feb. 3, 1959. Only 22 years old, he left behind a solid handful of classic recordings (songs like “Peggy Sue” “Maybe Baby” and “That’ll Be the Day”) and a population of mourners that would coalesce into a cult.
One needn’t be obsessed with Holly to wonder what he might have made of a longer career. Would he have pursued the experiments with orchestral strings that colored his final recordings, continuing the transition from rocker to pop balladeer? Would he have followed through on his dreams to record albums with Ray Charles and Mahalia Jackson or to pursue a career in movies? Would he, in short, have regained the career momentum that was flagging badly when he died and gone on to fulfill the promise of his youthful talent?
These are intriguing questions, and Holly fanatics wrestle with them regularly. Even Holly’s most ardent admirers acknowledge that his early death not only renders these speculations tantalizingly moot but contributes immensely to the luster of the legend. Yet they quickly add that he was a worthy idol in his own mortal right--a pioneer and a distinctive stylist who helped define early rock ‘n’ roll, setting standards for future generations to adopt and emulate.
In “Rave On,” the second ambitious Holly biography in as many years, the Briton Phillip Norman (best known in the U.S. for 1968’s then-definitive group biography of the Beatles, “Shout!”) makes the adulators’ case sound convincing. He reminds us that the fledgling rocker--far removed from pop’s fleshpots in New York and Los Angeles--wrote, performed and recorded songs, the best of which have become primal rock classics (“Oh Boy,” “Rave On”), while many others remain in currency through innumerable cover versions (“It’s So Easy,” “Well All Right,” “True Love Ways,” “Love’s Made a Fool of You,” “Not Fade Away” and “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore”).
In addition, Holly introduced the rock trio lineup (lead guitar, bass, drums) that not only presaged the particular lineups of such latter-day groups as Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience but was, in Norman’s typically unambiguous declaration, “the prototype of every rock band there has been or will be.” He “extended the vocabulary of the rock ‘n’ roll guitar” while breaking the rock mold by recording with a gospel choir, a full-scale string section or (in “Everyday”) a simple celesta accompanied by hand-pats on a drummer’s knees. He exerted artistic control over his recordings to a degree unheard of in the genre, at the same time employing unusual recording techniques (echo, double-tracking, overdubbing) that have since become commonplace. And he undertook to master and pursue the extra-musical aspects of the music business: publishing, recording, artists and repertoire.
Most of all, Norman emphasizes, Holly’s influence is inarguable because rock’s greatest white performers have taken pains to attest to it in word and deed. Among those who found inspiration were the Beatles and the Hollies, both of whom took their names from Holly and his backup band, the Crickets; the Rolling Stones, whose breakthrough single was a cover of “Not Fade Away”; and the Grateful Dead, who closed innumerable marathon shows with their own thundering version of “Not Fade Away.”
Does the music itself support the judgment of the faithful? “Rave On” is of little help here; Norman is no musicologist, and when he does attempt to evoke a performance he does it poorly. Fortunately, the records survive and they make clear the whyfores of their enduring appeal. Though Holly’s songs were elementally constructed, the best of them are catchy, even memorable, tunes. His lyrics, likewise invariably simple, suited the genre’s poetic aspirations perfectly, and they certainly stayed out of the music’s way. (“If you knew / Peggy Sue / Then you’ll know why I feel blue.”) Holly’s electrified Fender Stratocaster was the defining instrumental voice, here strummed in a vivid rhythm, there chiming out single-note solos, biting and raw for their time and place.
Still, the mystique remains somewhat opaque--until you read Norman’s memoir of his own life as an English schoolboy with a passion for American rock and roll in 1957 and 1958, the time of Holly’s greatest success. As Norman traces the metamorphosis of admiration to idolization, it becomes clear that, for many just like him on both sides of the Atlantic, then and now, to idolize Holly is to fantasize about one’s own potential accomplishments. For his skills were not so great, his creations so profound, that they could not be duplicated, and his death meant that those accomplishments--such as they were--would never tarnish. Holly was, even more than rock’s first great singer-songwriter-producer, the music’s first Everyman.
It is for himself when young, then, and for the still-vibrant Buddy Holly cult, that Norman has written this book--for only the true believer will slog through the mountain of minutiae he has assembled. The author had unfettered access to Holly’s family and surviving contemporaries, and he distributes the fruits of his research profligately throughout his narrative.
We learn about the onset and disposition of Holly’s youthful friendships and romances, his many material acquisitions and surviving personal effects, his meticulous record-keeping (he paid $5.31 a night for a room at Washington’s Ambassador Hotel during a two-week engagement in August 1957) and--most enervating of all--his dispute with his mentor, the Clovis, N.M., studio owner Norman Petty, over songwriting and recording royalties. The evidence of Petty’s chicanery leads Norman to assert that the small-town Svengali cheated Holly out of a substantial sum. But there was more at stake than simple equity: In Norman’s view, it seems clear, Petty (so aptly named!) cheated Holly out of life itself.
Indeed, the performer undertook his last, doomed tour in the depths of a Midwestern winter because he needed to earn money to support his new family and to underwrite a new business enterprise that would allow him to discover and record home-grown musical talent. Had Petty promptly turned over the earnings that were rightfully Holly’s, Norman argues, the youngster could have stayed home to rebuild the career that, though in palpable decline in early 1959, had seemed unlimited in its potential just 18 months before.
This is the thin drama that occupied Holly’s last days, and despite Norman’s assiduous efforts to breathe life into the dispute, the reader is all too soon skipping over frequent sections devoted to the toting up of accounts and correspondence with attorneys. Needless to say, skip too many pages in the biography of a 22-year-old and you’ll soon reach the end.
At that point, what lingers in memory are the encounters (and near-misses) between rock legends that Norman records: Holly, just out of high school, bringing a flamboyant Little Richard home for dinner to the horror of his Tabernacle Baptist parents; opening a Lubbock show for Elvis Presley in February 1955 (the King’s fee was $75) and then, finding the singer at loose ends, taking him on a drive around town, even fixing him up with a date; a now successful Holly and the Crickets touring England in March 1958, at ticket prices undoubtedly modest but still too steep for young John Lennon and Paul McCartney, who were forced to miss their idol’s Liverpool concert; Holly meeting and mentoring another West Texan named Waylon Jennings, who would later become a Cricket (and narrowly avoid a seat on that crucial plane flight); and finally, playing a show--one of his last--in frozen Duluth, Minn., to an audience that included young Bobby Zimmerman.
Contemplating these moments is more satisfying than wading through any number of pages full of itineraries, receipts and contractual detail. The true Holly fan will welcome Norman’s chronology, identify with his obsession and be grateful for his persistence. The less-preoccupied admirer will lay the book aside in favor of a cherished 45 and, in private memoriam, recall that “love is real, and not fade away.”