A long, long time ago
I can still remember how that music
Used to make me smile.
(American Pie, Don McLean)
The music died early on the morning on February 3, 1959, midway through the Winter Dance Party tour whose line-up included some of the best rock and roll artists of the day. Headliner Buddy Holly had chartered a four-seater Beechcraft Bonanza to fly him from Clear Lake, Iowa to Fargo, North Dakota, taking along with him J.P Richardson (aka the “Big Bopper”) and Ritchie Valens. Bad weather, a pilot not certified for instrument flying and a new gyro contributed to the 1 a.m. crash in an Iowa cornfield, killing all on board instantly.
I heard about it the next day when, surprisingly, the Daily Telegraph, Britain’s right-wing paper, ran the story on the front page. Don McLean can’t remember if he cried, but I did, it affected me that much. These three guys were my heroes, heck, they were heroes to all us war-babies who’d glommed onto their upbeat music. They were the heart of rock ‘n’ roll! I wonder now, was it that event that inspired all the teen death songs that came out around that time?
There have always been death songs, of course. No opera worth its $99 price of admission lacks a good death or two, both deserved and gratuitous, by gunfire, poison, fire. Lots by stabbing (some self-inflicted). Not to mention consumption. Carmen, Mimi (La Bohème), Brünnhilde (Wagner’s Ring), Don Giovanni, La Wally, Desdemona (Otello), Boris Gudunov, Aida, Violetta (La Traviata), Scarpia (Tosca), Madame Butterfly…it ain’t over ’til the hero or heroine dies.
But for me, nothing beats a good pop music death (“splatter platter”), especially when it happens in the arms of one’s beloved: “Cradled by two loving arms that I’ll die for/One little kiss, and Feleena, goodbye” (El Paso, Marty Robbins); “As their hands touched and their lips met/The raging river pulled them down” (Running Bear, Johnny Preston—written by the Big Bopper); “I held her close/I kissed her our last kiss” (Last Kiss, J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers).
Like the trio above, lovers died in plane crashes (Ebony Eyes, Everly Brothers), but also in cars: stock cars (Tell Laura I Love Her, Ray Peterson); cars stalled on the tracks (Teen Angel, Mark Dinning) (memo to kids: a high school ring isn’t worth dying for); badly-maintained cars “I wasn’t about to/Slam on the brakes cause I/Didn’t have none to start with” (I Want My Baby Back, Jimmy Cross) (closing lyrics not for sensitive souls!); drag race cars (Deadman’s Curve, Jan and Dean); cars crashing head-on (7-11, The Ramones), and on motorbikes (Leader of the Pack, The Shangri-Las) (parodied by Leader of the Laundromat, The Detergents). And don’t forget hanging! (Tom Dooley, The Kingston Trio). What have I missed?
PS: After writing this column, someone pointed me to this comprehensive list of teen death songs that categorizes death by: Cars, Motorcycles, Trains, Surfing, Rivers, Murder, Disease, Drugs, War, Suicide, Guns, Flying, and Other Near Misses. Turns out I’m just an amateur.
Back to real life and death. In addition to Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens (La Bamba) and the Big Boppa (Chantilly Lace), several other young rock ’n’ rollers died in that era, including Sam “King of Soul” Cooke (shot by his manager, deemed “justifiable homicide”), Eddie Cochran (Summertime Blues; died in a car crash), Johnny Ace (who had a string of hits in the early 1950s, but whom I only know because he often toured with R&B great Big Mama Thornton).
Buddy Holly, though, is the one I really miss. Somewhere in this old brain are stored complete lyrics to That’ll Be the Day, It Doesn’t Matter Anymore and Peggy Sue. He influenced just about everyone who came after, from Dylan, the Beatles (whose insect-y name was inspired by Holly’s group the Crickets), Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, and Elton John (whose glasses were inspired by Holly’s).
Here’s Buddy Holly and the Crickets on Ed Sullivan, December 1, 1957, before Don and Phil Everly convinced Holly to get horn-rimmed glasses (à la Steve Allen)
None of which even comes close to answering the eternal question: Before throwing himself off, what did Billie Joe MacAllister and “that girl who looked a lot like you” throw off the Tallahatchie Bridge?