WEIRDLAND: Buddy Holly's mystery, The Permissive Society

Friday, January 06, 2017

Buddy Holly's mystery, The Permissive Society

It was Buddy Holly who made the Fender Stratocaster, previously favoured by country musicians, the instrument of choice for rock guitarists. If his career is measured in terms of the number of records sold, Buddy Holly would rank high, although the sales didn’t take off until after his untimely death. But if it is measured in terms of influence on other rock musicians, he ranks higher. Indeed, some critics would say he ranks highest of all. Holly took up the guitar at the age of 12, playing country and western music, absorbing influences from bluegrass (acoustic stringed instruments), close-harmony singers, and rhythm ’n’ blues. His guitar style – in which he was able to produce a lead and rhythm sound at the same time – was much admired and envied. Holly's British tour in 1958 was “the most significant and influential tour in the entire history of popular music”.

Whereas "Hound Dog" aims for a monolithic effect (and falls short), "That'll Be the Day" is fully realized, with Holly acting out his role as if he's talking to the mirror, savoring the memory. Holly could be utterly sure of his self-doubt, whereas Elvis couldn't be as sure of his arrogance. Buddy Holly's performance is tougher, his frightening sincerity cut with playfulness, a sense of fun and an embrace of adolescent innocence. Although Holly presented himself as safe as a vanilla shake, he could be stubborn as hell. Buddy Holly’s fans make their annual pilgrimage to Clear Lake, Iowa, drawn by the Surf Ballroom’s magical vibrations. The Holly enthusiasts you can find at the Holiday Motor Lodge are clever, not at all like Elvis fans in their beehive hairdos and polyester pants suits. 

"An obvious no-hoper," rock journalist Nik Cohn wrote of Buddy Holly in his study "The Golden Age of Rock" (2001): "Longtime rock fans have always been bitterly divided about him and his eccentricity. He wasn't a hardcore rocker, being too gentle and melodic." Holly shied away from the violence implicit in the rock scene, and from the hellfire emotionalism of the music. Holly was a rockabilly original, but unlike Gene Vincent or Carl Perkins (or Sun records wildmen Jerry Lee Lewis, Billy Lee Riley and Sonny Burgess), Holly looked for space in the noise, building his music around silences, a catch in the throat, a wink. Buddy Holly's songwriting in the years to come would have deepened, his range increased, his music would have taken shapes no one, not Holly, nor his fans and critics, could have predicted. Buddy Holly's story can be told again and again without it ever being settled.

For centuries, guitars were strung with 4 wound strings (a wire with thinner wire wound around it) and 2 plain (one wire) strings, the plain strings being the highest treble strings, E and B. Normally, the 3rd string, the G, is wound, making it a tough string to bend. An unwound G instantly makes a guitar easier to play and more expressive. And, the G string is more often than not, the string that is voicing the ‘flavor’ note in any given chord, and is also often the root string when soloing. Buddy Holly’s G string was unwound and his guitar style was one of the most profoundly pivotal moments in the history of the guitar. Like Buddy Holly, the only true guitar/writer/singer/producer giant of the time, Eddie Cochran also was writing using the immemorial 1-4-5 chord sequence in ways that did not use the the standard 1-4-1-5-4-1 blues sequence (even if you know nothing about music, you can hear what I’m referring to just by humming a blues to yourself). Virtually every one of Cochran’s masterpieces utilizes those same three chords. 

Why didn't early rock and roll sustain? Not easy to answer. Partly it was because the vintage rockers were so ill-fated. Partly because most of them were not flexible. New figures came up to replace the gone heroes, but they weren't in the same class and were generally forgettable. “Rock ’n’ roll is being integrated into popular music,” warned DJ Bill Randle of Cleveland’s WERE station. “Rock ’n’ roll was an earthy, virile influence, but the authentic artists were destroyed by the gimmick imitators. There’s a point to which you can’t cater to the mediocre any longer.” Newspapers that scoffed at rock and roll in 1959 thought the big-beat music had just suffered a hiccup, and other new stars would fill the breach. Those new stars are gone now. Buddy Holly lives, every time we play rock and roll. And the music survives.

Buddy Holly looked more like an insurance agent, maybe a future computer whiz, than a rock and roll idol, said his astounded fans. Holly’s Cricket bandmate Sonny Curtis offered us this epic echo: “the levee ain’t dry, and the music didn’t die/‘Cause Buddy Holly lives every time they play rock and roll.” Bob Dylan credited Buddy Holly as his main melodic inspiration. Holly wasn’t political. All Buddy was saying: give rock a chance. Keith Richards initiated his riff repertoire playing Not Fade Away at Mapesbury Road. Rock and Roll is rarely a place to find role models for your kid. With Buddy Holly, we have an exception. He’s an example of the flipped adage of “nice guys finish first,” even when their trip comes to a sudden stop. As the Cold War heated into a bubbling volcano of nuclear warheads pointed at American and Russian cities, Buddy Holly taught a snarling world to sing and smile. Buddy gave all of us the notion, the will, and the gutsy optimism to rock. You couldn’t find a better rockin’ role model if you tried. 

Many families first lived in prefab bungalows that were developed after the WWII ended. They lasted until the 1960s when a range of sprawling suburban homes replaced them. It was William Jaird “Bill” Levitt of Levitt & Sons, who brought standardization and mass production techniques to house building. He turned farmlands into uniform housing projects, so-called Levittowns, which spread in record rates all over the United States. More than ever America became a society of people, as William H. Whyte assessed in 1956, working within an entrepreneurial capitalism safeguarded by the government, and the adjustment to the group became the core of a new social ethic. The economic developments favored an ongoing suburbanization on a large scale that had begun in the late 1940s and which bloomed in the early 1950s. Domesticity, religiosity, respectability, security through compliance with the system, that was the essence of the fifties. 

At the end of the 1940s, there existed six such musical streams: (white) pop or Tin Pan Alley music; country and western music, mainly hillbilly and western swing (C&W); rhythm and blues (R&B), jazz, gospel, and folk music. The formation of this six-stream musical landscape in the 1940s and 1950s provided the set of opportunities and constraints for the rise of rock and roll. Singers, musicians, and composers who made rock 'n' roll music, took the ingredients of rhythm and blues, country and western, and Tin Pan Alley music as their basic musical resources. A notable example is Patti Page’s big success “Tennessee Waltz” (1950) in which elements of C&W and pop are combined. The monopoly of the nationwide broadcasting networks was broken up which favored the growth of smaller local radio stations; as a result “the small, independent station became the postwar meteoric star of the broadcasting industry.” In 1950 there were already about 2000 AM radio stations, a number rising to about 3400 in 1960.

Jukeboxes were produced in great quantities between 1935 and 1950. In the early 1950s, the jukebox exploiters bought between a quarter and a third of all records and paid a fee for every time a record was played in their machines. This further strengthened the already strong position of the record companies. Nick Tosches sets the rock and roll's birth date as early as 1942 while others put it as late as 1953 or 1954. There really is much to say for Tosches’ view, because when listening to pre-1950s records one would categorize quite a few of them as rock and roll. Buddy Holly ranks #3 and Doc Pomus ranks#4 in the 100 Best 1950s Songwriters List from The New Book of Rock Lists (1994), after #1 Chuck Berry and  #2 Leiber & Stoller.

The combined efforts of Elvis Presley and Sam Phillips made the resources of the three main streams in popular music available to a host of new-coming rock and roll singers and musicians. Putting these elements together in the pressure cooker of extended sessions in the small Sun studio in Memphis led to a new rock and roll style known as rockabilly in which gospel, rhythm and blues, and country and western, particularly hillbilly music, were merged into a new kind of songs. The “Presley-Phillips” cooperation led to classic rock and roll records like “That’s All Right Mama” (1954) – Presley’s first record, “Good Rockin’ Tonight” (1954), “You’re A Heartbreaker” (1955), “Baby Let’s Play House” (1955), and the last record Presley made for Sun “Mystery Train” (1955). Phillips brought artists and performers like Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis, to the front lines of the new musical stream. Alongside Sun and Specialty, four other independent record companies – Atlantic, King, Chess, and Imperial – were influential in shaping the new music. Atlantic was probably the best known independent company of the post-war era.

Another influential independent producer was Norman Petty who supervised the careers of Buddy Holly and the Crickets. From 1954 onward, rock and roll advanced very quickly and soon about 40% of the hit songs belonged to the emerging rock and roll stream. Entering the field in 1954, Decca was the first major record company that became active on the market of rock and roll music, giving Bill Haley the opportunity to make his records, and later contracted Buddy Holly & The Crickets. Other majors like Mercury Records (Patti Page, Vic Damone) followed Decca’s lead and contracted authentic rock and roll artists like The Big Bopper. The Big Bopper's “Chantilly Lace” broke onto the charts the same day as Buddy Holly’s “Early in the Morning,” on August 11, 1958. Buddy Holly was completely in tune with a generation that was tiring of Perry Como, Eddie Fisher, Patti Page, and demanding music that was as raw and wild as their own feelings.

Paul Anka’s “I Am Just A Lonely Boy” (1959) is a good example of the 'neat boy' that the major record companies had in mind. As the first in a whole series of teen idols, Anka acted as a prototype. His first hit “Diana” (1957) – 9 million records sold – became an anthem by which the feeling of self-pity was introduced as a lasting feature of teen music next to the attitude of self-assertion that was propagated by the earlier rock and rollers. Paul Anka made some other famous songs: “You Are My Destiny” (1958) and “Put Your Head On My Shoulder” (1959). Rock historians Dave Marsh and James Bernard denounced the major record labels as “gutless and greedy, disdainful of artistry in the face of the bottom line”  in The New Book of Rock Lists (1994).

Buddy Holly asked me if I wanted to go up on the roof of the building to get some air. It was about one in the morning and it was chilly. The Manhattan wind was like a whip. Buddy had a gray overcoat on, the collar pulled up around his neck. He looked out toward the skyline and then turned to me: “What did you think of the songs?” “I liked them,” I said, “especially ‘True Love Ways.’ That’s going to be a romantic classic.”  “What about the other one—’It Doesn’t Matter Anymore’?”  “Well—I just don’t see why you need Anka when you can write circles around him.” Buddy hugged his chest to keep warm. “If that’s true, if I can write circles around Paul Anka, then how come my records aren’t selling?” Buddy reached into his pocket and took out some chewing gum. He offered me a piece, but I didn’t want any.  “You know, Rudy, sometimes I feel like it’s a plot. My sales, man... When all the business guys got involved, all of a sudden the numbers went down. I lost control of my own career. It’s like they can make you or break you. Right now it seems like they’re all out to break me for good, but I don’t know why. It feels like sabotage.” I can see those big black glasses in front of me even now. He looked me in the eye, and held that pose for a minute. Bobby Darin told me that Buddy had lost confidence when his sales hit bottom. He moved to New York to work on promotion and to get better studio production quality.  He hid out for a few months and came up with some songs that he hoped would help him make the biggest comeback ever. “You’ve never heard anything like it before.” So then we both knew Buddy’s secret. —"The Winter Dance Party Murders" (2015) by Greg Herriges

"Rock music causes a breakdown in the synchronization of the two sides of the brain." — No other form of culture, and its artists, met with such extensive hostility as Rock 'n' Roll. In an even deeper sense, rock ’n’ roll went against white America’s ingrained fear of sex, a joyless legacy of the country’s puritan origins. “Rave On” was singled out by NBC Spot Sales as an example of the kind of music the network did not want its stations to play. The wave of protest continued when Contacts, the Catholic Youth Organization’s periodical, censored the music played at hops and warned to “smash the records… which present a pagan culture.” Perhaps skeptical about his future as a rock performer, Buddy Holly became interested in his future as recording producer. The musical establishment incited a congressional investigation into the widespread practice of payola (paying DJs for playing specific records). They succeeded in steering the investigation exclusively to those involved in producing and playing rock and roll music. Their representatives convinced the congressional investigators that rock and roll subsisted on payola. They castigated the music as an “inciter of juvenile delinquency” and pointed to Alan Freed as the prime offender. —"Anti-Rock: The Opposition To Rock 'n' Roll" (1993)

Maria Elena Holly would state in an early 1959 issue of 16 magazine that she’d initially met Buddy in January 1958, according to Alan Mann’s A–Z of Buddy Holly (1996). Archivist Alan Clark reprinted the 16 article in 1989 in his booklet “A Farewell to Buddy Holly: The Young Bride of a Favorite Young Star Bids Him a Last Goodbye,” in which Maria Elena says that she had previously seen Buddy around Peer-Southern and begun to think he was so shy they’d “never get beyond the point” of greeting each other and kidding around. The article goes on to state, in Maria Elena’s voice, that they finally connected when she encountered him at Howard Johnson’s. Buddy invited her to sit down for lunch, grabbed her hand and said to the Crickets: ‘O.K., you guys, just cut it out, because I’ve got her now.’ Maria Elena said she need two hands to eat. Buddy replied, “Oh, that’s all right, I’ll help feed you’. After she’d left, Buddy turned to Norman Petty and told him, “You see that girl? I’m going to marry her.” Some months later, Buddy took her to a record session, followed by “a quiet dinner.” As he dropped her off in a taxi, the car made a sharp turn and threw them together. “Before either of us realized it, we were sharing our first kiss,” Maria Elena remembered. They continued to stay in touch by phone while Buddy was on the road until their 'marriage proposal' date in June 1958.

Norman Petty had been nagging Buddy Holly to jettison rock ’n’ roll and start cutting pop records. Petty advised that Buddy change his singing style and get accepted in a more durable market so his career wouldn’t vanish with the demise of rock ’n’ roll, which Petty warned was imminent. He envisaged Buddy as a Vegas nightclub act, crooning to drunks and gamblers, and cutting Sinatra-type lovers’ albums. “Naw,” Buddy said, “I don’t dig it.” After Buddy's death, Norman Petty’s downfall was slow and tortured. After scoring an enormous hit in 1963 with Jimmy Gilmer and the Fireballs’ “Sugar Shack,” Petty made the mistake of criticizing the Beatles and psychedelia in the presence of record-industry associates and afterward was dismissed as old hat. Suddenly no one would take his calls. “In his latter years people that he started in the business, who were now in powerful positions, began to reject his recordings,” Billy Stull, manager of the Clovis studios, recalled in 1992. Though his contribution as a pioneering record producer of the rock era rivaled that of Sam Phillips, there were few honors for Petty. Sam Phillips was one of the original inductees in the Rock-’n’-Roll Hall of Fame, but Petty was ignored, perhaps because he never succeeded in dispelling persistent rumors that he’d mistreated Buddy Holly and other musicians. “He died an unhappy man. He kept the hurt inside. He had plenty of money and fame, but he was unhappy. He died unfulfilled,” says Stull.

“We were paying nine hundred dollars a month,” recalls Maria Elena, which was an astronomically high rent, even in New York, in 1958. Jerry Allison was furious over the sullen, slovenly “asshole” that "The Buddy Holly Story" (1978) made him out to be, he later told Bill Griggs, especially in the scene where Don Stroud, playing Jerry (named Jesse in the film), makes sexist and racist cracks about Maria Elena, which “really irritated the shit” out of him. The insults had actually come from a recording engineer, Allison told Mason City Globe-Gazette's writer Jeremy Powers in 1989. The Buddy Holly Story, Allison added, “They loosely took it from John Goldrosen's book.” Members of Buddy’s family viewed the Gary Busey “biopic” for the first time at the Lubbock opening on May 20, 1978. Initially they seemed pleased. Though the family appreciated Buddy’s talent, they never expected him to become a world figure, Mrs. Holley had told Bill Griggs.

Located by the indefatigable Bill Griggs, publisher of Rockin’ 50s magazine, Echo McGuire asked “not to be interviewed as her memories of Buddy are too personal,” Griggs related in 1992. Love was another mystery for Buddy Holly who, as a young man, bore a smile that put to shame a San Antonio sunrise in May bluebonnet season. Key figures associated with the Winter Dance Party tour were reluctant to discuss Buddy Holly. GAC’s Irvin Feld didn’t answer letters, Griggs said. Early rock was stymied not only by the stark disaster at Clear Lake, but by forces that had been trying to destroy it from the beginning. Terrified by its message of freedom, the establishment marshaled formidable forces—including the press—to discourage the musicians and their audiences. Even the music industry seemed to turn against rock ’n’ roll in 1958, attempting to bury it in the payola scandal that ended the decade. Buddy Holly’s life was a story of exploitation, betrayal, and distortion—by his manager, by insensitive record business entrepreneurs, by tour packagers who sent him into the frozen North Woods... “The Devil killed him,” said Carl Bunch to Bill Griggs in 1981.

After the Apartment Tapes hinted at a marked shift of Buddy Holly's musical progression, a strange myth attached to Buddy's figure was created around the existence of more mysterious demos that would surface or remain hidden in Scotch Magnetic Tapes, obscure masterpieces sealed inside some dusty box at his apartment or behind the doors of the Adelphi Sound Studios (Brill Building, 1650 Broadway). The speeded-up walla-walla-bing-bang nonsense of David Seville's “Witch Doctor” and Christmas 1958's hit “The Chipmunk Song” sounded far away from the collective memory with the beginning of the tumultuous Sixties. A different lifestyle (more technicized, commercialized and trend-oriented) would arise at the core of the rock industry and the American society at large.

The mistake of angling a determined era according with standards of the present also applies to the biographical approach that some writers have wrongly administered to Buddy Holly and other rock icons from the Fifties. Most songs Holly wrote and recorded at his New York apartment were about regret and lost love, but who knows what was going through his mind at the end of 1958? Holly fitted the nice guy archetype and the non-conformist archetype at once. This classic dichotomy (especially visible during the gender normative pervasive of the 50s) could have caused him a psychological split. Rock 'n' Roll, the same as uninhibited sexuality, was seen as close to pathology in those days. Holly suggested in his songs sex in the abstract, detached from its potentially disturbing reality, and elevated it to bear ironic symbolism.

In The Permissive Society: America, 1941-1965 Alan Petigny challenges our understanding of the 1950s as a time of staid tradition, showing a turbulent decade in which sexual mores, and assumptions of identity underwent profound, and sometimes destructive, change: “People didn’t start having sex because Elvis Presley was shaking his hips. The ‘40s and ‘50s experienced a dramatic increase in premarital pregnancies,” Petigny said: “more than doubling of illegitimacy among whites, more than tripling of all out-of-wedlock births.” Single motherhood rose from 7.1 to 21.6 newborns per 1,000 unwed women. The sexual revolution did not start in the free-loving 1960s as is commonly thought. “Between the beginning of World War II in 1939 and the inaugural issue of Playboy in 1953, the overall rate of single motherhood more than doubled,” Petigny added: “The silent generation may have been silent about what they were doing, but they weren’t all that complacent.”

Sources: —"The Riddles of Rock and Roll" (2003) by Leo d’Anjou, "This'll Be the Day: The Life and Legacy of Buddy Holly" (2009) by Maury Dean, and "Rockabilly: The Twang Heard 'Round the World: The Illustrated History" (2011) by Michael Dregni 

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