When I was about 14 years old, in 1998, I bought a record player at Value Plus Pawn in the Midland Shopping Center in Maryville, Tennessee. It was a low-end machine that played records slightly off-speed, but my reason for acquiring a record player was not the higher-quality audio — at the time, I assumed CDs to be superior — it was because records were cheap!
Now that I had a record player, I went through my dad’s stack of LPs, hoping against hope for something along the lines of Rush, Black Sabbath, or Pink Floyd. Instead, I found The Ray Conniff Singers, Alabama, and Neil Diamond. But there was one record I was excited to listen to: a double LP of Buddy Holly singles called A Rock & Roll Collection. Many of Holly’s undeniable songs were etched into those discs, including “Words of Love,” “Not Fade Away,” and “That’ll Be The Day.” Listening to that record cemented Buddy Holly as one of my heroes. And of course, it was sad how such a brilliant guy died so young.
How did he do it? How could one write so many flesh-ripping songs before dying at the age of 22? Whenever I listen to Buddy Holly I tend to ruminate on an alternate reality in which Buddy Holly’s plane didn’t crash. What if he somehow avoided that grisly death that keeps him hermetically sealed in the 1950s? What if his existence had continued beyond that decade? One first looks to the other rock-&-rollers who survived him; so many of those fifties rockers couldn’t stay at the top beyond that decade. But Buddy Holly was too self-sufficient and forward-thinking to have suffered the same fate as Elvis. His need to innovate and expand could have prolonged his career longer than those of Chuck Berry or Little Richard. Surely, he would’ve met the Beatles, who worshipped him and who based their approach to songwriting largely upon his. Would Buddy Holly have been sympathetic to the psychedelic era? Or would he have rejected it, going country like Jerry Lee Lewis ? The latter seems very likely, but wouldn’t it be fantastic to hear Buddy Holly’s take on the acid-driven grotesque lyrics, searching melodies, and experimental arrangements of the psychedelic era? He had already sung “Love is strange.” Perhaps the prominence of the word “strange” indicates a penchant for the off-kilter which Holly might have leaned into when such things came into vogue.
From such reflections it follows to ask: if Buddy Holly were to survive the 1960s, how would he have found his way through the 1970s? Would he have exploded into Elvis-like lavish orchestrations? Or would he have stayed true to his stripped-down, proto-punk sound? Or would he have incorporated new instruments – synthesizers and programmed beats – and followed the dance route that was such an important aspect of early rock and roll?
How about the 1980s? That decade would seem to present the greatest challenges – I’m thinking of Bob Dylan’s Empire Burlesque, Joni Mitchell’s Dog Eat Dog, Neil Young’s Trans and Everybody’s Rockin’. Old-fashioned songsters grappling with new sounds in an effort to stay relevant, but not having an ear for them (except for Trans). Would he have made a comeback record and/or film along the lines of Roy Orbison’s Black and White Night? Perhaps he would’ve been a Traveling Wilbury along with that sunglassed nightingale. What would his MTV videos be like?
Not that any answer is possible, but in the late 1990s, when Bob Dylan won the Grammy for album of the year for Time Out of Mind. he said in his acceptance speech that he felt Buddy Holly was with him while recording that album. Perhaps he was. Maybe Buddy Holly never left – maybe death is not a departure. Maybe Buddy Holly, or elements of him, have been at work through the diverse incarnations of others ever since “The Day The Music Died.” And maybe some of these were not even musicians – officials, caregivers, mathematicians. Maybe Buddy Holly is writing this right now.
Paul McCartney seems to believe that when someone dies they never leave – he’s said as much in interviews. He may feel John is still with him, or his mother Mary. Now I’m no scholar of religion, but this vision of the afterlife doesn’t seem to agree with any of the major ones. Reincarnation, of course, is a well-known part of Buddhism, Hinduism, and others. However in this case the reincarnated spirit wouldn’t necessarily retain aspects of its original corporal form. It seems to resemble most the ancestor worship in some sub-Saharan African religions, in which an ancestral spirit continues to live with its descendants.
In this case, I can’t help but wonder if Buddy Holly wasn’t an expression of a more ancient spirit the antecedents of which may date back far beyond prehistory. In the more strictly material sense, his songs have transmitted some part of him through the years–particularly “Not Fade Away,” which The Rolling Stones and The Grateful Dead made their own, which Bob Dylan still covers regularly. In all the ways he defined the rock band with the Crickets, and carved the path for the singer-songwriter. That poor kid, who died too young, is plotting out our lives. And he’s not alone. There’s a whole host of ancient spirits out there, everywhere you turn. Before you turn, even. They’re you, they’re me.