Fifty years ago today, the music died. On February 3, 1959, the plane carrying rock and roll pioneer Buddy Holly, teen idol Ritchie Valens, and novelty act J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson crashed in a snowy Iowa cornfield. The trio, along with pilot Roger Peterson, perished upon impact. Rock ‘n’ roll died with them.
If Elvis’s induction into the army, Jerry Lee Lewis’s career-killing marriage to his thirteen-year-old cousin, and Little Richard’s conversion from rock-n-roller to holy roller hadn’t sounded the death knell for the music that Bill Haley and The Comets had recently introduced to America through “Rock Around the Clock,” then the single-engine Beechcraft Bonanza hitting frozen earth at 170 miles-per-hour unmistakably did. Later nails in the coffin included the payola scandal that embroiled disc jockey Alan Freed and Chuck Berry’s Mann Act conviction. Who, in the early sixties at least, cared to patronize the recordings of sex perverts whose 45s probably received radio spins through bribery?
Listeners on the a.m. band consequently suffered through years of fun but unfulfilling sonic gimmicks, such as Dee Dee Sharp’s “Mashed Potato Time,” Barry Mann’s “Who Put the Bomp (In the Bomp, Bomp, Bomp),” and Chubby Checker’s “Twist,” and a steady stream of saccharine teens crooning about imaginary sweethearts to girls who imagined themselves the performers’ sweethearts, e.g., Frankie Avalon’s “Venus” and Bobby Vee’s “Take Good Care of My Baby.” In the case of the latter teen idol, his career’s trajectory was inversely connected to the Beechcraft’s Bonanza’s: as a fifteen-year-old, Fargo, North Dakota, wannabe musician, Robert Velline’s big break came by filling Buddy Holly’s slot on the February 3, 1959, Moorhead, Minnesota “Winter Dance Party.” The show must go on, and all.
Then, five years to the week after a tiny plane’s crash near Mason City Municipal Airport put an end to fifties rock, Pan Am 101’s touchdown at JFK International Airport put an end to the schlock. If the backbeat and the chord-driven electric guitars blasted by The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show were like nothing America had heard before, it was only because America, unlike English youths, had forgotten about Buddy Holly. Another British Invasion act, The Hollies, had named their band in explicit tribute to the Texas rocker (as “The Beatles” had paid indirect homage to Holly’s backing Crickets).
Even Bob Dylan, the supposed antithesis of fifties pop, recalled Buddy Holly. The stylistic similarities were no accident, as Dylan had attended the “Winter Dance Party” tour in Duluth, Minnesota, less than three days before the fateful crash. As Greil Marcus noted in Rolling Stone ten years after Holly’s death, “Dylan and Holly share a clipped, staccato delivery that communicates a sly sense of cool, almost teenage masculinity.” Like a phoenix, Buddy Holly, and the music he had helped make famous, was reborn in the mid-sixties.
Like all great tragedies, the day the music died is surrounded by lore and legend: blue-collar Dion scoffing at paying $36 for a plane ride; Ritchie Valens losing his life through winning a coin flip; and Waylon Jennings’s playful exchange with Buddy Holly, whose taunt to his fellow Texan that he hoped he would freeze on the tour bus resulted in Jennings’s haunting retort that he hoped his friend’s plane would crash. Fatigued amid 24 concerts in 24 days, sick of the frigid tour bus without an operable heater, and desirous of time to launder their dirty clothes between Clear Lake, Iowa’s Surf Ballroom gig and the following night’s concert at the Moorhead, Minnesota Armory, rock and roll’s first martyrs certainly didn’t live (or die) the way we have come to expect rock stars to.
It made for an amazing tale, which is why Hollywood cranked out The Buddy Holly Story and La Bamba, and songwriter Don McLean’s eight-and-a-half-minute surrealistic ode to the tragedy became the longest song to reach Billboard’s peak position. Amid imagery of James Dean and sock-hop slow-dancing, McLean’s “American Pie” informs listeners: “Now for ten years we‘ve been on our own” and laments that there is “no time left to start again.” Something had gone awry in the days since the day the music died.
Altamont, the Manson Murders, and the overdoses of Jimi, Janis, and Jim killed sixties naivety. An innocence of a different sort was lost fifty years ago today. It was the end of the start of something. Rock and roll’s first generation had figuratively passed in the literal passing of Buddy Holly. Viewed through the prism of the 1960s, the Don McLean of 1971 could indeed remember 1959 as “a long, long time ago” — a time when teen idols played instruments and wrote songs, musicians could be as fat as the Big Bopper or as clean cut and nerdy as Buddy Holly, and people living in Nowheresville, Upper Midwest, could pay $1.25 to enjoy a concert of top-selling music acts. The plane crash preserved Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper from the taint that followed as it now reminds teenagers-cum-senior citizens, who lived through the ensuing sordidness, of a simpler time before the cultural flood. One man’s time capsule is his father’s time machine.
Before music fans made pilgrimages to Graceland, The Dakota, or the Père Lachaise Cemetery, they paid tribute at the Surf Ballroom and in an Iowa cornfield. There, where heroes stay forever young, fans sip briefly from the fountain of their youth.