06 February, 2007

The Day After ‘the music died’ – thoughts on Buddy Holly & Herb B. Berkowitz


I've never really been a fan of that Don McLean song. I've never really been a fan of that whiny, melodramatic '70s 'singer/songwriter' genre. Be it McLean or James Taylor or Seals & Crofts or Dave Matthews or whomever, I didn't get it when I was a kid and I don't today.
Don't get me wrong: I love when a great songwriter (Willie Nelson, Ani DiFranco, Neil Young, Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Jeff Tweedy, Jay Farrar, Chan Marshall Paul Westerberg, to name a mere few) picks up a guitar or sits at a piano and just bares all. However, I also like my rock and roll to be at least a little bit threatening. After all, it's rock and roll – lock up your daughters and hide the radio teen angst rebel music. It was this way from its very accidental and organic onset and what's left of the good stuff is still this way. If it doesn't make a certain element of the 'power structure' cringe, it's elevator music: Pat Boone, not D. Boon.
Which is why I'm always disheartened every February 3 to open up any major newspaper and come across what I believe to be some reactionary version of a tribute to Buddy Holly on the anniversary of his death. Granted, Buddy has countless fans representing every nook and cranny of the spectrum (probably not as many as Elvis Presley, but that's a different story about the unjust nature of the so-called industry and its marketing practices). Yesterday it was an article by Herb B. Berkowitz, who directs a PR firm in North Carolina.
Mr. Berkowitz is obviously a great fan of Buddy's music. He was thirteen on that fateful day in early 1959 and has attended the anniversary tributes to Buddy, Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson at the Surf Ballroom. I couldn't be happier to know there are such dedicated champions of Buddy's work, and none of this is meant to take anything away from Mr. Berkowitz or as any sort of personal attack.
What initially puts me off is the following quote from his tribute:
Back then, the cool rockin' daddies and teen queens who entertained teenage America did so with their voices, not by putting their private parts on display.
This is a rather reactionary statement, in my opinion. It's also spin not much different than that propagated by too many rightists on Martin Luther King's birthday every year when they unwincingly 'adopt' Rev. King as a champion of their own platform.
Now, I was born nearly 12 years after Buddy was taken from us. However, I don't think I need to have 'been there' to know this is anything but accurate. We've all seen the footage of Presley thrusting his hips like some porn actor on speed, no? Jerry Lee Lewis marrying his 13 year-old cousin? Chuck Berry violating the racist Mann Act? The orgasmic stage theatrics of Buddy's dear friend, Little Richard Penniman?
Buddy's work itself is every bit as sexually subversive as that of any of his contemporaries who were shaking up the white, patriarchal power structure of the Eisenhower years. In "Not Fade Away" -- a song dense hippies will mistakenly tell you was written by the Rolling Stones and made famous by the Grateful Dead -- Buddy sings, "my love is bigger than a Cadillac." "Rave On" could be his generation's "Talk Dirty to Me." His cover of King Curtis' "Reminiscing" addresses a cheating significant other. "I'm Gonna Love You, Too," according to some of the bios, was initially about an orgy in which Buddy may or may not have taken part. If you believe the first-hand accounts in said bios (or subsequent interviews with Little Richard Penniman), Buddy took the stage at one performance late and with his zipper down because he'd been backstage shagging a woman from Little Richard's band. He bedded his usurious producer's wife during a recording session. His fashion -- dark-rimmed glasses and all -- mirrored the style of the young, hip African-American men too many daughter's fathers reasonlessly feared in those days (a nearsighted Briton named John Lennon would later credit Buddy for giving him the courage to wear glasses onstage). He may not have trashed any hotel rooms, but Charles Hardin Holley was the epitome of the contemporary definition of rock star.
There also exists the story of one cold West Texas November during one of those notoriously draconian 'busload of talent' tours when Buddy invited tourmate Little Richard, a bisexual black man, to his parents place in Lubbock for Thanksgiving dinner. His folks, white Baptists somewhat set in bigoted ways, refused to allow Richard into their home or feed him. Buddy joined Richard on the freezing front porch, refusing to enter the house or eat until the elder Holleys finally came around and welcomed their son's friend to their table.
Berkowitz goes on to write, "In the pre-Beatles era of rock'n'roll (sic) (Holly) was one of just three white boys who really, really mattered, and the only one who didn't live long enough to cash in on it." He cites Presley and Roy Orbison as the other two who "really, really mattered."
Without going into any of the myriad reasons I'm moderately offended by the invocation of race in the above opinion, I could also opine this isn't exactly accurate. Les Paul pioneered the recording techniques Buddy embraced & remained fiercely adamant about. And Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran were hard-rocking, songwriting trailblazers who also died way too young and never really "cashed in." Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis were incredibly important artists, and claiming they ever reaped their just rewards would also be a decent-sized stretch of reality.Like too many recording artists of just about every genre, time and place, Buddy Holly was shamelessly exploited. Recording engineer Norman Petty strongarmed a naïve Buddy into allowing Petty partial songwriting credit for songs Petty had no hand in writing. At the time of his death, Buddy (whose wife, Maria Elena, was well-connected in the recording industry) was in the process of starting up his own independent record label, Taupe Records, as a reprieve for exploited artists. Ritchie Valens and Waylon Jennings were among those who would have been in the Taupe catalogue. Buddy had 'discovered' Jennings. He taught his friend, Roy Orbison, how to play a bullfighting call that would become the famous guitar hook in Orbison's "Oh, Pretty Woman." He wrote the first "girl's name" song, "Peggy Sue," and introduced minor chords and modes to rock and roll. Unlike Presley, Buddy Holly actually wrote his own songs. His independent, relentless conviction was responsible for sound recording innovations we still employ today. He played a Fender Stratocaster because it was the loudest guitar he could find, and he rocked hard. His band rocked hard. Several years before the Beatles made an advertising campaign of it, he put into words and music "we'll live and love with all our might."

No comments: