Charles Hardin Holly; Clovis, New Mexico; May 27, 1957
May 20, 2011 | by John Jeremiah Sullivan
A time comes when it’s healthful to put aside obscurantism and turn to bedrock, if only briefly. And while I flatter myself in thinking you know me as a man not prone to get overly excited about digital-remastering projects, nevertheless there are instances in which the beauty of the original song lay precisely in a primary attempt to expose its elements, and in these cases the additional stripping away of hiss and other shit can be revelatory, or in this instance (Best Ever: Buddy Holly, Techniche 2009), transformative.
That plane crash was a Hindenburg of pop. It’s taken me into my midthirties to mentally recover the true damage of it from Don McLean’s rhymes. Ever really listen to “La Bamba”? You’ve probably unconsciously sold yourself on the idea that the Los Lobos version is slightly superior. Not so! It's not the guitar, either, but the voice. When angels sing rock for fun they sound like Ritchie Valens. Did you know it’s Carol Kaye playing rhythm guitar there? Did you know Valens was seventeen when he died, that “La Bamba” hadn’t even been released yet? Snowy field in northern Iowa, flames.
If you listen to the live versions of "La Bamba," Valens played it basically like a sped-up Mexican folk song. Only in the studio did the ecstatic thing happen--at the point of intersection. I read somewhere that Valens didn't even like it.
On “Not Fade Away,” Jerry Allison plays a cardboard box (he’d ripped the idea from Buddy Knox’s lyrically creepy “Party Doll”). The beat is cartoonishly African. If you want to hear where it came from, listen to the song I hope to keep if the people in charge of the survival pod say you can keep only one, Charles Barnett’s “Run to My Jesus for Refuge.” Barnett was a Georgia man in his nineties. Alan Lomax met him at the end of a sand lane near the Sea Islands, right around the time Buddy Holly was making his song. Lomak asked, “Know Any Tunes?”. Barnett flipped a washtub over and started beating on it with two sticks, playing some of the most tenth-dimensional counterpoint you’ve ever heard, with galloping runs that suddenly freeze into cosmic pauses. “Mary, she wore a golden chain, / Every link was Jesus’ name. / I’m gonna run to my Jesus for refuge.” Supposedly Barnett could still jump into the air and click his heels together, at ninety-he-didn’t-even-know-what.
Every band who’s ever covered “Not Fade Away” has made clowns of themselves, including the Stones and the Dead. Not throwing shade, it’s simply a foolish thing to do.
We can’t let the obvious-but-magnificent things disappear for a false familiarity.
I’m going to listen to it right now with you.
P.S. Just want to add that despite the overwhelming sexual current of this song—and Lord knows the slashing two-and-a-half-note solo can make a person feel almost embarrassed—there remains a wonderful and even mystical innocence to the lyrics, because “don’t fade away” was a thing the blues queens used to sing in the vaudeville shows. “Easy, rider, don’t you fade away,” bawdy meaning clear enough, from the female point of view. When the male blues singers started singing, “Easy, mama, don’t you fade away,” in the thirties, it was already not entirely clear what they meant. (Don’t pass out?) The phrase gets rubbed and changed, the way emperors on Roman coins were turned into horses and whatnot by barbarian smiths. Here’s Buddy, having no idea about any of that maybe, but knowing there's something obscurely compelling about the idiom—it’s both irresistible to him and slightly off. Being a genius, he goes with it, all but into gibberish poetry. “Well love is love and not fade away.”