Monday, February 02, 2009

50 Years On

Buddy Holly, Dearest.
Buddy Holly, Love Is Strange
Buddy Holly, Slippin' and Slidin'.

In honor of the 50th anniversary of Buddy Holly's death, I've reposted this piece, which I first put up in Feb. 2007.

Also, thankfully, at long last, the Holly demos and home recordings are officially available, after a half-century of existing almost entirely as bootlegs. Down the Line: The Rarities is worth every cent.

The newly-married couple moved into 3B at the Brevoort in the fall of 1958, just as the sycamores were turning. They were very polite whenever you came across them in the hallway. The girl, Maria Elena, is Puerto Rican. While at first she seems shy, she's actually a lifelong New Yorker, and has a quiet confidence in the way she carries herself, as well as an operatic laugh. Her husband, Buddy, is a skinny guy with thick black-framed glasses--when he speaks, you hear Texas.

Their one-bedroom apartment seems relatively modest for someone who, as the neighbors realize, is involved in show business in some fashion. Buddy's often carrying a guitar case. His gawkiness seems to rule against him being any sort of entertainer, though perhaps he's a songwriter up at the Brill, or maybe he produces Frankie Avalon records. Few people at the Brevoort listen to the pop radio stations, and of those, even fewer would have associated Buddy with songs like "Oh Boy!" or "Maybe Baby," which the DJs say are by a band called the Crickets.

The Brevoort, on Fifth Ave. between 8th and 9th, is a huge, bright-new building, only four years old. It seems to radiate cleanness and modernity. The heat pipes don't clank, the water's always hot when you want it to be. It stands on the grave of the former Brevoort Hotel, once home to a Who's Who of American Reds and bohemians--Emma Goldman, Eugene O'Neill, Isadora Duncan. Longtime New Yorkers complain that replacing the legendary Brevoort with some gruesome middle-class apartments is another sign New York's losing its soul.

In December, Buddy seems between jobs, as he's hanging around the apartment more often. In the mornings, when Maria goes out to the store, Buddy sits on the couch, tunes his guitar and starts running through some new songs. He had last been in the studio two months before, when he had recorded "True Love Ways" and "It Doesn't Matter Anymore." He had been used to Norman Petty's hole-in-the-wall studio in New Mexico, the band doing take after manic take until they got it. At the Coral Record Studios, it was as layered as a wedding cake. Buddy had sung in a vocal booth, then sat on a folding chair in the control room as the row of engineers punched up the string section. He had heard his voice rise and fall, buoyed by tenor saxophone, chased by descending violas. Dick Jacobs, the producer, had smoked through half a pack of cigarettes and simply nodded his head when he thought the mix was done.

It had been only five years since Buddy and his best friend Bob Montgomery had been playing country songs around Texas. Now it sometimes feels like he's leaving country, and even rock & roll behind him, leaving it back in Texas with his old band, his old producer. There's a new sound now--softer, more arranged, soundtracks for imaginary movies. Buddy pinches the strings on his guitar, makes a chord; he imagines Tony Bennett, or Dean Martin even, singing one of his songs.

He's been writing a bunch lately. Some are wistful, like "Learning the Game." When Maria gets back from the store, he plays them for her, and when he thinks one's good enough, he turns on the tape recorder and commits the song to the reels of its memory. Sometimes he and Maria walk across Washington Square Park to her aunt's house, where there's a piano. He plays his songs while the two women smile, drinking tea. They clap when he finishes, and he guffaws.

One morning, whiling away a few hours, Buddy gets the idea to do a sequel to "Peggy Sue," in which Peggy gets married, the way everyone seems to do when they turn 20 or so. He dashes it out quickly, using the same riff as the earlier song--it's half a joke, but there's a sense of loss, a feeling of something ending, in the performance he commits to tape.

Early in the new year, things are tight. Buddy's split from his former manager has tied up all his money. Buddy's on the phone all the time, looking for some quick work. By mid-January it's arranged. Buddy will head a tour of the Upper Midwest with the Bopper, Dion and Ritchie Valens. Small snowbound towns, hardly any days off between shows, but it'll pay enough.

In the last days before the tour, Buddy keeps recording. He takes Little Richard's "Slippin' and Slidin" and digs into it, extends it, taking pleasure in the changes, in the rhymes, in lines like "she's a solid sender." He breaks the words down, popping consonants, twisting vowels as he works through the song.

And he turns Mickey and Sylvia's "Love is Strange," that pair's sassy, knowing duet, into something as dewily innocent as his own "Everyday." "Dearest," a Mickey and Sylvia b-side, he hushes to sleep, lowering his voice to its depths. One line he sings like a hymn: Our love will grow old...mmm, yeah...our love will grow old.

One shatteringly cold morning, Buddy's in the lobby with a suitcase and his guitar, waiting for a cab to take him to Idlewild. He calls Maria after each show. It's lousy. The crowds are fine (in the audience at the Duluth show is an 17-year-old kid from Hibbing), but the transportation is terrible--the bus has no heat most of the time. It's like a tour of Antarctica. It'd be great if they could get a plane once in a while.

The morning of February 3, some people at the Brevoort, reading the News or the Times or the Herald over breakfast, notice a small AP story tucked away on an inner page. Buddy is dead; a plane lies in pieces on a frozen Iowa field.

Neighbors see if Maria Elena's around, to offer condolences, to be awkward in her presence, but she's gone to her aunt's. A man from Buddy's producers comes by the apartment one day to pick up the tapes. He packs them in a small valise and heads up to midtown. Over the next year or so, they'll overdub strings, bass, drums, backing vocals--weighing the tracks down, but making them commercial enough to sell. "Peggy Sue Got Married" even becomes a small hit.

In the late spring of 1959, the realtors start showing around Apt. 3B at the Brevoort.

The "apartment" tapes Buddy Holly made in Dec. 1958-Jan. 1959 are Holly's last recordings, and have never been released unaltered on CD until now. The overdubbed versions are found on Remember.

The Brevoort
still stands, though I imagine the rent's a bit more these days.

The photos, all of which are from the last days of Buddy Holly's life, are from this amazing resource.

Maria Elena Holly
eventually remarried and had children.

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