There are certain dates that will be forever etched into your memory, and unfortunately most of them are associated with a tragic event. People forget birthdays of close friends, some even forget their own aniversary, or they’ll get the date but not the year. But widely shared tragedies etch so deeply into our psyche that you usually remember where you were, who you were with, and what you were doing the moment the news broke. Just about everyone reading this paragraph has a scar from 9/11. Some of you have one for Kurt Cobain. No disrespect for Shannon Hoon, but when the Blind Melon front-man left this mortal coil, there just wasn’t the same impact. Dying of a drug overdose is so passe for musicians that unless you’re at the top of the A-List, it’s just another sad waste of talent.
Even those taken by disease, whether young (Bill Hicks) or older (Frank Zappa), usually don’t “etch”. Losing someone whose art I enjoy and respect will impact me, certainly – I mourn their loss and feel the world is a less interesting place without them. But as time passes and I continue to celebrate their life and legacy through their art, I’m hard pressed to remember the exact date, sometimes even the year, and I don’t have that mental surveillance photo burned in my head. I might have been at home, or in the car, or at work…was I alone? Did I get a call or read it online? I don’t remember. I do remember when Kennedy was assassinated (I remember the teacher, even the kid he yelled at, and my mother sitting in the living room crying when I got home). My John Lennon moment is far more painful; I was older and he meant so much more to me (Poor House North, crowd stunned in disbelief wandered home in tears. My roommate Dave and I stayed up all night fielding visitors and phone calls).
Maybe it takes a combination of things to register the effect. The person would have to be enormously famous, and I’m talking enormoushere. I remember when Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin and Brian Jones and Jimi Hendrix died, and while there were candle-light vigils and front covers of Rolling Stone and lots of songs of their played on the radio…can you name any of the dates? Maybe the person was at the cusp of their fame, maybe they were about to embark down a new road, maybe they were the icon of their generation. Not too many people fit the category.
And no drug overdoses, Elvis excepted – the death would have to be violent. Not too many things are more violent that suicide or murder, but Marvin Gaye and Sam Cooke were shot, yet it’s Lennon we think of. Ian Curtis hung himself and Herman Brood took a spectacular swan dive off the roof of the Amsterdam Hilton…but they’re not Cobain and the shotgun. Accidents too; many from Harry Chapin to Sam Kinison died in a auto wrecks, but it’s James Dean who everyone thinks of first. Lynyrd Skynyrd’s plane went down, so did Stevie Ray’s helicopter, but when you’re talking plane crashes, only one matters. They didn’t write an anthem about the day the helicopter crashed.
I am not old enough to have been impacted first-hand by the death of Buddy Holly; probably the closest I’ve come to feeling that was the first time I watched The Buddy Holly Storyand felt like I had been punched in the chest. I can tolerate every other bizarre thing Gary Busey has done in his life in return for that wonderful heartfelt performance, and the fact he, Charles Martin Smith and Don Stroud sang the songs and performed the music made it even more special. It’s one of the best music movies ever made and although Busey didn’t win the Oscar (Jon Voight did for Coming Home – DeNiro, Beatty and Olivier were the other nominees), Joe Renzetti did for his score based upon Buddy Holly’s music. (Joe also was involved with The Idolmaker, a little known movie about the creation of teen idols featturing a phenomenal performance by Ray Sharkey…but I digress). I did enjoy La Bamba, and although I haven’t seen a Big Bopper movie I’m sure I will enjoy that too if it ever comes to pass. Ritchie Valens was a talent on the rise and a great loss, but Buddy Holly changed music with his vision and accomplishments.
Don McLean’s “American Pie” might be one of the most overplayed songs in rock’s hallowed halls, but at the time it was both a fun exercise in cryptology and a reminder of how fragile life is. You should never take anything – or anyone – for granted. I know there are many who truly did feel this was “the day the music died”.
But we’re here, fifty years later, and so is the legacy. Pay tribute to Buddy Holly today by playing his music. And if you haven’t seen The Buddy Holly Story…