Photo by Sean Ryan
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When tragedy strikes
Buddy Holly played his last show at Surf Ballroom, site of the Democratic Wing Ding. Right there in Clear Lake, Iowa, as part of the disastrous and possibly illegal "Winter Dance Party" tour. Tickets cost $1.25.
The show didn't sell out, partly because it was an unplanned gig. And partly because the tour itself was a nightmare, a series of disasters which would go on to haunt the teenage heart of America for years and years.
These were the first wild days of Rock N' Roll. The girls hurled their waists with some new primal dance, luminous in their bright poodle skirts and their delicate hair bundled.
And the boys in blue jeans pretended not to notice, brittle underneath it all, chewing at the inside of their cheeks or rubbing their sweaty palm on their thigh.
About a thousand kids. Mostly high school, teenagers, who had to smuggle in their booze, who only wanted to know love and had to borrow a car and drive there from anywhere, on a school night no less.
And where was Buddy Holly?
Was he really right there in Clear Lake like the posters and disc jockeys had promised?
The teenagers shook as they stood, waiting.
Most of them had seen Buddy Holly on the Ed Sullivan Show, jittery in black and white. They had heard him on the their favorite radio station. Had played his single in high fidelity.
They just knew he was going to be bigger than Elvis. Everyone did. He was going to be the musical king of the nation.
The musicians, with a clear look at the audience, played along. But under all the stagelit excitement there were hiccups and obstacles that they hated.
This tour was rickety.
A few days earlier, drummer Carl Bunch had to be hospitalized for frostbite, on account of the horrible travel conditions and the near-arctic weather, so the band had an onstage rotation.
That night, at the Surf Ballroom, Buddy Holly started behind the drumkit, with a hat down over his face.
"Well who's the drummer?" one of the performers hollered, grinning so wide and phony with a wink.
"We call him … Buddy Holly!"
And the crowd catapulted into a frenzy. Screech screech screech. There he was! Buddy Holly!
The teenagers loved the world all around them. Isn't the world so sweet to us, and youthful? Pressing into the stage, and dancing and dancing. How wild, how freeing, how perfect that must have felt.
I started writing this story last August, while visiting Clear Lake, Iowa. Worked on it for two months. I have run stories about Iowa leading up to the Iowa caucuses.
For this story, I wanted to know, How does the loss of a cultural idol affect us?
With news of Kobe Bryant's death, the Buddy Holly story seemed inappropriate. I asked around. Mentors and editors and my wife, who is a counselor, and my father. Should I pull the story? Was it exploitative? My work is usually guided by optimism and comedy, a striving for humanity. If I bungled the story, I'd be violating that.
All last week in Los Angeles, clouds. Beneath any sunshine, the breeze was especially nervous. A dense fog had covered the city.
"You depressed me with that cold, and very sad story," my father told me. "I've read many Buddy Holly stories and I saw the movie, but that one was straight-to-the-heart good. I went to sleep thinking of cold Iowa cornfields in January, and I could almost picture the scene in the ballroom before they flew."
The band was exhausted from the tour, but they hung out with the kids in the audience every time there was a break.
The hidden drama of the night was Holly's struggle to make the flight happen. He couldn't handle another grueling bus trek. He ran the scenario over. Then before anyone arrived at an answer it was back to the stage or "Will you sign my record?"
If they flew to Fargo, North Dakota, they could arrive ahead of everyone else for the next show in Moorhead, Minnesota, giving them time to do laundry. And it cannot be stressed how severely they all needed clean clothes. Holly also wanted a chance to rest. He was tired. He was alone. Far from his wife, his wife who was pregnant with their first child, and here he was freezing in the winter far from Texas.
Everyone was bloody sick of the cold tour bus.
Their clothes were filthy. And cold. Everything, brittle. Teeth like mallets on a xylophone. Cold.
They went through five buses in those 11 days, school buses mostly, broken and wonky and unfit for any sort of travel.
As the "Winter Dance Party" tour snaked the Midwest in January, temperatures dove 30 degrees below freezing. Several of the musicians caught the flu.
A cold. Whatever else.
Who ever knows.
And they'd just traveled 350 miles on the bus. It would be another 365 miles to the gig in Moorhead. The day after that, another 325 miles back in the direction they'd just come from.
And it was cold in that dressing room as they mulled it all over. They had cash in their pockets, plenty. They could afford the $36 each.
So Holly said, "Let's take a plane."
To this day, the Surf Ballroom has the phone Holly used to call his wife. He told her that he'd be flying next gig. Done with that bus.
They'd only been married for six months. He was 22 years old. She was supposed to have gone on tour with him, but something held her back. Pregnancy maybe. But for the rest of her life she blamed herself, always wondering how things would have played out had she been there that night.
There were only four seats in the 1947 single-engined, V-tailed Beechcraft 35 Bonanza, so three bandmembers and a pilot.
Their pilot was himself exhausted after a 17-hour day. A 21-year-old local with only 700 flying hours — 1,500 is the standard. He was ill-equipped for disastrous weather. He relied on the flight instruments, didn't know how to land a mechanically-damaged plane.
It was like handing your car keys to a 13-year-old with decent coordination and saying, "take me through the mountains" right as it starts snowing.
It could go well. Or the slightest impediment could be needlessly fatal and who should ever have to deal with that?
Guitarist Tommy Allsup had reserved a seat on the plane, but Richie Valens kept pleading with him to give it to him.
At some point, Allsup shuffled out of the theater, went to a nearby gas station, and came back, left and came back, and Valens was still there in the green room pleading.
Which was odd because Valens had a tremendous fear of planes, had constant nightmares about hurtling down out of the sky.
And for good reason. Two years earlier, the day he stayed home from school to attend his grandfather's funeral, he heard an explosion and looked outside just as a plane was collapsing downward like a comet, a flaming mess.
He and his family rushed to the crash site. Turns out, the plane collided into the playground of Valen's school. Three students died, 90 were injured. One of the dead was Valens' best friend. Had Valens been there that day, he would have died beside him.
After that, he receded into himself and focused on music, and when he looked up, he had become a cultural renegade.
Pretty much an alternate ending to "Donnie Darko."
But Valens, the man who turned "La Bamba" into a massive hit, wouldn't let it go. He wanted on the seat. He wanted on that plane. So Allsup and Valens decided that they would flip for it.
Someone produced a half-dollar coin.
Valens called heads.
Hear the whirl of air as the coin spirals up into the unknown. Wobble wobble spin and smack, flat and smooth like a tiny silver dinner plate.
As it lands like a timpani flare.
Feel the weight of the moment right before there's an answer.
The moment without a heads or a tails.
It's a moment that lasts centuries.
If it's your life, you build empires of doubt in that moment.
Because any outcome will help determine the unknowable shape of your future. Although you don't realize it because you're just trying to get a private plane ride.
Years later he said, "That's the first time I've won anything in my life."
Waylon Jennings was meant to be on the flight, but he gave his seat to J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson, who had the flu. Jennings took the bus instead, and Buddy Holly jokingly told Jennings that he hoped he would freeze on the bus.
"I hope your ol' plane crashes," Jennings joked.
He felt guilty about that remark for the rest of his life. Blamed himself for what happened.
At 12:40 a.m., Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson arrived at Mason City Airport. Richardson had $272.53 and and a guitar pick and a pair of dice in his pockets. His gold wedding ring sparked like a mirror on his finger.
At the airport the weather was fine, some light snow was all. But a vicious cold front was looming just out of view. The pilot never got an accurate weather report. The plane took off at 12:55 a.m.
Five minutes later, silence on the radio. The operator couldn't get a response. Then the blizzard plummeted down and nobody could see a thing in any place or direction. There would be no rescue flight, no immediate rescue.
The blizzard was so bad that nobody could reach the crash site until the morning, 10 hours later.
The plane hadn't made it far. Six miles northwest of the airport. Most likely, the pilot experienced what's called spatial disorientation, coupled with a rush of vertigo. That — with the low clouds and the snow and the violent wind and no visibility — he lost sense of what was up and what was down, then chose the wrong direction.
Because the plane smashed into the frozen ground at about 170 mph.
For years, the scene haunted the Iowans who found Holly and the others. Like the man who had to identify the bodies, he never outlived those memories. Even the crime scene photographer and the mortician got squirmy. They had faced the cruelty of immediate loss played out in the most violent possible way.
Holly's wife was at home when a friend called and told her not to turn on the TV. She hung up and turned on the TV.
"We interrupt this program for a special news bulletin," said the announcer. "Three young singers who soared to the heights of show business of the current Rock N' Roll craze were killed today in the crash of a light plane in an Iowa snow flurry…."
Blink. Collapse. Blink. Collapse. And her vision surged and her body sank. That's how she found out? After the rest of the world? Here she is, carrying the man's child, and this is how she finds out?
Shortly after, she suffered a miscarriage
Did you know that all the major eulogies in newspapers or shows or news websites are pre-written? Periodically updated, like a resume, so that, when that person dies, there's a story ready.
It's morbid, really.
Why can't journalists just keep the admiration for these cultural icons alive in each moment, like a normal person? Money. And prestige. But also compassion. Get the story out first. But make it the best.
If you have to give a speech at a funeral, how will you handle it? Will you break open, sobbing, and rush off the stage. Or will you remain composed, harnessing the deep, complicated sadness and beauty alive, and bring everyone in the room to tears?
How much of what you do is for yourself? And how much is for others?
Earlier that morning, some farmer outside Clear Lake looked out at his field as he chomped his Quaker Oats and said to himself, "Now what in the hell."
Three music legends, heaped around into a frozen terrain. On one frosted landscape. A big ugly cornfield plashed white with ice and snow, almost metallic, certainly gross, but beautiful in its repose, in a rusty dumpster of bright-black morning light.
Meanwhile the earth did not care. Nature had no opinion. It only shook and offered more chaos.
A formidable wind.
A treacherous breeze.
A spindrift hate of ice and snow and blood and subtraction.
All four men died immediately. Thank God for that, is what I say.
When the sheriffs found Buddy Holly, not far from the fuselage, slumped into the ground, he had $193 cash in his pocket. The coroner's fee was $11.65, so they deducted that, making the total amount of physical money that Buddy Holly died with $181.35. At the time, he was worth $1 million.
In all the ice and snow, the sheriffs could see his yellow leather jacket. He was no longer innocent. He had traveled and lived and dreamt and loved. He had gotten married.
He was to have become a father.
He had traversed life best as any of us can.
He sang in an enchanting way. He grunted into microphones. He was supposed to be bigger than Elvis. He was so damn young.
A decade after Holly's death, folk singer Don McLean wrote "American Pie," a tribute to Holly as a symbol of our country.
McLean declared Holly's death-date, February 3, 1959 "the day that music died."
Did you write the book of love
And do you have faith in God above
If the Bible tells you so?
Do you believe in rock and roll?
Can music save your mortal soul?
Innocence determines a lot of things, but most of all it will make a disaster so much uglier and more devastating.
If your hero dies, you ache in a newly cumbersome way. The after-light seems dimmer.
It's not our fault that we, as Americans, are innocent. How do you think we keep going? If we were cynics, we would never have formed a nation, let alone made it through a Civil War, two world wars, everything else, too much to even fathom, because it continues, as recently as this Sunday, with Kobe Bryant.
Optimism and laughter are the two greatest coping mechanisms for the condition of life, and they do well with innocence.
In America, optimism is a natural reaction. Dream and dream, we're taught. So we dream. And it is awful when you're yanked from a dream and wake up to a disaster.
But, behind it all, there's a spirit that is ready for the next great adventure, along the sacred frontier.
Once a year, we celebrate our independence from Britain, with explosions of gun-powdered color that decorate the heat, and tiptoe each river, and allude to the heavens.
Now imagine that it's 1959.
Rock 'N' Roll just burst to life. But you live in Iowa, in the winter, so there's not a lot happening.
And you see a flier that says Buddy Holly is playing in Clear Lake. Tonight. A Monday. You are 17, with all the love and rebellion of the nation in your eyes.
You are enamored of the sounds of pop music. In the car, you hear it and you smile, a bright wind through your hair. You love America's unique features. The limitless sunsets, and daunting mountain ranges, and glinting skyscrapers, and you have gawked up at them while holding a cheeseburger and a Coca-Cola.
You love Hollywood with all those starlit celebrities who draw you nearer and nearer, as close to the screen as possible.
You have a father who fought the Nazis and a grandpa who fought the Nazis' fathers.
So you do the American thing, and borrow your mother's Pontiac Catalina, and you and your friends just drive, 80 miles of farmlands heaping with snow, to Surf Ballroom.
Imagine that car ride. Smoking cigarettes, blaring the radio, taking rips of whiskey from a flask, as you slide along the road. You enjoy the moments when the pale sunlight drapes over you, even though it's still winter, when the cornfields bend at the will of the Canadian draft.
Entire 15-minute-spans pass without your seeing another car. You sing and laugh and smile. You tell all the jokes you know, you even tell some of your secrets.
You are ready to find love. You ramble about the girl or boy you will meet at the concert, as the band plays "Peggy Sue." Maybe you'll even cozy up to one another in a booth. Maybe you'll get married. You are ready to witness magic. You are magical. Adulthood does not scare you, but it definitely scares you.
You wiggle in your seat the closer you get to Clear Lake. You are ready to see Buddy Holly with your own eyes.
Maybe you unwittingly drive past the field where his plane will crash later that night.
But you could not in your most depraved thoughts imagine something so awful. It doesn't even occur to you as a possibility.
You are 20 minutes from the ballroom, wondering what is Buddy doing right this instant?
You are in the middle of the American commotion. And every time you look out at the landscape, you think, "All of this represents something much bigger, doesn't it?"
The human world doesn't ever change so much. When someone important dies, we all suffer. A cultural legend is unique. Artist, politician, musician, master chef, comedian. An athlete — an NBA legend. They shape our lives and fill us with answers. Or they at least fill us with enough comfort to get through any given moment.
Because we are not Buddy Holly. We are those teenagers heading to that ballroom, in that car ride, passing those icy cornfields, looking out at snow-dappled farmlands, on that February evening in 1959. We have the multiplying light to our star-pointed eyes.
New installments come Mondays and Thursdays. Check out my Twitter. Email me at email@example.com
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Kevin Ryan is an opinion contributor for Blaze News.