February 3, 1959. Fify-nine years ago today. I feel like a recordite. I should be sitting on the courthouse steps, dust laying in the wrinkes of my neck, rambling inanely to anyone who will listen. For some reason there is no dust, there are no wrinkles, there are no courthouse steps. I am young, looking at 73 and talking about “Fifty-nine years ago, blah blah blah.” It is incongrous. There is something wrong with me. But this is what happened 59 years ago, and why it matters and doesn’t, and does.
I’d gotten up and gone to school. I was anticipating my 14th birthday with ambivalence. The school day had gone not unlike Chuck Berry’s song of that name (School Day). It was cold, so I’d come straight inside instead of hanging on the corner with my misfit friends. It was February 3rd, 1959, a year that was to become significant to me for more reasons than what happened in the wee small hours of that day (actually sometime after 12:55 AM central time). Television programming went off at between 10 and 11 o’clock on weekdays, sometimes earlier. The radio may have been on the night before, but news traveled more slowly then. Decent people were in bed anyway, and up early and off to work.
I walked inside and tossed my books on a chair, started to pull off my coat, grumbling to myself about the cold weather and thinking about a girl who had dominated my life off and on since 5th grade. I was headed for the kitchen when my mother called from upstairs. I don’t know what she was doing up there, but it wasn’t unusual for her to be collecting laundry to be carried two flights down to our basement.
“What?” I answered, quickly remembering I should have said “Ma’am?” instead. I was not corrected. Instead my mother, a very alert, aware woman who had been verging on a possibly great singing career when I was conceived and gave that possibility away right then, but who sang around the house and listened to popular music and loved the same artists and musicians as I did, shouted “Sit down!”
“I didn’t do anything,” I shouted back defensively.
“Just sit down. I have to tell you something.”
I sat down. There was something wrong. I ran through a list of possible bad things that might have happened. My father? Maybe that wasn’t it…
My mother did not come downstairs. Instead, I could sense, she had come to the top of the staircase. She said “Are you sitting down?”
“Yes,” I answered nervously.
“Buddy Holly is dead.”
“Buddy Holly is dead. His plane crashed last night. There were some other musicians with him. They are all dead. I’ll be right there.”
Blank. That’s not right, I thought. That’s not possible.
My mother came quietly down the stairs, set a basket of dirty clothes on the arm of the sofa, looked at me, and repeated it.
“He’s dead. I’m sorry. I can’t believe it. His plane crashed.”
I had nothing. She was being totally straight faced and wouldn’t joke about something like that. She admired Buddy Holly and knew I identified with him very strongly, even though I would have preferred to have been born Jackie Wilson. Her face conveyed a dolor I had seen before and would see again, more than once, in the future.
I stared straight ahead. I had only had to deal with death twice before, once when I was 3 and had only a minimal notion of cause and effect, and once 3 years earlier when my uncle, my father’s younger but identical brother, had died of catastrophic Ehlers-Danlos complications that we eventually came to learn were probably inevitable. I had taken nearly a year to get past that. This was different. It made no sense.
My mother came over and stood near me. She put her hand on my shoulder. “He was only 22” she said. I nodded.
I realized the radio wasn’t on in the kitchen.
“I’m going downstairs,” I said in a monotone.
“Okay. I’ll be down in a minute.”
The room at the bottom of the stairs was a florescent-lit fully finished hangout. It was where the music got played, where artwork was created and model planes and cars assembled over on the Formica dinette table between the double-hung wood windows. The afternoon sun streamed in despite it being a basement. Everything looked the same. There were 45 RPM records everywhere as usual. The exotic turntable my father had bought sat on top of a bookcase next to the Bell mono receiver. It was hi fi, man! One Klipsch speaker. No longer the Webcor portable player that had become the province of my cousin Sharon, who lived with us, my surrogate sister. We all shared the same music, though.
I looked around the room, and I found that the song (attributed to The Crickets, but which was simply Buddy Holly marketed two ways, both identical arrangements of musicians and lead singer, on two different but affiliated labels…it made no sense, it just was)…”That’ll be the Day” was playing in my head. I couldn’t bring myself to put it on, though, as it suddenly seemed eerily prophetic, with its line “That’ll be the day….that I die.”
Finally I realized there was only one way to bring Buddy back to life, one song that could ressurect him or at least my dreams of being in his presence. I put it on and turned it up. My mother came through as I was flipping through the records, started her load of laundry, and came back in just as it started to play.
And yes, then he was there, alive and the “wild man” Little Richard had described in an interview later, with insane glee.
My cousin appeared in the room like a ghost, which was her way, and she said nothing, just knowing.
We all rocked and moved to the music. It was like a mini-wake.
When the song was over, my mother, the hippest mom I ever knew, at least back in that dark era, turned toward the stairs, then looked at me and at Sharon, sighed, then said in a resigned-yet-onward tone:
And then she was gone, and only the music was there.
Later in the year a single was posthumously released, strings added, something Holly would never have stood still for, but it resonated powerfully with me. I heard it on the radio one morning upon waking, and it left a message that could not be ignored, a message about time and the past, present and the future:
Strangely, he was right — and yet it did matter. The words to that song have come home like chickens to roost. Buddy Holly happened, he left his indelible mark, and then he was gone. It doesn’t matter now, yet it matters enormously.
“Don’t look back, “ said Satchel Paige; “Something may be gaining on you.”