Saturday, August 4, 2012

Buddy Holly (1958)



There are twelve songs on Buddy Holly's second album and only officially credited solo LP. Exactly half of them qualify as landmarks, those weighed heavily on the back half, the opposite of the Brunswick collection The "Chirping" Crickets. Of the remaining six cuts, there are three outright duds, covers of Fats Domino, Little Richard, and Elvis Presley (Leiber-Stoller) tunes to which Holly's unique, fascinating voice is ill-suited. One of the three remaining cuts, all cowritten by Holly, is a pleasant diversion ("Little Baby"). But the two songs that reveal most are the filler toward the beginning: the melodic oddity "Look at Me" and the yet more eccentric folky guitar piece "Listen to Me" don't sit neatly with any of Holly's most famous music. But what's interesting about both is that they sound at least seven years ahead of the pack sonically, emotionally, aesthetically. Hearing "Listen to Me" today it's impossible not be shocked that one isn't hearing a forgotten outtake from Beatles for Sale or Help!.

But assume for a second that there's nothing you really need in the lesser half of this album. You're wrong, of course, but let's favor that argument. Theoretically, that's a rather poor batting average, not one we'd easily forgive on a modern record. There's little doubt in my mind that the number of people who've ever pinpointed this as a starting or defining point for Holly newbies is trivial. Yet if an artist issued original songs on the order of "Everyday," "Words of Love," and "Rave On!" on the same slab of vinyl in 2012, it's my firmly held belief that -- no matter how the quality of the other selections averaged out -- the world would basically implode.

The two full-length albums Holly released in his lifetime are surprisingly separate in tone and stylistics -- The "Chirping" Crickets had been all explosions, bursts of energy. On Buddy Holly, only "Rave On!" savors this over sustaining a mood. Still, the distinction both halves of this tiny body of work share is that while their character and strength are suggested in any context, their life comes out when they're played as loudly as possible. How else to experience the real rumbling that undercuts the carnal desires in "Peggy Sue," the intensity of the drums on "Rave On," the cluck-cluck swagger in the breathtakingly intense vocal of "I'm Gonna Love You Too"? "It's gonna happen someday," he joyously, soulfully sneers.

Holly was an innovator more than a showman; "Peggy Sue" is the subtlest of all early rock & roll hits, admittedly watered down a bit by overexposure through the years. You can't gauge its impact from a tinny telecine or an iPhone speaker; what you really need is the 45 with its deep grooves rattling up from beneath. But frankly, as much as I love Holly, what gets me excited is the heavenly run of "Everyday" -- "Mailman, Bring Me No More Blues" -- "Words of Love."

Neutered a couple of decades later by James Taylor, "Everyday" is one of the greatest capturings of young love in Western art; delicately hopeful, sexually charged, whispering and tense, it envelops everything about the early stages of a relationship lyrically, vocally, and musically, and it's one of Holly's true masterpieces. Crucially, unlike even the boldly dramatic stop-start of the Crickets ballad "Not Fade Away," it never releases its tension, a task left to "Mailman, Bring Me No More Blues" on which you can hear the earliest evidence of Holly attaining the wistful desperation that would become his last recorded legacy with the apartment demos laid down shortly before his death. Those recordings are more obviously anticipated by the playful surrealism of "Listen to Me," but "Mailman" presents such a harsh, cathartic vocal performance -- the song itself almost overcome with regret and dread -- that it seems in many ways the most artistically advanced moment of this often breathtakingly sophisticated album.

"Words of Love" presents yet another side of Holly that would subsequently be explored in more depth: the grand, sheepish romantic. Up to now, most of Holly's relationship songs had been either angry, like "That'll Be the Day," or seeped in eroticism, like "Not Fade Away." This cut, though, is positioned as a response to one of Holly's most beloved records (and, not to make this about me, but mine too): Mickey & Sylvia's "Love Is Strange," a song that predicts everything from funk and soul to shoegaze, a positively nasty guitar lick held together by incongruously ugly, agonized vocals that embody the title masterfully. I believe it's one of the ten best rock & roll records of all, and I think Holly agreed. But whereas that song means to swipe and provoke, Holly's response in "Words of Love" is a cooing ocean-breeze of sweetness and open-armed adulation, a song as pleasing to the ear as any one can imagine, its guitars ringing out with the clean simplicity of Hank Williams, the vocals a gently brooding low-intoned hum of springtime reverence. It's Holly's only ascendence into a belief in magic, rather than mere generating of it.

The Holly story is unfinished after this. It never will be finished, and it's foolish to think we have some inkling of where it was headed. Buddy Holly, the album, is just one element in a larger legacy of this master who never had the chance to prove the degree of his mastery -- but because that larger legacy isn't large enough, this is important: for history, for memory, for pleasure.

The "Chirping" Crickets (1957)
Greatest Hits (1957-59)

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