This past summer, my sister and I took a very memorable trip south of the border…
Today this story made the cover of the Toronto Star‘s travel section:
In America, remembering the Day the Music Died
CLEAR LAKE, IOWA—On an autumn afternoon, a young man enters a dense cornfield. He’s tall, slender and wears horn-rimmed black glasses.
It’s not just any field: on Feb. 3, 1959, a plane crashed here, killing rock n’ roll stars Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper.
He stops at a guitar-shaped monument. Apart from the strong breeze that rustles the crispy stalks, it’s eerily silent.
Under normal circumstances, this creepy scene would prompt me to dial the ghostbusters. But I have some mitigating information: the man isn’t Buddy Holly’s spectre but my own brother, Zachary Stevenson.
Zach, a musician and actor, has played the optically challenged legend five times, including the lead in last summer’s sold-out Vancouver production of “The Buddy Holly Story.” With 260 shows down, he decided a three-state research trip was overdue.
So here we are, standing where it ended for Holly, who was just 23 years old on “the day the music died.”
Where it all began, however, is a whole 1,000 miles south.
Holly was born in Lubbock, Texas, in 1936, forming the band The Crickets in his teens.
Zach and I made the rounds: we drove past Lubbock High, stopped in at a radio station where Holly hosted a show and Zach laid a guitar pick on Holly’s grave.
But, honestly, none of that stuff gave me a true understanding of why this short-lived musician is considered a rock ’n’ roll luminary.
The answer came in the guitar-shaped gallery of The Buddy Holly Center: I learned that both The Beatles and The Rolling Stones revered Holly in their infancy.
“Buddy still appeals to people of all ages on many different levels,” says curator Jacqueline Bober.
Plenty of memorabilia resides there, including his bedroom furniture, his last Fender guitar and — most heartbreaking of all — the signature glasses that were plucked from the cornfield.
Lubbock had its limitations, and so The Crickets found a recording studio 100 miles away in Clovis, N.M. Since that state is an hour behind Texas, the boys would gun it to see if they could pull in at the same time they’d left.
Most impressive: A living piece of Buddy Holly history on hand. His name is David Bigham and he sang backup on four tracks, including “It’s So Easy.”
Bigham quit two weeks after Holly died, returning to the studio as a volunteer 31 years later.
“The moment I walked through that door, it was like I had left the night before. Everything was the same,” says Bigham, now 73.
Indeed, Nor Va Jak is a time capsule. Given the original equipment, the Baldwin piano and the celesta you hear in “Everyday,” you’d think Buddy had just popped out for a pee break.
If you’ve listened to “That’ll Be The Day,” “Peggy Sue,” or “Maybe Baby,” then you’ve already heard this space. A dozen Buddy Holly hits came out of Clovis, where producer Norman Petty added his own unique flair to the songs.
One day, Holly’s drummer, Jerry Allison, was absent-mindedly slapping a rhythm on his knee.
Petty’s response: “Let me put a mic on that.”
The midwest was a far cry from the heat of New Mexico and Texas, particularly in February, 1959. The tour bus for the Winter Dance Party kept breaking down and one musician even got frostbite because the heating system was kaput.
Holly snapped, booking a charter flight directly following the show at Clear Lake’s Surf Ballroom.
As for the outcome of that decision — well, a sad pall still hangs over Clear Lake. In a shop on the main street, we find framed photos of the wreckage for sale, bodies and all. I’m happy to report that Zach isn’t enough of a crazed fan to buy one.
He is, however, keen to see the Surf Ballroom. On that fateful night, parents got in free and hovered at the back, keeping a watchful eye on the 1,100 youngsters in attendance (who knew how this new rock ’n’ roll stuff might corrupt innocent little Bobby or Susie?).
We can envision the scene perfectly because the ballroom has practically been embalmed. The South Seas theme, the booths, a machine that projects clouds on the navy blue ceiling — it has all endured.
“It’s a bucket list item for a lot of people,” says spokesperson Laurie Lietz. “Especially for people who were teenagers in that era — the crash was a real turning point for them. It’s not uncommon to see a tear shed here.”
Despite its tragic association, The Surf is an active music venue. On a lark, we see former Guns n’ Roses guitarist Slash play there (now there’s someone for Bobby and Susie’s parents to fret about).
But before that, Zach asks if he can jump onstage with his guitar and play a few Buddy Holly tunes.
“Of course!” says Lietz.
You’d think that, for someone who has performed for thousands, playing in an empty ballroom would be no biggie. But today’s rendition of “That’ll Be The Day” is more emotionally charged than most. Because, in his heart, Zach is playing to one very significant spectator — and I don’t mean me.
JUST THE FACTS
SLEEPING: In Lubbock, stay in the 1950’s room at The Woodrow House B&B (2629 19th Street; 806-793-3330; www.woodrowhouse.com; $99-139 per night). In Clear Lake and Clovis, you’re looking at chain motels. The upshot: you can buy more rare Buddy Holly memorabilia on eBay with the money you save.
THE MUSEUM: The Buddy Holly Center in Lubbock, Texas is open Tuesday to Sunday (806-775-3560; www.buddyhollycenter.org; admission $5).
THE STUDIO: Nor Va Jak Studio in Clovis, New Mexico is open Monday to Saturday by appointment only (contact Kenneth Broad (firstname.lastname@example.org or 575-760-2157; admission by donation).
THE VENUE: The Surf Ballroom and Museum in Clear Lake, Iowa is open year-round Monday to Friday ( www.surfballroom.com or call 641-357-6151; admission by donation).
THE CRASH SITE: Free maps to the crash site are available at The Surf Ballroom.