When Buddy Holly died in a plane crash on Feb. 3, 1959, I was a 15-year-old high-school freshman with a cheap guitar, a rudimentary knowledge of three chords and a repertoire of half a dozen songs, none of which were rock and roll chart-toppers.
Holly, 22 when he died, could play a guitar like ringing a bell, as the Chuck Berry song says. Holly knew a bunch of chords, and each song he recorded seemed to climb the charts like a rocket. He was a superstar, right up there with Elvis and Chuck and Jerry Lee and Fats Domino. He was everything I wasn’t.
Still, I identified with him. More, I think, than any other rock and roll superstar of my young life, I felt that he and I were alike. I think he touched a generation of kids like me. It wasn’t just his guitar licks and song lyrics. It was that he seemed like us. We were shy, painfully aware of every zit on our face, unable to mumble so much as a “how you doing’’ to one of the girls in study hall. We longed to be cool, good at something. We longed to be recognized, I suppose.
Even in those days, when Grandpa Ike led the nation in a low-key, boring, way and gray flannel was the dress code for success, I knew that Buddy Holly wasn’t at all like me. He’d been on the Ed Sullivan Show. He’d been on American Bandstand, for heaven’s sake. Teen-aged girls in bobby sox and pleated plaid skirts swooned over him.
And yet, I identified with him. The other guys in school did, too. He looked shy, painfully so, with nerdy, black-rimmed glasses and a crooked smile. During interviews, he looked like he’d rather be anyplace but with a reporter. Except when he was performing, he looked and acted just like I imagined I would have in that situation. Even with all of those young women clapping and calling his name as they pushed up against the front of the stage, he looked like he’d never in a million years have been able to work up the nerve to ask one of them to be his date for the prom.
Some of the stars of my teen years weren’t like that. Try to imagine Elvis being shy around people. Picture Chuck Berry walking up to a microphone and fearing his voice would shake from fear. Those guys seemed born to the stage, to the spotlight. The closest I could see to me and Buddy was Fats Domino. He was a genuine superstar, too, good with a rocking song or a ballad. He looked, though, like he’d fidget and stammer if he tried to ask a girl for a date. I liked the performers who looked like they controlled the world. I identified with the ones who looked like they’d rather be sitting at home reading a good book and dreaming of being a rock and roll sensation.
That’s how I spent a lot of my teen years, at home reading books and dreaming of being a rock and roll sensation. I spent a fair amount of time practicing guitar, too. That cheap acoustic instrument came with an introductory instruction book, Mel Bay, I think. I worked and worked on chords. Eventually, I learned some songs from the back of the book. I thought I’d really accomplished something.
When friends would come over and ask me to play, I’d give them a verse or two of “Frankie and Johnny’’ or “Tom Dooley.’’ They kind of wanted “That’ll Be the Day’’ or “Johnny B. Goode.’’ Well, sorry, those weren’t in the book. My friends would lose interest in my guitar playing pretty quickly.
The time came, though, when the older sister of a classmate asked if I’d play and sing with her at the grand opening of a grocery store in town. We worked up “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore,’’ performed it in front of a couple of dozen shoppers and left the stage to a smattering of applause. It wasn’t like being Buddy Holly, but I have to tell you, it felt pretty good.