Learning the Game
Buddy Holly's biggest bang
Reviewed by Raoul Hernandez, Fri., Feb. 5, 2010
"Good evening, Austin," says Keith Richards like the King of England himself, stepping back from the microphone to let the words hang in the crisp air of Zilker Park. Still a thrill sliding out disc one from the Rolling Stones' The Biggest Bang 4-DVD set, on which is printed below the concert venue/program: "Austin, Texas USA."
"How y'all doing? All right?" continues the guitarist. "You got a great spot here, you know. I'm thinking of moving in. Anyone got a room? I say that to all the girls."
Father riff says that to all the "Little T&A," the song after the one he's introducing.
"Anyway, I thought, just for a change, we want to pay homage to a great Texan – a man named Buddy Holly."
Forty thousand live music capitalists cheer Richards' stone-faced reverence.
"So we're gonna have a bash at 'Learning the Game.'"
Nothing. Zero crowd reaction. If birds sang at night, you'd have heard their twitter.
Had Mick Jagger been onstage singing, the first song on the UK eternals' first album, Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away," might have gotten the nod instead, opening hex on the band's Voodoo Lounge tour in the mid 1990s. Richards' customary two-tune interludes in Stones shows over the last three decades have dealt a card or two from the bottom of the deck, but surely "Peggy Sue" or "Rave On" would have struck a more capital chord.
A puff of talcum powder on the neck of his Fender precedes Richards' Lone Star-sized take on the song. Age and eyeliner can't hide the teen in his eyes as he barks.
Hearts that are broken
And love that's untrue
That's what's called learning the game
When you love her but she doesn't love you
That's when you're learning the game
In green Tolkien jacket and Cat in the Hat scarf – earring and headband as though a Moroccan prince – Richards delivers Holly's punch line with teeth clenched and his Anubis yawp in a lower register, a man who knows the game. Ronnie Wood rings his weathered Stratocaster.
"One for Buddy, pals," concludes the bandleader three minutes later.
Buddy Holly, Not Fade Away: The Complete Studio Recordings and More on six CDs from Hip-O Select offers 202 others.
Equally precious, also never-to-be-performed-again jewel from that supernatural night in Zilker Park 2006, Waylon Jennings' "Bob Wills Is Still the King" has its roots in Holly too, if only by extension. Jennings famously gave up his seat on the plane that killed Holly on Feb. 3, 1959, as well as Ritchie Valens. Five weeks earlier, he'd added hand claps to "You're the One," written and sung by Holly on the spot – on a dare – live for KLLL radio in Lubbock, bleating here on disc four of Not Fade Away. Outlaw country's future monarch wrote and baritoned "Bob Wills Is Still the King," but had he lived past 22, Charles Hardin "Buddy" Holley might have written it first.
Country boy beginning with Not Fade Away's first primitive notes, a cover of Hank Snow's "My Two-Timin' Woman," rock & roll's beloved hiccup has been boiled down over the decades to a half-dozen classic rock radio basics. Beyond the British Invasion's two biggest bangs covering the Panhandle's No. 1 son via The Rolling Stones (England's Newest Hit Makers) and Beatles for Sale, both 1964, Holly – his surname surrendering a vowel to fame – midwifed rock & roll more through style and story told and retold than by sheer catalog alone. Zilker Park scratching its collective head at Richards' pronouncement of "Learning the Game" is no more surprising than the guttural roar rising from the same giddy throng upon Jagger name-dropping both Bob Wills and Waylon Jennings within spitting distance of the Broken Spoke. Buddy Holly, Not Fade Away: The Complete Studio Recordings and More, the first such domestic gathering, corrects one of these phenomena.
Bound yearbook style, priceless pictures including the day of Holly's biggest bang – opening for Elvis Presley in Lubbock's Fair Park Coliseum, 1955 – Not Fade Away twangs, rocks, and breaks your heart like an audio biography, every track a page of Buddy Holly's brief musical lifetime – a recorded burst starting that year of Presley and cut short by the winter tour that resulted in his death four years later. Texans should consider its 79 pages required reading, the narrative a breathless one.
Grouped chronologically by session, the set's first session is one song, the aforementioned "My Two-Timin' Woman," its credit – "Recorded Holley family home, Lubbock, Texas, circa 1949" – doing almost all the talking except for the track itself, which initially sounds like an ancient radio frequency tuning in a lost race record – a young black girl maybe. Halfway through its 2:16 runtime, someone tweaks the recording equipment, and steel, wood, and electricity come together, but the singer still sounds like a young woman. Meet "Buddy," 13.
The Holley family homestead, on Sixth Street in Lubbock, next hosts its youngest of three brothers with his first musical sounding board, Bob Montgomery, as Buddy & Bob for a trio of tracks, the resident dweller on mandolin and a high, sweet voice. Sound improves from the first cut's can-against-a-wall sonics, but here the primitive recording evokes discovery rather than novelty. The third of three, "Footprints in the Snow," pierces the fog of the past best.
Good ol' West Texan Sonny Curtis (see "Love Is All Around," Oct. 15, 2004) joins Buddy & Bob on fiddle for five tunes recorded in Wichita Falls 1954-55 that include bass and, on one track, steel guitar. These are cowboy songs in the grand tradition of Gene Autry and Sons of the Pioneers, all written by Montgomery, the last a collaboration with Holly. "I Gambled My Heart" is ground zero for Not Fade Away in terms of the Buddy Holly warble (soon to be hiccup). Future Crickets drummer and mainstay to this day Jerry Allison appears next – just in time for first memorable "Down the Line," its solo evoking Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock" and its rhythm courtesy of Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and the Southern Pacific Railroad. Holly's lead vocals and hiccup on "Baby, Let's Play House" births Elvis' little brother with the thick black glasses. Sonny Curtis then returns for five mostly originals back in Lubbock, three previously unreleased and all of the them the West Texas equivalents of London skiffle, proto rock & roll birthing the British Invasion.
Montgomery's finally gone directly after that for a quartet of tunes by a quartet: Holly, Curtis, Allison, and bassist Don Guess. Here again, the group leader finally reverberates, like a string tied to a broom handle nailed to an upside-down wash basin, particularly on the bassist's jitterbugging "Moonlight Baby" (aka "Baby, Won't You Come Out Tonight"). Holly's "Don't Come Back Knockin'," written with Sue Parrish, provides earliest proof of his compositional gifts soon to unwrap.
If that doesn't whet your appetite, some of this material boomerangs back in gloriously clear mono from Nashville, courtesy of one of country music's sound architects: Owen Bradley. Minus Allison, with Holly's second guitar handled by session legend Grady Martin, the Texans twang out five tracks as if cracklin' grits. Tracks 29-35, finishing the first disc, finally originate from Clovis, New Mexico, 1956, at the control boards of the Crickets future George Martin/Brian Wilson/Phil Spector – Norman Petty.
Holly, Curtis, and Allison ring out six Holly solo compositions, rockabilly lean and clean as laboratory moonshine, "I'm Gonna Set My Foot Down" an anatomically blunter precursor to the Stones' "Under My Thumb." The opening seconds of "Rock-a-Bye Rock" hold the DNA of "That'll Be the Day."
'(You're So Square) Baby I Don't Care'
One step forward, two steps back: Disc two opens with a return to Nashville for two sessions four months apart in the second half of 1956. Back and forth, Texas to Tennessee and back, that's the early trek. Holly/Curtis/Allison/Guess practically invent the reedy vibration of all future garage rock again under the Moses watch of Bradley, rockabilly for the diet-pill set. An early version of Holly-Allison rally cry "That'll Be the Day" enters the dance contest but only comes in third. Curtis is gone for a Music Row return, though his clacking "Rock Around With Ollie Vee" remains, while Guess' "Modern Don Juan" receives the crooning of its life from Holly.
In the Holley family garage that same November and into December, Holly and Allison go Black Keys as a lo-fi duo, 12 covers known as "The Garage Tapes" kicking off with "Gone" and "Have You Ever Been Lonely" knocking three times each. "Gone" ballads almost to a dirge, but "Lonely" bops. Chuck Berry's "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man" strikes out, but "Good Rockin' Tonight" brings the boogie, and "Rip It Up" does some balling tonight on Holly's screech ("yeeeooow"). The singer's boyish delivery of Fats Domino's "Blue Monday" blueprints Keith Richards' vocal approach to the same song on the Stone's solo bootlegs. Laying the groundwork for the disc's penultimate song, "Bo Diddley" bomps out its Caribbean limbo, and Holly croaking out Clarence "Frogman" Henry's "Ain't Got No Home" might just be the B-side of Not Fade Away.
Once the guitarist and drummer are back in Clovis with Norman Petty and finally Crickets Niki Sullivan (rhythm guitar) and Joe B. Mauldin (bass), the lone stars are coming in loud and proud. Holly & Petty's "I'm Looking for Someone to Love" could be Little Steven's garage-door opener, only now "That'll Be the Day" adds Petty's writing credit to the fold and with good reason: Here comes the flood. The already irresistible first version of "Maybe Baby" cuts a path next, followed by future Beatles caress "Words of Love." Holly's crying hiccup on "Mailman Bring Me No More Blues" stops you in your tracks, but then so will the only two appearances of "Not Fade Away," an instant sing-along from that May 29, 1957, session. "Everyday" closes the disc with equally unbelievable aural memorabilia, its lullaby shhhh vocal and Allison's pajama percussion doing for pop music what rocking chairs did for mothers with newborns.
With the group solidified, the third disc is the charm, tearing it up from the get-go of opener "Ready Teddy," in which the Fab Four's future Hamburg residency as leather boys gets a good scuffing. Vi Petty's organ on the succeeding Fats Domino cover "Valley of Tears" again cements the Crescent City's piano king as runner-up to Elvis Presley in rock & roll's big bang, Holly then asserting his bronze metal status in that category with two takes of "Peggy Sue" on the surf percussion of Jerry Allison. Holly's clean-cut suitor vocals still manage a hormonal urgency on the tongue of its messenger. And 1957 was far from over, as undubbed hopper "Oh Boy" bucks rodeo exuberance prior to the heavy petting of "I'm Gonna Love You Too." Oh man.
Conch-shell sound washes out two previously unreleased and undubbed performances, including "It's Too Late," and even with Sumerian sound Holly's sincerity oozes into the mix as though by the magnification of his drugstore eyewear. Chase that with the master take of "Oh Boy" and its white gospel seal of harmonic approval by the Picks – John Pickering, Bill Pickering, and Texas Tech baritone Bob Lapham – on their way to the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. The Picks back two recording sessions that September/October, and though there's no blunting the peak purity of Holly's vocal pledge, their picket fence harmony wash works ("Maybe Baby") less and less (Roy Orbison & Norman Petty's "An Empty Cup [and a Broken Date]"), simply too churchy for rock & roll. Their prairie campfire blowing "last night, last night, last night I prayed for you" on Holly's "Last Night" applies holy water to forehead as it exits the house of worship. Paradoxically, given Holly's holy legacy, the second session with the Picks counts among the most sanctified moments of disc three ("Tell Me How").
Down to a core of Holly, Allison, and Mauldin by the end of 1957, the trio's tighter than a rubber band and never more so than on Leiber/Stoller's "(You're So Square) Baby I Don't Care," the singer's vocals coming in Elvis deep and the song's refrain too delicious for words. Holly and Allison alone on four little-heard workups of Bo Diddley's "Mona," including their studio conferencing, are icing on that scone. A whole passel of New Yorkers show up for an East Coast session Jan. 25, 1958, bulking up the steely "Rave On," but it's soon back to Clovis where Holly, Allison, and Mauldin cut rock counterculture anthem to be, "Well ... All Right."
'Crying, Waiting, Hoping'
Holly's voice dips profundo in the chorus refrain to "Think It Over " ("a lonely heart grows cold and old"), which thrice opens the fourth disc. Allison's famed cardboard box as drum makes one of its intermittent appearances on "Take Your Time," a false start that's breathtaking revealing either Holly's exhaustion or his having misplaced his glasses.
"The page just blurs," he says. "I can't even see the words looking right at them."
Someone exclaims, "Nap time!"
"I'm ready to crap out on this day for sure," laughs Holly with laconic cheer.
"Fool's Paradise" and "Lonesome Tears" are streaked with Holly's trademark sad-sackery, which as usual bobs and weaves with the singer's elastic tenor in a way that guarantees the song's narrator is singing his laments even as he's climbing back into love's saddle. "It's So Easy," a huge hit for Linda Ronstadt in the 1970s, pierces your ear with a hook larger than a Gypsy hoop. "Love's Made a Fool of You" bumps Bo Diddley's beat on its way to the same rodeo.
New York sessions and covers of Bobby Darin and Paul Anka can't compare to Holly's supple vocals on King Curtis' "Reminiscing," on which the too-soon-taken Texas tenor sax man adds smoky licks. It's late in the day for Holly, the second session taking place in October when he'll be gone the following February. "True Love Ways" is the mist covering the steel rails of Anka's "It Doesn't Matter Anymore," the plinking strings taking Holly from rock to dentist's office, but such stereophonic crooning imagines the singer's twilight years singing for Verve, which put out Anka's Rock Swings in 2005.
Disc four closes with seven solo acoustic originals from Holly and his new bride Maria Elena's Fifth Avenue love nest in Manhattan, including crystal-cut and titanium set strummer "Peggy Sue Got Married." Vocal hitch "Crying, Waiting, Hoping" sets up the unassuming "Learning the Game." By the fifth CD, which finishes the rest of "The Apartment Tapes," time's run out. Dated "between January 1 and 20, 1959," the latter date being the day Holly left home for good, two slow versions of Little Richard's "Slippin' and Slidin'" – the first on which you can hear Maria Elena doing the dishes, the second contorting with Holly's vocal yoga – precede a streamlined, up-tempo electric take of the rocker, which assumes almost epic proportion in that it sets up another highlight: three minutes of ambient eavesdropping on Buddy and Maria Elena, the young couple talking into the recorder at the end. Maria Elena's Mexican accent crackles with joy.
"What time do you have, baby?" she asks as the tape fades out.
"Twenty-five to 3," replies Holly.
Ironically, the Ray Charles Singers' white marble overdubs on four tunes warped in a NYC recording studio a year after Holly's death tallies only a microfraction of posthumous havoc wreaked. Once Norman Petty takes over in Clovis two years later, installing guitarist George Tomsco's Fireballs quartet, overdubs on Holly material mesh better, thicker rockabilly than the lithe box-top skiffle of the Crickets. Covers of Chuck Berry's "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man" and "Bo Diddley" from one Clovis session benefit especially from the Fireballs' beefier sound.
Another session of "The Apartment Tapes" overdubs star Tomsco's surf tones on "Peggy Sue Got Married," which matches a jubilant, street parade musical reading of "Crying, Waiting, Hoping," while Holly's "That's What They Say" takes on an almost Burt Bacharach swinging 1960s quality, and a cotillion take of "Learning the Game" reimagines the song yet again. Circling back to the start with the Fireballs overdubbing the earliest material from the set's first two CDs, Not Fade Away's sixth and final disc overdubs Charles Hardin Holley into reissue perpetuity.
"What time do you have, baby?"