The man looks younger than his 64 years, sure, but not much. His hair is whiter now than the black-brown it used to be, and grandfatherly wire frames holding thick, bifocal lenses have replaced his signature black-framed glasses. It's more a look in his eyes than the features around them that tell you how hard the years have been.
"Sometimes," he says, "it feels like it all happened yesterday."
More than 40 years later, Buddy Holly still thinks about that snowy night in Iowa. He still blames himself for what happened, at least a little bit, still wonders what would have happened if he'd never left New York in the first place, stayed at home as his wife Maria wanted him to. More than 40 years later, Holly still thinks about his friends J.P. Richardson (better known as The Big Bopper), Ritchie Valens, and Waylon Jennings and how they were killed when their plane went down outside of Clear Lake--where they'd performed earlier that night at the Surf Ballroom as part of the Winter Dance Party package tour--and how he could have died, too. After all, it was his idea in the first place.
He was the one who chartered the plane--bound for the tour's next stop in Fargo, North Dakota--so he could have a chance to rest in a warm bed, a chance to wash the dust and dirt from his worn-out clothes. Holly was sick from riding in the back of a cold bus from city to city, each stage no different than the one before it, each town distinguished only by the amount of snow covering it. He missed Maria. He missed New York. The plane wouldn't get him any closer to either of them, but it'd give him a chance to warm up, prepare himself for the final week of the grueling tour. Richardson--literally sick and tired of folding his big frame into a cramped seat on the bus--wanted in right away, and Valens, who hated flying, reluctantly took the last spot in the four-seater after beating Jennings in a coin toss.
But Holly never got on the plane. Just before takeoff, he remembered a conversation he had with his friend and bandmate Jerry Allison a few months earlier: "Why do we want to go out on the road and work all the time?" Holly asked Allison at the time. "What if we get killed tomorrow?"
With that in mind, Holly made a decision that changed his life. Saved his life. He took his bag off the plane and gave Jennings his seat, telling Jennings to collect the rest of his things and the rest of his band in Fargo--the creaky bus the rest of the Winter Dance Party was touring in already had left town--and meet him in New York. There, they would start recording more of Jennings' songs, as Holly had promised before the tour started. (They'd already been in the studio once together, when Holly produced Jennings' first--and, as it turned out, last--single, released in May 1959.) Buddy apologized to the 21-year-old pilot, Roger Peterson, and said goodbye to Richardson, Valens, and Jennings and left to find a bus that would deliver him back to New York and Maria.
As he was boarding a Greyhound bound for the East Coast, the Beechcraft Bonanza was scattering itself in a field outside of Mason City.
"When I got off the bus, Maria was standing there with this look, like she was almost surprised to see me, and I knew right then something bad had happened," Holly remembers. "I pretty much slept all the way in from Iowa, so I hadn't heard anything. I grabbed the first newspaper I could find, because I couldn't believe what I was being told. But, I guess, I knew as soon as I left the airport that something was wrong, or that something could go wrong. I guess that's why I'm here today, and those fellas aren't."
As Holly thinks about all of this, sitting in the New York apartment he's shared with Maria for the last few decades, a strange and familiar mixture of emotions comes over him. How would you feel if you were him, if he was you? Glad to be alive. Consumed by guilt. Confused by how destiny and fate and everything else you can't control work. Maybe all of these things. Holly has felt them all, and much more, at one time or another. The years after the plane crash sped by in a blur of eulogies and tribute concerts. He felt he owed something to the families of Richardson, Valens, and Jennings, as well as De Ann Peterson, the young widow of the pilot. It was halfway through the 1960s before he realized he owed it to his family to keep living and owed it to himself to keep making music.
He was only 23 then, rushing through life like a man who knew his days were numbered, like a man who knew exactly what that number was. His biggest hits-- "That'll Be the Day," "Peggy Sue," "It's So Easy," among them--were already behind him, and he was at the tail end of 18 months of top-10 hits and packed houses, an entire career shoehorned into less than two years. ("I thought I was finished then," Holly says, laughing softly.) After the accident, he still had the same sense of urgency, but it was now tempered with the kind of relaxation most people pay health spas hundreds and thousands of dollars to find.
"Everything came back into focus," Holly says, and he and Maria spent the next several years traveling, living off the royalties from his string of hit songs. Shortly after the plane crash, his former manager and producer Norman Petty had finally been forced to pay Holly what he owed him; Petty had a habit of claiming songwriting royalties for songs he didn't write. With that money, Buddy and Maria spent months touring Europe, doing all the things they'd only talked about before. And that's when Holly met the Beatles. The group that would later be the biggest group in rock-and-roll history also happened to be Holly's biggest fans.
"Buddy Holly gave you confidence," Paul McCartney told Rolling Stone a few years ago. "He was like the boy next door."
"He made it easy to wear glasses," John Lennon said, in an interview shortly before his death, personalizing Holly's appeal. "I was Buddy Holly."
Holly laughs when he recalls his first encounter with the Beatles, how John and Paul pestered him with questions until the wee hours of the morning. Lennon and McCartney were just kids then, and Holly wasn't much older, not even 30 at the time. It was the beginning of a friendship that never ended, at least not until a lone gunman turned the Dakota Hotel into a tourist attraction with the pop-pop-pop of his handgun.
His voice broke into a thousand pieces as he spoke at John Lennon's funeral, trying to find the words to say goodbye to a friend, a brother. When Lennon moved to New York, the two of them became inseparable, spending their days trading songs in Holly's Prism Studio, and their nights trading stories over dinner and drinks. Holly's friendship with Lennon was so close that he even managed to persuade Lennon to record a couple of tracks with one of his longtime rivals, Mick Jagger, another Holly acolyte. (Jagger was in the front row when Buddy Holly and The Crickets were onstage at the Woolwich Odeon in 1958. He was in the process of coaxing Lennon and McCartney back into the studio together when Mark David Chapman ensured that reunion would never take place.
Twenty years later, Holly still can't mention Lennon's name without tears.
"John and I were a lot alike," Holly begins. "And he and Waylon [Jennings] were a lot alike, too. I think that's why I clicked with him more than Paul, although he and I are still friends, too. It was just different with John. I was only a few years older than him, so I felt more like his older brother than a mentor or something like that. He was someone who loved music just as much as I did, and would have been happy living in the studio, which is pretty much what we did. It was great to be able to come in with an idea--maybe just a few notes of a riff and a couple of lyrics--and John and I would be able to turn it into a real song by the end of the day. But more than all that, we just thought about a lot of things in the same way. Even the way we decided to live in New York."
After Lennon died, Holly gave up on music, just as he had after the plane crash. Of course, the first time, he knew it wasn't permanent; he couldn't stay away forever. In the early 1960s, Holly had begun recording with The Crickets again, leading to a string of critically acclaimed albums that combined Holly's knack for three-minute pop melodies with his desire to use the studio as another instrument. Setting up his own studio in New York, Holly indulged his love of production gimmickry, pioneering many of the studio tricks that would turn up on the more experimental albums of the Beatles and the Beach Boys. Eventually, this love of the studio led him to concentrate more on making other people's records rather than his own. He split with The Crickets again, and began recording up-and-coming groups, as well as scoring films.
"That was something I'd always wanted to get into," Holly says, referring to his film work. "One way or the other. When I got to New York, I took some acting classes, because I figured I could do that just as well as some of the people I'd seen in movies. But, it turned out to be harder than I thought." He laughs. "So I ended up getting into it in a different and--probably for me--better way. But even during that time when I was doing movies and recording other people, I wanted to be making my own records. I was just so busy, I could never get around to it."
Around the same time, Buddy and Maria formed Maria Music, a publishing company run out of the Prism offices that later dwarfed the studio business. Before marrying Buddy, Maria had worked at the Peer-Southern Music Company, and she turned Maria Music into one of the top publishing outfits in the business. But Holly didn't have much to do with Maria Music, other than scouting for new talent and recording some of the acts that signed publishing deals. He only knew songs, not contracts.
Holly's name did return to album covers, but they didn't hold the same kind of records his friends and fans remembered. His first, a collaboration with the writing team of Burt Bacharach and Hal David, hinted at a new direction, and his next album--a collection of a dozen Spanish standards, featuring Holly's burgeoning flamenco guitar stylings--confirmed it. In the next few years, Holly would try his hand at gospel and blues and country, anything but rock and roll. It wasn't until he began playing with Lennon that he found his way back, leading to the duo's stripped-down rock-and-roll set, 1978's Rave On, a mix of old and new tunes. Critics and fans agreed: Holly was back. Then he was gone again.
"John brought me back, inspired me to pick up a guitar again, and when he was gone, it just didn't feel right," Holly says. "I still wanted to make music, but I didn't really know how to do it. I didn't know what I wanted."
Before long, Holly returned to film work, but he hasn't recorded another full album of new compositions. At this point, he says, he never will. That part of his life is behind him, another part of him that he can put on the shelf and look at and remind himself of from time to time. He's sad about it, sure, but happy, too. It's a contradiction that describes his entire life. For all of the sadness Holly has endured, he still ends most of his sentences with a smile and a laugh with his eyes. Yes, his life has been filled with heartbreak, but you can tell from even the briefest of conversations that he's glad to have lived it. To have a chance to live through it. To have a chance to live at all.
"There was a reason I didn't get on that plane," Holly says, "and I see it every single time I come home and see Maria. I hear it every time I get a call from my son, and every time my grandkids visit. There was so much I was meant to do, and it doesn't matter that to do it, I had to go through some tough times. I was lucky. End of story. But I was also blessed, and I've never forgotten that. I've had a better life than anyone has a right to expect. If I never make another record, if I never pick up the guitar again, if I never get on a stage again, it doesn't matter."
Rave on, Buddy.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.