Friday, June 26, 2009

Not Fade Away

Buddy Holly sat wearily, his face lit by the bulbs that lined the perimeter of the wall length mirror in front of him. The top bulb had been flickering and finally went out. His tuxedo shirt was soaked through, translucent. There were dark wet patches on his powder blue jacket. He pulled his bow tie, and left it dangling, untied. Two shows a night were starting to wear him down.

The reaction of the crowd had been raucous. They cheered wildly for all his old hits, especially “Peggy Sue.” It was a long way from the clubs and dance halls of Lubbock. Las Vegas. Caesars Palace. Since 1966, the hotel had booked a wide variety of acts, from Evel Knievel to Xavier Cugat, and now they were looking toward the pioneers of rock and roll to bring in a different, younger audience to lose their money at the casino. The International Hotel was also planning on bringing in rock stars of the 1950’s. It was rumored they were in talks with the biggest of them all, Elvis, possibly for the upcoming summer of 1969. The King would surely bring in another 2,000 suckers to fill their new show room.

Buddy was happy to be hanging in there, playing his classics for an appreciative audience. He wished they liked his newer songs as much, but for that there was only polite applause. He was having a hard time relating to the record buying public these days. They were buying “Sunshine of Your Love” or “Hey Jude.” His spare style of pure pop, with a Texas edge, didn’t fit today’s sound.

It wasn’t that he didn’t like the new groups. Like many fifties stars, he had toured England in the early years of the decade, and he had met The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Nice boys, all of them. He loved The Beatles version of his “Words of Love.” It was a solid take, Liverpool, not Lubbock. The Stones’ cover of “Not Fade Away” was a bit sloppy, but Buddy thought it was exciting. But now he couldn’t relate. “Sgt. Pepper,” what was that? It didn’t rock, that’s for sure, and you couldn’t dance to it.

Buddy leaned forward and flipped on the transistor radio that sat on the counter. He took off his heavy black frames, still his trademark after all these years and rubbed his eyes. The country music emanating from the portable was awful. It was either bland mainstream like Glen Campbell or the overly polished sound of a crooner like Eddy Arnold. It wasn’t the gritty back home sounds of Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers or Hank Snow. It had lost its soul. Buddy liked country, always had, starting as a little kid tuning into the Grand Ole Opry. It was a passion he shared with Waylon.

Waylon. Ten years ago and it was still painful to remember. He thought back to the day he met Waylon at KLLL, a young disc jockey at the number one radio station in the Lubbock area, spinning hillbilly rock and worshipping Buddy Holly. They hit it off right away when Buddy dropped in to visit the K-triple-L studio. Buddy became an instant mentor to the 21-year-old who had dreams of country music stardom, his baritone carrying him to the top of the charts. Waylon hung on Buddy’s every word, heeding his advice on music, fashion and hairstyle.

When Buddy was ready to join the “Winter Dance Party” tour he was in need of a backup band and fast. They were scheduled to begin January 23, starting 1959 on the road in Milwaukee. His thoughts turned to Waylon and, though Jennings could only play guitar, Buddy convinced him to play bass in the band. Waylon was jittery, but Buddy knew he would do fine. Waylon flew to New York, where Buddy now lived. Handing over his first two records, Buddy, with a grin, told Waylon, “Learn these.” He set out to practice on the Fender bass, a gift from Holly. The newest Cricket didn’t let Buddy down. Waylon was great and he could write songs, real jewels. When Buddy oversaw Waylon’s recording of “Jole Blon” he knew this cat had the muscle to become a force in country music.

Looking back at that fateful plane ride, that terrible early winter morning of February 3, Buddy could see it all clearly, just like a movie. The Big Bopper had pushed and cajoled Waylon, who had a seat on the small plane to Fargo.

“Oh, man, you know a big fella like me can’t ride no busses no more. My back is killing me and I can’t sleep. Come on Waylon, you’re a young man, you can take the bus from Iowa to North Dakota.” Sniffling, The Bopper whined, “Plus, I think I have the flu.”

Bopper worked on him relentlessly, rolling his eyes and pleading. Jennings knew Bopper had also started out as a deejay before he became a star, having achieved what was still just a dream for Waylon. Jennings relented, genially making way for the big man.

Buddy had watched from a short distance away and didn’t like what he saw. He didn’t believe in pulling rank, but if anyone was the star of the show at the Surf Ballroom that night, it was himself. It wasn’t Ritchie Valens, Dion or The Big Bopper that drew 1,300 people to cram themselves into the Ballroom. Sure, “Chantilly Lace” was a smash, Top Ten the previous September, but all the “Hello bay-beees” and “You know what I likes” didn’t give the Bopper the right to bully a member of Buddy’s band. To make that point, that no one was bigger than the headliner, Buddy decided to give Waylon his seat on the plane. He protested but Buddy insisted he take it and fly the 400 miles to from Clear Lake to Fargo. Buddy could still see that four-seat Beechcraft rolling down the runway.

Now he was dead, dead ten years from that horrible crash. Buddy thought of Waylon every day, how he made him get on that plane to prove a point. “Wichita Lineman” was playing. What would Waylon Jennings have done with country music? Buddy wondered. He would have brought the Nashville establishment down to its knees. But he was dead.

Waylon Jennings played bass in Buddy Holly’s backup band during the fateful tour that ended abruptly in February 1959. He was scheduled to get on the small plane that night until The Big Bopper convinced him to give up his seat. Big Bopper, Ritchie Valens and Buddy Holly died when the plane crashed. Waylon Jennings rocked the country world with his “outlaw” honky tonk and revolutionized country music starting in the 1970’s and ending with his death in 2002.

Friday, June 12, 2009

If You Break My Heart I’ll Go

Music was always at the center of Paul’s life, but since his Mum’s death, it became all-consuming. Mike said “You lose a mother and you find a guitar?” What a nasty little git, Paul thought, but he had to admit it was a pretty smart comment from his younger brother. And true. After he swapped the trumpet his dad had given him for a guitar at Rushworth and Dreaper’s, Paul was hopelessly devoted to learning the new instrument. The trumpet gave him a sore mouth and you couldn’t sing and play trumpet. Happily, Paul devoted himself to learning how to play. Equally happy was the clerk at the music store who traded a trumpet worth 75 pounds for a guitar worth 15.

Singing was important because, like all Liverpool teenagers, Paul was knocked out by Elvis. Not just by Elvis though, but all of the rock and roll records he heard and he heard plenty. Liverpool, a port town, had a great deal of cultural trade and new records came in through the men who visited the city. Paul heard Little Richard and could do a killer impersonation of the famous Richard whoop. Jerry Lee Lewis and Buddy Holly were also tops on his list, especially Jerry Lee since Paul could play a decent piano as well. One of the first records he bought at Curries in Liverpool was “Twenty Flight Rock” by Eddie Cochran. He worked and worked to get these songs right on guitar. It wasn’t easy. It turned out that, though he was right handed, he played the guitar with his left. He brought the guitar back to the shoppe to be re-strung and from then on he would hold the guitar upside down, the scratch plate rendered useless in its new position.

Paul’s family life was dominated by music. Father Jim would tinkle away at the piano, playing those old goofy songs like “Stairway to the Stars” and “Let Me Go Lover.” Real sing- along stuff, straight out of the music hall. Jim had, in his younger days, had his own jazz band, Jim Mac’s, and those corny old tunes were still his favorites. This was all before he had settled into the drudgery of the life of a cotton salesman. Paul and Mike loved those moments, their father having a bash at the keyboard, singing his heart out. Jim’s music hall faves, plus the rock and roll songs, a new one every day it seemed, gave Paul a vast musical repertoire.

Mike was right – Paul’s life was all about music. When Mother Mary died in October of breast cancer, it was a devastating blow to the all the men in the family. Paul covered his pain in callousness. Usually, the lad kept his cynical and cutting side under control, but when he heard himself say “What are we going to do without her money?” he couldn’t believe the words were coming from his mouth. Shame covered him. Hiding from himself, he turned back to his guitar, as 1956 gave way to 1957.

“Do you know my mate, John?” asked Paul’s school chum Ivan Vaughan. Ivy lived over on Menlove Ave. in Woolton, a two mile bike ride from Forthlin Road. Paul biked to Ivan’s mostly but he could also walk through the golf links.

“John Lennon?” Paul answered. Vaughan nodded.

He’d heard of John Lennon, heard he was the local Teddy Boy, heard that he was always taking the piss out of people, pushing them to a fight, but usually running when it got too hot. He was a right bastard, if you believed what people said. He was brash enough to dress the part of a real Ted, sporting drain-pipe trousers, string ties, a long drape jacket and crepe-soled shoes. Paul had seen him once at a chip shop and another time on the bus from Liverpool to Woolton once, but wouldn’t look at him. John was a bit scary, a smart ass with a vicious tongue. Liverpool, a tough, poor city, had plenty of that type, men who would crack jokes to hide the pain. Paul turned his face to the window, hoping to avoid Lennon’s gaze. Plus, John was two years older at 16 and a world away. But he had a band, The Quarrymen and that was gear.

“The one and only. Do you fancy coming to the Woolton Village Fete? Some of the lads’ll be there. I’ll take you. It’s all set for July 6. John’s band is playing” The Quarrymen had just begun getting gigs.

“Yeah, I’m not doing anything,” Paul replied, his nonchalance masking his ardent desire to go. The fete was just days before Paul’s graduation from the Liverpool Institute Grammar School. He wasn’t sure what he’d do after that and watching the band would keep his mind off of his future.

The entire community turned out for the Fete, a church fundraiser that coincided with the feast of St. Peter. In fact, the summer garden fete was sponsored by St. Peter’s Parish Church in the town of Woolton and set on the church grounds. Pete Shotton’s mum Bessie had convinced the church that in order to get the youngsters enthused about attending, they should have a skiffle group on the program. Skiffle had swept like a tidal wave over England’s teens since Lonnie Donegan’s “Rock Island Line” record in the summer of ’54. Groups sprouted like weeds. And it just so happened that the band Pete was in, those same Quarrymen, had been performing since March. Even so, the July performance would be one of their first gigs.

The day of the summer festival was fortunately warm and sunny. Beside the red sandstone church were paths that led the throng to the parish fields. The smaller tract contained the refreshment stand, where lemonade and candy apples were for sale, ensuring a crowd of sticky faced kids. At the larger, lower site, a bazaar of was set up, local folk selling handkerchiefs and assorted hardware, as well as fruits and cakes. Coin toss, dart games and other sideshows could also be found. Paul rode his bike to fete, finding a speed that would get him there in a timely fashion while not ruining his well cared for hair. He was dressed to impress, donning a white sports coat with sparkly speckles and flaps over the pockets. Of course, he had on his black drainies.

The parade was set to begin around 2 PM. A band of Cheshire Yeomanry led the line. The traditional ceremony of the Rose Queen was featured, with the outgoing Susan Dixon giving way to 13-year old Sally Wright, resplendent in white lace and pink crinoline. Both girls rode on their float waving like royalty to the cheering mob, tiny soldiers and attendants at their side. There were trained police dogs from Liverpool police force. Other floats carried Boy Scouts and Girl Guides, Wolf Cubs and Brownies, all clad in uniform, their little legs hanging over side of their vehicle. And, way in the back, bringing up the rear of the procession were The Quarrymen, standing atop a sparsely decorated coal merchant’s wagon. Though teenagers were catered to for the first time, the band they came to see was relegated to the tail end so as not to clash with the yeoman at the front. While the huge crowd peered at each float, pointing and waving to friends, St. Peter’s youth club, the Discoverers, weaved in and out of the masses soliciting donations.

By four o’clock, the Vicar was ready to introduce the band. The youngsters, for whom the Quarrymen were booked in the first place, responded wildly. The Lennon family was out in force - Auntie Nanny, Cousin Michael and Aunt Harrie were there. So was John’s half-sisters Julia and Jacqui, and their mummy and John’s, Julia. Also Aunt Mimi was there, with whom John had been living. She most heartily disapproved of all this. Paul and Ivan stood at the side of the small stage.

Paul knew all the blokes in the band. There was Len Garry on tea chest bass and Pete Shotton on washboard. Colin Hanton was on drums, doing pretty well, Paul thought. Was that Griff on guitar? So it was. Paul didn’t even know that Eric Griffith played guitar. They made quite a racket, but were sounding alright to Paul’s ears. John was on an old guitar, playing banjo chords that his mum had taught him. With a slight squint, John surveyed the crowd. Though Buddy Holly had made thick black glasses cool, sort of, Lennon wouldn’t wear them even though he was famously shortsighted. With his curly blondish hair swept up (although some of it couldn’t help falling down in front), long sideboards, checked shirt and drainies, John looked like a rocker and the squinty eye only added to the persona he took on behind the microphone. Since he first heard Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” in May of 1956, it was Elvis Elvis Elvis for John and singing was all he wanted to do.

Paul really dug John’s singing. The band played “Cumberland Gap,” “Railroad Bill” and “Maggie Mae.” They launched into The Del-Vikings’ “Come Go With Me.” Clearly, John was lost and didn’t know the lyrics. Instead of singing “Come and go with me/Please don’t send me/ ‘way beyond the sea” John sang “Come and go with me/down, down, down, down/ to the penitentiary,” John stared at everyone in the audience, sizing them up. Did he make that up on the spot? It was very funny and Paul laughed hard, the first time, really, since Mary’s death last autumn.

One of the people John checked out was Paul on the side with Ivy. John was already wary of Paul, ever since Ivan had told him that Paul was a guitarist to be reckoned with. John had not liked that one bit. Always insecure, he couldn’t cozy up to the idea of someone better than himself, and that someone standing right there, watching his every move. It unnerved him, though he hid it well. He figured that they would meet up after the show, but he was not ready to be kind to the younger boy. And an unkind John Lennon was about the cruelest thing going.

As the band went off to raucous cheers, Paul and Ivan wandered the fair. They gave John and the band time to get back to the church hall where they would settle down after playing. There were chairs and coats scattered about. In the distance, they could all hear the barking of the police dogs as they performed. Paul was hit by the stink. Clearly there had been some drinking afoot. Ivan introduced Paul to John who most definitely smelled a bit boozy, wearing his afternoon drunk uneasily. Paul felt the distance of the age gap. As he looked at John’s “drake” hair cut, much more in place after his stage antics, Paul was very much conscious of his own chubby cheeked baby face. Trying to fit in with the big boys, he had a sip of beer, but it didn’t do any good. He could feel the nervousness rise. He asked to borrow a guitar. Playing would soothe him.

John was duly impressed as Paul tuned the guitar. That kind of skill was unheard of in his circle. As Paul readied himself, he thought hard on what to play. There were so many tunes – rockers, show tunes, standards. A picture of Jim appeared in his mind. His dad had suffered so much after Mary died. Beneath the fa├žade of his brave face, Jim must have been shattered, but he kept Mike and Paul cheered up with his corny old songs. Paul couldn’t shake his father’s face and, with that in mind, he began strumming the opening chords to “Besame Mucho,” one of his dad’s favorites. Paul reached for a deep baritone, as low as his fourteen year old larynx could go. He put all his emotion into that hackneyed chestnut and finished with a “cha cha boom” filled with the joy of a job well done. He had nailed it.

John had studied Paul’s fingers as they moved to form chords he could only dream of mastering. He could clearly see that Paul was indeed on a higher level, and though part of John wanted to improve the band and bring in better players, he was challenged and saw an opening to attack. It was the song itself and Paul’s selection resulted in a quick turn to disinterest, then displeasure. Lennon looked at his pals, who sat waiting for his decision and the subsequent reaction they would be forced to have.

“Bloody hell,” he blurted with scorn, looking to his right and left. “What rubbish. Very light.” They all began to snicker uncomfortably. John turned to Paul and looked him straight in the eye. “You’re daft mate. I like rock and roll man. I don’t like much else. Wop bop a loo bop, you know.”

Paul had other songs in his repertoire and could do “Tutti Frutti” as well as Little Richard himself, but he was shaken by the utter meanness of this drunk, smelly ruffian. Staring at the floor, he couldn’t say a word.

“Run along to your mummy, son,” sneered John with a deep, stodgy man’s voice, “Oh yeah, she’s kicked it, hasn’t she?”

Lennon arose from his seat and began talking to his band mates. They had an evening dance concert to get ready for in the church hall. Paul McCartney, ignored, shuffled out without a word. It was a long bike ride home.

At the Woolton Fete, Paul McCartney knocked John Lennon’s socks off with a spot on cover of Eddie Cochran’s “Twenty Flight Rock.” He followed up with a killer take on “Be Bop a Lula” and finished with his exhilarating Little Richard whelp. Days later, John asked Paul to join the band.