The 3rd of February will mark the 57th anniversary of “The Day the Music Died”, again mourning the loss of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper, whose Beechcraft Bonanza plane crashed the night of February 3, 1959 in Clear Lake, Iowa. Hardly a consolation is Greek dramatist Menander’s claim: “Whom the gods love dies young.” However, we can commemorate their music and find a kind of solace by revisiting these three beloved characters — and many more from the rock and roll’s old guard — reading The Winter Dance Party Murders, a novel by Greg Herriges. As he is a great admirer of J.D. Salinger, it was a fortuitous meeting with the author of The Catcher in the Rye that inspired Herriges to write professionally.
The anti-hero of The Winter Dance Party Murders is Rudy Keen, an up-and-coming songwriter who bonds with Buddy Holly during the Midwest Dance Festival. Keen ends up becoming a target — alongside other 1950s icons like Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent and Sam Cooke — of a grand-scale conspiracy created by the record company’s honchos. The central plot, though, revolves around the compromises and disappointments faced by Keen’s friends, the dangers of commercialism discouraging the artist’s individual creativity, and a final reconciliation with Buddy Holly’s tragic demise and his immortal memory.
Herriges adds a zany sense of ‘ex-ante’ narrative mixed with a decidedly outré sense of humor, making up a lot of disconcerting theories and inside jokes throughout his story. For example, in chapter six, “Buddy In The Sky With No Glasses,” Buddy Holly protests he’s geeky looking. Rudy protests he’s geekier than Buddy: “I swallowed hard, tried to look as convincing as I could, and told him he wasn’t geeky.” Buddy: “You call this handsome?” Rudy: “Well—in a way. In a very peculiar way. Almost.” Buddy: “Dion. He’s handsome, the girls love him, his records sell. I’m geeky.” Rudy: “Stop saying that. You’ve got something else going, that’s all.”
There are also acute sentimental moments, as reflects a disillusioned Buddy Holly in the chapter 13 “True Love Ways”, when Rudy’s hero reneges on his commitment to rock ‘n’ roll. Buddy: “That’s just vinyl spinnin’ under a needle.” Rudy: “That’s all any of us ever were. That’s all we still are. We’re the music, Buddy, and the music lasts forever.”
Why is Buddy Holly still so popular five decades after his death? Why has his story perdured? As Joe B. Mauldin, from Holly’s band The Crickets said: “Buddy’s music was always sincere. He always tried to make everybody he saw or met happy.” Jerry Ivan Allison (The Crickets drummer) agrees: “He was more intelligent, talented and ambitious than most people who have picked up a guitar.”
As John Gribbin summed it up in his book Not Fade Away: The Life and Music of Buddy Holly, “the simple answer is because he was the best.”