Freep.com Fans recall death of Buddy Holly and 'the day the music died' BY KYLE MUNSON • DES MOINES REGISTER • January 30, 2009 Fifty years ago, Graham Nash stood on a street corner in his hometown of Salford, England, with his best friend, Alan Clarke, and wept. The source of their sadness was news from 4,000 miles away and across the Atlantic Ocean -- a frozen field north of Clear Lake, Iowa, where the airplane carrying Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. (the Big Bopper) Richardson crashed on Feb. 3, 1959, killing the three rock stars from the Winter Dance Party tour as well as their local pilot, Roger Peterson. "It was very traumatic for me," says Nash, who was 17 years old at the time. He went on to form the Hollies with Clarke in 1962. They found themselves among a rising tide of '60s rock musicians on both sides of the pond who owed a huge musical debt to the innovations of the Winter Dance Party artists. Today it might be tempting to sum up the musical legacies of Holly, Valens and the Bopper in terms of Don McLean's landmark 1971 tune "American Pie" (that forever dubbed the tragedy the Day the Music Died), the biopics (1978's "The Buddy Holly Story" and 1987's "La Bamba") and the annual oldies rock tribute concerts at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, site of the trio's final performance on Feb. 2, 1959. Today it might be tempting to sum up the musical legacies of Holly, Valens and the Bopper in terms of Don McLean's landmark 1971 tune "American Pie" (that forever dubbed the tragedy the Day the Music Died), the biopics (1978's "The Buddy Holly Story" and 1987's "La Bamba") and the annual oldies rock tribute concerts at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, site of the trio's final performance on Feb. 2, 1959. But today's musicians still claim Holly as a primary songwriting influence. Celebrated indie singer-songwriter M. Ward, for instance, releases a new album Feb. 17 that includes a cover of Holly's "Not Fade Away." And younger music fans are discovering classic rock in greater numbers as the songs flow freely from iTunes and other online, digital sources. Valens is revered for his guitar technique and as the prototypical Latino rocker who anticipated the careers of everybody from Santana to Los Lobos and Los Lonely Boys. The Bopper wrote country music hits for other artists and is credited with creating the first distinct music video. "They are all different but of the same era -- pioneers, artists that really did catch the ear of the world, not just America," says Terry Stewart, president of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. The Bopper has yet to join Holly and Valens as an official Rock Hall inductee, but the museum is coproducing a series of events at the Surf to commemorate the enduring influence of all three artists. Back in 1959, the Winter Dance Party served first and foremost as a teen dance that left the adult world unmoved -- much in the same way that today's Disney heartthrob chart-toppers, the Jonas Brothers, while not poised for artistic impact on a par with Holly, play to a predominantly teen fan base. Now that the teens of 1950s rock have long since grown up and are retiring, the likes of Buddy and the Beatles have in a way become canonized as classics. And it's no great stretch to imagine that Bruce Springsteen might even cover a Holly song during his halftime performance this weekend at the Super Bowl. Musicians young and old now trace the musical thread of rock history back to the Day the Music Died. "Buddy Holly totally was the model for the Beatles and everything that came after," says Dion DiMucci, the Bronx-born rock troubadour with blues roots and a doo-wop streak who remains the sole surviving headliner from the 1959 tour. The fledgling Beatles, as the Quarry Men, recorded Holly's "That'll Be the Day" as their first official tune before renaming themselves with a nod to Holly's band, the Crickets. The Rolling Stones introduced themselves to America in 1964 with a cover of Holly's "Not Fade Away." A decade after the death of his hero, Graham Nash found wider fame and became an emblem of the Woodstock generation with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Next week, he will finally make his first pilgrimage to the Surf and Clear Lake when he headlines the capstone concert of the commemorative "50 Winters Later" events there. The star-studded musical lineup includes the Crickets, Los Lobos and a house band featuring key Rolling Stones sidemen (Chuck Leavell, Bobby Keys). "To be invited to go and play on the 50th anniversary, I just couldn't refuse," says Nash, who also will mark his 67th birthday Monday. The notion seems almost silly today, but 50 years ago not even the musical pioneers themselves were certain that rock 'n' roll would survive much into the 1960s, whether before or after the Day the Music Died. George Lucas' 1973 cinematic love letter to teen car culture of the early 1960s, "American Graffiti," includes the memorable line: "Rock 'n' roll's been going downhill ever since Buddy Holly died." Today it's taken for granted that Holly, Valens, the Bopper and their peers -- Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Little Richard -- helped create a global youth movement that drove a wedge between mature adults and their restless kids. The postwar baby boom, teens' disposable income, the spread of television, mass-produced vinyl 45s and LPs -- many trends converged to enable the rise of rock in the '50s, but the insistent beat of the music itself has sustained it most of all. Dion bristles at the thought that the innovations of the '50s were overshadowed by wilder experimentation in the '60s; to him they're both foundations of guitar rock. "There's two eras when guitar giants walked the earth: the '50s and the '60s," he says. "It was like the Chuck Berry era, and the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix era." To Graham Nash's ears, any songwriter today who crafts a catchy pop tune has something in common with the 1959 Winter Dance Party. "To me, the art of songwriting is simplicity, and Buddy's songs were incredibly simple, incredibly melodic," says Nash, who hears much of Buddy in the songs of, say, modern troubadour Beck. Rock 'n' roll's history and future will meet again in Clear Lake. "Going back to play in that very ballroom on the 50th anniversary -- that's kind of scary to me," Nash says. "I love it."