50 years ago today, three pioneers of rock played a gig in a small Iowa town during a cold, snowy night. Early the next morning, the three boarded a small Beechcraft Bonanza plane and attempted to fly to their next gig scheduled in Moorhead, Minnesota. Shortly after take-off, the plane crashed in a nearby cornfield, killing The Big Bopper, Ritchie Valens, and Buddy Holly. Don McLean called it “the day the music died” in his 1971 hit “American Pie.”
When that song was on the charts, my Father told me the story of the plane crash. This was around the same time that he also told me about the death of Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, and Janis Joplin. All of those figures, along with the three that perished on that cold February evening, became entrenched in my memory of rock ‘n roll myth. They were the fallen heroes, the saints of rock and I felt an obligation to respect them and their memories.
It struck me as a bad omen that the three had died in Iowa. I was too young to understand, but it seemed logical to me that the reason people as famous as Buddy Holly didn’t perform in Iowa any more was because they were afraid to end up like Buddy Holly: dead in a cold Iowa cornfield.
I’ve never been to the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa. It looks awesome and, occasionally, they get some decent performers there. I’m sure a lot of them are drawn to the history of it, even though Holly’s stop there on February 2, 1959 was a last minute edition to the “Winter Dance Party” tour. The Surf wasn’t on the original itinerary, but when the promoter noticed an open day, he called The Surf and asked if they could add the stop to their agenda. The ballroom said “yes” of course.
When I was getting ready to ask my wife to marry me, I thought about doing it at The Surf. This is something that I’m sure she doesn’t know about, but I noticed that Shooter Jennings was performing at The Surf. I considered writing his management company to ask if Shooter might let me on stage to pose the question before, after or during his set. Shooter’s Father Waylon, in case you didn’t know, was a member of Holly’s band during the 1959 performance. He gave up his seat on the plane to the Big Bopper who was suffering from the flu and told Buddy before he left that he hoped the plane crashed.
Imagine the guilt he faced when he heard the news.
Anyway, Shooter cancelled the date and I was forced to pose the question in another manner. It was at her parent’s house if you must know, and it was done in a pretty awesome manner I must say, but The Surf idea would have been a little more my style.
The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame recently honored The Surf Ballroom as one of the most historic rock locations in America. It would have been nice if The Surf was known for something a little less tragic, but because of the events fifty years ago, it’s known as the last place that Buddy Holly ever performed.