Listening to 20 Golden Greats by today’s birthday boy, I gotta say: this is some brilliant stuff!
I have to admit I wasn’t a fan of Buddy Holly, or even a listener. I’ve heard little enough of this stuff. It may be that I had to get to a certain point of being able to listen to it. One thing that happened recently, for instance, was picking up an LP of the Sun singles by Johnny Cash. I know I’ve said often enough that the music that was real to me began in the early Sixties, with few exceptions. As a teen first getting into music I never went back for Golden Age of Rock’n’Roll, in part because of that whole retro thing going on then: American Graffiti, Happy Days, all that.
Hearing it now on a decent stereo, Holly’s recordings are so vibrant in their stripped-down basics, but even more than his great sense of melody is his command of his medium as a singer on recordings. He’s got a number of really cool voices he can do. Sometimes it’s that Elvis-slur, sometimes it’s that weird “ah-ho-ho” chortle, sometimes it’s whiny, sometimes it’s pure teen angel stuff, sometimes it’s a rocker’s bellow. And that’s just some of them. I can only imagine how the kids of the Fifties must’ve sucked this up.
I tend to think of the Fifties as a mostly corny era, especially judging by its Hollywood films and the lyrics of most of its teeny-bopper songs. But Holly seems—listening to the 20 songs packed onto this LP that was released in 1978 and a chart-topper in the UK—to be a one-man factory of quality cuts. I have my favorites, of course. “Oh, Boy!” “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore,” “It’s So Easy,” “Peggy Sue,” “Not Fade Away,” “Peggy Sue Got Married,” and today’s song, the lead-off song on the album.
One thing I immediately respond to in Holly’s lyrics is that he’s rarely the lovelorn, eating-his-heart-out type. “That’ll Be the Day” is as cocky as they come. He’s essentially telling his lover that she’ll never quit him. I used to think it was addressed to someone more in the sense of “you’ll never get me”—but, really, it’s about telling someone they’ve been so thoroughly “got” that they’ll never get away.
He gives it the ol’ Elvis “hiccup” when he does “Well, you give me all your lovin' and your turtle dovin'” but the dominant tone is less playful, a bit riled. And with a great line like “that’ll be the day / when I die” you’ve got this “over my dead body” sentiment circulating. We might think the speaker is way too sure of himself, but, on the other hand, there’s no reason to doubt him. Well, maybe you might think he doth protest too much.
Notice though that he doesn’t profess his own love. It’s not a case of “no one could love you like I do.” No, it’s simply a flat out declaration: “you say you’re gonna leave me / You know it’s a lie.” The part I always liked—and I know this song better in Linda Ronstadt’s version from the mid-Seventies—is “that’ll be the day / When you make me cry.” It’s a song about having a certain ascendancy over one’s emotions, where love is concerned. It’s not surprising that Bob Dylan was a big fan of Holly, and saw what turned out to be Holly’s final concert. A song like “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” certainly owes something to this song’s shrugging sense of how one handles “the tender emotions.”
And you gotta love that part when the drums do that stair-step behind “when you make me cry-hi” which does make me doubt just a little how impervious this guy is to that gal potentially leaving him.