Dark Horse (noun): A mysterious competitor about whom little is known; one who seemingly comes out of nowhere, and achieves unexpected success.
CLEAR LAKE, IOWA
It’s sunny but extremely windy when I roll into Clear Lake, Iowa on a Thursday afternoon. I’m wearing a hat that says ‘The Dark Horse’ on it, and a brutal gust of wind almost steals it away from me as I get out of the car.
I’ve made the drive up from Des Moines to visit a place I’ve always wanted to come: the Surf Ballroom, the venue where Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and The Big Bopper played their last ever show the night they were killed in a plane crash, February 3, 1959. The night that would be the last of their Winter Dance Party tour.
Buddy Holly has been with me a long time. Even those closest to me often don’t realize what a huge fan I am. They don’t know that on these long drives of mine, more than half the time, I’m listening to 50’s/60’s early rock & roll playlists & obscure motown tracks that I’ve hunted off the internet.
But as great as the music is, it goes way beyond that for me. It’s not just Buddy’s music that’s made an impact on me over the years – it’s who he was, and the way he lived his life.
It’s the way he came out of nowhere and changed everything, in such a short amount of time. The way he refused to conform, refused to compromise, and did it all with grace, humility, and humor. To me, he has always been the greatest of all time. A true dark horse.
I protectively hold my hat firmly on my head as I walk through the front door of the Surf Ballroom. Nothing, not even these punishing mid-western winds, are going to get in my way today. This has been a long time in the making…
WORDS OF LOVE:
THE ULTIMATE REBEL
I first became enamored with Buddy Holly when I was around 16. I was a chronic school-skipping misfit back then, and so I was often home during the day. One afternoon I’m flipping through cable, killing time, and The Buddy Holly Story comes on. I change the channel at first, as a trio of guys singing at a roller rink doesn’t seem to have anything to do with me.
But this is an era before Netflix & on-demand, and the other options of the day – trash talk shows & soap operas – seem a worse fate. So I come back to Buddy Holly.
I soon find myself cracking a smile at the scene where the church pastor goes on a rant about Buddy’s ‘devil’s music’. And so I keep watching. 2 hours later, I’m enthralled. Who would have known! This guy was the ultimate rebel.
I’d never realized, because he sure didn’t look the part. He wasn’t cultivating an image of provocation or controversy. He wasn’t suggestively moving his hips around like Elvis, or singing about being in prison like Johnny Cash.
And while I LOVE Elvis and Johnny Cash, the truth is – Elvis didn’t write music, and in the beginning Johnny Cash was playing country & gospel like everyone else in Nashville.
Whereas Buddy walked out of the studio in Nashville. Because he refused to change his sound. He (politely) told Nashville to shove it, and took his music to New Mexico, to record it his way.
He had a sound in his head, something he refused to waver on. A sound that many people didn’t understand (much less like) at the time. Something we now call: rock & roll.
By today’s standards, it can be tough for younger people to grasp and appreciate the rebelliousness in a song like ‘Peggy Sue’.
But rebellious it certainly was; no one was writing anything like this at the time. A lot of radio stations & DJs refused to play it, even when they secretly liked it. The opening drums alone were considered suspect, not to mention the song’s guitar solo & fast tempo. As tame as it seems by modern norms – Buddy’s sound was carving a new path for the future of music.
People often don’t realize how much he was up against. Not only was he up against a ton of naysayers, he was up against the limitations of small-town life, and up against an entire era steeped in rigidness and intolerance. An era that had its lines firmly drawn in the sand. He kept going anyway.
As I walk into the beautifully preserved Surf Ballroom and see the stage, the room where he stood in, bringing one last night of music & joy to people, the history and the meaning of it begins to hit me.
I’m glad no one is around and that it’s just me here, because I stand there frozen in place, frozen in silence. I am overwhelmed with emotion.
LOVE IS STRANGE
I think that it’s just me here, but it turns out, no…someone else is here, and they happen to have noticed me and my reverence for the Surf Ballroom.
I’m walking through a beautiful maze of 1950’s sock-hop booths when Wayne, who’s doing maintenance at the Surf that day, approaches me. “You really love this place,” he says to me. “I can tell, because you’ve taken a lot of time, looking at everything.”
I soon discover that Wayne is far, far more than a maintenance worker…in fact, he’s been with the Surf for decades and is essentially the venue’s resident historian.
He’s also a spontaneous tour guide, and a treasure-trove of knowledge – not only about the Surf Ballroom and Buddy Holly, but about music & history in general. He proceeds to give me my own tour, sharing a wealth of insider stories along the way.
Some of the stories from that Winter Dance Party evening, I’d never heard before – including a particularly funny one about a certain performer that night.
Apparently, a good portion of the attendees that evening were ‘chaperones’ whom the Surf let in free, because after all – these chaperones weren’t here to enjoy the show, they were here with a task – to prevent the corruption of young ladies.
And the main source of that feared corruption? The Big Bopper.
It turns out the Bopper’s hit Chantilly Lace was considered extremely raunchy in 1950’s small-town America. He’d start his performance with what was essentially considered a dirty telephone call.
“Hello, BABY…Oh, you sweet thing…Will I what?! …Oh baby, you know what I like!”
And The Bopper goes on to tell us exactly what he likes. Chantilly lace, and a pretty face. He tells us there’s nothing in the world like a big-eyed girl, who makes him act funny and spend all his money. But that’s what he likes.
Again, though it seems incredibly tame by modern standards, his overtness was in sharp contrast to the rest of the line-up that night, who were much more subtle in their lyrical ways.
Unlike his musical peers of the time, the Bopper isn’t proclaiming to be in love with this girl or wanting to spend eternity with her. In fact, he seems to know she’s bad news, and that’s she’s materialistic. He doesn’t care. She wears lace, and makes him feel loose like a long-neck goose, so that’s that. He’ll put up with her. Just not forever.
I can’t help but laugh as I look up at The Big Bopper’s picture across the ballroom. I’m thinking how different life was back in 1959, and yet how underneath, human dynamics are always the same.
One thing’s for sure though. I have a newfound appreciation for Chantilly Lace.
NOT FADE AWAY
A few miles from the Surf Ballroom is the field where the plane went down, shortly after takeoff, only a couple hours after the show ended that night. Buddy, the Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens were killed instantly. And in that instant, everything changed forever.
I drive out to the field where they were killed, and though it’s buried out in the cornfields, you can’t miss the site, as it’s marked with a statue of Buddy’s glasses.
As I get out of the car and walk into the field, again I’m overcome with emotion. And once more, I’m glad that no one is here. But once more again, someone is here…
I get out my phone; I’m not sure I’ll be able to get a strong enough signal out here, but somehow I do. There’s a certain song that I want to play.
There’s a rare, early demo of Ritchie’s hit ‘Donna’ floating around youtube, and this particular version – most all of us fans unanimously agree – this version is the superior one. Because it’s just Ritchie, his voice and his guitar. It feels like he’s right next to you. It’s one of the most wonderful things I’ve ever heard.
But there’s something else too, about this early version. The inescapable feeling that it should be longer, that it’s unfinished. That there should have been more.
It’s viscerally jarring the way it cuts off so abruptly. All of a sudden, Ritchie yells ‘What?!’, as if the producer unexpectedly called: ‘Cut.’ And then it’s just over, he’s gone.
But for this brief time, Ritchie’s here again, his voice soaring over the winds, across the cornfields, never fading away.
When he’s gone, I immediately want to press replay, to hear him again. I don’t want him to go.
But for some reason I don’t press replay. As much as I want to, it doesn’t seem like the right thing to do.
Because in life, you don’t get to press replay. Moments are here, and then they’re gone. People are here, and then they’re gone. There’s no such thing as a replay in this thing called Life. It only goes in one direction.
When something, or someone, is gone – you can’t go back. You can’t rewind. You can only enjoy the moments while they’re here, and then somehow find a way to bring them with you.
So I don’t press replay. Like when I first walked into the Surf Ballroom, I just stand there in the silence. I stand there looking out over the cornfields, remembering.
I’m remembering all of it, even the things I wasn’t here for. But I remember all of it…the 1950’s, the Winter Dance Party, that day skipping school, the struggles, the drives, the way Ritchie was here singing just a few minutes ago.
I just stand there in the cornfields, remembering. Knowing that somehow, I’ll take all of this with me.
The drive out of Iowa is quiet and peaceful, uncrowded and calm, so I have space to reflect on what I’ve experienced today, and why it meant so much.
As I look up in the rearview, I catch a glimpse of the words on my hat. The Dark Horse. And I can’t help but think about what it means to be a dark horse, and all that goes along with it.
My mind goes back to the day I first saw The Buddy Holly Story on tv. I remember having a hunch that this movie only scraped the surface of Buddy’s life, and so I had tracked down a biography on him. For the next two weeks, I retreated to the back of the school library while everyone else was in class. No one could tear me away from Buddy.
Reading furiously, hiding in plain sight, somehow I knew that I was learning something far more important than any class at this school could ever teach me. Somehow I knew that in this ultimate rebel, I had found an ultimate teacher, too.
And as the years went on, and life got more difficult, I’d often think of Buddy. How he didn’t look the part, how he didn’t look like the person who would come along and turn everything upside down. I’d think of all that he was up against, how truly rebellious he was, yet so gracious and focused that he’s remembered for so much more beyond that.
I remember visiting his grave several years ago in Lubbock, Texas. There was an older woman there at the gravesite; she had brought her 3 young grandchildren with her and was telling them about all that he had done and how much he meant to her.
I remember thinking how incredible, how someone who died at 22, had managed to live in a way that would still affect people this deeply, all these decades later.
And that’s how it goes…you find a way to bring them with you, even after they’re gone. You can’t bring them back. But you can make sure they go on.
Like the ultimate dark horse himself said: Rave on.
A million thanks to the staff at the Surf Ballroom, and especially Wayne for making such a special place come even more alive. Wayne, your warmth, knowledge, and passion for music made this one of my favorite days I’ve ever experienced in all my travels. I can’t thank you enough for taking the time & sharing all your incredible memories with me; it would not have been the same without you & your stories.