Greil Marcus On The Importance Of Buddy Holly

How important, really, is Buddy Holly’s music to American rock ‘n’ roll?

Buddy Holly had something very different from the other great early rock ‘n’ roll stars, whether it was Chuck BerryElvis Presley, Little Richard, Bo Diddley. He came across as so ordinary, as such a nerd. You know, he was a big guy, and he carried a gun. He was anything but a nerd. But he’s got these big glasses and he looks like the sort of person that, in high school, every time he’d open his locker, you’d slam it closed in his face. And Buddy Holly never lost that demeanor, that, “I could be anybody. I could be you, you could be me” — whether that was boys or girls, it didn’t matter. There was something unassuming, unthreatening, uncool about him that allowed anybody an entree into his music. And the effect that he had on The Beatles, on Bob Dylan, on The Rolling Stones, was enormous. They were all touched by him. You know, it has to do with the quality of his songs and his voice and his guitar playing, too — but for one figure to have affected that trinity so powerfully is more than I could ever explain.

“Crying, Waiting, Hoping” is a song that he recorded into his home tape recorder, accompanying himself on guitar, in his apartment in Greenwich Village in the early days of January 1959. When you listen to it today, it’s shocking just how clear the sound is, how strong the singing is, and yet modest. It’s a perfect song. And it’s been recorded over and over and over again by all different kinds of people; maybe Cat Power did the most recent really stunning version of that song. People hear that song and they have to try and get their hands on it.

In the chapter (in The History of Rock N Roll in Ten Songs) that I wrote about this song and Buddy Holly, the second half of the chapter is about how, all through The Beatles’ career, they tried to play this song. They tried to get it right and it kept defeating them. And they never really got the feeling, they never got the tone, until they were at the very end, breaking up in 1969 at the Let It Be sessions. One afternoon they start playing Buddy Holly songs, and they go from one to the other to the next, and when they stumble into “Crying, Waiting, Hoping,” you are listening to a tragedy play out. “Crying, waiting, hoping you’ll come back to me”: That’s what they’re singing, and they know they aren’t coming back to each other ever again. The sense of fellowship, comradeship and brotherhood that The Beatles came to symbolize, you hear all of that, but you hear it as loss, you hear it as something that is disappearing before your ears.