Against my usually impeccable judgement I picked up a few tribute albums this year. Typically, I think these records fall into two camps; one: cynical big label exploits of musicians and bands I love performed by musicians and bands who’ve never heard of the honoree and two: over-reverential blows landed by the current crop of alt-whatevers. You may be thinking, geesh they can’t win for losing, but I’m thinking I can’t win for losing. All that said I’ve picked up a few this year and since three have dealt with a favorite singer of mine I thought some side-by-side scientithisizing was in order.
I have a soft spot for Buddy Holly as every rock-n-roller should. Yes, Buddy was from West Texas and yes you can find him singing country songs, but those recordings are as ill-fitting to Holly as Buck Owens’ rockin’ singles were to our Bakersfield man. They aren’t bad necessarily, just a poor fit. His Texas drawl is flat and the early stuff I’ve heard isn’t Ernest Tubb inspired honkytonk, but more duets in the tradition of the Delmore Brothers.
I Gambled My Heart, Buddy Holly & Bob Montgomery 1954 0r 1955
Down the Line, Buddy Holly & Bob Montgomery 1955
Then everything changes. One moment he’s singing old time weepers and then the next Buddy seems to be fully formed as Great American Rocker with no clear antecedents. It’s marvelous really; an immaculate conception of cool.
Oh Boy!, Buddy Holly (the undubbed version) 1957
Holly’s songs seem to be near impossible to cover. They are so simple, lyrically, musically, emotionally. Three chord songs about girls and love mostly played by a kid who didn’t think to sing about anything else.
Which makes me think about the median age of singers on Verve’s Listen to Me: Songs of Buddy Holly: 51. That is to say there is no youthful vigor to be found, especially compared to the sprightly average age of Concord Music’s tribute Rave On Buddy Holly: 45. That’s part of the problem here. It’s not that most of these singers aren’t legends and fine talents so much as that when a 71 year old Ringo Starr sings Think it Over he should add but don’t take too long. Every 21 year old rocker has hollered dubiously from a stage “I hope I die before I get old.” Certainly some get their wish, while the rest recant quickly on the fairgrounds circuit. These albums feel a bit like that.
It must be pointed out though that Ringo’s former band mate Sir Paul does a decidedly weird, hilarious, and absolutely creepy version of It’s So Easy. It may also be the single best use of Autotune I’ve ever heard. So, age is certainly part of it, but it’s not all of it. McCartney just may be the best example of what Buddy Holly would be like today if still alive.
It’s So Easy, Paul McCartney
Both of these albums are basically straight forward commercial and star studded efforts and like all of these kinds of albums have great moments. In one minute and thirty-three seconds Ce Lo Green almost single-handedly saves rock-n-roll, but then comes the terrible ear bleeding version of Well All Right by Kid Rock that soured me to all music for close to fifteen minutes. Neither album though, save for a few tracks, are really going to be necessary to hear again and that’s the rub and why basically they are cynical exploits rather than love’s labor.
Well worth reading is Brandon Ferguson’s review: Thank you Verve, you’ve tarnished a national treasure.
The third Holly tribute album, while not perfect is just about right. It’s a quieter affair of the heart and feels like an album inspired by actual devotion. Released to no fanfare that I’ve heard Paul Burch’s Words of Love is the best Holly tribute to date. Burch does a great job of mixing the well known songs like Everyday and Peggy Sue with lesser heard gems like Midnight Shift and Love’s Made a Fool of You. His slightly warbly tenor nods to Holly’s voice without mimicking it. Maybe the only real misstep on the album is his cover of Fade Away. I’m not sure why so many people have recorded this song. It’s a great song and perfect for a live show. It’s a great song and terrible on record. Paul’s somewhere in his 40s and should have aged out of these songs of love too, but he hasn’t. Partly it’s the sparseness he brings to the songs, mostly though it’s the romantic in him. Of that there can be no doubt. His previous seven albums, all worth listening to, show a sometimes sweet, sometimes wounded heart. If Buddy Holly requires anything of listener or singer it’s opening that impenetrable, unknowable thing and pinning it onto a sleeve.
Midnight Shift, Paul Burch
Post Script ~ The first time I read the wonderful Chilean poet Pablo Neruda I was struck by how much he reminded me of Buddy Holly. I suppose Buddy should remind me of him, but it’s all about who I came to first. Neruda’s love sonnet XVII especially would have thrilled Holly I think. A kindred spirit. A kindred heart.
I do not love you as if you were salt-rose, or topaz,
or the arrow of carnations the fire shoots off.
I love you as certain dark things are to be loved,
in secret, between the shadow and the soul.
I love you as the plant that never blooms
but carries in itself the light of hidden flowers;
thanks to your love a certain solid fragrance,
risen from the earth, lives darkly in my body.
I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where.
I love you straightforwardly, without complexities or pride;
so I love you because I know no other way
than this: where I does not exist, nor you,
so close that your hand on my chest is my hand,
so close that your eyes close as I fall asleep.