Not Fade Away

Image result for buddy holly performing at the surf ballroom

BUDDY HOLLY PERFORMING AT THE SURF BALLROOM – CLEAR LAKE, IOWA (Waylon Jennings and Tommy Allsup in the background).

On the evening of Monday, February 2, 1959, one of the most venerated concerts in rock ‘n roll history concluded at exactly 11:07 CST at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa as twenty-two-year-old Buddy Holly belted out an impassioned rendition of Chuck Berry’s “Brown-eyed Handsome Man” to an ecstatic audience of 1,200 teens who had paid $1.25 a ticket for the privilege of attending the three-hour-long extravaganza.

After hearing the Lubbock, Texas native’s cover in person while on tour with him in during the spring of 1958, Jackie Wilson, “Mr. Excitement,” had declared that Buddy’s version of Chuck Berry’s 1956 recording was better than Berry’s iconic original. Holly had subsequently recorded the number in New Mexico, but it was waiting for the proper mixing and overdubs to be added once he returned from the winter tour.

“Buddy played with such a distinct intensity, particularly when he ended the show with ‘Brown-eyed Handsome Man,” recalled Holly’s then-fledgling bass player of his band that night, fellow Texan Waylon Jennings. “You could hear his distinct Tex-Mex influence on his Fender Stratocaster, which bridged each verse of the tune. He was on fire – and the Clear Lake audience reacted accordingly. Buddy had a big grin on his face when he finished.”

Joining him on the stage for an encore of the number were his Winter Dance Party Tour mates – seventeen-year-old sensation Ritchie Valens, J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, Dion and the Belmonts, and newcomer Frankie Sardo. “Thank you, Clear Lake!” Holly bellowed as he and his rock ‘n roll entourage left the stage to a final standing ovation.

Within minutes, Buddy was backstage meeting with Surf Ballroom Manager Carroll Anderson, who was in charge of securing a plane flight for the rock star and two other passengers from nearby Mason City Municipal Airport to Fargo, North Dakota – 360 miles to the northwest. According to the nineteen-day itinerary mapped out by the General Artists Corporation, Holly and his traveling Winter Dance Party Tour would next be playing in Moorhead, Minnesota – across the Red River from Fargo – the ensuing evening. Anderson had already called Jerry Dwyer, who owned a local flying service. “We need a plane after the concert tonight if you can provide one,” Anderson requested. Jerry Dwyer replied that he had secured both a transport and a pilot, a local flyer, Roger Peterson, who was willing to fly in subzero temperatures and snow flurries after the concert.

Eleven days previously, the Winter Dance Party Tour had opened up in Milwaukee on Friday evening, Jan. 23, 1959. It had then zig-zagged from Wisconsin to Minnesota to Wisconsin to Minnesota to Iowa to Minnesota to Wisconsin and back to Iowa once again. It was evident that the group’s booking agent, the General Artists Corporation, paid little heed to either common sense or geography when the tour was organized in December 1958. As rock historian Bill Griggs recalled: “GAC didn’t care. It was like they threw darts at a map. The tour from hell – that’s what they named it at the time – and that’s what it turned out to be.”

From day one of the odyssey, the entire musical troupe had ventured together in a series of rentals. The reconditioned school buses used throughout the tour had proved to be utterly inadequate; four of them had already broken down as an extended cold spell hung over the region like a shroud. As was the norm in the early days of rock ‘n roll, the artists themselves had been responsible for loading and unloading equipment, often in lingering frigid temperatures. Additionally, the rickety buses they used were not equipped for the waist-deep snow and icy weather that awaited them at virtually every stop. “It was so bone-chilling on each of the vehicles we used that we had to wear all our clothes, coats and everything. … I couldn’t believe how cold it was,” Waylon Jennings admitted in a Rolling Stone interview on the tragedy years later.

 When the ensemble reached Clear Lake from Green Bay, Wisconsin, Richardson and Valens were already coming down with flu-like symptoms and Holly’s drummer for the tour, Carl Bunch, had to be hospitalized for frostbitten feet. On the last full day of his life, Holly had apprised Dion DiMucci that he had just decided to hire a plane to fly to the next point of entry so that he could sleep in a warm bed rather than ride on another all-night bus ride with insufficient heating. “My husband told me in a phone call from his Clear Lake dressing room that he also couldn’t wait to wear clean clothes for the following evening’s show in Minnesota. Buddy was determined to visit a laundromat in Fargo after he slept in a warm bed,” recalled his widow, Maria Elena.

By the time Holly ambled into Carroll Anderson’s car to drive the five miles to the Clear Lake Municipal Airport, he was, despite his youth, one of the most revered rock ‘n roll stars in the world. In a public career that lasted less than a thousand days, Buddy Holly had already chiseled out a breathtaking artistic legacy. After all, he had been the first rock and roll star to compose, perform, and produce his own music. He had also introduced the concept of a three-guitar band, something unheard of previously in a genre that was still in its infancy. His use of double-tracking created an enriched sound in the studio, which revolutionized the way contemporary musicians recorded from then on. Buddy’s original folk ballad, “Well, All Right,” was the first rock and roll song to have an acoustic guitar play the lead on a major single.

In addition, his controversial recording session with the NBC Symphony Orchestra and über musical-director Dick Jacobs produced four string-laced ballads, including two top-ten hits in “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore” and “True Love Ways.” That session also proved to be another first as Holly became the first rock and roller to ever record his music in stereo. Finally, Holly’s transformative infusion of country and western, Mexican, and rock influences between 1956-59 had created what would become known as the Tex-Mex Sound.

Just as notably, Buddy Holly proved to be a cultural trailblazer who had already cast a considerable light beyond the musical realm. In the summer of ‘57, he and his backup band, the Crickets, became the first all-white rock group to play at Harlem’s fabled Apollo Theatre. The great Sam Cooke, “The Father of Soul,” who had toured extensively with Holly that summer, was so impressed by his friend’s autonomy that Cooke ended up copying Holly’s business profile and became his own writer, producer, arranger, and record company executive with SAR Records until his untimely death in 1964.

A year later, when Buddy cut an original tune called “Reminiscing” and recorded it with revered rock-and-soul saxophonist, King Curtis, Holly broke another barrier. As Rolling Stone’s Dave Marsh pointed out, it turned out to be the first time that a Southern white rocker had recorded and subsequently released a song featuring an African-American artist in a culture that was still largely segregated.

Because of the expanding popularity of his music, Buddy Holly ultimately made seven national TV appearances during his shortened career, including three live performances on the popular Ed Sullivan Show on CBS. His 1958 live appearances in both England and Australia broke new ground for the nascent musical form. Consequently, when he perished in the snows of Iowa 60 years ago at the age of 22 and had already achieved brilliance, Buddy Holly was just getting started.

In retrospect, it was the Lubbock, Texas native ’s sustained musical influence that kept his memory alive, most notably with the most significant band in rock history, the Beatles. The Fab Four partially patterned their group after his backup group, the Crickets (“We were a three-guitar band, just like the Crickets. We even named ourselves after the Crickets. After all, we’re both insects who could sing,” John Lennon coyly remarked in his first American interview in New York in 1964). They also embraced the notion of forming their own sound as Holly had done. The Fab Four recorded their first song, Buddy’s “That’ll Be the Day,” in a small Liverpudlian studio on July 12, 1958. In the fall of 1964, at the peak of Beatlemania, the band ultimately enjoyed a top-five single with Holly’s 1957 hit record, “Words of Love.”

The week before his own tragic death, John Lennon told writer Jonathan Cott, “Buddy Holly was the first one that we were really aware of in England who could play and sing at the same time – not just strum, but actually play some great licks. We couldn’t get enough of him.” In The Beatles Anthology documentary series, Paul McCartney remarked: “All these years later, I still love Buddy’s vocal style – and his writing. One of the main things about the Beatles is that we started out writing our own material. People these days take it for granted that you do, but nobody used to then. John and I started to compose because of Buddy Holly. It was like, ‘Wow! He writes and is a musician’! At least the first 40 songs from the Lennon-McCartney catalog were Buddy Holly-influenced.” In 1982, when Buddy Holly’s musical catalog finally became available, Paul McCartney immediately bought the rights. For the past 37 years, he has stewarded the Holly goldmine with a mixture of both vigilance and veneration. “If Buddy couldn’t protect his music, I have made sure that I do,” Sir Paul said recently.

Waylon Jennings, who played bass for Holly during his last tour, recalled, “Buddy was the first person to have faith in my music. He encouraged me in my music and my writing. If anything I’ve ever done is remembered, part of it is because of him.” Dion DiMucci, who played with Holly throughout the ill-fated Winter Party Tour, called Holly…“ the best musician I ever had the pleasure of performing with – and I ended up playing with nearly all of the greats.”

In a New York Times interview, Mick Jagger recollected, “We all learned from Buddy Holly how to compose great songs. He was a beautiful writer.” Eric Clapton agreed: “Of all the music heroes of that era, Buddy was the most accessible.” Keith Richards called him…“ a revelation. You hear more of Buddy Holly in British rock songs than any other American artist.” Given his longstanding influence on the rockers who framed the British Invasion, it was not at all surprising that one of its leading bands, the Hollies, ultimately themselves after him.

On January 31, 1959, just four days before he died, Minnesotan Robert Zimmerman, soon-to-be-known as Bob Dylan, saw him play at the Duluth National Guard Armory during his senior year in high school. In his Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech in 2016, Dylan reminisced:

“If I was to go back to the dawning of it all, I guess I’d have to start with Buddy Holly. Buddy died when I was about eighteen and he was twenty-two. From the moment I first heard him, I felt akin. I felt related – like he was my older brother. I even thought I resembled him.”

“Buddy played the music that I loved – the music I grew up on – country western, rock ‘n’ roll, and rhythm and blues. Three separate strands of music that he intertwined and infused into one genre. One brand. And Buddy wrote songs – songs that had beautiful melodies and imaginative verses. And he sang great – sang in more than a few voices. He was the archetype. Everything I wasn’t and wanted to be. I saw him only but once, and that was a few days before he was gone. I had to travel a hundred miles to get to see him play, and I wasn’t disappointed.”

“He was powerful and electrifying and had a commanding presence. I was only six feet away. He was mesmerizing. I watched his face, his hands, the way he tapped his foot, his big black glasses, the eyes behind the glasses, the way he held his guitar, the way he stood, his neat suit. Everything about him. He looked older than twenty-two. Something about him seemed permanent, and he filled me with conviction. Then, out of the blue, the most uncanny thing happened. He looked me right straight dead in the eye, and he transmitted something to me. Something I didn’t know what. And it gave me the chills.”

The last half-hour of Buddy Holly’s life, of course, is now the stuff of legend. When he arrived at the Mason City Airport at 12:35 AM on February 3, 1959, Holly quickly met up with Carroll Anderson and paid him $36 for the one-way ticket to Fargo, North Dakota, where the Winter Dance Party Tour would entertain the next night. Anderson then introduced Buddy to Roger Peterson, 24, who was just two years older than Holly at the time. “We should arrive in Fargo sometime around 2:00 AM,” Clear Lake pilot said confidently to his star passenger. Peterson then gave Holly a quick tour of the 1947 V-tailed Beechcraft 35 Bonanza, which would take them to North Dakota.

Earlier that evening, when Buddy had been informed that there would be extra seats on the single-engine plane, he eventually offered one of the seats to the Big Bopper, who was sick and needed rest. Holly then asked his old Texas friend, guitarist Tommy Allsup, to accompany him. Ritchie Valens, who was also feeling poorly, asked the Texan guitarist for his seat on the plane. The two agreed to toss a coin to decide who would go. Bob Hale, a disc jockey with Mason City’s KRIB-AM, was working the concert that night and flipped a quarter in the ballroom’s side-stage room shortly before the musicians departed for the airport.

Valens won the coin toss for the last seat on the flight.

When the trio of musicians and their pilot finally boarded the aircraft, the weather in Northern Iowa was overcast and freezing with occasional snow showers; temperatures were in the teens, and winds were gusting between 20 and 30 MPH from the southeast.

Jerry Dwyer witnessed the take-off at 12:55 AM from a platform outside the airport’s control tower. He was able to see the plane’s tail light for most of the flight, which started with an initial left turn onto a northwesterly heading and a climb to approximately 800 feet. Dwyer explained later to the FAA that he then observed the tail light gradually descending until it disappeared out of view.

The passengers were in the air for approximately four minutes before they crashed in a remote cornfield belonging to local farmer Albert Juhl. All four died instantly upon contact. The next morning, their frozen corpses were discovered after the plane failed to arrive safely in Minnesota. By noontime, it was the leading news story on virtually every radio and TV station across the nation. Eleven years later, singer-songwriter Don Maclean would immortalize the tragedy in his anthem, American Pie,” calling Holly’s death, “the day the music died.”

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Because I roomed with my oldest brother each summer at our grandfather’s cottage on Cape Cod, I began digging Buddy Holly’s music a year before he died. Through our shared record player, we habitually played such Holly 45 classics as “Early in the Morning,” “Peggy Sue,” “Rave On,” “That’ll Be the Day,” “Everyday,” and “Maybe Baby.” We also listened to his entire catalog of hits on WMEX Radio, Boston, which fervently played Holly’s music years after his passing. When the Rolling Stones, the Who, Eric Clapton, the Grateful Dead, James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt, Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, the Clash, Chris Isaak, and Amy Winehouse all recorded Holly cover songs over the next five decades, Buddy’s music was periodically reenergized. In 1977, I befriended rock historian Bill Griggs and subsequently joined his Buddy Holly Memorial Society. Over the next 40 years, there would be two significant biographies, an acclaimed BBC/PBS documentary film, a longstanding Broadway show, and an Academy-nominated bio-picture all covering the short life and luminous career of the rock ‘n roll pioneer.

When the plane carrying him lifted off from the frigid runway at Mason City Airport on February 3, 1959, Buddy Holly was blissfully unaware of the danger that lay ahead, oblivious to everything but his reoccurring musical dreams. A minute later, as the Beechcraft 35 Bonanza flew over Clear Lake’s Surf Ballroom, Holly must have thought that he was approaching an incandescent musical career that would stretch on for years, even as a seedbed of adrenaline still surged through his body from the triumphant concert that had concluded an hour before in the picturesque Iowan town below.

Three minutes later, Holly was gone, cold-dead, forever in the past tense. Omnia enim et voluptas vana gloria.  

Some 21,900 days later, though, his music lives on. In the end, “Not Fade Away” isn’t just the title of one of Buddy Holly’s more venerated hits.

It is his legacy.


“Not Fade Away,” 1957. Recorded in May, 1957, with his band, the Crickets, at producer Norman Petty’s legendary recording studio situated in Clovis, New Mexico, 100 miles northwest of Holly’s hometown of Lubbock, this, along with its A-side, “Oh, Boy,” were the logical follow-ups to the group’s first number-one single, “That’ll Be the Day.” As the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame pointed out when Holly was inducted in 1986, “Not Fade Away” was one of the first pop songs at the time to feature the “Bo Diddley” sound, a series of beats (da, da, da, da-da-da) popularized by Diddley, who used it on his first single in 1955. The signature beat originated in West Africa and was adopted by Diddley as his signature rhythm backup. Holly incorporated it with aplomb here and added some Tex-Mex chord progressions to create a new kind of sound. To add to the luster, Crickets drummer Jerry Allison played a cardboard box for percussion on this. (He’d heard Buddy Knox’ drummer do the same on his top-ten single, “Party Doll,” which had earlier been recorded at Petty’s Clovis studio). In 1964, the Rolling Stones had their first top ten hit with it. For years, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band covered “Not Fade Away” as a natural encore selection. In so many ways, the original Holly number is an inspired hybrid of African-American, country-western, and Tex-Mex music.

“Everyday,” 1957. The flip side to “Peggy Sue,” “Everyday” features the celesta, a keyboard with a glockenspiel-like tone that Norman Petty kept in his New Mexico studio. On this recording, Vi Petty, the wife of the Crickets’ producer, did the honors. The unique percussion sound is actually drummer Jerry Allison keeping time by slapping his knees in unison for two minutes. For legal reasons, Holly changed his songwriting credit to Charles Hardin, his real first and middle names. This is Exhibit A in the Holly Catalog of Unexpected Musical Pleasures. Not surprisingly, the first four songs Holly recorded were flat-out rockers, but then Buddy threw this childlike ballad into the mix. Buddy said at the time, “I loved recording something that was just a little different.” At least two aspiring teenage rockers from Liverpool, England took notice.

“Maybe Baby,” 1957. Recorded in September 1957 at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma while the Crickets were on tour, Buddy composed the song on a General Artists Corporation tour bus, played it for Sam Cooke, who strongly urged him to record it as soon as possible. The reverberating downbeat of Buddy’s Fender Stratocaster is a revelation here as is the undercurrent of Joe B. Mauldin’s stand-up bass and Jerry Allison’s snare drum. As with nearly every Holly composition, the licks aren’t too hard to play, but they sound damn good anyway. Ultimately “Maybe Baby” is a quintessential Holly recording wrapped around an infectious melody and a tom-tom percussion change similar to what Dave Clark did years later with the DC Five. Like so many of his ballads, this is not only the template for rock ‘n roll songs in the sixties, but it’s a quintessential garage-band-tune as well.

“Reminiscing,” 1958. The big news here, of course, is that the late, great King Curtis plays the tenor sax in an inspired take that was so influential that it spurred a young Clarence Clemons of E Street Band fame to pick up the instrument. Curtis, who played on hundreds of songs – everything from the Coasters “Yakety Yak” to the Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” to Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” to John Lennon’s “I Don’t Want to Be a Soldier” – befriended Holly while on tour with him in 1957. A year later, Buddy, who composed “Reminiscing” with Curtis in mind, invited him to record it with him at Norman Perry’s famed Clovis, New Mexico recording studio. The master of the 3-chord song, nevertheless, Holly let Curtis improvise here is a session that is profoundly historical – “Reminiscing” is the first time that a prominent white rock and roller recorded a number featuring a prominent African-American artist. While this was never a hit in the United States, it was in England; the Beatles ended up bringing it to Hamburg, where they played it regularly in both 1960 and ‘61.

“Rave On,” 1958. Sonny West, a childhood friend of Buddy’s and fellow professional musician, composed this single and gave it to Holly’s producer, Norman Petty, who scheduled the Southwest rockabilly group, Jimmy Gilmer and the Fireballs to record it. (Gilmer and the Fireballs later had a hit with “Sugar Shack” with Norman Petty years later). Buddy Holly knew how good the tune was and exclaimed, “No way, Norman, I’ve got to have this song!” His intuition paid off. In August 1958, “Rave On” was the number one single in both the US and Canada. In 2015, when Tom Petty played Buddy’s version on his Sirius radio show, he exclaimed, “Holly’s version of ‘Rave On’ is the epitome of rock and roll.” Everyone from the Rolling Stones to Prince has played it in concerts ever since. Bruce Springsteen has often remarked that “Rave On” is one of the greatest rock and roll songs of all time, and that he still psyches up for live performances by singing it backstage.

“Early in the Morning,” 1958. Buddy Holly not only wrote impeccable singles but he also left a treasure-trove of excellent covers as well. While “Early in the Morning” was a Bobby Darin composition, Buddy’s 1958 version outsold Darin’s and became a much-played single in the last summer of Holly’s life. The gospel-tinged call response throughout the number reminds us how “church music,” as Holly called it, resounded through Buddy’s music. In rock history, of course, this tune has a DNA that is hard to beat. While the Rolling Stones have always credited Muddy Waters’ “Rolling Stone” as the impetus to their name, Mick Jagger once said, “When Buddy Holly sang, ‘You know a rolling stone/don’t gather no moss,’ in ‘Early in the Morning,’ that kind of secured it for us.” Bob Dylan said the same thing after he composed, “Like a Rolling Stone.” Considering that Rolling Stone magazine ultimately based its name on the same Plymouth Rock, there are very few singles in rock history that have such a pronounced musical heritage.  

“Well, All Right,” 1958. Recorded 61 years ago this spring, this acoustical foray into folk rock by one of the Founding Fathers of rock and rock is another example why Holly’s genius as both a composer and recording artist prevails all these years later. A single so influential that Bob Dylan said that he tried to model his first four albums on its “haunting simplicity,” the original Crickets back him up here, minus rhythm guitarist Nicky Sullivan. The flipside to “Heartbeat,” this single, like much of Holly’s work was more popular in the UK, where a young John Lennon tried to hash out the chords with the help of his mate, Paul McCartney. By 1959, the Quarrymen included “Well, All Right” in concerts at Pete Best mother’s venue, Liverpool’s Casbah Club. John sang the vocals while George Harrison ended up playing the acoustical lead. In 1979, when I interviewed the late Steve Goodman backstage at Passim’s, a prominent club in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the singer-songwriter-guitarist extraordinaire told me that he often played “Well, All Right” to remind him that “less is more and that simplicity beats complexity most of the time.”

Brown Eyed Handsome Man, 1958. This classic Chuck Berry cover was the last number Buddy Holly ever performed at his legendary Clear Lake, Iowa concert at the Surf Ballroom on February 2, 1959. Less than two hours later, he would be dead in a plane crash. Regardless of that tragic reality, Buddy’s recording here is a pièce de résistance. Finally released in 1963, Holly’s version of “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” would go to number 3 on the British Top of the Pops survey that summer. You forget that Buddy Holly was both an exceptional and innovative guitarist – and then you’re instantly reminded when you here when you listen to his version of “Brown Eyed Handsome Man.” Chuck Berry famously claimed that Buddy Holly’s version of “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” remained his favorite cover of any of his songs. Tom Petty swore by Holly’s version and often played it on his much-beloved Sirius show, “Buried Treasures.”

“True Love Ways,” 1958. What a gem this first-generation recording is, and it was discovered by Maria Elena Holly, Buddy’s widow nearly forty years after Buddy’s death. As you will hear, in the first ten seconds of the master, Holly can be heard preparing to sing. The audio starts with an unnamed female executive from Coral Records exclaiming, “Yeah, we’re rolling.” Pianist Ernie Hayes and tenor saxophone player Abraham Richman play some notes, and Buddy mutters, “Okay,” and clears his throat. Producer Dick Jacobs then yells, “Quiet, boys!” to everyone else in the room, and at the end of the talkback, the producer says, “Pitch, Ernie,” to signal the piano player to give Holly his starting note, a B-flat. Buddy then flawlessly sings one of the most beautiful love songs recorded in the last 60 years. Recorded in stereo at the famed Pythian Temple in New York City at 135 West 70th Street on October 21, 1958, it was posthumously released as a single 14 months later. While the original sales in the US were somewhat disappointing, Holly’s stringed song hit number one on the UK charts, where he remained an icon. “True Love Ways” remains the ultimate teaser; the kind of ballad that Holly wrote in the last few months of his life that seemed to herald a different musical direction for the artist who loved to dabble. I can’t even imagine how many hits were unwritten because Buddy Holly died much too early.

“Love is Strange,” 1959. Originally recorded on Holly’s brand-new Ampex tape recorder in his Greenwich Village apartment 60 years ago on January 19, 1959, Buddy’s longtime producer, Norman Petty, later added the orchestration supporting his acoustic guitar after he died. Of course, “Love is Strange” was a crossover hit by American rhythm and blues duet Mickey & Sylvia, which was initially released in late November 1956 on the Groove record label. The tune was based on a guitar riff by the legendary Bo Diddley, which Holly duplicated here. Sadly, it was the last song that Buddy ever recorded, which is why Norman Petty reverently included the eerie organ background, performed by his musician wife, Vi. Holly’s mother, Ella, later said that it sounded as if her son was singing to her from heaven. If you haven’t ever heard this incredible version, you will notice that Buddy plays the song at 2/4 time, a radical departure from the original rockabilly tune that Diddley had originally written it in a few years previously. When Paul McCartney hosted a Sirius show on Holly’s memory a few years ago, he played “Love is Strange,” and remarked, “It’s almost as if Buddy knew something was going to happen.”

“Words of Love,” The Beatles, Live on the BBC, 1963. Even at the height of Beatlemania, the Fab Four play Holly reverently on this live studio recording, mirroring his chords and harmonizing Holly’s double-track recording almost to a T. The song was covered a year later by the band on their LP, Beatles for Sale. John Lennon and Paul McCartney harmonized on their version, while Ringo Starr played a packing case on this song as well as drums, to achieve a similar sound to Holly’s “Everyday.” Of course, the band had initially been named themselves the Beetles after the Crickets, but John Lennon’s artistic sense of wordplay altered it to – the Beatles. Here’s a live version of the Holly tune on the Beeb. As you will hear, they perform it with reverence.

“Rock Around With Ollie Vee,” From the Movie, The Buddy Holly Story, 1978. Yes, it’s Gary Busey playing Buddy Holly, but after all, he was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance – and deservedly so! What I always loved about this version was that Busey and his band successfully captured the energy and excitement of a star and his mates who dared to crossover from safe country & western to the much more daring and provocative realm of “bebop” as white people in Lubbock called rhythm and blues/rock back then. Talk about leaving your comfort zone! People forget that whites imitating blacks in the South back then was unheard of on so many levels. Like Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly found the various African-American sounds both evocative and enduring.

“Peggy Sue Got Married, Buddy Holly, 1959, and The Hollies, 1993. Graham Nash reunited with his old bandmates 24 years after he left the group in order to make this recording possible, a featured number of a project paying homage to Buddy Holly’s music. While Holly wrote and recorded the novelty song in his apartment in Greenwich Village a week prior to leaving on the Winter Party Dance Tour, the Hollies ended up dubbing their backup vocals and the supporting instrumentation, imagining, in Nash’s words, “what Buddy might have come up with in the final production had he lived.” By the way, the real Peggy Sue Gerron Rackham died on October 2, 2018, in Lubbock at the age of 78. Not long before she died, Peggy Sue, who dated and married Holly’s drummer, Jerry Allison in 1958, commented, “How wonderful that ‘Peggy Sue’ is still in the heart of every young man and in the spirit of every girl’s daydreams. Buddy Holly, my dear friend, the kid with black-rimmed glasses began this fairy tale romance with me when he recorded the song with my name. That fairy tale remains eternally young.”

“A Tribute to Buddy Holly,” Mike Berry and the Outlaws, 1961. When 22-year-old Buddy Holly perished in the crash of a private plane outside of Clear Lake, Iowa on February 3, 1959, more than 40 tribute songs to him were recorded over the years, including Don McLean’s “American Pie.” Two years after Holly died, Mike Berry, a renowned skiffle player from Northampton, England, wrote and recorded this poignant tribute, which remains the best song to Holly’s memory. According to Berry, the bridge refrain he sings… “was channeled right from Buddy. It almost sounds corny, but it came to me in a dream.” (Kudos to drummer Carl Betz for mirroring Jerry Allison by duplicating the “Peggy Sue” tat-at-tat-tat percussion). I agree with the late George Harrison who once told Beatles’ author Hunter Davies that… “‘A Tribute to Buddy Holly’ captures the essence of his music, his death, and his legacy better than anything I’ve ever heard.” Of course, Buddy Holly lives on in his music as this single poignantly implies.


2019 Music Posts – Through A Foggy Lens, Part 2


On January 30, 1969, the Beatles took the concept of “Up on the Roff” to an entirely new level.

“Hello, It’s Me,” Nazz, 1969. This heartfelt single, released in mid-December 1968, had become a popular single by February of ’69, where it had grooved itself into the consciousness of the American youth psyche. Todd Rundgren’s vocals and guitar work were impeccable; his supporting cast also rose to the occasion. Of course, Todd also composed the song, which takes us through a phone call where the singer breaks up with a girl. It’s a remarkably realistic account, devoid of sweeping metaphors typically found in “breakup songs.” In this instance, we hear the one side of the phone call, which starts with the familiar greeting, indicating they’ve been together a while. Then they have “the talk,” where he hashes out why they can’t be together and lets her know that she should have her freedom. As what has happened to us all in real life, all he can ask in the end is that she thinks of him every now and then. Like many at the time, I thought that “Hello, It’s Me” was a single by the Association. When Rundgren was apprised of this by fans later on, he took it as the ultimate compliment.

“Scar Tissue,” The Red Hot Chili Peppers, 1999. Released 20 years ago this February, “Scar Tissue” was the first single released by the then newly formed Red Hot Chili Peppers. From its impeccable guitar work to its infectious rhythm section to the hypnotic lyrics, this number proved to be an exemplary introduction by a most important band of the present millennium. The video of the single shows the band driving through a desert and was directed by French director Stephane Sednaoui. As you will see, the band’s members are all battered and bruised and the neck of John Frusciante’s guitar is broken, a metaphor for the song itself.

“What a Fool Believes,” The Doobie Brothers, 1979. Kenny Loggins co-wrote this with the Doobies’ lead singer Michael McDonald in the winter of 1978. Loggins eventually put his version on his album, Nightwatch, which was released in July 1978, five months before they included it on their Minute by Minute disk. Loggins’ version was never released as a single; the Doobies’ version went to number one. By the way, Michael Jackson added some background vocals on this song. Ultimately, this was the 500th number one song of the rock era, which began in 1955 when Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” soared to the top of the charts 24 years previously. From the first day I heard these lyrics – “He came from somewhere back in her long ago; the sentimental fool don’t see tryin’ hard to recreate; what had yet to be created once in her life; she musters a smile for his nostalgic tale; never comin’ near what he wanted to say; only to realize it never really was” – I nearly plotzed.   

“Reflections of My Life,” The Marmalade, 1969. A top-five song 50 years ago this month, this Beatlesque number with John Lennon-like lyrics (“the changing of sunlight to moonlight; reflections of my life…”); a McCartney-like melody from his Revolver period; and a Harrison guitar riff, which sounded right out of Abbey Road. Even the drums sound like Ringo! All in all, “Reflections of My Life” proved to be the highpoint for the group from Glasgow who never had another substantial hit thereafter. Given how good this single was, maybe that was enough. One thing’s for sure – you hardly ever hear a song like this nowadays – and that’s a bloody shame. (RIP to lead singer, Dean Ford, who died on January 2, 2019, in Los Angeles at the age of 72). 

“Hold the Line,” Toto, 1979. Raise your hand if you thought that this song was written and recorded by ELO? I thought so for weeks when it was released until I heard that Toto recorded it. Given their prowess in songs such as “Africa,” and “Rosanna,” this great single was also top ten hit for the band from Southern California 40 years ago this February. From this lens, Toto was made up of six enormously talented musicians who had backed up such legends as Boz Scaggs, Aretha Franklin, Barbra Streisand, and Jackson Browne in the 1970s, but it was their vocal work that came to define them as a band in the subsequent decade.

“Dazed and Confused,” Led Zeppelin, 1969. American balladeer Jake Holmes may not have gotten credit for inspiring Led Zeppelin’s “Dazed and Confused” until 2012 when it all spilled out, but without his original trippy folk song, this Zeppelin mega-hit would not have existed. Holmes wrote a very different version of this song for his 1967 solo record, The Above Ground Sound. Jimmy Page heard it while Holmes opened for The Yardbirds and then later took his psychedelic interpretation to Led Zeppelin, which featured his iconic guitar bowing and wild instrumental breakdowns. In doing so, Page and his band refitted it and made it brand new. These days, of course, “Dazed and Confused” is a deserved rock staple.

“Take Me To The River,” Talking Heads, 1979. Apart from this being a brilliant piece of music, “Take Me to the River” is one of the most wonderfully inventive interpretations of an original song, up there with Devo’s version of The Stone’s “Satisfaction” and Nazareth’s cover of “This Flight Tonight” by Joni Mitchell. Like many Talking Head songs, it is the rhythm section that makes this song a much-deserved classic. In every way, this version is both timely and timeless.

Occasionally, there is a documentary that is released that is so powerful and compelling, that it needs to be shouted out to the musical market square in the “must-see” category. This is the case here. The great Sam Cooke was already in the highest reaches of rock and soul stardom when he was tragically shot 55 years ago this December. In 1964 – and to this day -Cooke’s senseless murder at the height of his career was both haunting and inexplicable. This film captures the pathos magnificently. Sam was getting too powerful; he was friends with Dr. King, Ali, and Malcolm X; he had started his own record company, which had been formed to exclusively record young black artists; he was starting to write and record “songs that mattered,” most especially, “A Change is Going to Come.” When he died, Elvis, who idolized Cooke as a gospel singer and who subsequently mourned his death, said that the powers that be thought that Sam was getting too big and powerful, and, as a black man, he had to be somehow stopped. Of course, Sam Cooke is still deservedly known as “The Father of Soul Music,” and was also the best male gospel singer of all time. As you will see if you take the time to view this astonishing film, his influence was moving way behind hit records all the way to the mantle of black power. For more than 50 years, I have loved Sam Cooke’s music. How rare that the brilliance of his artistry matched the magnificence of his soul. in the end, this incredibly evocative documentary attempts to connect all of the dots and brings up surprising new evidence. If you have Netflix, then you can search for “The Two Killings of Sam Cooke.”

“Nothing But a Heartache,” The Flirtations, 1969.  Even though “Nothing But a Heartache” made it to only number 34 in the Billboard Top 40 fifty years ago this February, its popularity as an oldie has made it one of the more popular singles from the 1960’s era. Formerly known as the Gypsies, a girl-group from South Carolina, they reformed in London and became known as the Flirtations after that. Impeccably produced by British musical mogul, Wayne Bickerton, this earth-shattering single later became a staple at dance clubs in both Europe and the US. Hearing it these days, most assume the Supremes performed it. Sorry, folks, it’s the Flirtations!

“She Say (Oom Dooby Doom),” The Diamonds, 1959. Ultimately, I have never outgrown doo-wop music; it is as enchanting to me now as it was when I first heard this exquisite single as a four-year-old back in the winter of ‘59. This number turned out to be Barry Mann’s first top ten single for the Brill Building musical phenom. According to the singer-songwriter himself, an even younger Carole King – then known as Carol Klein – helped Mann compose the bridge. Thankfully, “She Say (Oom Dooby Doom),” was then given to one of the greatest doo-wop groups in history, the Diamonds, who made it into a Top 20 hit sixty years ago this winter.

“A Tribute to Buddy Holly,” Mike Berry and the Outlaws, 1961. When 22-year-old Buddy Holly perished in the crash of a private plane outside of Clear Lake, Iowa on February 3, 1959, more than 40 tribute songs to him were recorded over the years, including Don Mclean’s “American Pie.” Two years after Holly died, Mike Berry, a fledgling skiffle player from Northampton, England, wrote and recorded this poignant tribute, which remains the best song to Holly’s memory. According to Berry, the bridge refrain he croons… “was channeled right from Buddy. It almost sounds corny, but it came to me in a dream.” (Kudos to drummer Carl Betz for mirroring Jerry Allison by duplicating the “Peggy Sue” tat-at-tat-tat percussion). I agree with the late George Harrison: “A Tribute to Buddy Holly” captures the essence of his music, his death, and his legacy. Of course, Buddy Holly lives on in his music as this singe emphatically implies.

“Wichita Lineman,” Glen Campbell, 1969. An absolutely seamless production from composer Jimmy Webb, vocalist and guitarist Glen Campbell, and LA’s legendary Wrecking Crew, who provided the brilliant orchestration – especially the string section – which were arranged by the incomparable Quincy Jones. Because of the neo-mystic quality of the number, it was not a surprise that it ended up being the best-selling single released during the winter of 1969. Given the somewhat quirky subject, the backstory of “Wichita Lineman” is just as absorbing. According to Jimmy Webb, he was driving along the Kansas-Oklahoma border during the summer of 1968 when he saw a lonesome telephone lineman working atop a telephone pole. This incident gave him the idea for the ballad. That evening, he composed it in a hotel in Tulsa, Oklahoma and then called his buddy, Glen Campbell, “Glen,” exclaimed Webb, “I’ve got your next number one song!” Finally, “Wichita Lineman” contains one of my favorite lines in the entire rock and roll canon – “And I need you more than want you/And I want you for all time…” As a lyricist, you dream or writing a line so prescient.

“Moonlight Serenade,” Glenn Miller and His Orchestra, 1939. This dreamy ballad was Glenn Miller’s breakout hit, but it was actually years in the making. Miller wrote the melody in 1935 when he was a trombone player in Ray Noble’s band. When he finally assembled his band, Glenn and his orchestra famously recorded it. “Moonlight Serenade” made it to number 1 on the US Billboard charts 80 years ago this January, and it stayed there until mid-spring. (This, of course, comes on the heels on the news that Glenn Miller’s long-lost plane might well have been discovered off the English coast.) In late November 2005, as my mother lay dying, I played “some of the old songs” for her in her hospital room. When this familiar tune came on, she said, almost by association, “Before the war…the Outer Beach in Chatham….visits to the Totem Pole at Norumbega Park in Auburndale with your Dad…when life seemed both simple and good.” Yup, you’re right, Mum.

“Yeah, Man,” Sam Cooke, 1964. In the last year of his life, the King of Soul fearlessly experimented with soulful R&B and rock, a heady mix that wouldn’t clearly emerge until a decade later with the Tower of Power. Here is one of the last records he recorded, “Yeah, Man,” which Arthur Conley later used in 1967 as the template for “Sweet Soul Music.” All of Cooke’s “regulars” backed him here, including his soundman, Sonny Bono, and producer Lou Adler, along with the incomparable Wrecking Crew. Sam Cooke was not only a brilliant singer and songwriter but an authentic visionary as well. On what would be his 89th birthday, Sam is still The Man.

“You Should Have Been There,” Marshall Crenshaw, 1989. One of my favorite Marshall Crenshaw singles ever, sadly, “You Should Have Been There” turned out to be a little blip on the musical screen when it was released 30 years ago this winter. I always believed that if Crenshaw had released his singles in the 1960s, he would have been a gigantic star, but timing in life is everything, isn’t it? With his Beatlesque sensibility and his passion for coy lyrics and deft musicianship, ala Buddy Holly, no wonder he is a revered musician among pop veterans. I do think that Crenshaw, who played Holly in the movie, La Bamba, and who played John Lennon on Broadway in Beatlemania, produced the kind of music that Holly might well have generated if he had not died so young.

“Love is Strange,” Buddy Holly, 1959. Originally recorded on Holly’s brand-new Ampex tape recorder in his Greenwich Village apartment 60 years ago on January 19, 1959, Buddy’s longtime producer, Norman Petty, later added the orchestration supporting his acoustic guitar after he died in a tragic plane crash on February 3, 1959. Of course, “Love is Strange” was a crossover hit by American rhythm and blues duet Mickey & Sylvia, which was released in late November 1956 by the Groove record label. The tune was based on a guitar riff by the legendary Bo Diddley, which Holly duplicated here. Sadly, it was the last song that Buddy ever recorded, which is why Norman Petty reverently included the eerie organ background, performed by his musician wife, Vi. Holly’s mother, Ella, later said that it sounded as if her son was singing to her from heaven. If you haven’t ever heard this incredible record, you will notice that Buddy plays the song at 2/4 time, a radical departure from the original rockabilly tune that Diddley had originally written it in a few years previously. When Paul McCartney hosted a Sirius show on Holly’s memory a few years ago, he played “Love is Strange,” and remarked, “It’s almost as if Buddy knew something was going to happen.”

“Someday,” Sugar Ray, 1999. When I first heard “Someday,” it sounded like a 1960s AM single; melodic; wistful lyrics, crisp phrasing; and sound musicianship. I later learned that the band, Sugar Ray, who hailed from Newport Beach, California, intentionally copied the ethos the 1960s Californian Pop Sound, so it all made sense then. Released 20 years ago this year, “Someday” is one of those songs” that instantaneously brings a smile to my face. Perhaps it’s because that my two sons asked me to turn up the radio when it came on one morning when we were driving off to another hockey game that they would then play at the outdoor Greenwich, Connecticut Skating Rink! In retrospect. I would give anything to go back to those fleeting times. Ultimately, of course, music is the enduring window to the past.  

Touch Me,” The Doors, 1969. From their underrated album, The Soft Parade, this unique single was composed by Robby Krieger, and its riff, according to Krieger, was influenced by, of all things, The Four Seasons’ “C’mon Marianne!” The tune became notable for its extensive usage of brass and string instruments to accent Jim Morrison’s vocals, including three measures of the lead singer’s crooning like Sinatra, and a powerful solo by saxophonist Curtis Amy, who put a bow on the entire proceedings. Ultimately, “Touch Me” reached #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #1 in the Cashbox Top 100 in January 1969 (the band’s third American number-one release). Here in this incredible live TV performance in 1969, Jim Morrison starts with the proceedings with a visionary poem, and then plays it straight, much to the relief of the Nelson Riddle Orchestra, who backed up the Doors on this Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour appearance. For real.

“Lonely Teardrops,” Jackie Wilson, 1959. After listening to this mesmerizing original recording, Elvis Presley supposedly said to Wilson: “I have no idea why they call me, ‘The King.’ You are.” (Years later, this anecdote became the basis of Van Morrison’s iconic rocker, “Jackie Wilson Said.”). Sixty years ago today, this early soul classic was the number 1 song in America. “Lonely Teardrops,” which was written and produced by a young Berry Gordy, was used as the proceeds to launch Motown Records as a corporate entity in 1960. In September 1975, when Jackie Wilson was performing at the Latin Casino in New Jersey, he collapsed from a combined heart attack and stroke smack dab in the middle of a rendition of “Lonely Teardrops.” Wilson never recovered and remained in a coma for eight more years until his death on January 21, 1984. What tragic irony that the last words Jackie sang before collapsing were, “My heart is crying, crying!” The audience at first thought that his fall on stage was part of the act and they started to wildly cheer him. Soon, however, It became evident that something was terribly wrong. Upon his death, Stevie Wonder said famously, “Before there was Marvin Gaye, there was Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson.”

30 years after Jackie came out with “Lonely Teardrops,” actor/musician Howard Huntsberry paid homage to the essence of Jackie Wilson in his brilliant portrayal of him in the Ritchie Valens’ biopic, La Bamba. This is simply mesmerizing!

“Another Brick in the Wall, Part II,” Pink Floyd, 1979. A few years ago, the song’s lyricist, Roger Waters, admitted in an interview in The London Times, “You couldn’t find anybody on the planet more pro-education than me. It is the air I breathe. But the education I experienced in an English boys’ grammar school in the 1950s was exceedingly controlling – and, in my mind, that demanded rebellion. The song is meant to be a rebellion against an errant government, against people who have power over you, who are wrong. Ten it absolutely demands that you rebel against it.” As an educator for nearly four decades, I have never thought that “The Wall” was never about education or bad teachers. It was always about authority and mind control in a world dominated by an explosion of jingoistic language, thoughtlessness, and collective sociopathy. If “The Wall” were to be updated in 2019, its laser beam might well be on Fox News.

“Time Has Told Me,” Nick Drake, 1969. The archetypal musical cult figure, Nick Drake produced just three solo albums in his tragically compressed life, and yet he is revered in his native UK and behind for producing music that is continually stripped bare, honest, soul-to-soul. As we all have discovered over time, life is a heavy emotional burden for many of us. Those who feel deeply, see deeply, need deeply. Nick was one of the burdened. This single, which was released 50 years ago on January 4, 1969, reminds us that life is fleeting.”Time has told me/You’re a rare, rare find/A troubled cure/For a troubled mind/And time has told me/Not to ask for more/For someday our ocean/Will find its shore…” While he died much too young in 1974, Nick Drake’s music has been rediscovered and is played regularly, especially in Europe, where he is now an iconic musical figure.

“Giving You the Best That I Got,” Anita Baker, 1989. The Queen of Smooth Soul retired a few years ago, but the great Anita Baker ended up leaving an impeccable legacy. Three decades ago, the joy that wrapped around each of her ballads was like an unexpected warm sunny day in the midst of a wintery cold front. Ultimately, “Giving You the Best That I’ve Got” turned out to be Anita’s biggest-selling hit, scoring #1 on both the Adult Contemporary and R&B charts, and number 2 on the American Top 40. Composed by the legendary Motown songwriting team of Holland, Dizier, and Holland, Baker took it and added some detail at the beginning and had the tempo sped up, producing a peppier version. A quintessential crossover song, this tune ended up becoming a staple of jazz, pop, and light rock stations thereafter.


More Relevant Than Ever – Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning

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I recognized immediately that Mr. Gerry Murphy’s legendary Humanities class at Wellesley (MA) High School would be different from any other course that I had ever taken as a student when we began breaking down Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning in September 1972.

In his elongated classroom on the top floor of the old Wellesley (MA) High School building, Mr. Murphy began the class by handing us all copies of a relatively narrow volume with an intriguing title. We all nodded affirmatively. Several seniors from the previous year had already enlightened us that this text would change our lives. As one former student told me at the time, “Books can be dangerous. The best ones, like Man’s Search for Meaning, should be labeled ‘This could change your life.”

After the well-worn copies had been distributed, Mr. Murphy then explained to us that Viktor Frankl, an Austrian Jew, studied neurology and psychiatry with a focus on depression and suicide years before being arrested and deported by the Nazis in 1942. Dr. Frankl defied odds by lasting three years in a handful of concentration camps including Auschwitz. He ultimately lost his parents, his only sibling, and his beloved wife, who was pregnant at the time.

As doctors were in short supply in the camps, Viktor Frankl, after working as a slave laborer for some time, was able to work as a physician in Auschwitz and Buchenwald until his liberation in 1945. For the next year, the author wrote nonstop until he felt that he had crafted the psychological narrative he wanted to publish. In the fall of 1946. Frankl published Man’s Search for Meaning. It remains an enduring bestseller and has never been out-of-print.

As his work before the war had focused on depression and the prevention of suicide, Viktor Frankl turned his focus to his own survival story and the people with whom he interacted in the camps before he was liberated. Why did some survive and others perish? What gave people the will to live? And, then the kicker of all questions – what gives life meaning? This all formed the basis of his lifelong work in a new psychological form of analysis, which he called logotherapy.

Over the next five weeks in our Humanities class, Mr. Murphy provided a heady mix of antidotes, humor, insight, and grace in order to bring Frankl’s prose alive to the class. Through the framework of both perspective and dialogue, we concluded that Viktor Frankl believed that life was not primarily a quest for pleasure, as Freud held, or a pursuit of power, as Alfred Adler taught, but an enduring quest for the significance of one’s life.

One particular morning, our teacher outlined what Dr. Frankl saw three possible sources for meaning: in work (doing something significant), in love (caring for another person) and in courage (during arduous times). Suffering in and of itself is meaningless; we give our suffering meaning by the way in which we respond to it. As Mr. Murphy saw it, forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation. You cannot control what happens to you in life, but you can always control what you will feel and do about what happens to you. And then he touched upon on even more significant truth: love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Ultimately, the salvation of humankind is through love and in love.

“Does anyone have anything to add?” Gerry Murphy asked us.

I hurriedly raised my hand and sang out, “All You Need Is Love!”

“Exactly, Mr. Lennon!” Mr. Murphy responded, without blinking an eyelash.

Now, more than forty-five years later, and after a lifetime spent on the other side of the desk as a longtime teacher, I believe that the message of Man’s Search for Meaning is one of those narratives that are relevant no matter when you read it, how old you are, or what your circumstances are in life. Ultimately, it is a volume that smacks you right between the eyes. It is also the most influential book I have ever read in my life.

As a result of its message, I became a lifelong humanist, someone who at least cares about people on both a concrete and an abstract level. I chose to teach because of the intrinsic value in nurturing and opening doors to discovery but also as a vehicle to openly participate in the give-and-take of human dialogue that forms each day for both teachers and students alike.

This kind of active empathy was also addressed by in Stephen Crane’s allegorical short story, “The Open Boat,” a tale that I have had ninth graders read and chew over since 1994. The story’s narrator, a New York correspondent, who is hanging on for dear life in a lifeboat at sea after their freighter has sunk, recalls when he was a boy reading Caroline E. Norton’s classic tale, “Bingen on the Rhine,” which describes a young soldier in the French Foreign Legion who is dying of war injuries in far-off Algiers. Crane writes:

“In his childhood, the correspondent had been made acquainted with the fact that a soldier of the Legion lay dying in Algiers, but he had never regarded the fact as necessary. Myriads of his school-fellows had informed him of the soldier’s plight, but the dinning had naturally ended by making him perfectly indifferent. He had never considered it his affair that a soldier of the Legion lay dying in Algiers, nor had it appeared to him as a matter for sorrow. It was less to him than breaking of a pencil’s point.

Now, however, it quaintly came to him as a human, living thing. It was no longer merely a picture of a few throws in the breast of a poet, meanwhile drinking tea and warming his feet at the grate; it was an actuality—stern, mournful, and fine. He was now sorry for the soldier of the Legion who lay dying in Algiers.”

For nearly five decades, I too have cared for the soldier who lay dying in Algiers. As Whitman wrote in Leaves of Grass: “I do not ask the wounded person how he feels/I myself become the wounded person.”

After reading Man’s Search for Meaning the first time, I began to consciously ask myself, “Will this be meaningful to me?” If the answer was “no,” I would normally shuck it. Frankl’s message emphasized living as meaningful a life as possible.

As I learned over time, life was not so much as about the product as the process. It’s all about the journey – and not the end result. After all, some enthralling paths can’t be found without at first getting lost. In the end, every human being is a work in progress. Frankl recognized that and said, “Humanity has only scratched the surface of its vast potential.”

In director John Carpenter’s 1984 film, Starman, featuring the great Jeff Bridges in the lead role, a curious alien comes to earth for three days and learns a lot about human beings in a brief time. When he chats with a NASA scientist on his last day before escaping back to outer space, he is asked why he has come to earth, after admitting that he had visited earth previously. He responds: “You are a strange species. Not like any other. And you’d be surprised how many there are. Intelligent but savage. Shall I tell you what I find most beautiful about you? You are at your best when things are at their worst.”

Viktor Frankl himself emphatically makes this point in the opening chapter of Man’s Search for Meaning: “We who lived in the concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms–to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Given the profoundly helter-skelter times we live in these days, Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning is not a 280-character tweet, but a 180-page sermon to the power of the human spirit. As the founder of logotherapy reminds us in the last passage of his masterwork:

“Man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz. However, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.”


O Tannenbaum

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“And while you’re not going to sing, Shaunie, you’re going to be at the center of things!”

When my intrepid Kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Marshall, cheerfully informed me that I would be “the Christmas Tree” in a child production based on the old German yuletide ballad, “O Tannenbaum,” my eyes lit up like a Broadway light bank. “You mean, Mrs. Marshall that I’m going to be the star?” I unknowingly punned.

“In a general way,” she replied with a smile.

As we began to rehearse for our kindergarten Christmas play, we children in Mrs. Marshall’s class soon learned that the crux of the story involved a somewhat droopy Christmas tree in a forest, which was unloved and ignored by the people of the surrounding village. After all, there were far more impressive and sturdier trees than this somewhat pathetic evergreen, which was both undersized and undervalued. “Its branches hung down to its base as if the tree was both ashamed and weak. Many thought that it would be cut down, but the children of the town always convinced the adults to let the tree live.”

As the narrator in the play explained, one of the traditions of the people in the town had been to congregate around the most imposing pine tree on Christmas day, where carols were sung, and gifts were presented. For years, the desolate evergreen stood in the dark as everyone danced and sang around the mightier trees.

However, on the day before Christmas, when a sudden nor’easter hit the village and its peripheral forest, the villagers were shocked to discover that the one surviving tree in the windstorm was the previously secluded evergreen that had once been the laughing stock of the entire community.

As Christmas Day dawned, the children of the village began to slowly gather round and pay homage to the formerly destitute tree. Eventually, the adults too began to gather around the evergreen, which was now decorated with Christmas lights and ornaments. The 20-minute performance was supposed to conclude with a vigorous singing of “O Tannenbaum.”

Dad, forever a big-picture guy, reminded me that I would be the principal player in a drama without any lines. “That is something to cherish,” he remarked. Mummie was instructed to dress me entirely in dark green pants and a corresponding shirt. Mrs. Fitzmaurice, our art teacher, made special brown shoes to represent to the base of a tree, and we kids all made a gold star that would be planted on top of my head. Mrs. Fitzy also inserted real pine needles from an overarching evergreen that stood resolutely outside on my school’s playground. When my older brother, Chris, saw me decked out in the outfit, he cried out, “In the valley of the Jolly Ho! Ho! Ho! Green Giant!”

After a series of rehearsals, it was time for the big show, which Mrs. Marshall put on for our parents and friends a half-hour before dismissal for Christmas vacation. Because of the name of the musical, the plotline, and how I was the entire focus of the show, I was visibly nervous as the play began. Miss Scoboria, our well-intentioned Headmistress, did not help things when she peeked backstage, saw me in my entirely emerald outfit, and exclaimed, “Well, look who’s the star of the show!”

Thankfully, one of my peers, a little girl whose nickname was – I swear to God – Buttercup, bellowed, “Oh, Miss Scoboria, Shaunie isn’t the star of the show. Here it is!” She then held up…well, the star in the show – the object we had made in art class that would be placed on my head to conclude the performance.

Everything went entirely too smoothly until it came time for me, the previously ignored Christmas tree, to “shine in the light.” Until that time, I had looked appropriately despondent and had kept my arms to my side. Mrs. Marshall smiled broadly at me as the play unfolded, and I knew I was somehow nailing it.

However, when it came time to come alive and sprout my arm-branches out, that’s when things began to go asunder. As the townspeople slowly gathered around me, my arms, now stuck out like a crossed railroad crossing, began to increasingly twinge. Within a minute, my limbs, still held like sticks at a ninety-degree angle, commenced to sag with unrelenting pain. The agony in both of my arms increasingly throbbed as I continued to hold both of them out. A minute later my eyes began to roll, and I felt like passing out.

What was I to do?

I suddenly came up with an inspired solution. Just as the chorus paused between verses of “O Tannenbaum,” I yelled out off-script, “Here comes the wind!”

Everyone in the audience – and on stage – suddenly looked at me with unyielding alarm. A lifelong mimic, I slowly began to make a series of howling noises like a Nantucket gale, my fierce, ghostly sounds reverberating across the room like a swirling overhead fan. I then swayed my arms and body like a majestic seagull, flapping the pain away. After ten seconds of purposeful bluster, I noticed that the audience was now reduced to sustained laughter, with my wheezing mother leading the charge.

My classmates, of course, were horrified, while my teacher, Mrs. Marshall, who had been holding a towel after she had cleaned up some spilled water, buried her head in the cloth and silently laughed herself to tears. While I knew I had precariously gone off script, I was determined to continue blowing and thrashing until the agony in my limbs ceased. Finally, I ceased making gale-like sounds and corresponding arm movements. I then stood as still as a statue.

In the crowded classroom, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse. This remarkable metamorphosis so transfixed my peers that they almost forgot to then shout out in unison, “Merry Christmas, Everyone!” when they had completed encircling me. Needless to say, I received a near-standing ovation when I took my bow very majestically a minute later.

The only fallout from my experience as a Christmas tree in my Kindergarten play occurs each holiday season when I inevitably hear the familiar musical refrain, “How lovely are your branches!” on the Sirius Holiday Music Channel.

When I do, my arms immediately begin to twitch.


That Certain Grace

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On January 20, 1969, Lyndon Johnson left the steps of the Capitol Building after attending the swearing-in ceremony of his successor, Richard Nixon, profoundly dejected and forlorn. “At least I won’t hear kids chanting, ‘Hey, Hey, LBJ – HOW MANY KIDS HAVE YOU KILLED TODAY’ anymore,” he quipped to his longtime aide, Bill Moyers, as they motored to the airport.

When the former President arrived at Andrews Air Force Base to fly back to the LBJ Ranch outside of Austin, he was momentarily uplifted when a few hundred Democratic supporters unexpectedly greeted him in front of Air Force I, many of them veterans of the Civil Rights Movement. There was one solitary Republican in the crowd amidst a sea of Democrats who had come to pay respects to former President Johnson as well:  then-Congressman George H. W. Bush of Texas.

Good luck and thank you, Mr. President!” George H. W. Bush shouted out to LBJ as they shook hands. Lyndon Johnson never forgot it.

When asked later why he was there to wish the nation’s 36th president well in retirement, Congressman Bush answered, “President Johnson is from Texas, he was our Commander and Chief for more than five years, and I felt it was the right thing to do even though I disagreed with him politically.”

It is that kind of decency that we are saying goodbye to this week.


“Who The Hell Are You?”

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30 years ago this week, my longtime friend, Peter Green, and I were driving to our Harvard graduate school classes when we heard on the radio that Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis was about to vote at his local elementary school in nearby Brookline. “Hey, when can we ever see a man running for president vote in that election? Let’s go check it out!” I exclaimed.

My buddy, Peter, was all for it. A few weeks previously, another teacher friend, Dave Wall, was driving me to a class when we heard that former President Jimmy Carter was being interviewed by a news reporter from WBZ Channel 4 at the station’s Soldiers Field Road near Harvard. Dave and I veered toward the studio’s front entrance, waited outside, and then greeted ex-President Carter when he exited the building. Dave and I ended up conversing with the nation’s 39th chief executive for more than five minutes until his Secret Service detail reminded Mr. Carter that he had another appointment!

Peter Green and I were now in a similar situation. With the same kind of impulsivity that had enabled me to converse with an ex-President, the two of us were now reconnoitering away from Harvard Square to the Longwood section of Brookline. Ten traffic-filled minutes later, we pulled into the driveway of the Amos A. Lawrence Elementary School where a phalanx of satellite trucks was already there covering the event.

We immediately leaped out of our car and sprinted to the nearby voting area. On our way to the school, we skirted past a reporter who was on the air; I heard her say breathlessly, “Governor Dukakis and his wife, Kitty, are already inside the school voting. They should be out momentarily!”

A minute or so later, the Klieg lights fired up, a gaggle of supporters began to converge, and a string of reporters instantly surrounded the candidate along with the Secret Service. Governor Dukakis and Mrs. Dukakis then strolled out of the school amidst a flurry of people surrounding them.

At that instant, Peter and I were about 20 yards away from the couple. However, instead of heading for his awaiting Secret Service limousine, Governor Dukakis made a beeline to the voters who were grouped outside the school’s perimeter. “Kell!” Peter barked to me, “They are literally heading our way!” 

Our impulsiveness in “witnessing” the historical event had now turned into something approaching the surreal. Seconds later, the governor approached us, vigorously shook our hands, and introduced himself to us.

“Mike Dukakis from Brookline,” the Governor said to me.

“Shaun Kelly from Wellesley,” I replied. “I have already voted for you today, Sir!”

The governor and his wife smiled, thanked us, and then got into their limo and sped away with Secret Service agents riding the ramp of the car and sirens echoing from the three police cars accompanying it. Sam Donaldson, a prominent ABC reporter at the time, sallied up to us and grumbled, “Who the hell are you?”

“I am a graduate student at Harvard,” I replied. He scratched his head and disappeared.

Peter and I were so astounded by the entire experience that we blew off our classes and ended up drinking way too-many-beers at the Cask ‘N Flagon, which overlooks Fenway Park.

Thus, if anyone ever asks me, “Have you ever conversed with a presidential candidate just after he or she voted in his or her district on election day?” I can answer in the affirmative. After all, life is what happens to us when we’re making other plans.


Don’t Ask

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Dom and Emily DiMaggio

On the evening before Game 2 of the 1967 World Series, I answered the phone in a huff. A diehard Red Sox fan, my stomach was already churning in anticipation of a most improbable World Series appearance by the 100-1 shot Impossible Dream Red Sox.

As fate would have it, on the line was none other than Mr. Dominic DiMaggio, an old friend and former neighbor of ours in Wellesley, Massachusetts. The younger brother of the immortal Joe DiMaggio, Dom had been an all-star center fielder for the Red Sox in his own right – and a very successful businessman in Boston thereafter.

After hearing Mr. DiMaggio’s observations of Game 1 (a Bob Gibson complete game 2-1 Cardinals victory), I handed the phone to Dad, who listened for a minute, smiled broadly, and then exclaimed, “Well, I’ll be damned, Dom, YES, of course! We’d be honored!”

When my father got off the phone, he turned to me and explained that Dom and his wife, Emily, had been bombarded by neighbors and friends for Red Sox tickets to the 1967 World Series. When the couple compared notes, they realized that the only Wellesley people who hadn’t called them were Larry and Laurie Kelly, my parents.

Ultimately, that is why the Dimaggios generously offered them two tickets for Game 2 of the ‘67 World Series. Thus, Dad and Mum proudly went to Fenway, sat with Dom and Emily DiMaggio, and saw Yaz hit two home runs and Jim Lonborg pitch what nearly was a perfect game (he gave up a two-out, 8th inning double to Julian Javier)!

Later on, Dad said to me: “The lesson to learn here, Shaunie, is…don’t ask!”

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