The loss that keeps Buddy with us today, though, is a larger one that bridges two generations: the so-called war babies, born during World War II, and the first of the baby boomers, who turned 13 in 1959. As they entered adolescence, the first Americans to think of themselves as teenagers were presented with a fresh-faced product of Lubbock, Texas, who was tall and geeky and—unheard-of for an entertainer of any kind—wore black horn-rimmed glasses. He was not a sex symbol like Elvis. He did not make country music like Hank Williams nor “race” music like Chuck Berry or Fats Domino. He was not outrageous like Little Richard or Jerry Lee Lewis, and he was not urban and Eastern like Paul Anka or Frankie Avalon.
Buddy Holly was an original, most notable for all the things he was not—and by not being any one of them, he became all of us. His was the embarrassing face every adolescent white kid saw when he looked in the mirror. Even his name—Buddy!—seemed unthreatening and reassuring. If the raw energy of songs like “Peggy Sue” and “Rave On” suggested an awakening sexuality, the unrestrained joyfulness of others like “Oh Boy!” spoke also to latency, the pre-puberty stage of life when the imagination is free to fantasize without being bombarded by sexuality and insecurity.
The Beatles absorbed Buddy’s playful spirit in their early years, but by then the war babies and boomers had moved to older adolescence, and their other heroes had fallen in other bitter landscapes: Dealey Plaza in Dallas, the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem, the Lorraine Motel in Memphis and the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.
I recently watched a video of Buddy’s appearance on theEd Sullivan Showin 1958. Here was the gnarled and dyspeptic Sullivan, muttering an introduction. And then, suddenly, here were Buddy and the Crickets, launching exuberantly into “Oh Boy!” Embarrassingly, I felt tears welling up. I think now I was moved by rediscovering the feelings I once had of uncomplicated happiness, before sex and the Sixties hit. I was often happy then, too, but it was different.
Last summer I was thinking about all of this—Holly, the boomers and their fiercely held nostalgia—while standing outside the Surf Ballroom on a street now called Buddy Holly Place. Then an apparition appeared: a vintage, canary-yellow Thunderbird convertible driven by a man sporting a luxuriant handlebar mustache. His license plate read “2 BIG 55.” I asked to take his picture. He agreed, though afterward I could not decide whether the “55” stood for his age or the model year of the Thunderbird. Or maybe both. Or maybe, as the title of Buddy’s last record put it, “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore.” The driver was expressing his own connection to a lost time of innocence and fun.
If Buddy had lived, he would turn 73 this year. During this week’s commemorative events in Clear Lake, his widow, Maria Elena, who has remarried and divorced since Buddy’s death, will travel to the Surf Ballroom, along with members of the families of the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens. The kids who discovered their generational identity through his music a half-century ago are in their 60s now. For us, Buddy Holly’s music will forever stay close to the heart, standing in for the youth and bright future we once savored but can never reclaim.
Landon Jones is the former managing editor of Peoplemagazine and the author of Great Expectations: America and the Baby Boom Generation.