002: Buddy Holly, ‘Learning the Game’

This week we’re paying a visit to the pantheon.

Buddy Holly’s professional career lasted less than two years, cut short by a plane crash in Iowa in February, 1959 (as described by Don McLean in “American Pie”). BH is of the same age, locale and musical background as Elvis. But as Lennon said, “Elvis died in the army.” And Buddy Holly lives. His songs have been recorded by a wide range of artists without a break for the past 50 years. His reputation continues to grow.

He’s a musician’s musician. Keith Richards credits him with inspiring the Stones to create original material. Bruce Springsteen said, “I play Buddy Holly every night before I go on–it keeps me honest!” Paul McCartney made an excellent, adulatory documentary movie about him.

The month before his death, Buddy recorded six songs he had written himself, alone with his acoustic guitar, in his living room at Apartment 4H of the Brevoort Apartments at 11 Fifth Avenue in Greenwich Village. For many years, these were known only in adulterated versions, over-dubbed with a cheap rock-and-roll band and chintzy backing vocals.

They included ‘That’s What They Say‘, ‘What to Do‘, ‘Peggy Sue Got Married‘, ‘That Makes It Tough‘ and ‘Crying, Waiting, Hoping‘. But the real gem for me is ‘Learning the Game‘, a painfully honest song that touches the adolescent bewilderment and insecurity most of us never fully outgrow.

All the songs display a sophistication of personal expression – especially cynical resignation –unheard of in a teenage context in 1959. Known today as “The Apartment Tapes”, they predate the singer-songwriter by just a few years chronologically, but by light years conceptually.

Buddy was 22 and a half when he recorded this, and when he died. At that age, John Lennon was recording “Love Me, Do”, and Bob Dylan had recorded one album of original material.

But for me, the stories and the loss and the legend are of secondary importance. What really matters is how beautiful and truthful a song is ‘Learning the Game‘.

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