A tale of two Buddies... If it's fresh dirt on one of the premium properties in rock and roll you're looking for, you won't find so much as a sordid grain of it in the pages of Rave On, the latest book competing for recognition as the definitive chronicle of the life of Buddy Holly. Instead, you'll politely tour the life and times of one of the genre's progenitors -- and, in the process, get as far inside the Holly psyche as you can go without the guidance of the man himself.
Author Philip Norman, who's also penned biographies of the Beatles, Elton John and the Rolling Stones, claims to have interviewed anyone and everyone close to Lubbock's most celebrated son, and it certainly reads that way. Rave On is a painstakingly inclusive, precise and beautiful work, marked by well thought-out analyses of the musician's life and his body of work, as well as broad insights into Holly's influence on the course of pop music.
At times, Norman's reportage is a little too thorough, occasionally moving beyond exhaustive and into the realm of the exhausting. Norman was given access to Holly's personal records -- everything from tax returns and contracts to airplane tickets and canceled personal checks -- and he makes sure the reader appreciates this privilege with his meticulous rundowns of various business dealings, some relevant (how producer Norman Petty bilked Holly financially, for instance), some trivial. Still, Norman's readable prose and command of his subject have a way of attaching relevance to the most extensive detail-ridden interludes.
Still, it's the countless conversations with friends, family and colleagues, not the incessant fact-finding, that most enriches Rave On. Particularly revealing are Norman's interviews with the singer's reclusive widow, Marie Elena, and his brother Larry. The way they tell it, Holly was as decent a human being as his myth portrays -- generous, hard working, driven to succeed. Leaving behind few, if any, enemies, Holly died "a young man with everything he needed," writes Norman, "except luck."
Muck miners unsatisfied by Norman's near-godlike portrayal of Holly can turn instead to Ellis Amburn's Buddy Holly: A Biography, which hit the stores in August. Amburn, author of such semi-sensational unauthorized biographies as Pearl: The Obsessions and Passions of Janis Joplin and Dark Star: The Roy Orbison Story, teases readers with periodic mentions of Holly's alleged sexual escapades (including a supposed involvement in orgies with the pre-saved Little Richard); he details Holly's dismay over his pockmarked skin and bad teeth; and he mentions in passing Holly's cigarette habit and occasional drunken episodes. Unlike Norman, Amburn wallows in the grotesque details of the 1959 plane crash in which Holly died, describing the mortal injuries to the 22-year-old singer and his cabinmates Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper in coroner-like detail, right down to Holly's "pulverized" ribs and "small laceration of the scrotum."
But aside from hearsay and the remains of the dead, Amburn has little of real shock value to offer. His version of Holly history -- while benefiting from talks with many of the same people Norman interviewed (including Larry and Marie Elena) -- lacks both Rave On's depth and stylistic grace. Amburn throws out piles of information and intriguing anecdotes, but he fails to sculpt them into a compelling portrait.
Amburn, a West Texas native, lacks not only Norman's descriptive acumen and analytical skills, but also his uniquely British appreciation of Holly's influence. Holly thrived atop the pop charts overseas long after his star was extinguished in the U.S., and you don't need a biography to attest to his indefinite shelf life. Just turn to the hits of your favorite British Invasion artists and follow the trail of Holly clear through the '70s and '80s and into the present day.
There were rumors circulating about a new Buddy Holly box set, but so far this year, MCA has released only Greatest Hits, an 18-track collection of remastered Holly classics with full liner notes and credits. It came out last month, a few weeks after what would have been the artist's 60th birthday.
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A little bit of Houston in Austin... Kevin McKinney, former frontman for capital-city phenoms Soulhat, has a new creative vehicle these days. He's calling it Shat Records, and its regular live roster includes drummer Conrad Choucroun, also of Earthpig and Fire and Banana Blender Surprise, and former Soulhat bassist Brian Walsh. For the band's Friday show at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge, Banana bassist and Madd Oxe maestro Alan Hill will spell Walsh, who's in Europe touring with the Billy White Trio. Raw and funky, McKinney's new material sounds promising. So just add beer and watch Shat grow.
Houston's Trish Murphy seems to have found what she was after in Austin. It's been a little more than two months since her move, and she's already got a solid new band, bookings all over Texas and the undivided attention of former Lucinda Williams producer/guitarist Gurf Morlix. Morlix recently lent his touch in the studio to a new four-song demo that Murphy is shopping nationwide. Catch her show Friday at McGonigel's Mucky Duck. Dallas songsmith Colin Boyd opens.
Etc.... In the bold cable-access tradition of serving every sector of the public, Access Houston is airing two new music videos from the local Mass Murder Media, one featuring a too-strange July '96 Man or Astro-Man? performance at Fitzgerald's, the other an even stranger multi-image noisefest from Rotten Piece. Check local TV listings for dates and times. Also filed under fringe entertainment this weekend, the City Cycles stage at the Westheimer Street Festival features, among other local acts, high-volume undesirables Saddlebag Saturday and Dixie Waste and Peterbuilt Sunday.
-- Hobart Rowland