Death, the road and The Surf Ballroom
By Danny R. Phillips
Six or seven hours into a ten hour long road trip, a sense of foreboding and the unyielding sense that Death was near began to creep up my spine.
Is 32 too young an age to be thinking about death so extensively? I'm surrounded by life; my beautiful wife, our daughter, and talk of a hypothetical baby that would later become the reality that is our son Jack. Hell, the houseplant I started as a Mother's Day gift in second grade is still going strong. Why is this feeling with me?
My good friend and fellow scribe Hans Bremer and I left the land of Jesse James early one morning to head North to Minneapolis/St. Paul, the fabled home of Fitzgerald, The Replacements and the greatest onion rings in the world. As soon as we pulled away from my house, Hans got a smile of relaxed relief that would stay there in various forms until we returned home. He was free from all his worries, at least for a weekend.
When we left, time was inconsequential. This not merely a trip, it was a break from our everyday lives, a break from the rigors of work, children and age. I was focused on one of my infamous tunnel vision inducing album searches and Hans, a manager and buyer for a high-end rare books and maps shop in Kansas City was, of course, looking for books for the shop as well as fine copies to augment his already insanely monstrous private collection.
The car was filled with excellent music (everything from Chronic Town era R.E.M. to Matisyahu, Lou Reed and back again) as well as equal shares of serious and frivolous conversation; politics, what bands we'd most like to see reunite, old loves, regrets. Like two old women on the road together. There was rarely a moment of silence.
On our way north, we passed through a hamlet in Iowa named Clear Lake. Seeing the city limits sign made the shiver that was in my spine, jump out of the top of my head. Being the amateur music historian that I am, I knew precisely where the sense of dread was radiating from. Its epicenter was in the middle of this quiet settlement; a small, unassuming venue named The Surf Ballroom. A voice inside me said, "You absolutely must stop here on your way back home." I was in total agreement with myself.
Once we arrived in Minnesota, Mr. Bremer and I readied ourselves for that night's Twins game (we are both fanatical baseball junkies) and some fairly serious beer consumption. Walking along Lake Avenue in Minneapolis, I hit upon a little hole-in-the-wall record shop named Extreme Noise. Within that tight space, I found a copy of The New York Dolls on red vinyl, the first Soledad Brothers record, a record by British punks Stiff Little Fingers and a Reflex label pressing of Husker Du's amphetamine punk classic, Land Speed Record. My mission was complete. Or so it seemed.
Hans was lucky that day as well. He found himself a copy of The Tao of Baseball and a few other minor treasures; nothing that would equal big money or be as rare as a mint first edition copy of The Dharma Bums or The Gutenberg Bible but he was happy with his finds, nonetheless.
Clear Lake, Iowa isn't the type of town you'd expect to see in the middle of corn country. Stark white sail boats floated silently on the lake's crystal blue water, Elm and Maple trees line the meticulously manicured streets, and every lawn had grass that was the perfect shade of green. There was no way a town this pristine was real, it had to be a movie set. With its cottages, aura of immaculate relaxation and expertly shaped shrubbery, this town would better suit the New England coast than America's Heartland. This town looked perfectly out of place and certainly not like it would fit prominently in the lore and legend of Rock and Roll.
On the night of February 3rd, 1959, Clear Lake became Ground Zero for rock's first great tragedy. Having grown tired of riding on a bus with no working heater and wanting desperately to get some laundry done, the star of The Winter Dance Party, Buddy Holly, chartered a plane to fly him to the next tour stop in Fargo, North Dakota.
Also on board were J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson (Waylon Jennings, future Outlaw country giant and Buddy's bassist at the time, gave his seat to Richardson because "The Big Bopper" had the flu) and 17 year-old sensation Ritchie Valens. Shortly after departure, the small plane crashed into a frozen corn field a mile outside of town. All onboard were killed instantly.
In that one moment, Buddy became the biggest part of what would be the first of many tragedies tied to rock N roll; his death simultaneously ended his short life and placed him among the immortals.
Standing outside of The Surf Ballroom taking pictures on that quiet Sunday afternoon was a bit surreal. Hans and I shared little conversation as we clicked our souvenir photos of the building that seemed unchanged by time or progress. The box office windows were covered with show bills, the marquee advertised an upcoming performance by the bluegrass band Nickel Creek. Hans commented that he has sold books to members of the band before but then again, he has sold books to almost everyone.
When I look to the marquee again, Nickel Creek's name is gone. Now it read, The Winter Dance Party. TONIGHT! It's Sunday so the doors are locked but there is no need to go inside, I can feel the ghosts just fine from here.
Sitting silently on a worn green wooden bench next to a beautifully subtle marble obelisk bearing the names of the lost, including pilot Roger Peterson, I can almost see the kids lined up outside the box office, their tickets in hand or nervously hoping there are some left for sale.
Skirts, buttoned down plaid shirts, dungarees, maybe a leather jacket or two; they're all waiting to see Buddy, J.P. and Ritchie. These kids wanna dance, make out in a dark corner or drink from a smuggled in bottle of Old Crow whiskey. Those kids had no idea that the ticket they are holding makes them part of history. I smile while fighting back a tear. "What a sentimental ass you've become in your old age," the sarcastic voice in my head whispers. Again, I must agree.
I sit quietly enjoying the blue sky as my friend takes my picture. When I look at the photos later, I see in my face sadness, joy, and acceptance. Death has gone away, at least for awhile.
As I walk back to the car, I stop to take one last look at the old landmark, the Art Deco, late 1940's era sign still stands as a nod to a time frozen forever; nothing changes, not here. Just before I close the door to begin the last several hours of the return trip home, something off in the distance caught my eye.
Three large crosses solemnly stand watch in a field. That's where it happened but we won't be going there today; that's sacred ground. With Hans at the wheel, I'll just head out of town with the last few bars of Buddy's "Rave On" ringing in my ears.
Is it too early to be thinking about death? No, it's not but I think I'll try and concentrate on living for awhile.
Like Buddy said, "Rave On... it's a crazy feelin'."
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