Ronnie Van Zant: This Bird
You Cannot Change

© Brandt Hardin

In my home state, a gigantic Confederate flag billows in the wind above Interstate 40 about halfway between Nashville and Knoxville. I have never gotten an adequate explanation as to why the controversial flag flies there or who raises it every morning—some say it is the work of Southern traditionalists, others claim it is the Ku Klux Klan—but I choose to believe that it is a tribute to the memory of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s beer-swilling singer, Ronnie Van Zant. His deathday is October 20, so without argument, today the crimson flag flies for him.

Ronnie Van Zant was born in Jacksonville, FL, where he formed a band with his fellow longhairs in high school. They eventually named their group after a crotchety gym teacher, Leonard Skinner, who had ragged them day after day about their girly locks. The coach lost a promising athlete and the world gained a Southern rock martyr. Ronnie was a born scrapper who dreamt of becoming a pro boxer like his idol, Muhammad Ali. Of course, he also harbored childhood dreams of becoming a baseball player or a stock-car racer, but like boxing, you can’t participate in those sports with princess hair. Not so for rock n’ roll. Van Zant’s fate was sealed.

Lynyrd Skynyrd did their best to distinguish themselves from the overshadowing popularity of the Allman Brothers’ brand of Southern rock. Where the Allman Brothers jammed for hours on end, Lynyrd Skynyrd composed tight, chop-heavy tracks (with the exception of “Freebird,” whose solo is long enough for you to leave the venue to buy a pint of Jack Daniels and return in time to hear the end of the song.) Still, both groups played for the War of Northern Aggression’s sore losers and their descendants, bending the black man’s Delta blues to the absolute limits of whiteness. Their redneck connection was cosmic, brother. Van Zant even dedicated “Freebird” to Duane Allman, who was shredded in a motorcycle accident in 1971.

Lynyrd Skynyrd were one of the last bastions of working class White America by the ’70s. In an era of urban unrest, racially charged domestic terrorism, and the doldrums of disco, Lynyrd Skynyrd held fast the hearts of hillbillies. The rowdies were roaring for more in the autumn of 1977. Skynyrd released Street Survivors on October 17, whose album cover showed the band blazing in badass poses, about to embark on their “Tour of the Survivors.”  Three days later, it all came crashing down.

The “Survivors” tour found the band traveling in a modified 1948 Convair 240 (known as the CV-300) which hobbled through the air like a drunken buzzard. On October 19 the plane—dubbed Freebird—shot an alarming stream of flames from the engine, prompting the band’s new back-up singer, Cassie Gaines, to refuse to set foot onboard again. The guys talked her out of her stubborn paranoia, however, and on October 20 she was coaxed into flying from Greenville, SC to Baton Rouge, LA. That afternoon, the rickety Convair went down in the same Mississippi swamps that spawned Robert Johnson.

According to the surviving keyboardist, Billy Powell:

Our co-pilot…had been drinking the night before and, for all I know, may still have been drunk…We hit the trees at approximately ninety miles per hour…everybody was hurled forward. That’s how Ronnie died: he was catapulted at about eighty miles per hour into a tree [and] died instantly of a massive head injury…I saw [the co-pilot] hanging from a tree, decapitated. Then I saw Cassie, who was cut from ear to ear. She bled to death right in front of me.

Paramedics arrived in time to save most of the crash victims, and to witness the nearly 3,000 bipedal vultures descend on the wreckage, stripping the site of every piece of morbid memorabilia they could sink their pink claws into. The same sort of carrion would break open Ronnie Van Zant’s Orange Park mausoleum on June 29, 2000 and lay his body on the ground. It is unclear whether they also stole the fishing pole that Van Zant was buried with, or if so, whether the grave-robbers caught any decent fish with it.

The cover image for Street Survivors was so eerily appropriate that the MCA record label pulled the album from shelves and replaced it with a less prescient cover. A few thousand copies of the original album are still in circulation among collectors. My mother has a copy hanging on her wall. It’s the sort of decoration that will keep you awake at night as the ghosts of Skynyrd stare down at you. Superstitious fans got the same screaming willies as they listened to Ronnie Van Zant sing from beyond the grave:

Whiskey bottles and brand new cars
Oak tree you’re in my way…
Can’t you smell that smell
The smell of death surrounds you…

On the tenth deathday of Ronnie Van Zant in 1987, the newly reformed Lynyrd Skynyrd hit the road, complete with most of the crash survivors and Ronnie’s younger brother, Johnny Van Zant, among other new additions. One by one the original members dropped off over the years, but Lynyrd Skynyrd continues to tour today as a sort of tribute band with serial rights.

Soon after 9/11, my brother and I saw Lynyrd Skynyrd: The Lynyrd Skynyrd Tribute Band play a free concert in Knoxville. The arena was full of rebel flag-bearing rednecks for whom the classic rock staple “Freebird” never gets old, and the event was sponsored by Budweiser—back when it was still an American-owned company. Between songs, Johnny Van Zant touted his jingoistic support of American troops and American military aggression as he waved an American flag above the cheering crowd.

At the peak of the show, an enormous Confederate flag backdrop came down behind the band. I remember feeling a mixture of Southern pride and shame, which generally go hand-in-hand. But no matter how out of place I felt, it was nothing compared to the one black guy whose chunky white girlfriend had popped a rebel flag hat on his head and dragged him out to the concert. It’s amazing what a man will do for love.

Perhaps Ronnie Van Zant was smiling down on us from heaven that night with an etheric Texas Hatter’s hat shading his eyes, admiring the thousands of crackers floating in his Southern rock soup. Everyone knows that ancestral spirits love being remembered. Ghosts feed on memories.

So call your local classic rock station right now and request “Freebird.” Play extended air guitar solos along with the radio. If you see a concert tonight, demand that the band play “Freebird.” Otherwise, crack open a beer, jump behind the wheel of a pick-up, and drive around drunk listening to “Freebird.” Do it for Ronnie Van Zant!

Show a cop your middle finger and yell, “Freebird!” Invade a pet store and release the parakeets and cockatiels, crying,“Freebird!” Sculpt a bird you cannot change out of titanium and smash it through a restaurant’s glass window. Then, at the top of your lungs, tell the shard-covered patrons what you just gave them.

© 2011 Joseph Allen

Lynyrd Skynyrd — “Freebird

Stevie Ray Vaughan
Flies On Little Wings

© Brandt Hardin

Stevie Ray Vaughan was not a rock star in the conventional sense. For one thing, he had tremendous talent, which has become less of a prerequisite for stardom since disco laid waste to rock n’ roll in the 70s. For another, it doesn’t appear that he was a total self-indulgent prick, at least not to the embarrassing degree that the brightest stars reach—or that I do, for that matter.  Stevie Ray seems to have been a good guy.

Sure, before he supposedly got sober, Vaughan laced his whiskey with enough cocaine to develop bloody, bubbling holes in his stomach. He also named his band Double Trouble—will we mock him for that for the rest of eternity? He was a Texan, after all, what do you expect? And yes, when his marriage dissolved in his early 30s, Vaughan began keeping company with a nubile 17-year-old model from New Zealand. Some people judged him for his taste for tadpoles, but that just comes with the territory in rock ‘n roll. What about his crone wife, Lenora? “Lenny” snorted up Stevie Ray’s meager record royalties and commenced to gobble cock like a biomorphic turkey/rooster hybrid. Who is the villain of that story, really?

Stevie was a master blues guitar shredder who crashed and burned in his prime on August 27, 1990. He exploded on a fucking ski slope in a helicopter, for Christ’s sake! So I think we should all just give him a break. Yeah, I could fill pages making sport of the guy. I could poke fun at his gummy, Chicklets-jammed-into-Silly-Putty smile or the gayer-than-AIDS scarves he always wore, but really, I’d be a petty asshole to even mention them. So let’s just stick to the music, shall we?

Like his hero Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan’s prefered ax was a Fender Stratocaster, which he customized to the smallest detail. His favorite was a 1963 model that he and his guitar tech, Rene Martinez, called “Number One” and Stevie Ray called his “First Wife.” “Number One’s sidekick” was a Strat given to him as a gift from his wife, Lenora, which he dubbed “Lenny.” The rest of his small touring ensemble included “Butter,” “Red,” “Charley,” and a just few other cherished guitars. It is arguable that Stevie’s greatest loves were his instruments. Even when the strings broke or the pickups crapped out, they were better behaved than any human could be. Not that Vaughan made his relationship with guitars easy.

Anyone who has picked up a guitar knows that playing even medium gauged strings can feel like you’re doing fingertip push-ups on a bed of nails, but Vaughan played the heaviest gauges. Rene Martinez says that Vaughan started with a .013 and ended up with a .060. Combined with the incredibly high action on the bridge, Stevie Ray often came off stage looking like he’d just tried to feed a rabid badger by hand. That’s how he got such a snappy tone in his performances. His hands were phenomenally strong, so he still pulled off smooth bends that would have the Devil toting his fiddle to a Georgia pawn shop.

Stevie Ray’s gritty blues belongs in a bar, not on a page or computer screen, but here we are. His gravelly voice cried out to the Texas stars, “Gimme a drink, gimme a good woman, and if you fuck with either of them, gimme a fight then, you bad mambajamba!” You, dear reader, shouldn’t be reading morbid blogs your so-called “smart” phone right now, says Stevie—you should be making your way to the nearest honkytonk and dominating the jukebox with SRV tunes, even if that means scrapping the local hip hop fans for the right to get redneck. But if that’s not in the cards and you prefer to YouTube your way to rock n’ roll in total isolation, ol’ JoeBot be right here with you.

It is so difficult to describe a song in words. That’s why the most boring segments of otherwise great books—like Steppenwolf or The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test—are when the author tries to use words to describe music. If Hesse and Wolfe couldn’t really render a song in literature, it would be foolish for me to attempt it.

I only know Stevie Ray’s songs from frequenting bars—usually the ones with dead animal heads on the wall and no hint of any awareness of import beers. I never knew the man, and I barely know anything about his story. But I do know a roadie who claims that he was working at the Alpine Valley Music Theater the night that Stevie Ray Vaughan’s helicopter whirled through the fog and smashed him into a billion tears.

My roadie friend is a sociopathically loquacious, yet oftentimes charming man with whom I have exchanged many fascinating anecdotes in the dark shadows of the steel. He is an AWOL Army vet who took up cage fighting and sky-diving in his late 40s to offset the depressing deterioration brought on by his chemotherapy—a true fighter. He says that he has relics from Stevie Ray Vaughan’s last show, but is currently collecting clothes and food for the Northeasterners who have just been slammed by Hurricane Irene. When I finally catch up with him, I’ll have photographs for you to marvel over.

Until then, enough with the words. We’ll let this eternally influential guitarist speak for himself from beyond the grave…

© 2011 Joseph Allen

Stevie Ray Vaughan – “Life Without You

Randy Rhoads and that
Damned Beechcraft

Courtesy of Brandt Hardin at

It is questionable whether humans were ever meant to fly. The instinctive, white-knuckle terror which grips the average person at great heights is proof to many that we should just stay on the ground. Desperate prayers are uttered, pills are swallowed, lifetimes reconsidered, armrests torn from their hinges. Then the gears ease down for a smooth landing, and the Universe becomes a safe place once again—for now, anyway. While it is arguable that the laws of physics would not allow us to become airborne if we were not intended to be, gravity and high velocity are unforgiving judges of performance. Just one false move, and you’re an Icarus-splat on the dirt.

Randy Rhoads was acutely conscious of that fact, and terrified of flying. So it is curious that he came to be in the passenger seat of a Beechcraft light airplane on March 19, 1982, with the pilot executing daredevil dive-bombs over Ozzy Osbourne’s tour bus.

Ozzy had recognized Rhoads’ genius upon hearing the first note of his two-minute audition in 1980. The “Prince of Darkness” immediately invited Rhoads to record on Blizzard of Ozz. Over the course of two years, the young guitarist would ride a rising tide of permed headbangers to become a heavy metal legend. Besides his mastery of blistering metal riffs, Rhoads was also a proficient classical player, as evidenced by his elaborate solos. In fact, he remained an eager student to the end, scheduling lessons with various classical instructors on each stop of the Diary of a Madman Tour—down to his last gig in Knoxville, TN.

The band stopped for tour bus repairs on their way to Orlando, FL. As it happened, the depot was next to a small airstrip, and the wily tour bus driver knew how to get a plane off the ground (though his license had been revoked.) As the rest of the band slept on the bus, three thrill-seekers gaffled a Beechcraft Bonanza for a quick joyride: 25 year-old Randy Rhoads; the band’s hairdresser and costume designer, Rachael Youngblood; and the bus driver, Andrew Aycock, who snorted a sackful of magic pilot dust before jumping into the cockpit.

It isn’t hard to imagine what Aycock was thinking as he buzzed the tour bus like he was the rock n’ roll Red Baron. Aycock’s ex-wife, whom he’d fought with all the way from Tennessee, was down there. One can assume that the moniker “Gaycock” had been dropped on him at least once, now that she was free of his surname. Perhaps he just wanted to impress his former soulmate—or else put the fear of God into her. One way or the other, it’s clear that Aycock got cocky and his gak-fueled lunacy got the best of him.

But what were his passengers doing? Had they known they were in for a wild ride? Was Randy trying to overcome his flight phobia? Was he laughing at the gods? Screaming for his life? We will never know. On the third or fourth pass, the Beechcraft’s wing clipped the tour bus, tearing off its roof. The plane spun out, lobbed off the top of a pine tree, and smashed into a nearby mansion, exploding on impact. Everyone on board was incinerated.

Ozzy was overcome with grief for his close friend. “He was a saint,” the singer said of Rhoads, “He was an angel, and too good for this world. His death is always on my mind.” Although Randy Rhoads is pretty much unknown outside of heavy metal circles, his California gravesite still attracts scattered throngs of shredder devotees on his deathday.

The Mr. Crowley EP quickly became the best-selling picture disc of all-time, but sadly, Osbourne’s subsequent albums would never have the same bite after Rhoads’ passing. The band’s mullets would never be so skillfully feathered after the loss of Rachael Youngblood, either. That Ozzy did not follow them to the grave directly is a striking testament to his pact with the dark gods of this world. He later joked: “Had I been awake, I’d have been on that plane—probably sitting on the fucking wing.”

It seems that a rock star’s natural impulse is to defy gravity. High on drugs, high-dollar whores, high society, traveling at high altitudes—it all just comes with the territory. Rigorous tour schedules and stunning wads of pocket money put successful musicians on the next flight to somewhere, day after day. It’s no wonder that some crash to the ground—particularly those flying in light private planes.

The Beechcraft was the martyr-making death machine in early rock n’ roll history. Its first victims were claimed on February 3, 1959—the Day the Music Died. Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and J.P. “Big Bopper” Richardson boarded a 1947 Beechcraft Bonanza—the first in the Bonanza series—departing Clear Lake, IA. Taking off in the fog and snow, their plane barely made it five miles before disappearing from radar. Of course, all three artists reappeared at the top of the pop charts.

On July 31, 1964, “Gentleman” Jim Reeves hit a thunderstorm ten miles out of Nashville, TN and crashed his Beechcraft 35-B33 Debonair into the woods—just a year and a half after Pasty Cline had come to a similar end. In fact, Jim Reeves had taken pilot lessons from the same instructor as Patsy’s manager, Randy Hughes, who flew the plane she died in. Predictably, Reeve’s country ballad “I Love You Because” became the best-selling single of 1964 after his death.

On December 10, 1967—three days after recording the aqueous tune “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay”—Otis Redding was plunged into the freezing waters of Lake Monoma outside of Madison, WI. His death machine was a twin-engine Beechcraft H18, which made it less than four miles from the runway before spinning out of control. All but one of the passengers either drowned or succumbed to hypothermia. Redding’s memorial drew 4,500 people, and his posthumously released R&B record sold 4 million copies.

Jim Croce, whose rock hit “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” was the baddest tune in the whole damn town, had recently lost his luggage on a major air-carrier. Sick of the hassles, he hired his own Beechcraft E18S to fly him and his band out from Natchitoches, Louisiana on September 20, 1973. They may have over-packed a bit, because the pilot failed to gain sufficient altitude while taking off. The plane clipped some trees at the end of the runway and smashed into the ground. Released after his death, “I’ll Have to Say I Love You in a Song” seems strangely poignant in light of the accident.

The Beechcraft’s ferocious appetite eventually subsided after Randy Rhoads died in 1982, giving way to a variety of other star-hungry vehicles. In 1985, teen idol Ricky Nelson’s DC-3 went down in a ball of flame. In 1990, Stevie Ray Vaughn’s helicopter crashed into a ski slope. In 1997, John Denver crashed his Rutan Long-EZ into the Monterey Bay. And in 2001, up-and-coming star Aaliyah was killed when her coked-up pilot couldn’t get the overloaded Cessna 402-B to the end of the runway before crashing.

Statistically, flying is supposedly sixty times safer than traveling in an automobile—except for rock stars. You’d have to be suicidal to cut a hit record—or, err, upload a widely pirated MP3 album—and then step on board a small plane. Sure, you might take heart knowing that aircraft fatalities have fallen steadily in developed countries since the early 1970s. It may relieve some anxiety to hear that 2010 was the third year in the last four in which there were no U.S. airline fatalities.  For nearly ten years now, no major star has died in an air crash. It is possible that as aviation safety technologies continually advance—and rock stars avoid ultralight planes—the Gods of Death have become more merciful. You’d better hope so, Mr. Superstar. Otherwise, the Ancient Ones are getting plenty thirsty for the next martyr’s blood.

© 2011 Joseph Allen

“Mr. Crowley”1980

March 5: The Deathday of Patsy Cline

Portrait by Kristy Cannon

In a world of condescending good ole boys, Patsy Cline refused to be anybody’s pretty little anything. Bold, forceful, and hellishly wild, she could go from cute to ugly in the flick of a cow’s tail. She assured the fellas around her, “I know how to whack below the belt.” She had to.

Growing up in the hardscrabble hills of Virginia, then kicking her way into the boys’ club at the Grand Ole Opry, there was no time for “pretty please.” Patsy came into the national spotlight at the dawn of the Women’s Lib movement, but she wouldn’t be caught dead burning bras. Her ambition propelled her far beyond domestic constraints, and besides, busting balls was more her style. She was throwing knees and elbows until her plane crashed in 1963.

Patsy grew up among the plain folk of the Shenandoah Valley, the real salt of the earth, or what a gentleman might call filthy white trash. Her mother Hilda met her husband-to-be at a Sunday school picnic when she was only thirteen years-old. He was forty. Hilda gave birth to Virginia Patterson Hensley in 1932, outside of Winchester, VA.

Little “Ginny” (as Patsy was then known) was born to shine, but her star had to claw its way up instead of shooting across the heavens.  At age twelve Ginny was hacking up hens at the local poultry factory. At thirteen she fell ill with rheumatic fever, which momentarily stopped her heart and nearly killed her—but she claimed that the throat infection altered her vocal chords, giving her a “booming voice like Kate Smith’s.” She honed her pitch in the church choir, and by fourteen little Ginny was singing on the local radio station. She was also getting on with twenty-five year-old pianist, “Jumbo” Rinker. She quickly gained a reputation for getting around, but she wasn’t about to get tied down.

When she was fifteen, her ageing Daddy hit the bricks, leaving her and her young mother to take care of her brothers themselves. Little Ginny split her time between soda-jerking at the drug store and singing her heart out in honky tonks—even posing for a naughty black-and-white here and there—but no one besides local admirers seemed to notice.

Then in 1952 she met guitarist Bill Peer, who became her band-leader, her mentor, and one of her many lovers. Despite his happy marriage, Bill remained by her side through her first major performances, her first Music Row recordings, and her first record deal with Four Star. In fact, it was Bill who gave her the stage name “Patsy.” Unfortunately for Bill, it was the pudgy, yet persistent high-roller, Gerald Cline, who gave her the last name.

Gerald was eight years older, but a good deal richer than sweet Patsy. Unfortunately for Gerald, a twenty-two year-old Navy sailor was giving her the orgasms. And on show dates, so was Bill. Only one person was happy with this arrangement. Gerald wanted an apron in the kitchen, and Bill wanted a songbird on his lap. Patsy wanted to be a star, and when the heavens opened before her, she left Bill and Gerald on the ground.

After a smashing television performance on Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, Patsy was endeared to a national audience. Regular appearances on the Grand Ole Opry soon followed. Nashville was a cowboy scene where women sang duets or back up, but Patsy knocked their hats in the creek. She became the first female country artist to headline her own shows, and after her death, was the first woman to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

It may have been a slow start, but once she got going Patsy Cline made hit records like a trailer park matriarch squirts out rug rats—just one after the other. Patsy preferred the more upbeat tunes, but her record-buying public clamored for sadness. She became the voice of heartbreak for a generation of jilted lovers. Though she generally didn’t write the lyrics, she got inside her songs in a way that bled sincerity. She would be so overcome with emotion that she often wept in the recording booth. Fellow performers remember tears streaming down her cheeks as she sang gospel tunes at the Ryman: “She was as moved as the audience.”

In 1956, Patsy performed “I’ve Loved and Lost Again” on Tex Ritter’s Western Ranch Party. This sappy little country song expresses sadness toward fickle hearts and decaying tradition, but it also heralds America’s immanent transition from domestic monogamy to the free-loving frenzy of the 60s:

To be true to one alone
don’t seem to matter anymore.
They’ll tell you you’re out of style
unless you’ve had three or four.

I’ve loved and lost again,
Oh, what a crazy world we’re living in.
True love has no chance to win…

She wears a cowgirl outfit—most likely made by her mother—with her hat cocked to cast a shadow over her eyes. A sly grin comes over her face each time she sings “unless you’ve had three or four.” For a woman like Patsy Cline, three or four is just a warm up. Before long, she would meet her next husband, and lose the Old West costume in favor of Manhattan furs and sequined gowns.

Though widely regarded as a country star, Patsy’s most popular songs saw her shed the chipper mountain yodel for a silky voice consumed with unhealthy obsession. Aside from crossover appeal in the 1960s pop charts, “Walkin’ After Midnight,” “I Fall to Pieces,” “Crazy,” and “She’s Got You” also share a common persona: the weepy romantic who refuses to move on. Cast aside by her one true love, she stares at his pictures, slips his ring onto her finger, and stalks the streets at night—trapped by a memory. The jukeboxes must have floated on rivers of tears. Hearing the genuine anguish in these songs, you have to wonder what kind of dick could string Patsy along so skillfully.

Charlie Dick was a drinker, a brawler, and a notorious ladies’ man. After his father committed suicide, he took over responsibility for his family, working hard—but playing harder. It was 1956 when he stumbled into a Virginia honky tonk to see the Kountry Krackers perform. Suddenly, Patsy Cline took the stage, and Charlie was absolutely smitten. Having just left her smothering husband, Patsy was coy with him at first. But women just couldn’t say no to Charlie Dick.

For the first time in her life, Patsy was in love. “He’s a man, all man,” she bragged to friends, “bigger than life, and twice as hard!” They were married in 1957, and their daughter Julie was born the next year. After Charlie received an honorable discharge from the Army in 1959, the couple moved to Nashville, where Patsy signed with Decca Records and joined the cast of the Grand Ole Opry. Perhaps most importantly, she met her new partner in crime—artist manager, guitar-picker, and amateur pilot, Randy Hughes. Soon she was pregnant with a baby boy—also named Randy—but that didn’t stop her relentless recording and performance schedule.

In January of 1961, Decca Records released “I Fall to Pieces,” which rocketed to the top of the charts. As Patsy’s star grew brighter, her husband’s affection withered away, but her success afforded a standard of living beyond anything they could have imagined in the backwaters of Virginia. They bought a dream house in Nashville’s suburbs, laid gold-flecked tiles in the bathroom, and filled the cabinets with bottles of booze.

Charlie often stayed at home with the kids, swilled liquor, and stewed on his slighted manhood. He hated it when his wife called him “Hoss,” and she refused to be called Patsy Dick.  He was also jealous of the men in Patsy’s life—and according to many of them, rightly so. “You ought to be home being a wife,” he would yell, “instead of hauling all over singing and fooling around!” Their domestic squabbles were legendary, and according to many, would often leave Patsy bruised up or Charlie in the drunk tank. But everyone who knew them agrees that despite the misery and constant bickering, they loved each other passionately until the bitter end.

In June of ’61, Patsy was riding through Nashville with her visiting brother when a passing vehicle hit them head-on. Patsy was thrown through the windshield. Her wrist was broken, her hip dislocated, and her forehead was sliced up from eyebrow to hairline. The lingering pain from her injuries would last the rest of her life, and she would never look the same. A jagged scar slashed across her face, and the headaches came constantly. Laying in a hospital bed, she took her preacher’s hand and prayed that the experience be a lesson to her, to inspire her to find happiness at home with her family.

By August she was rolling her wheelchair into the studio, where she recorded her signature track, “Crazy.” As soon as she got back on her feet again, she was out on the road. Having conquered Music City, her manager Randy Hughes booked her from Pensacola to Canada, including the Hollywood Bowl with Johnny Cash and numerous television appearances in New York City.

Patsy’s heart broke in two every time her bawling children chased her to the door, and the furious arguments with Charlie were taking a toll, but she had to keep going, she had to bring in the money. All the while, the hits kept coming. The iron was hot, and profiteers were hammering away at her soul. She spent her last Christmas on earth doing high-dollar gigs in Las Vegas, then cried into her hotel pillow while her kids described their presents on the phone. She told Randy Hughes she was ready to slow down. Randy told her where the next show would be.

Patsy’s last performance was a benefit for the surviving family of “Cactus Jack,” Kansas City’s most popular country deejay, who had been killed in a car crash in early 1963. Her last song was also her last recording, “I’ll Sail My Ship Alone” (though all the sails you’ve torn/ and when it starts to sinkin’, I’ll blame you.) The next morning, Patsy was tired, sick, and thoroughly disillusioned. She ached to be with her family—her two year-old boy was also sick—but a thunderstorm delayed their departure. Her best friend, Dottie West, was worried about Patsy flying in Randy’s little plane through such weather, and offered to drive her back. But Patsy decided to go with Randy. “Hoss,” Patsy told Dottie, “don’t worry about me ’cause when it comes my time to go, I’m going. If that little bird goes down, I guess I’ll go down with it.”

On March 5, 1963, Randy Hughes took off from Kansas City with three Opry stars onboard: Patsy Cline, Hankshaw Hawkins, and Cowboy Copas. Randy followed behind a stormfront moving over Nashville, where their families anxiously awaited their arrival. They got lost in a stormcloud 90 miles out. Witnesses said the plane was flying erratically, cutting the tops off of pine trees before it dove straight into a hill. Search parties said the plane and crew were completely pulverized. Patsy’s bloody slip hung from a tree. Scavengers prowled among the wreckage, lifting whatever they could get their hands on. Soon the news was traveling over phone lines, the airwaves, and eventually the press.

The next day, Paul Harvey announced on his radio show: “Three familiar voices are silent today. And over an ugly hole on a Tennessee hillside, the heavens softly weep.” There was weeping from the darkest hollow to the brightest stage in Nashville. The fates had been merciful since the death of Hank Williams a decade earlier, but statistics finally caught up to Music City. Patsy’s wake was held in her dream house in Nashville, with her husband overcome with grief, her children crying out for their mother. Oddly enough, a fourth Opry star was mourned during her public memorial—news rippled through the crowds that Jack Anglin had been killed in a car accident on his way to the funeral. When it rains, it pours.

Days later, thousands of fans descended on her burial in Shenandoah Park, VA, stripping the gravesite of flower arrangements and cards in full view of the grieving family. Not that Patsy would have minded so much. With an eerie intuition, she had begun tying up loose ends and giving away her belongings in the months before her death. She kept saying she would die before turning 30, but she just made it.  Having sacrificed her home life in order to ascend to the vinyl heavens, it is only fitting that her adoring fans would scour the ground for relics when she came crashing down to the earth.  As one of the pallbearers noted: “It’s like a religion with them.”

© 2011 Joseph Allen

“Three Cigarettes in an Ashtray”1957

For further reading, see Ellis Nassour’s Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline.

February 3: The Death Day of
Buddy Holly

Courtesy of Jeffrey Bertrand

Anything cool you ever did, Buddy Holly did first. Those trend-lemming black specs? Buddy wore those when glasses were for nerds. Your hip, four-piece rock band? Buddy set that standard, son. Radical race-mixing? Buddy played with black musicians and married a Latina before such associations yielded multiculti cred—back when it got you bludgeoned by mongrels. Those teenage girls shaking hips by the jukebox? Buddy got the first slice of Miss American Pie, and by all accounts, she was home-grown cherry. And your tragic demise in the passenger seat of a hexed death-machine? Buddy beat you to it, dude. He’ll be worshipped forever, and you’ll be another statistic.

Like a sacrificial life-force, rock n’ roll was in Buddy Holly’s blood. His voice won over crowds from kindergarten on. As a teen in 1955, Buddy marveled at Elvis’ rockabilly performances, eventually opening for the King later that year. By ’56, he was recording his first singles in Nashville, which flopped. Undaunted, Buddy hooked up with recording studio manager Norman Petty, who nurtured Holly’s eclectic talents through the next hard year, and helped himself to Holly’s money when his singles finally topped the charts. Buddy’s career took off in September of 1957, only to crash in a spiraling fireball on February 3, 1959—along with stars Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper. The Day the Music Died. That’s when record sales shot past the Sputnik.

Buddy Holly and the Crickets wrote hits about true love in an age of innocence. John Lennon was changed for life after seeing him play on TV. In fact, the Beatles’ name was inspired by the Crickets, and their first recording was reputedly a cover of “That’ll Be the Day“—whose lyrics sound like an emo suicide threat to an unrequiting lover.

Holly’s tunes echoed through subsequent careers. His chop-heavy “Not Fade Away“—a funny little ditty about male dominance, genital exposure, and an unshakable priapism—was played by the Grateful Dead a bazillion times before Jerry Garcia gave up the ghost. The list goes on and on.

A fascinating take on this all-pervasive influence comes from author Gary Patterson, of Knoxville, TN. His book, Take a Walk on the Dark Side: Rock and Roll Myths, Legends, and Curses, explores the morbid coincidences surrounding Buddy Holly’s passing. Although a few of his sources are sketchy, one gets the impression that Mr. Patterson has spent many a witching hour listening to his short-wave radio for voices of the dead—which is enough to keep me reading.

Courtesy of Brandt Hardin at

So get this: In 1957, the Big Bopper pulled a 122 hour sleepless Disc-A-Thon, after which he was carried away on a gurney. Did no one tell him that sleep deprivation can kill you? While suffering hallucinations, he claimed to have seen his own death—and apparently he enjoyed it.

On January 31 of that same year, 15 year-old Ritchie Valens missed school to attend his grandfather’s funeral. When he stepped outside, a flaming airplane fell from the sky and blew up in the distance. In a rubbernecking frenzy, his family piled into the car and followed the smoke. They arrived at Ritchie’s school, where the plane had smashed into his playground during recess. Young Valens had only just gotten over his fear of flying when he crashed two years later.

Not long before his fateful flight, both Buddy Holly and his young wife had simultaneous dreams involving plane crashes. That’s pretty weird, but here’s the real doozy, described in great detail in Dave Thompson’s Better to Burn Out: The Cult of Death in Rock n’ Roll.

In early 1958, British studio engineer Joe Meek—best known for his bizarre, yet effective recording techniques—held a Tarot session with Jimmy Miller and a mysterious Arab on a (presumably) dark and stormy night. As Meek flipped the cards, the Arab began writing automatically. The message read: “Buddy Holly Dies February 3.” Cue crackling thunder. After weeks of frantic searching, Joe Meek finally delivered the message to Holly in March, who replied with something like, “Thanks… weirdo…” and went on his way.

Scared yet?

With a pregnant wife and a flat wallet, young Buddy Holly joined the Winter Dance Party package tour in 1959. The bands traveled the frozen Midwest in a rickety bus with a broken heater, and after a wearisome performance at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, Buddy decided to fly to the next gig. Holly’s bassist, Waylon Jennings, gave his plane seat up to the sickly Big Bopper. Holly’s guitarist, Tommy Allsup, actually lost his seat to Ritchie Valens in a coin toss, inspiring Allsup to later open a bar called “The Head’s Up Saloon.” During their famous parting moment, Buddy yelled, “I hope your bus freezes over!” To which Waylon Jennings replied, “Yeah, and I hope your ol’ plane crashes!” Which, as we all know, it did.

The music didn’t just die that day—it was ground into a smoldering ball of split skulls, twisted steel, and yes, a torn scrotum. The papers related the story in grisly detail, creating the biggest, brightest, most fantastically heart-wrenching Death Icon ever—until JFK took over. AM radio stations were awash in innocent blood. Holly was 22, Valens was 17, the Bopper was 28. Dead babies, man, read ‘em and weep! Cry your fucking eyes out.

Buddy Holly’s death continued to reverberate through the music world, opening new doors and splattering them with blood. As Holly’s last release, “It Doesn’t Matter Any More,” sold by the truckload, his friend and fellow pop star, Eddie Cochran, was thrown into a full-on freak out. Eddie was supposed to be on the Winter Dance Party tour with Buddy—maybe even that doomed flight—but had skipped it to perform on The Ed Sullivan Show. Convinced that the Grim Reaper was now after him, Cochran holed up in a dark room with Holly’s records, listening to them obsessively. He even recorded a weepy tribute called “Three Stars,” but refused to release it. Instead, he gobbled tranquilizers and became a general mess.

Ronnie Smith, on the other hand, got his moment to shine when he took Buddy’s place on the Winter Dance Party. Yes, the tour carried on—less three stars, and plus one Ronnie.

David Box stepped behind those goofy specs as well, joining Buddy’s former band, the original Crickets. After their single “Peggy Sue Got Married” failed to make an impression, Box went solo and headed for Nashville with stars in his eyes.

Wayward rocker Bobby Fuller also followed in Buddy’s footsteps. Under the guidance of Holly’s former manager, the shiesty Norman Petty, Fuller broke into the charts with the fatalistic classic “I Fought the Law,” written by Crickets guitarist Sonny Curtis.

Enter the Reaper.

On April 17, 1960—as the world celebrated Jesus Christ’s victory over Death—Eddie Cochran’s car hit a light pole. He was hurled into a field along with his Gretsch guitar. The instrument was found unscratched. Eddie was smashed to hell, and died in the hospital at age 21—surrounded by the Crickets, who just happened to be in town.

On October 25, 1962, Ronnie “the Replacement” Smith was found swinging from a self-tied noose in the drug-treatment ward of a nut-house. If he couldn’t be Buddy Holly, he could at least join him.

On October 23, 1964, David Box was on a flight to Nashville to cut his next single when the little Cessna Skyhawk took a fatal nose dive. Like Buddy, he was 22.

On July 18, 1966, Bobby Fuller was found in his mother’s car near her Hollywood apartment, beaten to a bloody pulp and doused in gasoline. Coroners even found gasoline in his stomach. It could have been the LSD, it could have been the fact that Fuller was schmoozing a gangster’s special lady, or it could have been the Curse of Buddy Holly. The Law that he fought called it an accident.

On February 3, 1967, Tarot-reading doomsayer Joe Meek—who had become convinced that the late Buddy Holly was feeding him riffs from beyond the grave—blasted his landlord’s wife with a 12-gauge shotgun. He then turned the gun on himself, transforming his face into “a burnt candle,” according to one witness.

And the bad juju doesn’t stop there.

On September 7, 1978, the Who’s drummer Keith Moon was found dead in the same London apartment that “Mama” Cass Elliot had died in four years earlier. Moon had spent the previous evening at the premiere screening of the fallacious Buddy Holly Story with Paul and Linda McCartney, as well as munching one Heminevrin pill for every year of his life. September 7 happens to be Buddy Holly’s birthday.

On December 30, 1985, the Ozzy & Harriet star turned cheeseball musician, Ricky Nelson, played Buddy Holly’s “Rave On” for his final encore. He died later that night in a fiery plane crash.

Finally, on February 8, 1990, Del Shannon, a Golden Oldies favorite who spent his last days wallowing in personal sadness and antidepressants, popped a .22 caliber into his temple.* His final performance was the week before—on February 3 at Buddy Holly’s 31st Anniversary Concert and Dance,* with the Crickets as his backing band. So now do you believe in black magic?

I can already hear the smug skeptics chuckling. Circumstantial evidence, you say. Meaningless connections. Happenstance. As if your paltry intellect could grasp the lattice of coincidence underlying mundane events. You think you’re the first brainiac to cut through the mystical bullshit? Step in line, pal. Remember how Buddy Holly casually dismissed Joe Meek’s dire prophecy? Looks like he beat you to voguish skepticism, too.

© 2011 Joseph Allen

* [2-6-11 - ed. note: Two corrections made.  Relying on Patterson, I originally wrote that Del Shannon used a shotgun, and that his last show took place at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa.  It was actually a .22 rifle, and the Fargo Civic Auditorium in North Dakota.]