'I think the songwriters of that era wrote about their own emotions and feelings and the things they knew,' Peggy Sue Rackham says today, sitting in the office of Rapid Rooter, the Sacramento drain-cleaning company she now owns and runs. 'So they were writing about real incidents and real people.'
'It was a more romantic time back when we were growing up,' says Donna Fox, once Richie Valens's 15-year-old high school date, now a mortgage consultant. 'I think it was totally different. It was exciting . . . oh, I don't know, cruising the drag and going to the drive-in, and the dancing . . .'
All this comes from the first in a series of four programmes called Tales of Rock'n'Roll, in which BBC2's Arena team examines four songs that bracket the evolution of the music from innocence to decadence: 'Heartbreak Hotel', 'Peggy Sue', 'Highway 61 Revisited' and 'Walk on the Wild Side'. But the programmes aren't all as literal-minded as the Peggy Sue series-opener: in fact each one takes the song in question on its own terms, using a form and style that reflect both the song's inner life and its effect on those connected with it.
There are darker currents even beneath the joyful surface of 'Peggy Sue', which Holly himself hinted at in the sequel, 'Peggy Sue Got Married'. The original song was at first called 'Cindy Lou' until Jerry Allison, the Crickets' drummer and the tune's co-composer, asked Holly if they might retitle it in honour of his girlfriend, whom he'd met at Lubbock High School and was still trying to impress. It worked: a year later, the song had sold a million copies and Jerry had eloped with Peggy Sue to Honeygrove, Texas, where, on 22 July 1958, they were married at a ceremony performed by the drummer's uncle. So Buddy wrote the lightly heart-stricken 'Peggy Sue Got Married': 'You recall the girl that's been in nearly every song / This is what I heard / Of course, the story could be wrong . . .' Jerry and Peggy Sue were married eight years: 'Hard years,' she says in the programme, 'financially and personally, and especially personally.'
Since the detectives of the rock'n'roll nostalgia industry tracked her down a few years ago, she's appeared on the Oprah Winfrey and Geraldo Rivera talk shows, she's met the original Barbara Ann as well as the original Donna, and she was pleased to accept an invitation to a special premiere of Francis Coppola's back-to-the-future movie, Peggy Sue Got Married. She's also seen herself portrayed in a stage play, about which she had mixed emotions, being as how she was there at the time, and knows what really happened.
On the phone to Sacramento last week, I suggested that there might have been times when she'd wished that Buddy had resisted Jerry's sentimental suggestion, and stuck with 'Cindy Lou'. Had it been difficult to live with being the Peggy Sue? 'Well, it works both ways. I feel very lucky that I knew Buddy and the Crickets, and it's a great honour to be included in what I think is some of the best music written in a long time. On the other side of the coin, I was 18 when I married Jerry, I'd come straight out of school, and I walked into a life I really knew nothing about. That was very painful. To go from wearing bobbysox to trying to look sophisticated, overnight . . .'
Such bittersweetness gets the straightforward treatment it demands. More complex is the case of 'Heartbreak Hotel', written by Tommy Durden and Mae Axton in 22 minutes after Durden had spotted a story in the Miami Herald: a hotel-room suicide who'd left a note that read, 'I walk a lonely street'. We don't get much of Durden and Axton here, though. Instead, the series' producer, James Marsh, ambitiously tries to use the song's text to prove that loneliness was central to Presley's character, and that it made his pathetic death inevitable.
Amid much sumptuous old footage and some slightly questionable editing (we're invited to assume that an Alfred Wertheimer photograph of Presley entering the Warwick Hotel on 6th Avenue in New York in 1957 is something to do with Tennessee in 1956) are two key witnesses. The first, Priscilla Presley, is unimpeachable: 'There was always that quality of loneliness,' she says. 'I've never figured that out. His grandmother was like that, his father was like that, his mother was like that . . . he would have times of loneliness, of just feeling lonely.' The second, the egregious Albert Goldman, author of the fattest and ugliest of Presley biographies, uses 'Heartbreak Hotel' to support his nice little earner, the suicide theory: 'It was a psychodrama in which he enacted despair and self-abasing humiliation and above all a terrible sense of pain and loneliness which turned out to be really the great themes of his subsequent life.' Bullshit, more or less.
The analysis of 'Highway 61 Revisited', Bob Dylan's howling 24-bar blues, says a lot more about both the artist and American music. Highway 61 runs south from Thunder Bay, just over the Canadian border, down the shore of Lake Superior and through Minneapolis/St Paul, St Louis and Memphis to the Mississippi Delta, ending in New Orleans: the fertile heart of American vernacular music. In its northerly extremities it passes along the Minnesota iron range, through Duluth, where Dylan was born, and close to Hibbing, where he grew up listening to a powerful New Orleans radio station beaming the sounds of Little Richard to the nation. When the boy Robert Zimmerman left Hibbing, it was 61 that took him to university in Minneapolis, where he found his new identity.
Here we get plenty of shots of two-lane blacktops, of railroad tracks, of sharecroppers' shacks, and the sound of the country blues songs that celebrated US-61 long before Dylan came along. Most valuably, we get John Bucklen, Dylan's childhood friend, who produces a bedroom tape of the two boys wailing a song called 'Hey, Little Richard'. Bucklen's memories, untapped and dew-fresh, add a valuable dimension to our knowledge of a great American artist; for these two boys, he says, life then was about 'friendship and music'.
Dylan and Lou Reed used to bump into each other at Andy Warhol's Factory in the mid-Sixties, when Dylan was using Edie Sedgwick as the template for 'Like a Rolling Stone' and Reed was assembling the Velvet Underground; the dislike was mutual and intense. Whereas Dylan's influence had been almost immediate, Reed's took more than a decade to insinuate itself. 'Walk on the Wild Side' was the song that found him an audience beyond the original Velvets cult, through its description of the 'superstars' of the Warhol netherworld. Being dead, Candy Darling and Jackie Curtis were unavailable for comment; a third transsexual, Holly Woodlawn, is very much alive, as is Joe Dallesandro, the super- stud of the Warhol movies. Their testimony is augmented by numerous compellingly creepy glimpses of the voyeur-in-chief.
From Peggy Sue Rackham wearing Jerry Allison's corsage at the Lubbock High School senior prom to Candy Darling shooting up in the back-room at Max's Kansas City: now isn't that the story of pop?
The first of Arena's 'Tales of Rock'n'Roll' is transmitted on BBC2 at 8.55pm on Saturday.
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