It’s one of my favorite rags-to-riches folk tales of rock ‘n’ roll: the one about Buddy Holly‘s motorcycle. In May 1958, the Crickets had just returned to Texas from a four-month top-of-the-world tour that took them from New York’s Paramount Theater to England to Australia, with stops at all ports-of-call in between. They’d come home to Lubbock, Texas, by way of Dallas, and decided to celebrate by stopping by the local Harley dealership, whose salesman disdainfully looked them up and down and said, “You boys can’t afford anything in here.”
Undeterred, they went across the street to Miller’s British Bike Emporium, where drummer Jerry Allison put down cash for a Triumph Thunderbird, bassist Joe Mauldin bought a Triumph TR6 and Buddy himself purchased a maroon and black Ariel Cyclone — 650 cc of pure torque from one of the most coveted British manufacturers. Together, they rode home through a thunderstorm to Lubbock, grinning all the way, wearing leather motorcycle caps that resembled Marlon Brando’s in the Wild Ones.
Thirty-six years later, I’m standing with Waylon Jennings in his garage. I’m in my guise as writer, helping Waylon put together his Autobiography. My task is to speak in his voice, and knit together all the varied strands of his past. We’ve already spent many nights and early mornings talking about the events that highlight his life — his hardscrabble beginnings in West Texas; the wild, afterhours of freewheeling Nashville in the 1960s; the pills, the road adventures and misadventures. We keep returning to his belief that country music should be accorded all the respect and power and freedom granted other genres, and his stories of how hard he’s had to fight to remain true to himself.
I was particularly interested in his time with Buddy, though, playing bass on the Winter Dance Party tour that would prove tragic on February 3, 1959, when a Beechwood single-engine plane carrying Holly and other musicians on the tour took off after a show in Clear Lake, Iowa, heading for Moorehead, Minnesota, and was found the next morning, crashed in a nearby corn field, killing all aboard. Waylon had been scheduled to be on that plane, he told me, but he gave up his seat to the Big Bopper. When he informed Holly — who was leaning against the wall in a chair, eating a hot dog — Buddy smiled at him and said, “Did you chicken out? Well, I hope your damned bus freezes up again.”
In jest, Waylon replied, “Well, I hope your ol’ plane crashes.”
It was the first time he’d ever told anyone that story.
The most important thing Buddy taught Waylon was that he was “pop music,” rather than country. In the ’70s, when the handle of “outlaw” seemed to perfectly fit Jennings and his running buddies, the philosophy behind that tag wasn’t about living outside the law. It was about setting your own law — being who you needed to be, and taking control of how that person might evolve.
Over the years, Jennings and I had become close (he enjoyed introducing me as a “New York hippie” to those he grew up with in Littlefield). He liked the fact that I was not Nashville, that he gradually discovered my own place in the rock ‘n’ roll firmament without me telling him, and appreciated that I intuitively understood the reasons why he spent all those years fighting for the right to sing his own song.
And, at that time in my life, I was learning how playing song can be a lot like riding a motorcycle. I’d come late to riding, but I was discovering parallels between taking a guitar solo and leaning a bike around a curve at 80 miles per hour. It was the same sense of being there and not being there, the acute concentration required to make sure you don’t skid off the note or the apex of the turn — the way instinct has to overcome conscious thought, and the oneness of human and machine, whether it’s an instrument or an internal combustion engine. So when I see the motorcycle in Jennings’s garage, I ask whose bike it is.
“It’s Buddy’s,” Waylon replies, offhandedly. At first I think it belongs to his first son, named after Buddy. But as he strolls away, I find myself unable to move as the story of the Crickets comes back to me, along with the sense of exhilaration and reward they must have felt returning home in such style. With dawning realization and a nervous anticipation, I take the cover off and behold, standing in all its glory, is Buddy Holly’s motorcycle.
I can’t resist. I swing my leg over its saddle, like a rodeo rider. Place my hands on the bars, give the brake lever a squeeze, toggle the gear shift with my toe. Like most British bikes, the foot pedals are reversed. Waylon’s already told me the story of how the Crickets gave it to him in 1979 for his 42nd birthday. He came back to his hotel room after a show and found it waiting. He immediately gave it a kick-start and let the sound roar off the walls. I’m not that bold. I just look in the rearview mirror and imagine that I’m riding around West Texas at the dawn of rock and roll, hearing the sound of “Western and Bop” — the style of music Buddy advertised himself as playing on his first business card. Or tuning in to the Lubbock station KLLL and listening to Waylon spin records — hoping that you can play music for your whole life, as Jennings did.
And then, after that life is over, as it was for Waylon in 2002, there comes a time to return your stuff. In early October, Waylon’s widow Jessi Colter decided to have what was essentially an expansive garage sale through Guernsey’s auction house. The centerpiece, of course, was Buddy’s bike.
At the preview exhibition of the sale in the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, I play rhythm to a selection of Waylon songs, accompanying Jessi and his son Shooter. She does “Storms Never Last,” he does Bob Dylan‘s “Isis” and I — in the spirit of family — sing “Love of the Common People.”
The next day, I watch his gold records, his scraps of manuscript, his guitars (I always loved that 1946 Martin D-28), the boxing gloves Muhammad Ali gifted him the night he regained his heavyweight title from Leon Spinks in 1978, the braids that Willie [Nelson] gave him when Waylon kicked drugs in 1983, and his collection of Lash LaRue comics, go on the block. There’s his desk, sold to country newcomer Eric Church, with the phone numbers of Johnny Cash and Hank Williams Jr. written in pencil in the top right drawer; and then there’s the manuscript pages I sent him when we were working together, one of the most appreciated periods in my life, when I was privileged to see the creative spirit through his eyes. To me, that’s a more precious possession than all of his earthly goods — when I became the mirror for his life’s journey. When I could see myself in his story, and he could see himself reflected in mine.
And when Buddy’s motorcycle comes up, closing in on half a million dollars, destined eventually for the Buddy Holly Museum in Lubbock, I wish I could up the bid. Because it is worth all the dreams that Buddy and Waylon and myself had when we picked up the electric guitar, and found a way to make ourselves heard.