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Editor's Note: Since this is the Anniversary Issue, we figured we'd re-run my first column. This was first uploaded April 1, 1999. We hope you enjoy it.
We recently had the pleasure of performing, for the very first time, in the state of Iowa. My wife and I are standup comics and we scheduled a four-day tour of the Hawkeye State, the third day of which was at a club called Lu's Lounge in Clear Lake.
Clear Lake is a town of 8,200 people within earshot of Interstate 35 in Northern Iowa. On the cold January day we visited, the fallow corn fields of Cerro Gordo County were blanketed with a healthy dose of mid-winter snow.
Clear Lake's neighbor to the east, Mason City, is a major processor of meat and dairy products, and, according to the AAA Tour Book, it's "probably best known for manufacturing brick, tile and portland cement."
Clear Lake's major industry is something a little more ethereal: They have successfully marketed their town as the very last place that Buddy Holly performed.
I must say, it was more than a little disconcerting to perform on a stage that was barely a few hundred feet from the stage door through which Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. "Big Bopper" Richardson walked for their final time. Lu's, the club where we were working, shared a parking lot with that of the famed Surf Ballroom, where Holly and the others entertained a crowd of 1,500 fans on February 2, 1959. The anniversary of their deaths is technically the third, because their chartered plane didn't take off from Mason City's airport until 1 a.m. The bodies of the pilot and the three young rockers went undiscovered for about 8 hours. The trio had sold several million records in the two years or so leading up to that day. Their balky tour bus, which had broken down just prior to the Clear Lake gig, forcing them to miss an engagement in Appleton, Wisconsin, couldn't be trusted. The trip to their next date in Fargo would be by air.
And the more time I spent in Clear Lake, the more depressed I became. The reminders of the tragedy are everywhere: Lu's was located at 619 Buddy Holly Place, Holly's name is invoked with alarming frequency in conversation with locals, and the framed front page of the local paper that adorns the wall of the Bennigan's restaurant details, in words and photos, the immediate aftermath of "the day the music died." And then there's the Surf itself, which, like most shrines, seems much smaller than you'd anticipated.
The unassuming, barrel-vaulted ballroom, nestled among a couple other nightclubs, a motel or two and a health club, is in an otherwise residential neighborhood. It's 50's- style marquee trumpets several upcoming events: A Diamond Reo concert, a car show, and the biggest event of all: the 3-day Buddy Holly Tribute, February 4, 5 and 6. The tribute attracts fans from as far away as England and is the focal point of Clear Lake's tourism year. For three short days, Clear Lake is a sacred place for baby boomer rock fans who simultaneously celebrate the early days of rock and roll and mourn it's premature death. And this year is a round number: 40 years have passed since the plane crashed.
As a performer, however, the experience of being on a stage, in front of an appreciative crowd, so near a place so associated with a fellow performer's last show was profoundly disturbing.
Once I did a week of shows at a comedy club in Syracuse. I found out months later that a gentleman who was in attendance at one of our shows was killed in an accident on his way home. His daughter wrote a letter to the club thanking them and detailing how much her father had enjoyed himself in his last hour or so. Since then, I have been ever mindful of the possibility that the folks in the audience might be enjoying their last hours.
In Clear Lake, however, I was all too mindful that my
time on stage might be my last. I was somewhat unnerved, but
I was comforted and relieved by the
knowledge that the next morning, we'd be headed to
Cedar Falls in the relative safety of a rented Plymouth
Neon. Thank you very much good night! I'll be here all week!
has performed standup comedy in all 50 states. He earned a B.A.
in Magazine Journalism from Temple University. Any resemblance
to a living person is purely coincidental.