“With the hesitations in the beat, in the singing, matched by the words fitted to them — ‘You drivin’ me back’ — the record isn’t easy to listen to, because it doesn’t quite make sense.” - Greil Marcus, The History of Rock ’N’ Roll In Ten Songs, on The Crickets’ “Not Fade Away.”
Of all Buddy Holly songs, “Not Fade Away” is the one that, appropriately, given its title, has never vanished. It’s around more than “Peggy Sue,” more than even “That’ll Be The Day” and “Everyday,” and maybe (baby) that’s due to what Marcus suggests, its inscrutability. Or maybe because it’s real simple to play, with that Bo Diddley beat that anyone can lock into, and that can be locked into anything. It’s the little black dress of rock songs, always appropriate, always stylish, easily accessorized. What doesn’t it go with?
Any other songwriter probably would’ve gone with “you know my love won’t fade away,” and deprived the world one of its great pieces of phrase-making (and David Chase’s movie of its title). Would it have lasted as long? You can zip over to Wikipedia and see a nutty cluster of artists who have covered the song, but the list itself is incomplete, not only in terms of quantity.
Sure, it’s one of the few songs on earth that’s been tried out by The Stones, The Beatles and Bob Dylan, and that’s impressive enough. And it’s been in The Grateful Dead’s elastic repertoire forever. Hand someone — James Taylor, Warren Zevon, Greg Kihn, Joe Ely, Stephen Stills — a guitar, and there’s a fair chance “Not Fade Away” will emerge after some exploratory strumming. The Band used to do it when they were Levon and The Hawks, and it resurfaced as a jam at Watkins Glen. The Byrds sang it on Shindig, The Knack at Carnegie Hall, Patti Smith at Montreux, Jack White outdoors in a parking lot at SXSW.
The early Stones sprinted through it in a head-snapping 109 seconds, a band in a hurry, and Dead-medleys incorporating it have lasted over a half-hour. People keep circling back to it, weaving it into personal rock history in different ways. Some are easy to assemble: Springsteen’s been prone to merging it with his own Diddley homage “She’s The One,” and on the ’78 tour, “Gloria” was thrown into that mix quite a bit. Los Lobos have done it in tandem with their cover of the Dead’s “Bertha,” which also makes sense. But then it’ll pop up in the wackiest places. For Deep Purple, it came pounding out of “Highway Star.” Queen threw a version in between “Another One Bites The Dust” and “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.” At the Madison Square Garden concert for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Simon & Garfunkel did a shaky couple of minutes of “Mrs. Robinson,” brushed that away, and seamlessly glided into “Not Fade Away,” easy as that.
The Beatles, as Marcus points out in his “Crying, Waiting, Hoping” chapter, kept revisiting Holly. When you hear the bare, early takes from Beatles For Sale, Rubber Soul and Help, it’s so clear how close to Holly songs they are. Then, when they got together for the Get Back sessions, looking for anything, a scrap, to agree on, they inevitably turned to Buddy. There’s a segment when they stick “Not Fade Away” — Lennon on lead vocal — between Duane Eddy’s instrumental “Cannonball” and Dee Clark’s “Hey Little Girl.”
There’s a small, less than a minute, fragment of John Lennon singing “Not Fade Away” into a home recorder at the Dakota, fiddling around with it for a while, and then you hear Yoko, from elsewhere in the room. She’s been humming along, barely audibly. “That’s a good one,” she tells John. “Buddy Holly,” John says. He strums a little more, and the tape runs out.