Rocking & Rhyming

Buddy Holly: Learning the Game
By Spencer Leigh
Publisher: McNidder & Grace, price £15 (Foreword by Frank Ifield)

By Roger McGough
Publisher: Penguin Viking, price £12.99

Reviews by John Cornelius

As Buddy Holly’s life and career were tragically cut short in a plane crash which also killed the pilot, Roger Peterson, and two other stars, Ritchie Valens and ‘the Big Bopper’ Jape Richardson, the last thing you’d expect from a book about him is to have to stop every now and then to laugh out loud. But this is what I found myself doing time after time while perusing Spencer Leigh’s new book. Although the hour by hour, minute by minute countdown of Holly’s last day is dramatic, it occurs only halfway through the book. Also described is a musician who gave it all up to sell insurance against being abducted by aliens in, naturally, Roswell, Texas, and Leigh correctly observes that you’ll never get anywhere with
a song entitled There’s a fungus among us.

Whether he’s describing a West Texas pillow-stuffing competition in Lubbock or some of the musical characters unearthed in this story, Spencer cannot resist a humorous aside. While neatly sidestepping mere facetiousness, he nevertheless reveals a genuine love for his subject. The humour helps this rather oft-repeated tale to leap along with a new spring in its step.

If you already know the Buddy Holly story inside-out, you’ll find much here that you didn’t know (or didn’t know you wanted to know). If you are in the fortunate position of not knowing the story already, you have a treat in store. I can’t think of a better way to become acquainted than to read this book. I hope he’ll do a similar job on Roy Orbison, another musical genius from a Texan ‘nowhere town’ – the improbably named Wink, in his case – whose story offers a feast to tragedy fans, as well as a truly weird looking family.

While much contemporary poetry retreats into its own self-conscious, quasi-academic netherworld, glancing furtively over its own shoulder to see what everyone else is doing, producing unreadable irrelevancies in the process, Roger McGough continues to quietly plough his own furrow. A new collection from the long-serving ‘People’s Poet’ is always refreshingly welcome. There are of course examples of the clever, chuckle-inducing puns and wordplay that put him on the map over 50 years ago: two which spring out at you are, The bee, the wasp and the poet and the labyrinthine typographic concrete poem, To be stitched inside a French beret, which recalls the Mouse’s Tale from Alice in Wonderland.

However, generally as the collection progresses, the poems become more profound and thoughtful while retaining the trademark wit: reflections on life and time from the perspective of a highly sensitised man who has enjoyed personal contact over the years with some real cultural heavyweights – Robert Graves, Philip Larkin, Ted Hughes, Seamus Heeney, not to mention The Beatles (mistyped in the singular in Aubade Mirabilis) and the 1960s explosion of Liverpudlian talent in which Roger and his group, Scaffold, played a not insignificant role.

As this reviewer was born in North Liverpool, as were both Spencer Leigh and Roger McGough, I can hear cries of ‘croneyism!’ for giving each a good press. But can I help it if our finest rock historian and archivist as well as our wisest and wittiest poet both happen to be scousers? No. If I’m pushed to pour at least some vinegar on the chips, I will say that what these books have in common is a sparse, uninspired jacket design. McGough admits he had trouble persuading his publisher to join up the words in joinedupwriting – a difficult concept for the IT trained generation, no doubt.

As for Spencer Leigh, in his youth he looked a lot like Buddy Holly, complete with the big black glasses. In fact, come to think of it, you never saw the two of them together in the same room…

• John Cornelius is author of Liverpool 8, a well-received social history of this famous area in words and sketches, along with two poetry collections Combing My Hair For The Hangman and Living In The Mystery. A third collection, Heading for the Sea, is in preparation.

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