Originally published in Arthur No. 33 (Jan. 2013)
EXQUISITE REPLICA OF ETERNITY
Waking Waylon Jennings’ Dreaming My Dreams
By Stewart Voegtlin
Illustration by Beaver
“The Day the Music Died”—not just the name of Don McLean’s too long song that refused to climax. It’s also a co-descriptive term referring to the aviation accident that took three of rock ‘n’ roll’s biggest names—Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, J.P. “Big Bopper” Richardson—and magnified them until they became analogous with—and even eclipsed—the music they made. Littlefield, Texas’ Waylon Arnold Jennings, then playing bass in Holly’s band, was supposed to have been on that flight. He gave up his seat to the Big Bopper, and settled for second-rate travel in a makeshift tourbus with Holly’s guitarist, Tommy Allsup, who’d lost his seat on the doomed plane to Ritchie Valens in a coin toss.
In its most savage—and strangely sacred—way, the accident mimes an offering to some cosmic god who rejected it, and sent it careening back to earth engulfed in flame. Take a look at the Civil Aeronautics Board’s crash site photo. Wreckage resembles one of Robert Rauschenberg’s early combines: an abracadabra of Americana—ambiguous machinery compacted and deconstructed into a monolith of hyper-meaning, conveying less and more than the sum of its parts, even with nary a corpse in the frame. A wheel. A wing. A barely identifiable frame of fuselage. All there amongst Iowan Albert Juhl’s snow-covered cornfield, a barbed-wire fence keeping it clear of the plain—separate, contained: an art installation to the everlasting gone awry.
Incapable of being quarantined, however, was the guilt Jennings walled himself up in the tragedy’s aftermath. Before the plane left the ground, Holly reportedly told Jennings he hoped his “ol’ bus would freeze up.” “Well, I hope your ol’ plane crashes,” Jennings responded. Illogically, but understandably, Jennings took sole responsibility for the crash. It’s so much salt thrown over the shoulder, but it makes great superstitious sense, especially since, in Jennings’ mind, those seven words worked up a hex heavy enough to take the lives of four men and Holly’s unborn child, as the tragic news caused his wife to miscarry. But the music, it never died. Jennings and Allsup even completed the midwestern tour, two men spreading song amongst a bottomlessly black sky bereft of its three stars.
And still the music kept on. Throughout the amphetamines and the cocaine and the drinking. Throughout the invention and reinvention. From rockabilly to “Outlaw Country” and all its trappings: big black hat and somber clothes, beard long as days spent in saddle, a voice drink and smoke ravaged carrying on about campfire yarns concerning women loved, men reckoned with, and the Almighty above watching it all transpire from eternal dusk to dawn. Sixteen years after Holly’s charter crashed, Jennings made what was arguably his finest record—and perhaps the finest of the “Outlaw Country” subgenre—Dreaming My Dreams. This compendium of the conscious unconscious harkened back to country music’s so-called “Big Bang,” the Bristol Sessions in 1927, and roared on far ahead to a future that saw this generation’s Sam Phillips—Rick Rubin—-coax Johnny Cash into songs sparer than those that tossed and turned throughout Dreaming My Dreams, and woke as grizzled fable, larger than the legends that wrote, played, and recorded them.Continue reading