Surf Ballroom

On Jan. 13, 2021, the U.S. Department of the Interior designated the Surf Ballroom a National Historic Landmark, recognizing its enduring role in the history of American music. The Surf is Iowa's 27th National Historic Landmark. Photo from www.surfballroom.com

The husband and I took our first road trip since last March. I hadn’t seen my sister and brother-in-law since the pandemic entered our lives. I wish she lived in a nice warm place, but no, they live in Iowa.

Clear Lake is an older community with homes dating to the 1800s, maybe longer. In the summer with the influx of people renting places on the lake, there is always something to do.

Last week there wasn’t much going on, or so I thought.

The Surf Ballroom is about five blocks from my sister’s home. It is Clear Lakes’ biggest tourist attraction that, until last year, went gangbusters. Its claim to fame: the last place Buddy Holly played on Feb. 3, 1959, the day he died. A memorial concert had been held every year since 1979, but was canceled last year thanks to pandemic restrictions.

We drove past the ballroom on our way to dinner in a refurbished Quonset hut next door. What a surprise to see the parking lot filled with cars. It was the ballroom’s first big gathering this year as a music venue.

When my sister called for dinner reservations next door, a recording advised to start calling at 4 p.m. for seating to begin at 5 p.m. Of course, the line was busy and when she reached them 10 minutes later, the earliest opening was 6:45. We waited only a few minutes to be seated, but there was a crush at the door.

A couple standing next to us was asked if they had a reservation. They said no and were told they couldn’t be seated until 8:30 at the earliest. It seems that Buddy Holly is still working his magic drawing a crowd.

Being there took me back to 1959, a year before my high school graduation.

Holly was just 22. His only big hit at that time was “That’ll Be the Day.” He was newly married for three months to a woman four years his senior. His band was on a “Winter Dance Party” tour. They had an old bus that broke down frequently with spotty heat.

Several band members were sick with the flu and the drummer wound up in the hospital, but the concert went on. Exhausted, Holly rented a plane to get to the next venue in Moorhead, then North Dakota. The sole aircraft available was in Mason City 18 miles away that held three passengers and the pilot.

Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper boarded with him. Because the Big Bopper was sick, Waylon Jennings gave up his seat. Valens won a coin toss for his seat.

Getting ready to leave, Holly called out to Jennings, “I hope you freeze on that bus.” His response: “I hope your plane crashes.” He said he felt “haunted” for years before he could admit he uttered those words. Holly had produced Jennings’ first record and he was Holly’s backup band guitarist.

The pilot was not qualified to fly the plane. It crashed in a cornfield, and the farmer still keeps space open so folks can get to the site.

I haven’t been inside of the Surf, but I want to visit. The ballroom is designated as a National Historic Landmark. I could see why as I read the history and saw the pictures. It has turned into a museum of sorts with all kinds of visitors including royalty.

Musicians still book shows with big name stars at the ballroom and the restaurant is open most of the year. My sister said they go there frequently to dine.

The inside has not been altered much since 1959; the walls are covered floor to ceiling with names of the rich and famous who have visited.

Don Mclean wrote “American Pie” in 1971 that he called a tribute to Holly and the two that died with him, singing “the day the music died.” He gave meaning to the lyrics "I drove my Chevy to the levy and the levy was dry.”

What McLean really did was write the history of the 1960s. “American Pie” is the longest running song played on the radio -- almost 10 minutes. It was named top song of the 20th century and has a place in the Library of Congress.

Reading the McLean’s words and watching his 1989 video will register with those of us who lived through that decade. The video was brutally honest with McLean’s unique vision of the world. I don’t know if the younger generation would understand his frustration and anger.

You can use the internet and find “Don Mclean The meaning of ‘American Pie’ (update) Events of the 1960s.” He wrote the song to honor a young man who was bringing rock ‘n’ roll to life. Be aware that the graphic video and pictures might bring back uncomfortable memories to those of us who were there.

Roseanne Grosso lives in Red Wing, Minn., and writes an occasional column.

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