The Surf Ballroom, located in Clear Lake, Iowa is best known as the last place that Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper and Richie Valens performed at before their deaths in a place crash on February 2, 1959. This has placed in as an important place in the history of rock music. We took a drive down to Clear Lake one summer day, a two and a half hour drive from Minneapolis. (I grew up only a hour west of here but had never taken the time to visit. It was long overdue.)
Walking into the Surf was like walking into another time, bringing back memories to me from my youth. The Surf is not unlike the other ballrooms I have been too: Fox Lake Ballroom in Sherburn, Minnesota, Kato Ballroom in Mankato, Minnesota (where Buddy played a few weeks before the Surf show) or the Playmor Ballroom in Glencoe, Minnesota. It has dark interiors, the lights are dim and it has that lingering smell of cigarette smoke that must be embedded in the wood after all those years.
The ballroom is huge, with booths set along side of the dance floor. The old phone booth is there, where Buddy called his wife for the last time. The walls are lined with signed photos of all the other musicians that have visited over the years and there is a small bar and restaurant off to the side with very small stage in the corner. Everything is preserved as it was back then. If you sit there for a few minutes and let your mind wander, you can imagine yourself here in 1959, seeing the last show. One cannot help feel sad knowing that this is the last place they ever made music.
As we were walking around, the crew from Walter Trout and Little Feat were setting up for the concert that night. We visited the gift shop and found the directions to the crash site, which at that time, were not advertised or marked. We drove to the area, and saw another car parked on the side of the road. It was a short walk along the edge of a bean field to the site, which was in a corn field. The corn was at least seven feet tall, but we found the trail that led to the small memorial. The path was well worn, as thousands of people have made this walk.
One can only imagine what these musicians would have gone on to. Buddys influence is still felt and heard in many of the bands that came after. The Beatles were obviously very influenced by Buddy, which shows in their early music. He was one of the first in popular music to use the Fender Stratocaster, to great effect with his rhythm and lead playing. He wrote his own music, and took control over the recording process. I have to give Norman Petty some credit, even though he did rake Buddy and the Crickets over the coals. (My mom knew Norman in the years before Buddy, so I try to be impartial toward him. She said he was a nice guy.)
A few years ago, we went to the Martin County Fair in Fairmont, Minnesota to see the original Crickets, J.T. Allison and Joe B. Mauldin with longtime Buddy Holly friend, Sonny Curtis. They put on a great show to an enthusiastic crowd. We were watching and hearing history making musicians here.
Rest in peace, Buddy, Big Bopper and Ritchie. Thanks for the music you left us.