Chicagoans make icy annual visit to site where Buddy Holly died
BY DAVE HOEKSTRA Staff Reporter email@example.com February 7, 2013 8:54PM
Updated: March 10, 2013 6:21AM
CLEAR LAKE, Iowa. — Rock ’n’ roll lives on a road of myths.
The first mythical event in rock history was the Feb. 3, 1959, plane crash outside Clear Lake, Iowa, that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson and pilot Roger Peterson.
Since 1979, a group of men called “The Chicago Guys” have made an annual February trek to Clear Lake to pay tribute to the rock legends on the weekend of the crash. As fans congregate for the “Winter Dance Party” of concerts, lectures and memorabilia trading at the Surf Ballroom, which hosted the final appearance of Holly, Valens and the Big Bopper, “The Chicago Guys” do their own unofficial commemoration in the wee hours.
“The Chicago Guys” are led by Jack Dreznes, owner of Beverly Records, 11612 S. Western, who rents a cottage a few blocks from the ballroom. After the final show, “The Chicago Guys” gather there.
“We have five guys who stay here,” Dreznes says. “The only problem is we have one bathroom, so the women don’t want to come. It’s ‘Surf and sleep.’ ”
The men layer up with clothes. Dreznes puts on a black wool ski mask. He hands out glow sticks to eight pilgrims. One of them is Corrina Bunch, the daughter of Holly’s tour drummer, Carl Bunch. The group aims to visit the crash site as close as they can to 1:03 a.m. Feb. 3, when the plane went down in a cornfield shortly after takeoff from Mason City.
The most distinctive “Chicago Guy” is Scott Neumann, a 55-year-old Waylon Jennings karaoke impersonator who appears as “Wailin’ Waylon” at Mickadoon’s in Orland Park. Jennings was a member of Holly’s Crickets and was slated to be on the ill-fated plane. On this frigid night, Wailin’ Waylon wears a Lithuanian fur hat on loan from Dreznes.
In a couple of cars, “The Chicago Guys” caravan to the site five miles north of the Surf. The streets of Clear Lake (pop. 8,000) are as quiet as a broken jukebox.
During the 2013 memorial, weekend conditions are eerily similar to the night of the crash.
Snow swirls across the gravel Gull Avenue that leads to the site. The temperature is 15 degrees, and a stiff 25 m.p.h. wind blows across the field.
Fighting the wind, the group walks by a four-foot-high pair of metal black frame glases marking the trail head. There is no time to stop. Along the quarter-mile walk, Dreznes finds his way with an industrial flashlight. Bunch carries an iPad that softly plays Don McLean’s “American Pie,” the 1971 hit which continues to mythologize the myth. The song plays over and over again.
Corn stalks at least eight inches high are frozen in the ground. It is easy to trip and fall in the black of the night.
It is like walking on another planet, an orb of rock ’n’ roll.
“My friend Dan Ferone, a White Sox season ticket holder, and I started coming here in 1999,” Dreznes recalls. “Then we added a few more players. Everybody who has been here once wants to come back.” The traditional middle-of-the-night pilgrimage began in 2005.
The site is commemorated with small stainless steel plaques, replica black Buddy Holly glasses and wind socks. Dreznes carries a plastic jug of cherry pie moonshine. As the fans gather around the site like a crescent moon, Wailin’ Waylon offers a toast and a prayer that few can hear in the howling wind. It is cold.
Rock ’n’ roll is frozen in time.
“Their spirits are there,” Dreznes says. “That’s why we say hello, and that’s why we say goodbye.”
Chicago is deeply connected to the 1959 Buddy Holly-Valens-Big Bopper Tour. The artists took trains to Chicago to launch the tour on Jan. 23, 1959, at George Devine’s Million Dollar Ballroom in Milwaukee.
Future WLS-AM (890) DJ Bob Hale was the host of the final Holly-Valens-Big Bopper concert at the Surf. A native of Brookfield, Ill., Hale was working at KRIB-AM in Mason City.
Hale, 78, who lives in Park Ridge, is in the house for the 2013 Winter Dance Party. During the tribute concert he talks to Jerry Dwyer, the owner of the Mason City charter company that obtained the red four-seat Beechcraft Bonanza for Holly.
“The road manager was telling us how creative Buddy Holly will be,” Hale says. “Buddy was tinkling at the piano and the manager says to me, ‘He’s writing another tune.’ Elvis [Presley] didn’t write songs. They were big names about the same time. Buddy knew how to get an infectious beat. He’d reach for music from different sources.”
Hale and his wife visited the crash site for the first time last year. A part of their innocence remains in Clear Lake. “We figured after all this time we could do this,” he says in measured tones. “We bent down and I lost it. I have a feeling at this advanced stage I’m in, I will never get over it completely.”