Why does Bob Dylan like “Not Fade Away”

By Tony Attwood

This article is part of our occasional series on why Bob Dylan likes specific songs that he either mentions in interviews or occasionally performs.  Other articles in the series are listed at the end.

Not Fade Away” was written by Buddy Holly, under his Christian names of Charles Hardin, and by Norman Petty, the producer (although some have doubted how much input Petty had).  Jerry Allison, the drummer of the Crickets, however is thought to have had an input into the song in terms of the distinctive Bo Diddley rhythm.  The song, recorded in May 1957, was originally released as the B side of “Oh Boy!”

The song was played by the band at Holly’s final concert before his death in a plane crash in 1959 – although not, as is often stated, as the very last song of the gig.  (Saying it was the last song makes a better story for journalists however).

The song therefore has iconic status, and it certainly has an unusual approach – leaving aside the instrumental verse there are just two chorus, and an incredibly simple accompaniment.   And indeed it is that simplicity of musical movement that makes the instrumental break much more powerful as it leaps up to the sub-dominant and effectively jumps to a new key for a moment.

But much of the appeal comes from the simplicity of the rest of the song, both of the music and the lyrics.  Although love songs were of course very much the staple diet of popular music at the time, this simplicity of song construction was not.  And because of the simplicity everyone knew it and could recite the lines.

I’m gonna tell you how it’s gonna be
You’re gonna give your love to me
I’m gonna love you night and day
You know my lovin’ won’t fade away
You know my lovin’ won’t fade away

My love is bigger than a Cadillac
I try to show you but you drive me back
Your love for me has got to be real
For you to know just how I feel
A love for real, not fade away

Buddy Holly’s singing style was unusual as well, and the overall sound took the listener into a different world – most particularly a world far, far away from parents (remembering this was a time when families tended to stay much closer together, have smaller houses – and thus little privacy for youngsters, and the whole notion of “teenager” as someone other than just a little adult, and the “teenage years” of rebellion were still in the future).

In such a scenario that opening line, “I’m gonna tell you how its gonna be” was not only addressed to the singer’s girlfriend, or hoped-for girlfriend, but to the entire older generation against whom a new rebellion was being formulated, if not yet raged.  It wasn’t yet a political rebellion, but it cleared the way ready for statements such as…

Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land,
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command,
Your old road is rapidly agin’,
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’

Mothers and fathers very much did criticise what they didn’t understand, and what they didn’t get was Buddy Holly’s voice, his music, his lyrics, his glasses… in fact all of it, and I think “I’m gonna tell you how it’s gonna be” symbolised the start of the new teenage journey.

Bob Dylan said in an interview in 1984, “I saw Buddy Holly two or three nights before he died. I saw him in Duluth, at the Armory. He played there with Link Wray. I don’t remember the Big Bopper. Maybe he’d gone off by the time I came in. But I saw Richie Valens. And Buddy Holly, yeah. He was great. He was incredible. I mean, I’ll never forget the image of seeing Buddy Holly up on the bandstand. And he died – it must have been a week after this. It was unbelievable.”

In 1998 Dylan spoke on the subject again.  “Buddy Holly. You know, I don’t really recall exactly what I said about Buddy Holly, but while we were recording [Time Out Of Mind], every place I turned there was Buddy Holly. You know what I mean? It was one of those things. Every place you turned. You walked down a hallway and you heard Buddy Holly records, like “That’ll Be the Day.” Then you’d get in the car to go over to the studio and “Rave On” would be playing. Then you’d walk into this studio and someone’s playing a cassette of “It’s so Easy.” And this would happen day after day after day. Phrases of Buddy Holly songs would just come out of nowhere. It was spooky. But after we recorded and left, you know, it stayed in our minds.”

There is a stunning simplicity in the lyrics from that opening of “I’m gonna tell you how it’s gonna be” through to the second verse with the extraordinary metaphor, “My love is bigger than a Cadillac” which everyone just accepted without question.   It’s not “All the world’s a stage” for sure, but it is something else.

And those two central lines in the second verse

Your love for me has got to be real
For you to know just how I feel

is a powerful image wrapped up in a way that we hardly notice.   It truly is a great song, hidden within its own simplicity.

Undoubtedly Bob loves it for its history, but also because it symbolises the opening of the door that he later so powerfully went through.

Postscript: since writing this piece Jochen has reminded me of what Dylan said about Buddy Holly in his Nobel Prize lecture.  Here it is…

If I was to go back to the dawning of it all, I guess I’d have to start with Buddy Holly. Buddy died when I was about eighteen and he was twenty-two. From the moment I first heard him, I felt akin. I felt related, like he was an older brother. I even thought I resembled him. Buddy played the music that I loved – the music I grew up on: country western, rock ‘n’ roll, and rhythm and blues. Three separate strands of music that he intertwined and infused into one genre. One brand. And Buddy wrote songs – songs that had beautiful melodies and imaginative verses. And he sang great – sang in more than a few voices. He was the archetype. Everything I wasn’t and wanted to be. I saw him only but once, and that was a few days before he was gone. I had to travel a hundred miles to get to see him play, and I wasn’t disappointed.

He was powerful and electrifying and had a commanding presence. I was only six feet away. He was mesmerizing. I watched his face, his hands, the way he tapped his foot, his big black glasses, the eyes behind the glasses, the way he held his guitar, the way he stood, his neat suit. Everything about him. He looked older than twenty-two. Something about him seemed permanent, and he filled me with conviction. Then, out of the blue, the most uncanny thing happened. He looked me right straight dead in the eye, and he transmitted something. Something I didn’t know what. And it gave me the chills.

I think it was a day or two after that that his plane went down.

Why does Dylan like these songs?

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