The B-side of Buddy Holly’s last single in 1958 (A-side was “Heartbeat”) and what immediately strikes you is how un-Buddy Holly-ish the vocal is: deep, mature-sounding, without any of the hiccups or teased syllables of other Holly hits. Which is funny, because the subject matter is pure adolescence. But this is adolescence taken seriously, and so the ironic distancing of a puberty-cracking voice doesn’t fit.

The song’s narrator speaks of longing to let people know about the dreams and wishes he holds within himself; he confides how now that he’s fallen in love he can hear the adult whispers saying he’s too young, not ready. In the chorus, his voice gathers volume and strength as he faces these doubts and doubters:

     Well, all right, well all right
     We’ll live and love with all our might
     Well, all right, well all right
     Our lifetime love will be all right

Holly sings this as a kind of prayer, but a confident rather than beseeching one. Nothing is being asked for, but instead a challenge is being laid out. The first “well all right” is directed outward, as a shrug, off my back, Ma, whatever, okay; but the second is inward and has a kind of awe. Well, all right: maybe I can rise to this challenge, maybe I’ll have the strength to live up to what I’m feeling right now. In the words you can hear every 17-year old kid sitting in his room after having been put in his place by an adult, plotting to conquer the world and show the fuckers.

I was once that 17-year old kid. I never did conquer the world. I like to think I showed a few fuckers, but even of this I’m not confident. And from the middle distance I can see that “off my back” vs. “rise to the challenge” isn’t always an obvious choice. But I still love the absolute certainty in Buddy Holly’s voice, and still think the injunction to live and love with all your might is worthy, necessary, difficult. So I’ll find a few minutes on New Year’s Day to play the song, as a kind of resolution, and encourage you to do the same. It’s also appropriate, as Greil Marcus once said of Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” for weddings and funerals.

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