One of the great mysteries of rock 'n' roll lit is how Philip Norman -- whose 1981 "Shout! The Beatles in Their Generation" is one of the greatest rock bios ever written -- could turn out a stinker like "Rave On." In his prologue, Norman posits that it's about time someone captured the living, breathing Holly (he dismisses John Goldrosen's wonderful 1975 "Buddy Holly: His Life and Music" -- conveniently out of print -- with a polite sniff), and then repeatedly stumbles over himself on the way to his goal.
Norman clearly went to a lot of trouble, traveling to Holly's old stomping grounds of Lubbock, Texas, and Clovis, N.M., to collect a massive, painstakingly gathered mountain of research, only to mash it flat with his tire-tread poetry. He insists, for example, on making a strained parallel between Holly's scumbag producer/manager Norman Petty and a prehistoric relic found in Clovis in the late '40s known as Clovis Man. He hammers on the comparison all the way through the book in sentences beginning like this one: "So may we begin to construct an archaeological profile of modern Clovis Man..." And for a journalist steeped in the lore of rock 'n' roll, Norman shows appalling lapses in judgment. He refers to Ed Sullivan as "the sworn enemy of rock 'n' roll and all who espoused it," forgetting that even though Sullivan may not have cared for the genre personally, for nearly 20 years he did a damn good job of getting it into middle America's living rooms.
But what's most frustrating about "Rave On" is that buried at its center is a short, jewel-like section that's as moving a tribute to Holly as anyone has written. Suddenly, as Norman writes about how much Holly meant to nerdy, insecure English schoolboys like himself in the 1950s, his prose blossoms un-selfconsciously: "It seemed to us that this vague, bespectacled, high-buttoned being understood, and sympathized with, the peculiar hell of being us, and from his distant hemisphere was sending messages of comfort and hope." It's hard to keep from feeling that "Rave On" could have been a spectacular book if Norman had made it a memoir instead of a standard rock bio. As it is, he went all the way to Lubbock for nothing: Holly's real story is locked deep inside Norman's own heart, crying to get out.