“I’M GONNA TELL YOU HOW IT’S GONNA BE!”
Gary Busey is pacing the studio at Rolling Stone‘s office, sing-shouting the lyrics to Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away.” He will do this often, without warning, in the middle of a conversation or just randomly as he sees fit, paying tribute to the rock pioneer who Busey considers a “spirit animal.” In Holly’s voice, it’s a confident ode to his eternal lover. For Busey, who’s long dabbled in music and whose recently released single is a cover of the 1957 song, it doubles as a life command to anyone within earshot.
Even before the 1988 motorcycle accident that fractured his skull and left the actor forced to relearn how to walk, talk and eat, Busey was Hollywood’s wild card: the eccentric, intense actor whose Best Actor Oscar nom for the title role in 1978’s The Buddy Holly Story (he played guitar and sang vocals on every track) was offset by a near career-ending cocaine addiction.
Now 74 and sober for years, Busey is still a mercurial madman. In the two-and-a-half hours he spends at Rolling Stone, he’ll switch from genial to antagonistic and back in seconds. He’ll admonish me, mid-question, with “If you stop talking, I’ll try to answer” and abruptly cuts me off when I say, “It’s sort of like …” because “There is no ‘sort of.’ Be confident.” Other times, he’ll rip off a dozen jokes in a row during a break in filming a video on sleep and later walk down the hallways greeting people and bellowing classic Point Break lines. (“Utah! Get me two!”) He’ll also randomly spout “Buseyisms,” a series of acronyms such as “DREAM: Details Revealing Excitement and Magic” that he recently turned into a new book that’s part brutally candid memoir, part inspirational self-help.
So yeah, talking to Gary Busey is a bit of a crap shoot. But his eyes do light up every time the subject of music comes up. Busey’s musical history is surprisingly long. At 23, the then-drummer dropped out of college with one class left to travel to California with his group the Rubber Band. The band played almost nightly for years before Busey left to shift into acting full-time, but he continued to record and gig when possible. He drummed on Leon Russell’s 1975 LP Will O’ the Wisp. (Russell’s son Teddy Jack, who was named after a Busey character from a regional TV show he performed on named Teddy Jack Eddy, produced Busey’s new project, his first solo release.) He did double-duty hosting Saturday Night Live in 1979 as the musical guest alongside the Band’s Rick Danko and electric blues pioneer Paul Butterfield. That same year, he jammed with Springsteen onstage in Philly.
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“Music is the highest art form of them all and it started with the creator before life began and before time began,” Busey says. “Music is the great communicator in the atmosphere of the sonic waves.” Busey spoke to Rolling Stone about whatever the hell he wanted to.
Why did you want to cover “Not Fade Away”?
It’s a love song for the world. Not just for two people. Every culture. Every creed. Every religion. Every way they move in their countries. “Not Fade Away” is a love story for that country with the world. [Screams] “Not Fade Away! Love for you not fade away” and “you” is everyone.
What was the most challenging thing about inhabiting Buddy Holly?
Nothing. I was in the ninth grade in Tulsa, Oklahoma, when Buddy was hot. I walked in the door one time after junior high school — [imitates newscaster voice] “Tragic deaths today as three rock & roll players went down in a plane near Clear Lake, Iowa. Buddy Holly.” I heard that and went “What?!” God, it was like, that music’s gone. But I didn’t know at the time that the spirit of Charles Hardin Holley, a.k.a., Buddy chose me to play him. And when I sang the songs after the movie was over, I realized I was channeling Buddy Holly’s spirit in my singing. He sang through me.
What impact did his death have on you?
My good friend in high school had a paper route and he said, “Would you help me throw it?” When we had the transistor radio and we heard [Buddy Holly’s] “Peggy Sue” alongside [Jerry Lee Lewis’] “Great Balls of Fire” and [Elvis Presley’s] “All Shook Up,” we threw the paper route 20 minutes faster than we did without the rock & roll. That should tell you a lot about [raises voice] ROCK & ROLL HERE TO STAY! It’s an adrenaline shot to your whole body.
The B side to “Not Fade Away” is an original song called “All the Way.” What’s that about?
I wrote it in 1983 as a demo in Birmingham, Alabama, and it’s beautiful. I was doing a movie called The Bear about [famed college football coach] Paul “Bear” Bryant. I wrote the song for an 18-year-old high school senior because we had a rapturous moment together and it was so true. I was 39.
We had times together. They were beautiful. And the feelings I had from her and the experiences we had together is the story and my love goes “all the way.” Then I went my way and she went hers. I haven’t spoken to her in years. Anyway, I know she’s doing fine in my spirit and my feelings.
I read you got fired from performing at Knott’s Berry Farm. How does that happen?
[Laughs] In 1966, I had a four-piece band and we came to California to play and we got a job at Knott’s Berry Farm — Yeah! Big time! We did a cover of “Hey Joe” but we did it different — fast, rocking. We did it our way. Surfers, with their long, blonde hair, sand on their backs and no shoes and wet pants were dancing to our music and the Marines came in from Camp Pendleton and there was a huge fight. And we got fired because they said, “You play ‘riot songs.’ We don’t have riots at Knott’s Berry Farms.” So we got a job at Disneyland. If you could’ve seen six guys in suits, they had already somehow figured out it was a ‘riot song.'”
You just released your memoir, Buseyisms, that doubles as a list of original acronyms. What’s the single most important Buseyism?
FAITH: Fantastic Adventures in Trusting Him. And then there’s one called RELATIONSHIP: Really Exciting Love Affair Turns Into Overwhelming Nightmare. Sobriety Hangs in Peril. ROMANCE: Relying on Magnificent and Necessary Compatible Energy.
“I’m forever music in all ways and means of creation. I am that.”
Where do your Buseyisms come from?
The other side. The spiritual realm. It happened to me when I came back from being on the other side from brain surgery and death. Yeah. Yeah.
You talk in the book about visiting “the other side” while hospitalized for your motorcycle accident. How do you explain that to people that haven’t experienced it?
It’s like explaining an orgasm to a 10-year-old. It’s impossible to understand unless you go. You have to be taken there because that’s how it happens. You’re taken there. You don’t go. People think they go. They don’t. They’re taken. When people die, for the first two minutes there’s no death to the feelings of the person who just died. And in two minutes’ time, the soul leaves the body and goes where it’s going to go in the spiritual realm, what they call heaven on Earth. It’s a beautiful feeling. It’s a feeling so beautiful, it’s more beautiful than anything you’ve ever had in your life. For me.
Are you happy you saw the other side, or do you wish you hadn’t?
You don’t have any thoughts when you’re over there. You can’t think. There’s no thinking. That’s just for Earth. And thinking is what gets you in trouble. Thinking is what gets you in your own way.
You also talk in the book about a “360 perspective rule.”
When you have a question in life, you can’t answer it. You have to understand there are 360 ways to see an elephant. But if you don’t know what that means, a master technician of tai chi will tell you that you will learn it when you’re ready. Several months ago, I was out in the backyard, looked up at the full moon and there’s a perfect circle of condensation around it. I was good in geometry so I said, “Whooo! That’s it!” If you move around the circle one degree at a time, you’ll see that same elephant or whatever you’re looking at from 360 perspectives. There are so many ways to see one thing and there’s more than one way to see everything.
Got it. Do you think you’re misunderstood by the public?
Oh, yeah. Because of the stuff I did in my life like doing cocaine and just being a reckless guy with reckless momentum. So that hurt me, but I stopped it. I OD’d on May 3rd, 1995, went to a detox for 29 days and decided, “What have I been doing?” The answer was, “You’ve been dancing with the devil in a small circle and he was leading you all the way.”
If you could go back to the day before the overdose, what would you tell that Gary Busey?
That’s a fantasy question. Fantasy answer.
You clearly have an affinity for rock’s pioneers, but do you listen to a lot of current music?
Current music is not music. It’s 128 beats a second and it has no melody that gives you an emotional burst of “YEAHHH I LOVE IT!” It’s just a lot of noise the kids are doing now with the producers. The more noise on the record, the better it is, they feel. But it’s not. You gotta go simple.
Any current rock bands that do it for you?
Busey: Ummm, let’s see …
Busey’s wife, Steffanie Sampson: Imagine Dragons.
Busey: That’s not for me. Not me.
Sampson: They love you.
Busey: They love me. OK. Magic dragons. [Yells] MAGIC DRAGONS! They make magic.
Sampson: No, no, It’s Imagine Dragons.
Busey: No, Magic Dragons. They blow fire out of their ass. It’s really trippy. Don’t stand behind a magic dragon.
You’ve established yourself as one of the last true unfiltered Hollywood outlaws and people see you as this quirky, eccentric figure. Do you relish that role?
Dude, listen, I’m happy about everything. If that’s part of their happiness, then great. Have it. Go for it. If you want to rob a bank with me, call me. We’ll go down to Bank of America and take out at least 50 cents. We’re gonna be good. That’s my logic on reality. Everything is fine. I love everything. Everything is good. It’s just beautiful being alive with the freedom that you were given at birth.
What advice would you give to aspiring actors?
OK, here’s the deal. All you young actors out there, beware of the words “Trust me. I’m gonna make you a star.” That is a big lie. Because the people telling you that can’t trust themselves and what they’re doing. It’s a maze. It’s like the path of truth and the path of lies and you are the one that goes where you are to go for the truth.
Is there anything else you want to add?
I’m forever music in all ways and means of creation. I am that. Art is only the search; it’s not the final form. It’s unlimited. Wide open. Freedom. POW! Get it! I’m done.