Falling Comet

In 1955 "Rock Around the Clock" went to the top of the charts and turned Bill Haley into the king of rock and roll. Twenty-five years later, he was holed up in a pool house in Harlingen, drunk, lonely, paranoid, and dying. After three decades of silence, his widow and his children tell the story of his years in Texas and his sad final days.

In the last desperate months of his life, he would come into the restaurant at all hours of the day and take a seat, sometimes at the counter and other times in one of the back booths. He was always alone. He wore a scruffy ball cap, and behind his large, square glasses there was something odd about his eyes. They didn’t always move together. Barbara Billnitzer, one of the waitresses, would bring him a menu and ask how he was doing. “Just fine,” he’d say, and they would chat about the traffic and the weather, which was always warm in South Texas, even in January. He’d order coffee—black—and sometimes a sandwich, maybe turkey with mayo. Then he’d light up a Pall Mall and look out the window or stare off into space. Soon he was lost in thought, looking like any other 55-year-old man passing the time in a Sambo’s on Tyler Street in downtown Harlingen. He had moved there with his family five years before, in 1976. It was a perfect place for a guy who wanted to get away from it all. And he had a lot to get away from. Twenty-five years before, just about everyone in the Western world had known his face. In fact, for a period of time in the mid-fifties, he had been the most popular entertainer on the planet. He had sold tens of millions of rec­ords. He had caused riots. He had headlined shows with a young opening act named Elvis Presley and had inspired John Lennon to pick up the guitar. He had changed the world.

After ten minutes or so Billnitzer would bring him his food. But usually he was thinking about something, so he ignored it. After a while, though, he’d start to shift in his seat and look around. And then he’d start to hum. Billnitzer, refilling his coffee cup, knew the tune—everybody knew that tune. It was “(We’re Gonna) Rock Around the Clock,” the best-selling rock song of all time. She smiled, because she knew what he was doing. He was giving people around him clues. He wanted people to hear him and say, “You’re Bill Haley, aren’t you?”

But they rarely did. His ball cap covered his famous spit curl, and his glasses covered much of his face. So eventually he would turn to the person next to him or even rise and walk over to a nearby table. The patrons would look up at the tall stranger looming over them. “You know who I am?” he’d ask. “I’m Bill Haley.” Then he’d take off the cap and

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