One of the first musicians I ever played in a band with had a serious appreciation of Roy Orbison. He might have mentioned it, I don’t remember, but I had no idea at the time who Orbison even was. Looking back I can hardly believe that I was ignorant to the man’s existence, let alone his singular contributions to pop/rock music. Chalk it up to a fanatical devotion to the Psychedelic Furs, the Clash, Talking Heads, Devo and that whole lot who were changing the landscape of modern music. I guess I got so caught up riding the “new wave” that I didn’t have the opportunity to really delve into the masters who laid the ground work.
With age novelty fades. Substance survives. And so the wheat is separated from the chaff. The “new wave” is long past being anything that even closely resembles “new”. The end result being a relative handful of artists, who were always worth remembering, right up there churning out the stuff with faddish combos so weak that even they knew it was a 15 minute party (if even that). No way these groups were going to find their way into the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock and Roll…even seeing their name in a list of 1980s new wave bands on Wikipedia makes you wonder if someone might have slipped some bogus information in there as a prank. I mean, everyone knows that the “second Elvis” is Costello. But, pray tell, who can share memories of special moment spent listening to Crash Course in Science? The Sex Pistols, like ’em or loathe ’em, are still rightfully respected for wielding considerable influence in the justification of the “anyone can do it” ethos of punk rock (albeit 10-15 years after the Velvet Underground made everyone want to pick up a guitar and start a band). But the Blow Monkeys? Dolly Mixture? Human Switchboard? Pasta ZZ? Wow, all you had to do if you wanted to play in a new wave band was think up some kooky, surreal moniker and jump into the fray with the other groups who had little more going for them than even goofier names. I ain’t makin’ this shit up, people. Sex Pistols? That’s kick ass. Rubber City Rebels? Weak. Weaker than watered down iced tea.
So, getting back to my band mate…I don’t know that I would call him a “buddy” although I did enjoy his company. He had a volatile temper that was not helped by the bottomless glass of Canadian Mist/Mountain Dew that he perpetually sported. It wasn’t hard to tell that he had been imbibing for the better part of his years. Legend had it that he was given the opportunity to play with a respected country and western entertainer and had even recorded a single featuring a couple of his original songs. But, as is so often the case, for every door that opened for him there was a barroom just down the hall… He always chose to walk on until eventually he was too drunk to stand and they shipped him back to the small podunk town he’d come from. I don’t know if he ever hoped for that level in the game again, but it was always clear that he never learned his lesson.
Which is all a roundabout, pointless way to tell you how I came to be familiar with the genius of Roy Orbison. This guy I’ve been talking about, let’s call him Bobby. Not to protect the innocent…but because that was actually his name (ha ha). Bobby liked to sing, and in this particular band he was our lead vocalist. Unfortunately he didn’t have a whole lot of talent for that gig, but there weren’t too many people wanting to front our band at the time. He got it. We played a lot of country songs, and he had this warbly tone that just didn’t work well with that genre. We knocked out some solid rockers from the ouvre of Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, even Elvis Presley. They all seemed to be missing something crucial. Oh well, what the hell, it’s not as if we were being paid the kind of money that would allow club owners to be demanding. We had a good time, Bobby had a good time, if we made it through an entire night without having to pick him up off the floor we considered it a successful gig.
So we’re up there on the stage playing, having a good time even though the fear of a potential alcoholic breakdown from Bobby loomed large. The people on the dance floor don’t seem to notice, or to care about Bobby’s less-than-stellar voice. A goofy old Johnny Lee tune winds down, a moment to get a drink of water (or whatever), then Bobby takes the microphone… “I was alright…for awhile…I could smile for awhile…” The whole atmosphere in the building changed. “Then I saw you last night, you held my hand so tight…when you stopped” (pregnant pause) “to say hello…” A few couples saunter onto the dance floor, the others finally paying attention to Bobby, as if they know he’s gonna pull a rabbit out of a hat. “Ah, you wished me well, but you could tell…” Here we go, this is where it all begins. “That I’d been crying…over you…crying…over you”. Bobby’s not even getting started yet. Even so he’s got them all in the palms of his hands. “You said ‘so long,’ left me standing all alone…alone and crying.” Those of us on the stage have seen him do this before. The total transformation of a man with just enough spirit left in him to entertain a forsaken dream even if only for the duration of one single song that obviously meant a lot to him.
“I thought that I…was over you…but it’s true, oh so true…” No, none of us had taken the time to dig into his past deep enough to know the real story of why this song was able to bring him back from the brink. “I miss you even more than I did before…” Yeah, she had to have been one hell of a woman to pull off that job. “But darling, what can I do? For you don’t love me…and I’ll always be…” As the song had affected him, so his performance of the song seemed to affect the people in the crowd. I can’t speak for them, but it definitely left a mark on me. “Alone and crying…crying…crying…” By the time he’d reached the majestic climax there were few dry eyes in the house and everyone who had written him off as “just another wanna-be, long fallen from favor,” suddenly saw him in a completely new light.
Now, that’s all fine and good. What does it have to do with Roy Orbison, you might ask. Other than the fact that it was a Roy Orbison tune he was singing. He must have sang it well, maybe it was the highlight of his performance. Right? He must have loved the song so much he felt like he should go the extra mile.
Maybe. But here’s the deal…he couldn’t sing that song any better than he could anything else on our songlist. He still teetered a little from the booze. That “warbly” aspect of his voice was still present and accounted for. Of course he loved the song. The audience picked up on that, maybe his high opinion of the number was infectious? Or maybe… Maybe it was the song? Now I’m not suggesting that any bozo with high hopes can knock it out of the ballpark like Bobby did. Somehow Bobby met all of the criteria that qualified him to do it justice. Don McClean, famous for what I think is one of the most loathsome songs ever (“American Pie”), sported the same credentials and his version was even better because he actually COULD sing. I’ve only heard K.D. Lang’s version a couple of times, but the word on the street is that she does it justice as well. Still, and I truly belive this, it’s the song that does the trick, all by itself. The song, that is, and the impact of Orbison’s performance. “…like a vision she dances across the porch as the radio plays…Roy Orbison singing for the lonely…hey, that’s me and I want you only…”
It could only have been Roy Orbison on the radio that day when the Boss came to sweep Mary away. Elvis could do “lonely”, but never as deeply haunting as Roy, never as yearning. A whole slew of the great vocalists of all time can do “lonely”, but Roy Orbison’s voice has a quality to it that makes it universal, as if the whole world were suffering all at once. As if the collective consciousness were collectively blue and conscious of nothing else. At least for the duration of a short song.
Let’s roll out the barrel and see what the other rock gods had to say about “Brother Roy.” We’ll start out with the big daddy of ’em all, Bobby Zimmerman:
“Orbison transcended all the genres. With Roy, you didn’t know if you were listening to mariachi or opera. He kept you on your toes. [He sang] his compositions in three or four octaves that made you want to drive your car over a cliff. He sang like a professional criminal. His voice could jar a corpse, always leave you muttering to yourself something like, ‘Man, I don’t believe it’. There wasn’t anything else on the radio like him.”
Like a professional criminal…heh. I like that.
“From watching Roy, I learned how to sing a dramatic ballad,” says Mick Jagger (you know, the one with the big lips who dances like a 70 year old stripper when he’s onstage. Orbison’s wife, Barbara, has related the Stones’ admiration for Roy, expressed when he toured Australia with them: “Keith [Richards] said everyone called him ‘Keith’ and they called Mick [Jagger] ‘Mick,’ but they called [Roy] Mr. Orbison.”
Keef weighs in as well. In his biography Life he writes, “Roy Orbison! It was only because we were with Roy Orbison that we were there at all. He was definitely top of the bill…What a beacon in the southernmost gloom. The amazing Roy Orbison.”
Top of the bill… that was the story when he toured with the Beatles just before the advent of Beatlemania. When all hell broke loose, when the teenyboppers screams threatened to drown out the music the promoters switched the line-up to focus on the fab four. The story goes that the crowd greeted Roy, now relegated to opening act status, with such exuberance and enthusiasm that the Beatles worried that they wouldn’t get to perform their set. They stood backstage and jokingly taunted, “Yankee, go home!”
“Roy’s ballads,” says Bruce Springsteen, ” were always the best when you were alone in the dark. They were scary. His voice so unearthly…I always wanted to sing like Roy Orbison.” Scary in more ways than one, if you ask me. I mean, to this day I cannot hear “In Dreams” without thinking of Frank Booth, the ultimate pervert in David Lynch’s classic “Blue Velvet”. Scary, as in super creepy. But I’m sure that’s not what Springsteen was talking about.
There are scads of rock legends who will step up to the plate and stand up for Roy Orbison. If you’re classy enough to be reading a website like Vintage Rock I daresay I have told you nothing you did not already know about him. For he is, indeed, a legend and rises above the majority of his contemporaries. Still, I can’t help but toss out this quote from the most verbose man in all of rock music, Bono… “Roy, the singer, people talk about him all the time, everyone curtsies to the voice, and so they should. The thing people don’t talk about enough as far as I’m concerned is how innovative this music was, how radical in terms of its songwriting. As I become more interested in songwriting, you hit a wall where Roy Orbison is standing.”
Yes, we know all that. Even if you’ve never even heard a note from Roy Orbison you feel compelled to hold him is high esteem, figuring that if Bob Dylan, the Beatles, the Stones and the Boss think so highly of his music, well, it must be pretty damn good. Still, if you are not as enamored of pre-Beatles rock and roll classics (like yours truly) you may have been content to leave Roy to the ones he inspired. Maybe come back later and check him out, see if he lives up to the reputation. I’m not saying you should be in any big hurry, or that the pay-off from such investigation will blow your mind the likes of which it has not been blown since first hearing the lead-off to “Won’t Get Fooled Again”. And I certainly won’t say that a good chunk of it might strike you as “dated”. Hell, the music is over 50 years old, what else would you expect? Even a lot of early Elvis’ records sound that way. No doubt “Tommy” sounds dated to a teenager only now falling in love with music. Years and years down the road, if he really does fall in love with music, he will figure it out.
Will that kid ever come around to checking out Orbison? If he gets so lucky the experience will be akin to finding a golden needle in a haystack.
I’ve passed that stage of first discovering Roy Orbison. But don’t think for a minute that I have done any more than skimmed the surface. I’ve never owned any of his records. Not because I didn’t think they were worth owning…but because there was a new Talking Heads album out…or R.E.M….or Sigur Ros… I won’t say that I feel as if the substitutions in these cases were worth the switch. Then again many was the time when I COULD have bought a Roy Orbison album but opted for some piece of shit the band name and title of I couldn’t even recall for you. It all works out in the end, I suppose. I’ve come to loathe this attitude that if a “serious” music fan doesn’t get into “***insert seminal rock artist/band here***”, then he can’t really call himself “serious”. For instance, the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds”. I almost feel guilty for admitting that I simply cannot stand it. There’s not much to it that I find appealing, but if I were in a crowd of music hipsters and that opinion leaked I would be ostracized worse than Mel Gibson at a synagogue. You know what I’m saying…”If you don’t like Nick Drake you must not be too deep into music”, and the whole room will chime in their agreement, all the while at least 50% of whom have never heard a note of music outside of a couple of forgettable television commercials, and even if they liked what they heard they still hadn’t a clue who the artist was.
Which is to say that I don’t play that “music snob” game anymore, and if you tell me I don’t know my shit because I haven’t listened to Roy Orbison’s entire catalogue, well you can go play a game of Kama Sutra solitaire. Because I ain’t gonna lie. I hope you wouldn’t want me to. I’ve never owned a Roy Orbison album in the 40 years I have been passionate about pop/rock music. Hell, I’ve never bought a 45 from the man, although I do feel like a doofus for that. My exposure to Roy O has always been via the radio…you remember those? Nifty little gizmos. I’ve tuned into my share of oldies stations in my day, and you’re not gonna spend any serious amount of time hunkered down in one of those frequencies without hearing “Working for the Man,””Dream Baby” and “Oh, Pretty Woman” for starts. The majestic “Running Scared” like a three-minute movie sandwiched between “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” and “Great Balls of Fire.” “In Dreams”…”the candy covered clown they call the sandman…tiptoes to my room every night”…I know the song is about lost love but it might as well been on a double bill with “Dracula,” as creepy as that intro sounds. Riding high on that FM Oldies vibe, I’d sometime get a little rowdy, rocking around the clock, chastising hound dogs, feeling so loose like a long necked goose, because, oh baby, that’s-a what I LIKE! Just in time to keep me from crossing the edge into irreversible rockin’ mania, the DJ would slap “Crying” onto the turntable and twist the knob that sent it’s sobering message through the airwaves. She’s gonna leave you. She’s gonna find another man. She’s gonna make sure you see her with her new man. And then she’s gonna walk away and leave you…”Crying.” Love’s a bitch. You can get angry at it if you want to, but when the last brick in the wall has been torn down, this is what it feel like. That moaning voice, trying to find a way to express the crushing birth pangs of loneliness. The hurt that rises up inside and seems to consume you, and the Herculean effort it will take to bust it out before it becomes as heavy and hopeless as Sysypus’ stone.
You’ll find that catharsis about 10 seconds toward the end of what I consider Roy Orbison’s greatest song. The one that Bobby showed me, the one that he loved. Maybe I’ve stumbled upon the key to why it was special to Bob. He’d never been able to overcome the loneliness. Though he tried to get some help from Jim, Jack and Johnny, thinking they could pull him through, their efforts, well-intentioned as they were, did not have the power it took. So Mr. Beam, Mr. Daniels and Mr. Walker moved on, leaving him behind to roll the stone on his own. He couldn’t do it. It left him a hollow shell of a man, but every weekend, when his band was on stage, he was able to draw a little hope from the well…hope, at least, for 3 minutes of reflection. A chance to remember, not only the crying, but the reasons the crying hurt so much. As if remembering the tears made it easier to look back from that point of heartache into a world that could have been. As if the exorcism of the soul-pain, for a few precious seconds, brought it all back again.
What an awesome song it is. One of the absolute greatest examples of “tension and release” in rock history. Right now, writing about it, remembering all these things…it makes me want to hear it so bad I’m tempted to take the time and effort required to queue it up on a Project Playlist player…ha ha, just joking there. It’s nothing to find a song on the Internet. It just takes a minute and, best of all, it’s free. How can you beat a deal like that?
Well, if you really want to know the answer to that question and you’re in the mood for some Roy Orb or maybe haven’t heard him and want to check it out, I would direct you to the new release of his definitive recordings on the Monument label, released as a new edition to the historical Legacy collection, entitled The Monument Singles Collection (1960-1964). It’s a very handsomely designed two-CD set, with a bonus DVD that includes rare live footage of Orbison in concert. The CDs are divided equally between all of the singles and each of their respective B-sides. As is so often the case, the B-sides aren’t quite as strong, but that may well be my own skewed perception from listening to “only the hits” all of my life. There’s a very good chance that a seasoned listener would find them every bit as interesting and entertaining. As for the art design, in my opinion it is so cool as to render downloading the set pointless, or at least a considerable loss in overall value. A lot of people say that the CD format is a dying breed, and much as I hate to agree, it certainly looks like it. But this Orbison package is definitely worth putting on a shelf instead of your hard drive. Or maybe in addition to it. The disc art on both CDs is a faithful replica of a 45 RPM single with the Monument label. The DVD art looks like a film can. How can it get much cooler than that? The booklet contains detailed information on the personnel on all recordings…me? I had no idea that Floyd Cramer (“Last Date”) played on so many of these Monument sessions. And I didn’t know that Scotty Moore played guitar for anyone other than Elvis. Pictures of the disc’s sleeves, recording dates & locations, all you could want to know about the 45s themselves, right down to the release dates and label numbers.
Rounding out the package is a 25-minute DVD featuring The Monument Concert, which is basically the Monument songs taken from an hour-long performance recorded for a television show in Holland. You could swear, from the audience shots, that it was filmed in a high school gym. Practically everyone there is a young pup and they may as well have been instructed, on pain of swats, to maintain their composure because they are a still lot, well behaved with a “respectful demeanor that would have suited Perry Como or Mantovani. Some tentatively nod their heads to the beat of the music. A couple even shyly mouth the words to the more popular songs. But you can tell they are enjoying themselves (all except for one guy, who stifles a yawn as the camera sweeps by).
Roy doesn’t give them any reason to perk up. He stands stock still like a mannequin, with his backing band sequestered in a small corner, crowded on a stage that at least gives them an excuse to stay put.
On its own, the show is phenomenal, life-size stick figures or not. In fact, without gymnastics and stage show ephemera the attention gravitates to his rich, expressive voice. It teases at times, making you think that it won’t be able to hit a high note or two, then shows you what it’s capable of. Roy plays with the melodic lines without changing the melodies. Instead he uses inflection and a remarkable command and understanding of what he’s capable of to add another color, a different shade, a new dimension to the actual sounds of the notes. You may have heard “Dream Baby” a thousand times, but hearing him sing it live is a very new experience, and I understand that this is the case with just about any great performer, but it seems to be more so with Roy Orbison, who could switch between a raver like “What’d I Say” to the mournful “It’s Over” with such grace and ease.
The film is grainy and shows it’s age. As far as I’m concerned that makes the DVD all the more enjoyable. Aged? Well, here’s what I thought as I watched. Yeah, maybe most people are going to dismiss the footage as ancient and arcane. But if I were to extract “Running Scared” from the show, shop it around as a video from a new band, maybe embellishing things a bit by saying how popular they had become on the West or the East coast, or over the pond or whatever…I could sell it and it would fly, “cool” as any other modern ensemble with a gimmick. Of course, it wasn’t a gimmick in it’s day, but you really didn’t have to have one back then. The Monument Concert is a hoot to watch.
All of that makes The Monument Singles Collection (1960-1964) worth owning. It may be the only Roy Orbison album you’ll ever need in your collection. and there is a strong chance that your credentials will be reinstated by the music snobs based solely on your purchase of this set. I hesitate to say that the newcomer will be a fan even before the first disc is halfway through. There’s even something for the Roy Orbison connsisseur: six previously unreleased bonus tracks that will do just fine as the cherry on top of the hot fudge sundae.
My friend Bobby passed away a couple of years ago. I realized that I didn’t know him as well as I thought I did, or hoped I would. To my shame I confess that I didn’t know him well enough to talk about his alcoholism as I have done here. I barely knew him at all. How well do we really know anybody, what with the hours spent apart? But I will never forget his enthusasm for the music of Roy Orbison. And the song that might as well have defined him for me. So maybe it’s strange, but I feel like this: I won’t remember Bobby every time I hear “Crying”……but I will think of “Crying” when I do.