This date in 1988 we lost Roy Orbison, who was only 52. What made that even more of a shame was that he had just comeback into the swing of things by joining his juniors George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, and Jeff Lynne as the Traveling Wilburys, releasing an album with that super group that actually lived-up to its hype—in a very casual, laidback, humorous, no-big-deal manner. It was quite refreshing to see “Sixties greats” enjoying middle-age together. There was also a stellar concert, filmed and recorded, called “A Black & White Night” that showcased Orbison performing most of his best-known songs backed by longtime admirers like Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Jackson Browne, Glenn Frey and others. All of which, I guess, is a way of saying that Orbison, a major talent in the early years of rock’n’roll, went out on a high note.
“Only the Lonely” is one of those songs that you can’t believe exists until you hear it, or, having heard it you still have to think about what you heard. To call this “rock’n’roll” seems a bit misleading, but then again—as happens every time someone creates a very original poem or novel or film—it’s not as if the terms of the genre are set in stone. There’s no “how-to” that can’t be done away with, and there’s no “don’t ever” that can’t be ignored. “Operatic” R&B? Why the fuck not, if you’ve got a voice with a range like Orbison’s.
Today’s song is the one referenced at the start of Springsteen’s “Thunder Road,” which I’ve posted about and which was one of the songs that solidified Springsteen’s artistry, and one reason for that is that he was thinking about Orbison when he created Born to Run (1975). Orbison had established that tales of love and loss could make you feel good if they were musically sophisticated, and because his image—usually behind the big shades—showed how to play things cool and inscrutable. He was an icon and a unique voice at once, looking like some kind of New Wave preacher. Just listen to the way he cuts in on those “dum-de-dum-de-doo-wah” guys (those backups the kind of thing that made this music very dated to me when I was growing up). And listen to how the strings support the grander conception of the song—moving out of doo-wop into uncharted territory.
OK, I have to confess that as a kid I liked to change “Only the Lonely” to “Phoney Baloney.” (Once you do, it’s hard not to). And that really high-pitched segment near the end used to kind of freak me out—you could swear the dude’s going to hurt himself. Of course he doesn’t, and that’s the point. And—presto!—he introduces into this kind of number the wherewithal to go wherever you want. Probably inciting the ambitions of Brian Wilson into the bargain.
Orbison got resurrected, career-wise, in the mid-Eighties when David Lynch used “In Dreams,” notoriously, as the song Dean Stockwell lip-synched to in Blue Velvet (1986). That made the song more sinister than it probably seemed to anyone before, but it also made someone like me, who never thought much about Roy Orbison, start wondering what I’d missed. Then the film Pretty Woman (1989), with Julia Roberts at her best, brought back “Oh, Pretty Woman” (1964), one of the great cat-call songs of all time, with its “mercy!” and that purr/rawr he does that, well, just says it like it has to be said, sometimes. Here’s an all-star rendition of the song on “Black and White Night.”
I kinda still need to find out about Orbison’s recordings. I see that Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs has done a reissue of Roy Orbison’s Greatest Hits. Hmmmm, Christmas is coming . . .