Nine days before his death in 1988, Roy Orbison was interviewed by fabled rock journo Nick Kent who gauged his response to David Lynch’s (mis)appropriation of ‘In Dreams’ for modernist noir masterpiece Blue Velvet. Orbison confessed to being “aghast, truly shocked – they were talking about ‘the candy coloured clown’ in relation to doing a dope deal, then Dean Stockwell did that weird miming thing with that lamp. Then they were beating up that young kid!” When he had recovered from his initial fright, Orbison was able to watch it later on video at home, and admired the film’s “otherworldly quality”. Even more importantly, he acknowledged it as the moment his music became relevant and contemporary again – particularly to a younger generation of listeners.
As a youngster myself, there was always something strange about watching Roy Orbison on the television. To begin with I often confused him with Lennie Peters of Peters & Lee fame, imagining the old B&W footage to have been Lennie in the early days. A desperate misjudgment certainly, but I was only a boy, and both of them sported, rather ominously, the darkest pair of shades. Secondly I figured that Orbison was probably blind, not simply because he wore dark glasses, but because he stood almost entirely still on stage, barely moving a muscle except wrists and fingers to strum his Gibson. I imagined that someone had led him to the microphone and would come to take him away again after the show. Thirdly, he was almost always clad in black. As a young lad I could not conceive of why anyone performing in public would wear black. He was supposed to be a pop star. What on earth was he doing? The pop stars I watched on television were exciting, flamboyant and colourful, like Bowie, Marc Bolan and er…David Essex. They owned the stage in much the same way as Elvis had before, eliciting euphoric rapture from their audience and procuring pubescent puddles on the seats of auditoria all over the world. But not this guy. What was his problem, apart from being blind of course?
And yet that voice, unlike any other in popular music before or since, was something I couldn’t forget. It danced, it wept, it flew. It communicated as few others were able, a huge huge hurt. Even so, it would be over a decade later before I discovered that Roy Orbison wasn’t Lennie Peters. And that he wasn’t blind either. And having just graduated in my musical education through love affairs with The Velvet Underground and The Smiths, wearing black was certainly not uncool. In fact it was the epitome of absolute cool.
To suggest that The Velvets’ modelled their appearance on Roy Orbison’s would be stretching the truth, but there were clear parallels. Dressed in black, their still silhouetted bodies behind those dark shades, the prevailing sense of mystery and misanthropy. And, well, The Velvets sang love songs too, didn’t they? Of a sort.
By the time Andy Warhol introduced his Factory protégés to the world in ’66, Orbison’s bubble had burst. For four years (1960-64), after his emergence as the ‘Rockabilly Caruso’, an artist to rival Carl Perkins, he made a series of unforgettable records for Monument, bossing the charts in the process, but by the end of that period he had become for some almost a self-parody. How often can one sing of doomed unrequited love? Popular music was changing fast and those changes had left him behind. Still smarting from this steep decline in popularity, as if to rub salt in the wounds, Orbison’s wife Claudette died in a motorcycle accident in ’66, and in ’68 his two eldest sons perished in a house fire while he was on tour in the UK. The little tragedies of which he sang were as nothing compared to the realities with which he was confronted. Those songs could and should have acquired fresh gravitas then, but instead The Big O had become a big ‘0’ in the eyes of the record buying public. The real world is an unforgiving place. He soldiered on bravely through the seventies and eighties, his output less prolific, increasingly less relevant. And then Blue Velvet appeared.
And when Blue Velvet appeared I remembered him. That man in black from the television. The man who wasn’t Lennie Peters. The guy with the dark glasses. With that voice. I may have been looking at Dean Stockwell in that film but in my head I was picturing Roy Orbison. I was thinking about those songs I had for some time forgotten: those songs with their complex chord sequences, yet entirely without frills, perfectly economical. Songs that captured the emotional anxieties and neuroses of the postwar suburban teen: ‘It’s Over’, ‘Only The Lonely’, ‘Crying’, ‘Blue Angel’, ‘Shahdaroba’, ‘Oh Pretty Woman’ and ‘In Dreams’. Yes, you know them too. We all do. They are embedded in our consciousness. Few have created as marvellous a repertoire of songs with such economy and class.
The Perfect Collection appeared in 1982, when Orbison’s cachet was at an all-time low, and consequently his name did not appear on its pages. A glaring omission for sure. In that Kent interview – which you’ll find in the pages of his classic anthology The Dark Stuff – one encountered a reluctant and supremely humble superstar, a man at peace with those around him, and with himself – with his past, and with whatever was to come. By then the world had rediscovered him and his music and celebrated its magic once more. Mercy. (JJ)