by JIM KNIPFEL
March 25, 2007
It just occurred to me that over the past several days, I’ve been listening to nothing but Roy Orbison. That happens every now and again. And while listening to him, something else occurred to me.
Over the years, and primarily due to space considerations, I’ve only told my Roy Orbison story in driblets and drablets—but I’ve never told the whole thing in one place before. Now with all the space I need, and “Blue Angel” on the stereo, it seems as good a time as any.
It begins back around 1975. I was a 10 year-old in Green Bay, and my musical tastes were pretty much limited to what I could pull in on the little AM radio next to my bed.
Then one day a new commercial began appearing on the television.
“Candlelight Music proudly presents,” the announcer intoned, “the living legend of Roy Orbison!”
Now, commercials like this were commonplace back then. They were usually plugging greatest-hits albums by singers on the skids. As with most of the others, I had no idea who Roy Orbison was, yet to listen to that excited announcer, I guessed he must’ve been someone pretty big, once.
What followed was one of the cheapest, and as a result most hilarious, commercials I’d ever seen. A cardboard arm strummed a cardboard guitar while the soundtrack played the opening bars of “Running Scared.” A badly-drawn cardboard angel floated toward the screen during “Blue Angel.” A picture of an almost-attractive woman appeared onscreen during “Pretty Woman.” There were no pictures of Orbison himself, though there was a shot of a white marble bust of him in a garden someplace. There were lots of pointless snap zooms and lots of cardboard. The whole thing ended, of course, with Orbison singing “It’s Over,” while the announcer told us where to send our check or money order.
This was the funniest damn thing my friend Gary and I had ever seen, and we began watching television just to see that commercial. We began talking about Roy Orbison all the time. I even began drawing cartoons of him, even though all we knew about him came from that commercial. I put him in all sorts of little adventures, using the song clips as inspiration. None of the other kids at school had any idea who the hell we were talking about, but we didn’t care.
My parents couldn’t help but notice this. Having been around in the 50s and early 60s, they of course were well aware of who Roy Orbison was. I don’t know what they thought of this new obsession of mine, anachronistic as it was, but my dad took it as a chance to crack wise.
“He’s an android, you know,” he’d say. “He never moves when he sings. You’ll see. He’s like those presidents at Disneyland.”
For reasons I can’t fully explain, when he first started in with the “android” jibes, I got really, really mad. You’d think I’d be happy to learn that Roy Orbison was a robot, but I wasn’t.
“He is not!” I’d yell back, near tears. “He’s not an android!”
(Thinking back on it, if someone were to hear recordings of those arguments, they’d probably think there was something seriously wrong with one or both of us.)
When I finally saw Orbison perform on a Johnny Cash television special, I saw what my dad was talking about. So did he.
“You see?” he said from his spot on the couch. “They’re only filming him from the shoulders up. You know why? ‘Cause there’s nothing else there!”
Years later, when I saw John Belushi do his Roy Orbison bit on Saturday Night Live, it became clear that my dad wasn’t the only one who noticed that Orbison never moved.
Despite all the loud arguments over whether or not he was human, for my birthday that year, my folks bought me my first Roy Orbison album. It immediately became my favorite, and I played it until the grooves started to wear out. I still have that album, in fact—though I no longer have a turntable. (The pisser about that is that the album contains two songs I’ve never been able to find anyplace else.)
Orbison had started as a cheap joke to me, but had somehow been transformed into my favorite singer of all time. And unlike everything else I became obsessed with at that age, this one stuck.
Most people cite Orbison’s voice and songwriting as the two primary reasons for his unique greatness. His high, soaring and unmistakable voice perfectly captured the loneliness and melancholy that ran through so many of his songs. And his songs themselves tossed the traditional verse/chorus/verse structure out the window, opting instead to tell little stories. But there were a few other, quieter factors that contributed just as much.
First are the drums. The drums are key. People talk about his use of strings, but nobody had drums like Roy Orbison. Johnny Cash had a unique and defining guitar sound—you can tell immediately that it’s a Johnny Cash song when you hear that guitar. You can just as easily tell it’s a Roy Orbison song when the drums kick in. They were so blunt and primitive they were mind boggling. At times it sounds like the drummer’s playing a damned tarantella or a march while Orbison’s singing an over-orchestrated pop song. It makes no sense at all, but it works.
Then there were his backup arrangements. He had the greatest backup singers in history, with the possible exception of Tex Johnson. They obviously evolved out of doo-wop and early rock and roll, but then went about three steps too far. “Only the Lonely,” for instance, begins:
Oooh yay-yay-yay yeee-ahhh
Only the lonely . . .
And “Blue Angel” opens with:
It’s like he took every clichéd doo-wop syllable ever used and recombined them in some odd way.
In fact, now that I think about it, screw the voice and songwriting—it was when he started moving away from the insane backup singers and the discordant drumming that his career started to slide.
But that’s something else. Back to the story at hand.
When I was 12, my family took a road trip out to see some relatives in LA. Along the way, we made our usual stop in Vegas. There was absolutely nothing for a 12 year old to do in Vegas back them, but I still loved the shoddy spectacle of it all.
We had just arrived in town—we hadn’t even reached the hotel yet—and were driving down the Strip. My nose was pressed against the window, my eyes dancing from the people on the sidewalk to the lights to the marquees. Then, in an instant, everything slammed into sharp focus, and I began shrieking.
“It’s Roy Orbison it’s Roy Orbison it’s Roy Orbison!”
I reached forward, grabbed my mom’s head, and began shaking it this way and that.
“Roy Orbison is playing the Stardust! Roy Orbison is playing the Stardust!”
Given my obvious enthusiasm, I assumed, of course, that my folks would take me to see him. They didn’t. They did, however, take my picture in front of the marquee. I don’t look happy.
Well, they made up for ruining my vacation about a year later, by surprising me with tickets to see Orbison play Green Bay’s Carlton West dinner theater. The Carlton was about as nice as Green Bay got. If an act was too small to play the Brown County Veteran’s Memorial Arena (which was mostly reserved for circuses, metal bands and professional wrestling), they played the Carlton. We’d seen Roy Clark there, and later that’s where I’d also see the Glenn Miller Orchestra. Both, however, paled in comparison.
All of us went—my mom, my dad, my sister, her fiancé, and me. We were seated in a booth, and the waitress gave us our choice of steak or fish. So far as I could tell, there wasn’t anybody else in the audience below the age of 40.
The opening act was a vaguely risqué local radio personality who sang novelty songs. I didn’t care about him. I just kept drinking Cokes.
Now, I’ve seen my share of performers past their prime. I saw Elvis a month before he died, and Sinatra at Radio City in 1990, and both shows were sad and pallid and bitter. In 1979, Orbison didn’t have much of a career left to speak of (seven years later, Blue Velvet would change all that), but he was incredible. His voice hadn’t changed. He’d lost nothing. He put on one of the best live shows I’ve ever seen, even if he didn’t move anything but his hands and his mouth (and his mouth just barely).
I excused myself from the booth and worked my way down to the edge of the stage (which wasn’t hard—there was a big dance floor which separated the stage from the audience, and most of the audience at this point was still working on dinner).
I stood staring up in awe, just feet away from the Great Man in the Shades himself as he sang. It was the greatest night ever. He may not’ve been Elvis, but to my mind he was a hundred times cooler than Elvis. He wasn’t a nostalgia act to me—he was as contemporary as anything I was hearing on the radio. I hadn’t even become a morose teenager yet!
Then about half a dozen songs into the set, I noticed something. Another voice, from somewhere in the back of the crowd.
In between songs, just underneath the roar of applause, I heard my dad.
“You call this entertainment? Booo! Booo! You’re a android!”
My dad was heckling Roy Orbison. I would have been mortified—perhaps I should’ve been on principle alone—but I realized two things. First, that there was no way anybody would connect me with the big jerk in the back. And second, for the first time I realized how very funny it all was. I just hoped the bouncers didn’t toss him out.
(Something I didn’t think about until Morgan pointed it out a few years ago—you have to wonder if Orbison heard him, and if he did, what he must’ve thought.)
A few months back, I told that story to a guy at a bar, and his immediate reaction—more violent than it needed to be, I felt—was “That’s abuse. That’s absolutely child abuse.”
“No . . . it wasn’t,” I told him calmly. “It was just my dad being a goof.”
“It was abuse.”
Yeah, well, that guy at the bar had serious problems.
About an hour and a half into the show, all the Cokes I’d been drinking finally caught up with me. No matter how much I wanted to stick around, not miss a second of this, I had no choice, Not unless I wanted to piss on the dance floor. Being heckled was one thing, but then to have a dorky kid piss in front of the stage? He’d never play Green Bay again. I had to find a bathroom.
I went out to the lobby and found the men’s room. I was glad to hear they were piping the show in there—though of course that was exactly when Orbison decided to do “It’s Over.”
I was standing at the urinal when the door slammed open and a short fat guy with a long beard stomped in, grunting, before taking the urinal next to me.
“Man,” he said, “there sure are times when I could use another kidney.”
I wanted to tell him to shut up, that Roy was singing, but decided against it.
I finished and ran back out to the theater. I could tell the show was near the end, so instead of trying to find my way back to the table or down to the stage again, I just stood in the doorway.
He finished the show with “Crying,” which had recently become a big hit for Don McLean. Not only was he still able to hit that impossible last note—he held it, too.
For an encore, he came back out and, well, sang “Crying” again, and hit and held that note again. It was very odd.
Only other time I saw something like that was when Simon and Garfunkel were playing the Paramount. That morning’s New York Times had mocked Art Garfunkel mercilessly for not being able to hot that final note in “Bridge Over Troubled Waters,” so that night he hit the note, then took a breath and hit it again. It was essentially nothing more than a “fuck you” to the Times. In Orbison’s case, well, that might’ve been a fuck you, too—though I’m not sure to whom. Maybe the audience, maybe the music industry.
I left the show not only exhilarated, but reconciled with my dad over the “robotic Orbison” issue. I understood now.
And so did he, apparently, because a few weeks later he came home with a t-shirt he’d had printed up for me. The front of the shirt read “Roy Orbison Lives.”
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