November 29, 2009

The Orbisonian Synchronicity


Back in the mid-1970s, a small record label, Candlelight Music, released a Roy Orbison greatest hits collection, and promoted it endlessly with low-budget commercials on daytime TV.

            “Candlelight Music proudly presents,” the announcer shouted, “The Living Legend of Roy Orbison!” just before the opening notes of “Dream Baby” kicked on.

            The commercial was pretty cheap—strange cardboard animation and lots of snap-zooms of a bust of Roy Orbison sitting on a pedestal in a garden. It was odd in that, unlike all the other greatest hits collections being sold on TV at the time (for the likes of Slim Whitman, Connie Francis, and Boxcar Willie), it was the only one in which the artist himself never appeared. Just that bust.

            I became fascinated by this commercial, and it marked the beginning of an unlikely and unnatural lifelong obsession with Orbison. A few years back, I wrote a long column about my Orbison fixation and, of course, that ad. I thought that was that, until a couple of weeks ago.

            Over the years, I’ve written about a few iconic memories from my childhood—the Tex Johnson Christmas album, a Jersey band called the Russian Meat Squats—only to have them come back and haunt me in some interesting way years later. Usually this is the result of someone doing an Internet search, only to find that I’m one of the only people to have written about this or that stupid bit of cultural detritus that has consumed them for years. So they write, mostly in an effort to find a little confirmation and camaraderie.

            It shouldn’t have been too surprising, then, when a fellow I didn’t know wrote me about that Candlelight Music Orbison commercial.

            Most people just want to wax nostalgic about their childhood. This guy, though, wanted to unburden himself. While that commercial with the cardboard arm strumming the cardboard guitar might’ve been a lighthearted goofball obsession with me, to him it was the source of deeply burned traumatic memories. And if I wanted, he said, he’d tell me the grim tale.

            Well how could I resist an opening like that? Of course I wanted to hear about his personal Orbison-related trauma! I only knew one other person who paid the slightest attention to that commercial—my best friend at the time, Gary—and he had since gone completely insane. So who knows? Maybe there was something going on there, some subliminal alien trigger, that for some reason didn’t affect me. Or at least not as badly.

            He said it would take him a while to write it all out, so he’d have to get back to me. That was fine. As I waited I returned to my normal class preparations..

            If this had been all there was to it, there would be no story here. Guy writes me a note about a commercial. The End. But something else happened.

That week I was bringing a guest speaker into class—my friend Peter H. Gilmore, High Priest of the Church of Satan. I figured the students needed a break from my droning, and who better to fill the void?

So Mr. Gilmore came to class and everything went extraordinarily well. Except for one small comment. Not that it was a bad thing, exactly—just an odd and unexpected comment that nobody else in the room would’ve noticed or understood.

            Near the end of class, he was describing the Steve Allen Theater in Los Angeles, where in 2006 the Church of Satan held a High Mass to celebrate their fortieth anniversary.

            “In the lobby,” he said, “there’s a bust of Steve Allen, wearing glasses just like in that old Roy Orbison commercial.”

 That’s what he said: “just like in that old Roy Orbison commercial”! I nearly yelped. We had never talked about that commercial. Why would we? No, it came up out of the blue. And it wasn’t as if the students would know what the hell he was talking about (or who the hell Steve Allen was, for that matter). It was a very strange throwaway.

            Thing is, that bust of Orbison in the commercial always struck me as a little off, somehow. I mean, you put sunglasses (or glasses of any kind) on a statue, it’s going to be weird, right? Even as a kid I knew it was strange.

            When I got home that night, I’d pretty much forgotten about the reference. I was more focused on how well everything had gone. I opened a beer and checked the email.

Sure enough, there it was. Waiting for me was a 2,000 word story from this stranger about how that Orbison commercial warped him for life. I’d been so wrapped up in class prep that I’d completely forgotten it was on its way. For it to arrive now, right after the High Priest of the Church of Satan had mentioned it in class, was nothing less than unsettling. Thirty-five years after the commercial aired, why was it coming back now? What was going on? What were the forces of the universe trying to tell me?

It took a few paragraphs for the third corner of this unholy Orbisonian triangle to zero in on the specific source of his trauma—what it was about the commercial that set him off. And when he did reveal it, I can’t say I was surprised.

THAT STATUE! He wrote.

      THAT STATUE at the beginning [and the end] of the commercial. THAT STATUE SCARED THE LIVING SHIT OUT OF ME! still am not quite sure why; perhaps it was the contrast of the dark sunglasses placed on the solid white head; perhaps it was those camera shots that kept jump-cutting closer and closer to the statue. I have no idea. From what I recall, the first time I ever watched the commercial, I did so with no memorable emotional trauma [I may not have been paying complete attention to it], but the second time was different. I absolutely freaked out at the sight of the opening shot of that statue, but kept watching, even though what I had just seen upset me greatly. Then, before I knew what hit me, BOOM! That damn thing unexpectedly appeared AGAIN at the END of the commercial! I remember it took me a while to calm down, but the damage was done.

      Needless to say, when I saw the commercial a third time, I instantly turned away, because by now I knew what was coming. The image of that statue was just too much for me- I absolutely COULD NOT look at it again . . .

He went on to describe how he spent the next several years studiously trying to avoid that commercial the way I used to run from the room whenever the spots for the ventriloquist film Magic came on. But then like me, after the Candlelight commercial stopped airing, he developed his own obsession with Roy Orbison. He even admits to spending the past decade trying to track down a print of that commercial, statue and all.

            So it was the bust. That was the key. It was probably that bust that drove my childhood friend Gary out of his mind. But what was it, really? What was hidden there?

            I immediately (and only half-drunkenly) dashed a note off to this fellow, telling him how Peter Gilmore had brought it up in class. Then I dashed a note off to Peter Gilmore, hoping he might be able to enlighten me as to what sort of dark magic was afoot here.

            I’ve yet to hear back from either one. There have been no reactions, there have been no answers. But sitting next to my stereo right now is a stack of Roy Orbison records. For the past three days I’ve been searching for clues. I may be searching for a long time.


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