Obsessed with Roy Orbison
The other night we watched Roy Orbison’s Black and White concert. It’s probably the 1000th time I’ve seen it and that’s not counting the times it shows up on public television during a pledge drive. I watch it then, too. I fell in love with Roy Orbison as soon as I found out about him. It did happen to be after he was dead, however, limiting any fantastical possibilities of putting myself in his path. It’s more accurate to say I fell in love with his voice, with the catch in his voice. Before I knew anything about his story all I knew was this voice that touched something in me, stopped me in my tracks. I found out he was dead when I mentioned to my two best friends that I had heard this incredible singer – Roy Orbison? – with a little speak at the end of my sentence. They may still be laughing at me for being so dense.
This wasn’t really so surprising. I grew up listening to Bach, Beethoven, Mel Torme and Frank Sinatra. Rock and roll passed me by with the exception of two weeks in junior high school when I decided it would help me be in if I developed a crush on Elvis Presley. I had, at least, heard of him. Those were days when it was important and cool to have collections of 45s – much more than 78s – and when we would gather on Saturday nights in newly minted rec rooms of newly minted houses our fathers bought with GI loans. For ten days I carried around a picture of Elvis in my wallet, bought a few records and turned as many conversations to him as I could. Then I went back to Bach, so to speak.
Later on I listened to a lot of folk music. This was promise: this was music that made me jump out of my skin, anxious to get out of my Brooklyn family and into those Greenlandic Village coffee houses with all of their steaminess and lives of protest. Jazz was equally thrilling, hypnotizing, grown-up music. Years later when I met Max and Lorraine Gordon, who owned the Village Vanguard, i understood completely when Lorranie told me how she used to take the bus in from New Jersey to go to the Vanguard and stand at the bar for hours, nursing the one beer she could afford, just to hear the music. That she later married the owner was, to me, a real Cinderella story.
By the time i discovered Roy Orbison, I knew music. At the beginning, i could only listen in small doses. His sound made me crazy. I couldn’t even hear the words; I was just stopped by the sound. When i finally worked up the emotional shell to be able to hear him in big doses, I sopped up the sound and stumbled on the story.
The first time I saw what he looked like was on a tape of the B/W Night concert. Here was this soft-faced guy with rounded shoulders dressed in fringed black, singing by reaching around inside and getting the voice out of the back of his body, pulling it around himself, tugging and digging into it and then, in a crazy crescendo, flinging it out to the audience to hang there until no one could stand it anymore and everyone was screaming.
Sometimes, when I have watched this concert, I have had to stop it and stand and stare at him, look up at his mouth, the shape if his lips with – what? – a little smile at the corners? How can he smile? Doesn’t every lyric he ever wrote remind him of what he lost? What is going on behind the dark glasses? Do tears well up in his eyes? Why does he wear those glasses? Is it because he can’t face life after what happened to him? And, of course, no. He wears them because he forgot to take them off after a flight to Dothan, AL, in very bright sung-light and, by the time he got off the plane, rehearsed and to the night’s performance, he realized he’d left his clear glasses on the plane. He had to wear the dark ones the next day, too, when he opened The Beatles’ tour. After all the newspaper pictures came out, he just kept wearing them.
I look for signs of his story in his music. He sings Crying’ and anybody who’s ever lost anyone, even your first girlfriend or boyfriend in the sixth grade, gets what’s going on in that song. He did write it about seeing an old girlfriend but I want to get into his head and find out if he’s thinking about his wife and two little boys; if, inside, he’s feeling all wavy and oily over how much he’s lost. I never find any signs. It’s as if he’s flattened against those emotions, deadened himself to them. In the few interviews I’ve seen or heard, he talks about it as if it happened to someone else, as if it is so enormous a loss that he can manage to think about it only from some far away place where he is protected from having it happen to him over and over.
These sorts of crushes lead to some pretty weird things. I found a website of some guy in Germany who writes stories about encounters with Roy Orbison in which he always ends up being wrapped in saran wrap – cling-film, the guy calls it. There are five or six fantasies, each with Roy Orbison unexpectedly and mysteriously appears into the writer’s life. Like this:
“It always starts the same way. I am in the garden airing my terrapin Jetty when he walks past my gate, that mysterious man in black. ‘Hello Roy,’ I say. ‘What are you doing in Dusseldorf?’ ‘Attending to certain matters,’ he replies. ‘Ah,’ I say.
From there, they exchange some pleasantness with an underlying terror and the man ends up wrapping Roy Orbison in the cling-film on the promise that it will be for just a short time but always lasts longer and concludes with Roy escaping and disappointing the writer who ends up broken and pitiful and then looking forward to the next encounter.
The obsession, at least, I understand. The attraction is even clear – it’s that catch in his voice. Certain voices have always done that to me and others with the catch at a different pitch, like Nat King Coke’s, repulse me. Now that is the really interesting part to me. What is it about our brain circuitry that can make us so responsive to such miniscule subtlety as the difference in pitch in the catch in someone’s voice? Probably take me years to ponder it to any reasonable conclusion. All I know now is that Roy Orbison cooks…