My parents and I were having a mid-afternoon breakfast after staying up all night to watch game three of the 2013 World Series. After a summary debate on the interference call against Will Middlebrooks that gave the Cardinals the win, the conversation naturally shifted to music. My dad brought up my recent review of Roy Orbison, waxing lyrical over his golden voice.
What a marvelous phrase: “wax lyrical.” I know it well because my father constantly waxes lyrical. The last album he heard is nearly always the greatest album ever made. Due to his penchant for lyrical waxing, he would be the worst music critic in history, but I do love his enthusiasm.
Anyway, he was talking about The Beatles’ experience on tour with Orbison and how one of them mentioned that they hated following Roy because he would go out there and just “slay” the audience (it was Ringo, I reminded him). Language-sensitive bitch that I am, I was struck by the use of the word “slay” in the context of enjoying someone’s music. After quietly pondering whether the classic sex-death metaphor could be extended to a music-death metaphor, having already established the music-sex link several times in my reviews, I cleared my head and rejoined the conversation with the first question that came to mind.
“Did you ever see a singer who slayed you?” I asked my parents, expecting a pause, a long list or a debate.
“Phoebe Snow!” they immediately cried in unison.
I sat there with my mouth agape, having fortunately swallowed the last bite of omelet before agaping. Though their tastes are generally similar, it’s rare to hear my parents in total agreement about anything having to do with music. My father’s lyrical waxing always butts heads with my mother’s pristine precision. Dad will listen to something like Eldorado and say to maman, “Eldorado was the best thing ELO ever did.” My mother will respond, “Perhaps,” and then remind him how “Boy Blue” repeats the verse pattern over and over to the point of irritation. She might then suggest that On the Third Day could be the better album, and my dad would look at her like she was crazy, largely because he hadn’t listened to On the Third Day that morning, so it couldn’t possibly be ELO’s best album.
Not this time. Total, instantaneous agreement. I let them both wax lyrical about Phoebe for a while, describing the almost orgasmic responses from the crowd when she allowed her voice to rise in a glorious crescendo, and claiming that no popular singer’s vibrato was as strong and consistent. At the end of the wax job, they both insisted that I write a review of her début album.
I didn’t put up an argument. I hadn’t heard the album in a while but I’d always thought it was one of the great debuts of all time. I think the reason I’d avoided it is because Phoebe Snow’s back story makes me feel sad and frustrated. A month before the release of her follow-up album, the superb Second Childhood, she gave birth to a daughter with brain damage. Phoebe refused to place her in an institution, and eventually her sense of parental responsibility forced her to first limit and then temporarily suspend an extraordinarily promising music career. The frustration piece comes from the fact that she had the talent and imagination to cross and combine several genres in her music, yet record companies and critics kept trying to shoehorn her into one or another (The Rolling Stone Record Guide acknowledged her talent but complained, “The question that’s still unanswered is how best to channel such talent.”)
They should have just let Phoebe be Phoebe. She was fucking marvelous.
There are few more inviting album openers than Phoebe’s take on Sam Cooke’s “Good Times.” Featuring a more swaying and on-beat punctuated rhythm than the original, it feels like you’ve walked into someone’s living room where the musicians are kicking back, sucking beers and having a grand old time. Phoebe’s glissandi are amazing, dashing up and down multiple octaves, balancing exuberance with grace. The backing vocals from The Persuasions are simply outstanding, moving ahead and behind the melody with rich and sometimes surprising harmonies.
Phoebe wrote most of the songs on the album, and “Harpo’s Blues” proves she had much more talent than you hear in her voice. A wistful tune with jazz sensibilities in the chords and supporting instrumentation (Zoot Sims on sax and the great Teddy Wilson on the ivories), Phoebe stays within a fairly narrow range, focusing the listener on her exceptional gift for phrasing and her unique command of vibrato. The lyrics display a gift for thematic unity: when we listen to the first two verses describing a series of wishes, we’re not exactly sure what is motivating the wishing. We get a hint in the bridge, where the music shifts appropriately to the minor key and the lyrics describe feelings of inner rage and fear. The first couplet in the last verse ties all the wishes together, leading to the sad and stark dénouement:
I wish I was willow
And I could sway to the music in the wind
I wish I was a lover
I wouldn’t need my costumes and pretend
I wish I was a mountain
I’d pass boldly through the clouds and never end
I wish I was a soft refrain
When the lights were out I’d play and be your friend
I strut and fret my hour upon the stage
The hour is up
I have to run and hide my rage
I’m lost again, I think I’m really scared
I won’t be back at all this time
And have my deepest secrets shared
I’d like to be a willow a lover
A mountain or a soft refrain
But I’d hate to be a grown-up
And have to try to bear my life in pain
“Poetry Man” was Phoebe’s signature song and big hit, and deservedly so. The musical environment created by acoustic guitar, shimmering bells, bass and piano splashes is as warm and enveloping as a shared sauna on a frigid night. Phoebe’s vocal is as smooth as 100-year old tawny port, even as she rises and falls between octaves. Once again, her songwriting craftsmanship is on full display as she describes what seems to be a romantic and playful relationship where the woman feels herself flipping from giggling teenager to “sultry vamp” in the presence of this intensely alluring man. As in “Harpo’s Blues,” Phoebe saves the twist in the plot for the finish:
So, once again
It’s time to say so long
And so recall the lull of life
You’re going home now
Home’s that place somewhere you go each day
To see your wife, to see your wife
Now we see the giddy and bubbly feelings expressed in the early verses (“You make me laugh/’Cause your eyes they light the night” and “You bashful boy/You’re hiding something sweet/Please give it to me”) through a different lens. As long as the woman gets her fix of “something sweet,” she can survive “the lull of life” when she goes to bed alone. A brilliant piece of songwriting on every level, “Poetry Man” is even better than its billing.
Equally brilliant in a different sense, “Either or Both” describes the love-hate relationship every woman I know has with herself. Sometimes I’ll look at myself in the mirror and say, “Damn, you are one hot fucking bitch!” while at other times I’ll want to smash the mirror in frustration. Sometimes when I’m writing I’ll be really “on” and words will leap off my fingers; other times I’ll stare at a screen in the same way John Cleese did at the parked car in that Monty Python sketch where he plays the dumb boxer. Phoebe captures this bipolar state of mind perfectly, with wonderfully vivid contrasts:
Sometimes these hands get so clumsy
That I drop things and people laugh
Sometimes these hands seem so graceful
I can see them signin’ autographs . . .
Sometimes this face looks so funny
That I hide it behind a book
But sometimes this face has so much class
That I have to sneak a second look
Her vibrato on this piece is the best on the album, for the oscillation reflects the wavering in the soul. The slide guitar is nice playful addition to the mix, and the sound of Phoebe harmonizing with Phoebe is one of the most precious human sounds you’ll ever hear.
Next Phoebe covers one-man band Jesse Fuller’s most famous contribution, “San Francisco Bay Blues,” proving she was one hell of a blues singer on top of all her other gifts. Her vertical movement is far beyond the reach of average and above-average singers, and any attempt to emulate her might result in permanent damage to a normal human’s vocal cords. For Phoebe, it’s “natch.” “I Don’t Want the Night to End” follows, a “life in New York” piece from a solitary woman’s perspective. It’s an interesting piece, but there’s a small segment in the middle where the engineers added echo to Phoebe’s voice on the “baby, baby, baby” refrain. Hello? That’s natural vibrato, dickheads. Why did you have to mess with it? Grrrrrrr . . . .
There’s no such interference with the naturally flowing melody of “Take Your Children Home,” a song with a fascinating chord progression that maintains the tension through the verses until we come to resolution in the chorus. The congas give the piece a pleasant Latin feel and Phoebe rides that groove like she’s floating down a gentle river on a warm summer day. This is one of the few songs I’ve heard where I don’t freak out at the sound of a harp, an instrument that causes me to have bad dreams of floating on the clouds with thousands of cleanly-scrubbed white people wearing perpetual smiles. The person responsible for my change of heart is the late Margaret Ross, the greatest harp session woman of all time, who appears on several albums by jazz luminaries such as Gil Evans and Wes Montgomery.
“It Must Be Sunday” is a bluesy-folk-jazz mix with fabulous splashes of saxophone by Zoot Sims. Phoebe Snow was brilliant at capturing mood, and in this song she captures the empty feeling that comes from living in a self-absorbed society, adding a dash of cynicism that such emptiness generates. The musical tenor of the song is dark-of-the-morning before last call; the lyrics are like an animated Dali painting:
There’s a man who loved so hard
He was like a billboard grin
He toasted life and beauty
‘Til his head began to spin
He pressed his cheek
On rainwashed streets
And he wept into his gin
And he came back as himself again
This magnificent début album ends with the up-tempo “No Show Tonight,” introducing a funk variation to this marvelous mix and giving Phoebe one last chance to fly. How she can go from her natural contralto to the unvoiced soprano so fluidly is still a mystery to me, but the secret may be in the effortlessness itself. Phoebe Snow sang as if there were no interference between what was in her spirit and where she wanted her voice to go, a state that very few vocalists manage to achieve.
Like Lou Gehrig, Phoebe Snow got a bad break. Unlike Lou Gehrig, her bad break happened at the start of her career, meaning we can only imagine what she might have achieved in music had fortune gone her way. Although her personal tragedy represented a great loss to music, we shouldn’t downplay her greater achievement: to put her career and her dreams aside to care for the daughter who could not care for herself. Phoebe Snow was a unique, one-of-a-kind musical talent, and also a loving and responsible mother who chose to sacrifice her wishes for someone who needed her. As beautiful as her music is, that choice was even more beautiful.
He’d had so many hit songs and people could sit and listen to him all night. He didn’t have to do anything, he didn’t have to wiggle his legs, in fact he never even twitched, he was like marble. The only things that moved were his lips—even when he hit those high notes he never strained. He was quite a miracle, unique.
In the early 1960’s, there was Roy Orbison and there was Everybody Else.
Everybody Else loved formulas. Everyone Else believed in Henry Ford’s theories of interchangeable parts and standardization. Everybody Else applied those sciences to the manufacture and exploitation of teenage fads from surf music to car music to dance crazes. There was The Twist (plain and peppermint), The Mash (plain and monster), The Loco-motion, The Watusi. Novelty songs exploiting the same market also gained favor. “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” sold over a million copies in only two months. R&B still showed signs of life, but rock and roll had lost its edge. All the great early rockers were either disgraced, dearly departed or had disappeared from the scene.
In the midst of this musical wasteland, a song of stunning originality appeared on the airwaves. Teenagers of the time heard the intro and probably thought that The Fleetwoods had come out with another of their soft harmonic hits . . . until they heard a voice like no other.
That voice belonged to Roy Orbison and the song was “Only the Lonely.” It is still one of the greatest male vocal performances in rock history and my personal favorite. I never play “Only the Lonely” in the background; that would be sacrilege. When the urge comes over me, I wrap my headphones around my ears, close my eyes and lose myself in the glorious flow of that heavenly voice with its incredible range.
“Only the Lonely” did nothing to improve the general quality of pop music of the era; its influence would have more impact on the upcoming wave of folk rockers and British invaders. The music gurus of the early 60’s were rather thick and unimaginative, their minds focused on duplication and replication rather than new directions. The problem they faced with Roy Orbison is that his music defied both convention and practicality. First, his songs didn’t follow the tried-and-true structure of hit pop songs. Second, finding singers with a four-octave range was a virtual impossibility. Generally, the moguls considered Roy Orbison’s success an outlier and went back to the manufacture of the tried-and-true.
The experience of The Beatles illustrates the Orbison challenge. Originally, “Please, Please Me” was written in the “Orbison style.” John Lennon specifically cited “Only the Lonely” as the primary source. When George Martin heard it, he told them to speed it up, and the rest is history. Had The Beatles been saddled with a producer with limited imagination and lousy ears, they might have released a pale imitation, a clunker instead of the sound of a new direction in pop music.
The moral of the story is: you can’t copy Roy Orbison, but you can learn from him.
The Playlist contribution to the ever-expanding list of Orbison compilations is an excellent starting point for those who want to begin to explore this fascinating artist. It contains most of his major hits and some minor hits that deserve more attention. The one complaint I have with this volume is that in a lame attempt to cater to people with no sense of history, the album opens with “You Got It” from the late 1980’s. Harrumph! This album should have opened with “Only the Lonely,” period. Some of the other songs are presented out of sequence as well. While this is a problem easily corrected by changing the track order on an iTunes playlist, I would condemn the people who made this decision to burn in the everlasting fires of hell if I believed in such a place. The progression of an artist’s development tells a story best told in a linear fashion; therefore, I’ve started my review with “Only the Lonely” and will now proceed to describe the evolution of Roy Orbison in its proper order.
“Running Scared”: Roy does Ravel! Using the rhythms of Bolero as a starting point, this song is also noteworthy for defying stereotypes and another superhuman vocal performance. First, when Everyone Else depicted males as macho guys who didn’t take any shit from sluts like Runaround Sue and whose primary goal was to tame the Wild One, Roy Orbison played himself: a shy, insecure young man terrified of not measuring up. In this case, he’s worried that his gal’s old flame will show up and steal her away, which only goes to show that the general perception of male-female relationships at the time was essentially Neanderthal: the girl would always choose the guy who could beat up the other guy (I could have said “the guy with the bigger club,” but I don’t think they had sex back then, so the metaphor would be inappropriate). Roy, with his thick glasses and weakling persona, lived in terror of getting sand kicked in his face by the buff beach stud, and that persona resonated with many boys and girls who probably struggled against the taboo forbidding men from showing vulnerability. The other thing that is remarkable is the vocal, best described in this passage from Roy’s Wikipedia article:
Orbison encountered difficulty when he found himself unable to hit the song’s highest note without his voice breaking. He was backed by an orchestra in the studio and Porter told him he would have to sing louder than his accompaniment because the orchestra was unable to be softer than his voice. Fred Foster then put Orbison in the corner of the studio and surrounded him with coat racks in an improvised isolation booth to emphasize his voice. Orbison was unhappy with the first two takes, but in the third, he abandoned the idea of using falsetto and sang the final high A naturally, so astonishing everyone present that the accompanying musicians stopped playing. On that third take, “Running Scared” was completed. Fred Foster later recalled, “He did it, and everybody looked around in amazement. Nobody had heard anything like it before.”
“Love Hurts”: Well, the good kind hurts! Sadly, Roy was not an early proselytizer of BDSM, but he delivers another mesmerizing vocal anyway. This old Everly Brothers tune was written by Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, who, like Roy, loved to mess with the formula: verse/brief refrain/verse/brief refrain/bridge/half a verse/refrain. It may not be standard structure but it’s a great example of poetic economy creating a satisfying whole.
“Crying”: I’d rate this one #2 behind “Only the Lonely” and give him extra kudos for adding a post-chorus to the chorus. Roy was obviously not trained in proper composition, praise the lord, and his intuitive feel for the direction a song needs to take always evokes my deepest admiration. Though this vocal uses more falsetto than usual, and defies structural expectations, it still flows like long blonde hair in a soft breeze. Gorgeous.
“Dream Baby”: A cover song written by a country gal named Cindy Walker, Roy spices it up with a touch of soul and a tiny bit of macho moxie. The slightly peppy tempo is a nice break for him. Sometimes the arrangement sounds a little too canned, but not intolerably so.
“In Dreams”: It is impossible to separate this song from the sociopathic disturbance of a film called “Blue Velvet.” Dean Stockwell gives a thoroughly slimy performance lip-syncing Roy for the seriously demented Dennis Hopper, eerily echoing Charles Manson’s gross misinterpretation of “Helter Skelter.” I hate the movie for its pointless violence and distortion of sadomasochism, and I hate it all the more for ruining a lovely song with tremendous build and a paradigm-smashing structure of seven non-repeated movements. Fuck you, David Lynch . . . but I’ll play the damned video anyway.
“Blue Bayou”: Talk about idealization! Hot, humid, thick with mosquitoes and all forms of slimy creepy crawlers, the Louisiana bayous are the last place on earth I’d want to spend my time. In that sense, the song speaks to the enduring pull and allure of one’s home, even if it is a muggy, fish-stinking shithole filled with people speaking distorted French. I think Roy’s version communicates more homesickness than Linda Ronstadt’s take, but hers does have greater power.
“Borne on the Wind”: Roy switches songwriting partners, dumping Joe Melson for Bill Dees. Let’s just say that the partnership hasn’t quite gelled yet. The song mingles Ravel with flamenco in a horrid arrangement of Ray Conniff-like strings and angelic vocals. It might have worked for Jay and the Americans, but here it almost sounds like a spoof of the great man. Where’s “Leah,” or “Mean Woman Blues,” or “Candy Man?” Bad choice, guys.
“It’s Over”: This made it to #1 in the UK and #9 in the states, but damned if I know why. While Roy projects much more energy than on “Borne on the Wind” and the dramatic aspect of the song is there, those sappy strings and angelic choruses reappear like a bad dream. Perhaps it connected with the audience because it has a similar feel to the earlier operatic performances, but It leaves me flat. Gee, I really think it’s time for Roy to shake things up a bit and maybe do something other than the self-fulfilling prophecies of the guy who always winds up going home alone.
“Oh, Pretty Woman”: Roy gets the girl! Roy gets the girl! Even more surprising—because it’s difficult to conjure up an image of Roy Orbison without a big fat guitar—this is the first song on the album that starts with a guitar riff (and a memorable one to boot). Once again, Roy stands out from the crowd (at that time the British Invasion bands who were filling the airwaves) and knocks it way, way out of the park. Bob Dylan described Orbison’s songwriting style as “songs within songs,” and “Oh, Pretty Woman” is a classic example. The internal dialogue that forms the narrative describes a range of emotions, from attraction to hope to despair to confidence. The structure is typically complex, with a double bridge and a beautifully theatrical, slightly varied extension of the verse as the pretty woman seems to be departing into the night. Up until the very end, every Orbison fan of the time just knew he had no fucking chance whatsoever of landing the lady and would wind up going home for a late night session with his right hand and a copy of Playboy.
“But wait!” The band goes quiet and all we hear is the steady drum beat, like a throbbing heart. “What do I see?” Then the riff returns, and in this context its rising notes sound like a question, or a faint sign of hope. “Is she walking back to me?” YES! Go for it, Roy, go for it!
Postscript: I don’t think much of the tiger growl, but I love how he belts out “Mercy!” after seeing this paragon of female beauty. I read that this was his typical outburst when he missed a note, but in this context, it’s pure libido. I often react that way when I see a hot bitch, which brings up a feature of bisexual women that is often overlooked. Guys! When you’re with a bi-chick, you don’t have to pretend that you’re not checking out the babes. She’ll be checking them out, too! There’s no harm in looking when your girl is looking, too! Free yourself from guilt and find a switch-hitting sweetheart!
“Goodnight”: I guess it was impossible for Roy to see himself as a lady-killer for long, so he gives us this song about a girl who cheats on him. Well, he deserved it, calling her a “woman child.” What the fuck is that? Too many Orbisonian conventions on this song, so skip it.
“(Say) You’re My Girl”: A song that definitely shows that this first stage of Roy Orbison’s career has run its course. Driven by a terrible beat that calls up images of go-go dancers on Hullabaloo, this tune shows that Roy is now a follower, and not a very good follower at that.
“You Got It”: His reputation revitalized by the ghoulish Mr. Lynch, his confidence restored by the experience of The Traveling Wilburys, Roy finds himself back on top with his first hit in twenty-four years. Jeff Lynne and Tom Petty played on this tune, and though it is a tad overproduced, the energy in Roy’s voice is unmistakably joyful. Good for him!
“She’s a Mystery to Me”: Written by that dreary narcissist Bono, Roy delivers a passable performance with a song that really doesn’t flow very well and leaves Roy in the low register for too long. Instead of a smooth build to the higher register where he has more room to maneuver, the transition is a flying leap. Roy can handle it, but it’s typical of the faux drama of a U2 song rather than the dramatic build of an Orbisonian opus.
Roy Orbison would die shortly after these releases, and I’m grateful that he did get to experience a comeback before he left us. A true American original on so many levels, he did not deserve to be lumped with the other forgettable performers of his heyday. Because he failed to fit the mold in so many ways, from his geeky looks to his anti-formulaic approach to composition, I find his success extraordinarily inspiring.
Although you’d never know it by listening to the vast quantity of formulaic crap that comes out today, Roy Orbison is evidence that sometimes, talent and originality count for something.