Generally speaking, fans of early rock and roll fall into two categories: those who want to hear Roy Orbison’s “Only the Lonely” more than once a year, and those who don’t—and I belong to the latter group. One of the strengths of vintage rock was that it meant nothing more and nothing less than what its teenage audience said it meant (unless, of course, you listen to rock critics, but nobody does, which is why, impotent and resentful, they write mainly for each other). I always thought the music existed to make you want to laugh out loud, or dance, or take a wallow in adolescent melancholy, the experience songwriter Mickey Newbury called “feeling good feeling bad.”
But rock and roll wasn’t meant to create pain, and that was my problem with Roy Orbison—his voice and his songs were nothing if not emotionally wounded. In addition, no one in rock and roll possessed a physicality less suited to rock style. Orbison had no “moves” (there was a certain integrity in that,’ but it wasn’t the kind of integrity I was interested in), and when he covered his small, pale frame in shades, dyed and molded blue-black hair, and a black jumpsuit, he looked like somebody’s country uncle dressed up for Rock Around the Clock Night down at the VFW.
But people who love Roy Orbison’s music really love it, and he occupies an important, if slightly off-center, niche in rock and roll history. His untrained voice was beautiful and unique. His songwriting and musicianship were admired by his contemporaries. And his life, which included early poverty, personal tragedies, drug abuse, and a trip from fame to obscurity and back again, is the stuff of rock legends. What’s more, he is surely alone among first-generation rockers in having enjoyed comic books and the writings of Winston Churchill.
Why then, is Ellis Amburn’s Dark Star so tedious? Is it because rock legends who live fast and die before their time have become a pop culture cliche? Is it because Orbison’s persona, despite the rock trappings, was uncharismatic? Or is it because Ellis Amburn, who previously collaborated on books with Shelley Winters and Priscilla Presley, lacks the capacity to be surprised by his subject?
One rule of thumb in these cases is: when in doubt, blame the writer. There is no sense in Dark Star that its author views Roy Orbison, who died of a heart attack in 1988 at the peak of an amazing comeback, as anything but convenient and timely book fodder. Much of Dark Star is biography as itinerary (“Roy . . . made the day-long trip to Fort Worth . . . Roy flew to Canada in October . . . After Texas, Roy was off to Santa Ana, California”). There is no attempt to explore, much less understand, the complexities that accompany a creative personality. Some of Orbison’s friends describe him as gentle, gracious, shy, modest, and even-tempered; others call him egomaniacal, vengeful, spoiled, vain, envious, and self-pitying. These contradictions simply sit there on the page, as the author moves on to yet another list of cities for yet another of Orbison’s tours.
Likewise, the only worthwhile insights into the mysteries and pleasures of a natural vocal gift like Orbison’s come not from the author but from the singer himself: “It was sort of a wonder. It was a great feeling, and it didn’t hurt anybody, and it made me feel good, and some people even said, ‘Roy, that’s nice.’ I’ve always been in love with my voice. It was fascinating, I liked the sound of it, I liked making it sing, making a voice ring, and I just kept doing it.”
In fact, were it not for Orbison’s own words (most of them culled from previously published interviews). Dark Star would lack any vividness at all. In an insufficient yet repetitive chapter on Roy Orbison’s unhappy adolescence as a misfit in Wink, Texas (a chapter in which I entertained myself by keeping a list of the colorful names of Orbison’s family and friends, names like Orbie Lee, Coyt, Clois, Hezzie, Double O, Pooky, Freako, Slob, and one female Jake), the time, the place, and the man come together sharply only when Amburn quotes Orbison’s comments to Rolling Stone: “[I]t was macho guys working in the oil field, and football, and oil and grease and sand and being a stud and being cool. I got out of there as quick as I could. . . . It was tough as could be, but no illusions. No mysteries in Wink.”
But the real problem with Dark Star is that it contains the kind of red-flag errors that raise questions about the credibility of everything that surrounds them. For the record Janis Ian wasn’t a “rock singer,” she was a folk singer; Jerry Lee Lewis’s “first single” release for Sun Records wasn’t “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Coin’ On,” it was “Crazy Arms,” and Elvis Presley’s birthplace, as even non-fans are aware, was Tupelo, Mississippi, not Memphis. (Furthermore, it is preposterous to compare Roy Orbison to Jimmy Durante, even if Ellis Amburn does believe, for some strange reason, that “each was a phenomenon who escaped being made into a joke . . . by a hair’s breadth.”)
In question here is the credibility of Amburn’s thesis, which is that Roy Orbison was “as dangerous as a loose cannon,” a man destroyed by the “poison” of success. As proof, he offers examples of Orbison’s disregard for his health, as if fastidious health habits would mean anything to a man defined from boyhood by an obsession with fame, wealth, and popular acceptance. He writes darkly of Orbison’s compulsion to work, suggesting it was some sort of curse, but it’s obvious that Orbison’s achievement of his own desires—to succeed in the 60’s, survive failure in the 70’s, and renew his career in the 80’s—would have been impossible without his determined work ethic. And some ideas are so overwrought as to be unfathomable. Of Orbison’s habit of watching several movies in a row before starting a recording session (“It freshens my mind,” he said), Amburn writes that it “smacked of idiosyncrasy [sic] bordering on insanity.”
Roy Orbison was a poor, insecure, and unhandsome country boy who used his talent to make real his dreams of fame, fast cars, and pretty women. Ellis Amburn contends melodramatically that the realization of Orbison’s dreams was in fact a tragedy. But Dark Star offers no evidence that Orbison himself regretted the life he created. And why should he have regretted it? For a man who considered himself both physically ugly and musically “fascinating,” which would be harder to accept: rock and roll stardom, or jobs chopping weeds and playing honkytonks in west Texas?
[Dark Star: The Roy Orbison Story, by Ellis Amburn (New York: Lyle Stuart/Carol Publishing Group) 283 pp., $18.95]
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