Whisper secrets to the wind: the best of Roy Orbison

In his last decade Roy Orbison wrote and recorded at a pace as furious as Thomas Hardy. This time he had help. What a thrill — the entire record industry wanted his comeback in 1988; Little Richard didn’t get this treatment. To my ears, soundtrack throwaways like “Wild Hearts Run Out of Time” and the Glenn Danzig co-write “Life Fades Away” rank among his most committed performances. Don’t forget he recorded the first and most terrifying version of the piece of Tom Kelly-Billy Steinberg boilerplate “I Drove All Night,” taken into the top twenty by both Cyndi Lauper and Celine Dion; with Orbison warbling it sounds like something is at stake (his version gains from the video, in which Jennifer Connolly and Jason Priestley, at the peak of their youthful beauty, cavort like Calvin Klein models). The most significant act of benevolence that Bono committed outside U2 duties besides securing money for AIDS drugs in Africa was writing and producing a song (accompanied mostly by his guitar, which is even more unbelievable) for Orbison as spare, crisp, and well lit as one of Fritz Lang’s American crime films. Appropriate — using a outline not a libretto, “She’s a Mystery to Me” relies on the undimmed power of Orbison’s voice to suggest a vision of loveliness that can send a pulse through a hairpiece. As for the Traveling Wilburys — well. What could it mean that Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Tom Petty, and Jeff Lynne giggled among themselves and said, “We got Roy Orbison to sing on our record!” Bob Dylan: “He sang like a professional criminal.”

I haven’t even mentioned those imperishable Monument singles. Recording when the album as practiced by Frank Sinatra was in abeyance, Orbison said fuck it to long form statements. Besides, what album could contain “Running Scared” and “It’s Over”? The human imagination can’t conceive pop opera this well wrought co-existing with eight cousins. Most of those tunes Orbison wrote or co-wrote, a fact with which not many writer have reckoned. Orbison must have had some kind of radio station in Wink, Texas, where he grew up — Mexican ballads that Juan Gabriel a decade later would transform; bolero; traces of mass harmonied Spanish border songs. Listening to snatches of this music grew up, the line between Grand Guignol and pathos dissolved, cheerfully. Naiveté darkened by knowledge of perversity. No wonder David Lynch responded.

And when it struck his fancy he remembered Carl Perkins. I didn’t mind sticking “Oh, Pretty Woman” so high on my list because that riff. Oh, that riff. Orbison’s growl. Those chord changes. So meticulously detailed yet, improbably, so much space, as Bruce Spingsteen and James Burton understood when they riffed back and forth for eternity on 1987’s Black & White Night, a PBS mainstay in the late eighties and nineties that converts new listeners every week if you believe the YouTube clicks.

A final point, and I haven’t made it once in these retrospectives: in a life too well acquainted with the night — a wife killed in a motorcycle, two kids in a fire — Orbison showed remarkable equipoise. I can’t find a single nasty anecdote. Everyone who met him loved him, wished him the best, protected him.

1. In Dreams
2. Oh Pretty Woman
3. Only the Lonely
4. Dream Baby
5. You Got It
6. It’s Over
7. Crying
8. She’s a Mystery to Me
9. Pretty Paper
10. Running Scared
11. Dream Baby (How Long Must I Dream)
12. That Lovin’ You Feelin’ Again ft. Emmylou Harris
13. Life Fades Away
14. Not Alone Anymore.
15. Wild Hearts Run Out of Time
16. The Comedians
17. I Drove All Night
18. Communication Breakdown
19. Leah
20. Love Hurts

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