Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Roy Orbison: Black & White Night With Friends

Every now and then I make a point of consulting the Wall Of Plastic to see which items are still wrapped in cellophane — usually when my wife is away on business and I've given up on sleeping, as was the case last month. Lo and behold, I hadn't yet broken the seal on the 30th Anniversary Edition of Roy Orbison's Black & White Night. I tore off and discarded the plastic, inserted the DVD into the Playstation and ...
...more impressed than the fellow seated next to Roy's microphone.
I thought I'd already seen it, back in the day, but the set and setlist were new to me. I'd confused it with another Orbison-doo — there were a number of televised Orbison celebrations/attempts at resurgence in the '80s, most of them underwhelming.

I grew up thinking of him has a has-been — the guy in the black wig and sunglasses who'd sing “Oh, Pretty Woman” on variety shows my grandparents watched. Indeed, until I read his Wikipedia entry this morning I'd no idea just how far Orbison's star had fallen in the '70s. He went from being bigger than the Beatles in '63 to being a John Belushi punchline in '78, all while reeling from a devastating chain of personal tragedies.

Orbison's music has its challenges. The sad stuff — Cryin', Only The Lonely, It's Over, The Comedians — is so intense and strange (k.d. lang says “Roy Orbison doesn't write pop songs, he writes epics”) it did not make for rotational material on radio stations. The Texas Rockabilly material — Go! Go! Go! (Down The Line), etc. — I can listen to all day, but is still niche music that was not going to receive airplay until the nostalgia loop rotated back to the era that launched Orbison.

Which finally happened in the mid-'80s. Suddenly the big stars of the day weren't just trying to keep Orbison's star from fading, they insisted on backing him up and catching a bit of his shine. I have recollections of Stevie Ray Vaughn and George Thoroughgood serving as Orbison's humble guitarists for some televised shindig — and Thoroughgood being given the solo because he was the bigger star at the time.

Thoroughgood “eclipsing” Stevie Ray was exactly the sort of high profile trainwreck I expected Black & White Night to be. C'mon — you've got names like Jackson Browne, Elvis Costello, Bonnie Raitt, k.d. lang . . . Bruce Springsteen and Tom Waits fer cryin' out loud. These are all highly distinctive voices generally not enlisted for backup singing.

But that is what they do. I suspect post-production pulled Springsteen's voice into a smoother collaboration with Orbison than was probably the case during the performance. But he is clearly there for Roy, and I should add that Springsteen proves himself to be a more adept guitarist than I've generally given him credit for. And while T Bone Burnett is fêted for making the show happen, it sure looks to me like J.D. Souther is the unelected field marshal giving all the marching orders on stage.

The evident bond, however, is between Orbison and guitarist James Burton and drummer Ron Tutt — musicians with whom Orbison played his entire life. It's lovely to see.
Burton, far left, providing the lead.
The bonus footage is so-so, but worth watching if only to see Orbison show up for rehearsal in sweatpants.

  • Roy Orbison's final interview with Rolling Stone.
  • Wikipedia — hey, I'm older than Roy Orbison! How did that happen?

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