WEIRDLAND: Roy Orbison and Buddy Holly: Alternative Rock Masculinity, The Rock ‘N’ Roll Dream Tour

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Roy Orbison and Buddy Holly: Alternative Rock Masculinity, The Rock ‘N’ Roll Dream Tour

Our technology is advanced in 2019, but our yearning for yesteryear is stronger than ever. “The Rock ‘N’ Roll Dream Tour” is going to be a joint trek “headlined” by the holograms of music icons Roy Orbison and Buddy Holly. The tour — which features a live band and backing singers, along with remastered audio — will take place in October, running throughout both Europe and North America. Brian Becker, chairman of BASE Hologram, said in a release: “These two men were forward-thinkers who defined the genre of Rock and Roll, from writing to recording to the standard band configuration, and they influenced everyone from Elvis to The Beatles. Now to be able to recapture that magic on a grand scale and let their fans see them together will be something truly special.” “Buddy and Roy were Texans who shared a mutual respect and admiration for each other’s creative musical genius and songwriting abilities,” said Holly’s wife Maria Elena Holly in her press release. “Their long-time fans and a new generation of fans will now have the opportunity to see these great legends perform together in a unique setting, showcasing two of the finest, most influential, and beloved artists in music history.” Source:

In 1960 rock 'n' roll music was diminished by two watershed events: Elvis Presley's enlistment in the army and Buddy Holly's death. Roy Orbison had close personal ties with both Presley and Holly. When listening to "Only the Lonely," Orbison's first smash hit in 1960, we wondered who sang such a strange song—which sounded more like two songs than one—so beautifully? In 1988, in Newsweek's Orbison obituary, David Gates claimed that, along with Presley and Holly, Orbison "elevated a form of regional music into something approaching art song." Just as it has been important for classical musicians and scholars to understand the accomplishments of Beethoven or Mozart, it is equally important for scholars of popular culture to understand the accomplishments of Buddy Holly or Roy Orbison. Jazz musician Don Byron made a compelling case for collapsing these distinctions between "high" and "low," "art song" and "popular music," and even for erasing the artificial line we draw between classical, pop, and jazz music. We cannot simply assert that rock is a serious art without making an analysis of the accomplishments within the genre. In the 1998 issue of Entertainment Weekly, an article entitled "Orbison's Last Dream" concludes, "In the end it's that goose-bump-inducing voice that endures. Does anyone who's heard it need to ask why Elvis Presley once called Roy Orbison the greatest singer in the world?" Why we shouldn't think of producing a new recording using an old vocal track as equivalent to a theater director's staging a new production of a Shakespeare play? If it is the voice that endures and causes the goosebumps, then why shouldn't that enduring voice be re-played?

"The grain of the voice," in philosopher Roland Barthes's memorable phrase, escapes the language of analysis. It is so much easier to talk about the aesthetics and ideology of lyrics than to characterize the accomplishments of a voice. Listening to Buddy Holly or Roy Orbison is not a form of "slumming," or a case of arrested development; indeed, it is much like listening to Mozart. In 1996 Simon Frith argued in The Sociology of Rock: "There are obvious differences between classical and country or rock music, but that doesn't mean that the artistic processes are different." After leaving Sun Records, Roy Orbison—following the lead of Elvis Presley—signed with RCA, recording six songs produced by Chet Atkins. These songs supply an important link between Orbison's rockabilly period and the later Monument ballads, such as "Paper Boy" which reveals a growing poetic awareness in the lyrics and the inclusion of delicate motifs. Roy Orbison and his first wife Claudette Frady were getting divorced in November 1964 over her infidelities, but they reconciled 10 months later. Tragedy struck on June 6, 1966, however, when Orbison and Claudette were riding home from Bristol, Tennessee. Claudette died in a motorcycle accident that occurred as she rode by Orbison's side, and later two of his three children died in a 1968 fire that destroyed his Nashville home. 

In 1988, Roy Orbison's obituaries confirmed just how widespread and pervasive his tragic image had become. People magazine ran as front-cover headline, "The Haunted Life of Rock Legend Roy Orbison," declaring his death the final tragedy of a quite sad life. Orbison's ubiquitous black clothes and dark glasses, adopted in 1963, only reinforced his image as a dark, tragic figure. Thanks in part to David Lynch, Orbison was later repositioned as a major figure in the history of rock 'n' roll, on a scale close with Elvis Presley and the Beatles. In an article on Orbison's music, occasioned by the release of In Dreams: Greatest Hits (1987), Dave Marsh hailed Roy Orbison as "one of the greatest singers of all time," a view he reiterated after Orbison's death, when he called him "more than just the owner of the greatest white pop voice." Orbison's private world of loneliness and dreams contains an important, pervasive element of sexual masochism that had gone totally unnoticed. Dwight Yoakam described Orbison's voice as that of the cry of an angel falling backward through an open window. In a related vein, Bruce Springsteen, in his 1987 speech inducting Roy Orbison into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame, said Orbison had the ability "to sound like he'd dropped in from another planet".

Most rock and roll singers of the period, most convincingly Elvis Presley, strutted around the stage, posturing in a sexually aggressive and overtly macho style. Critics have long pointed out that the display of the male body in rock 'n' roll is feminizing actually, for the male body becomes the object of an erotic spectacle like that traditionally reserved in Western culture for women. In the case of Buddy Holly, he channeled his (hetero) sexual power through his guitar, not displaying his body, so paradoxically Holly—although nerdy and shy—didn't look as feminized as Elvis. Buddy Holly held onto his inner masculinity, avoiding the dictates of rock and roll as erotic assimilation. Roy Orbison was also different from rock's macho performers, and this contrast can be seen in Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll (1988), a documentary about Chuck Berry, in which we can compare Roy Orbison's scenes with those of Jerry Lee Lewis. Jerry Lee, with his trademark cigar and bourbon in hand, talks in typically braggadocio fashion. While Roy Orbison appears in a black leather jacket, in fact totally enshrouded in black. However, he neither looks nor acts tough. 

Peter Watrous wrote in 1988: "Of all the rock-and-roll singers of his generation, Roy Orbison was the least obsessed with masculinity; the music, his voice and words are unmenacing and complex." By not creating and circulating sexually desirable images of himself in fan magazines and on record albums, by minimizing the sexual display of his body in performance and hiding behind impenetrable dark glasses, by singing in an eerie high range—and most of all by writing songs explicitly about male anxiety—Roy Orbison created a significant alternative to the sexual image of traditional male rock stars. In an obituary, the jazz magazine Down Beat claimed that "Elvis Presley said Orbison had the grandest voice in pop music. A listen to 'Only the Lonely,' 'Blue Bayou,' 'Oh, Pretty Woman,' and 'Crying' proves it." Roy Orbison was unique among major rock stars of the time in both his absence from the fan magazines and the de-emphasis on his looks as a major component of his image. Not even he had a press agent, something he would be proud of in later years.

In the rock 'n' roll scene, Buddy Holly also became associated with thick black frames similar to those that Roy Orbison would wear, and pictures show Holly wearing sunglasses indoors. The black frames gave Holly an air of coolness and a quasi intellectual aura. Orbison's dark glasses signified less that he was cool than, hidden behind them, he looked at the world darkly. David Lynch showed the dark, sexual side of the themes of "In Dreams," which he used in his cult film Blue Velvet (1986). Orbison's music not only sprang from loneliness and darkness; it was embraced by the same lonely darkness. Predictably, much of the initial reaction to Blue Velvet centered on its bizarreness. The Arizona Daily Star's critic Bob Campbell changed his mind about the film after he saw it a second time, whereupon he discovered that the film was "fiercely moral, and that explains its stunning force." 

Orbison's vocal range was extraordinary by any standard. "It's Over," for example, moves from D3 to B-flat 5 in full voice! This is an octave plus a fifth, or a thirteen-diatonic-note range in full voice. B-flat 5 is an octave above the full voice of a baritone, a fourth above the full voice of a tenor, and it is beyond the range of the full voice of an alto. Suffice it to say that few performers can do this. "Only the Lonely" has an even greater range. Here Orbison sings from B-flat 3 to C5, the C5 in falsetto. This represents two octaves plus a note, or a total of a seventeen-note range. Evan Eisenberg's analysis of Louis Armstrong located recorded music on a continuum within two poles, with what he calls the "rasp" at one extreme and the "bel canto" at the other. Such singers as Louis Armstrong and Bob Dylan typify the rasp, and singers like Paul McCartney and Roy Orbison typify the bel canto (literally, "beautiful singing"). There is a tendency to see the 'rasp' sound as closer to quintessential rock 'n' roll and the 'bel canto' voice as more closely related to the classical tradition, but the "pretty" voice of Paul McCartney, for example, is also capable of producing a raspy, tortured scream ("Hey Jude"). Dave Marsh breaks Orbison's songs into two groups, those dealing with pain and loss and those dealing with dreaming; Marsh argues that "Orbison's music suggests a way to absorb a very intense pain and stay alive: through dreams." Orbison constructed a complex masochist aesthetic based on a dark, passive, frightened, overly emotional figure, who either reveled in pain or lost himself in a world of dreams. For Orbison, rock 'n' roll was never primarily about sexuality as conventionally constructed and displayed. 

Orbison wrote many of his hits, so he was an early archetype, along with Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly, of the singer-songwriter pioneer. "Twinkle Toes" supplies a complex variation on his themes and makes clear how, in addition to dreaming about his role in saving the female figure, the Orbison persona identifies with this woman. The song is about a go-go dancer and the singer sings to her while she dances. The woman is lonely and crying, or at least the singer thinks she is. He describes her as someone whose carefree exterior masks an inner sadness: "Yeah, behind the smile, I know you're crying." Again he offers emotional support, telling her to be tough and hang on. The song concludes with his fantasy of saving her; he tells her to get ready, 'I bet I take you home tonight / now when the dance is through / You wont be lonely, you won't be blue tonight / I'll be with you." In stark contrast to the crudity of the other men we hear shouting, the Orbison persona sensitively identifies with the woman whom he wants to save. He desires her just as strongly as the other men do, but unlike them, he identifies with her loneliness. On March 25, 1969, Orbison married one of his German fans, Barbara Jakobs, whom he had met several days before his sons' deaths. Wesley (born 1965), his youngest son with Claudette, was raised by Orbison's parents. Orbison and Barbara had a son (Roy Kelton) in 1970 and another (Alexander) in 1975.

Buddy Holly's Ting-A-Ling is one of his wildest sounding rock numbers. But the lyrics, although devoid of Orbison's sad melancholy, also help establish a powerful bond with the girl(s) featured in the song. "Well now I'm just a poor young boy/And these girls 'bout to drive me wild/The way they rock and roll and hold me, angel child/The way they laugh, the way they sing/Makes my heart go ting-a-ling/Well, I'm young and I'm free/I want a fine young gal that is so nice and free." Unlike the heroines of traditional country ballads, Peggy Sue is not described in detail in Holly's famous song. As Dave Laing explains, "Peggy Sue is sung in different ways, so as to suggest the infinite variety of his affection for her. If the words suggest the ingenuity of his approach to the girl, the rhythm denotes the determined character of his pursuit for her. For this song, like so many others of Buddy Holly's, he's uncertain that his love will reciprocated." Another beautiful song written by Holly in 1958, “Because I Love You,” suggests the emotional turmoil he went through a painful break-up. In the lyric, Holly expresses his fear that his girlfriend has found someone else and states he would rather die than go through the rest of his life without her.

"Blue Angel" is another important song that showcases Roy Orbison's romantic pulse. It departs from the usual first-person narratives in which he suffers the pain; in this variation, he comforts the woman who has suffered at the hands of another man. At the beginning of the song, he disapprovingly describes the other man as someone who "thought love was a game," assuring the woman that he, by contrast, will "never say goodbye." Yet as the song progresses we discover that the love he sings about is displaced into the future, and there is no indication that the woman has any interest in him, though he offers himself up to her unconditionally, describing the wonderful love they will have: "If you'll just say you're mine / I'll love you 'til the end of time." Again, "She's a Mystery to Me" offers a symbolic physical referent to the masochistic pain that is frequently more psychological in Orbison's music. The song concludes with an intense image of both physical pain and frozen time: "Am I left to burn / And burn eternally." These images of Hell invoke the most extreme an eternal form of that masochistic time that seeks to stop at the moment of greatest suffering. The image of the paralyzed man who wants to run but cannot and instead "melts away" points to the total dissolution of the self that lies at the heart of the masochist aesthetic. If melting away poetically but indirectly means the dissolution of the self, "Windsurfer" expresses clearly the masochist's desire for death. Executives at Virgin Records did not like the song and urged him to use another. "Windsurfer" was included on the Mystery Girl album only at Orbison's insistence.

"Oh, Pretty Woman" is much less about a rose-tinted view of female beauty and the street life than it is about a male form of masochistic desire. At the climax of "Oh, Pretty Woman," the masochistic sense of timing finds formal expression when the Orbison persona cries out, "But wait, what do I see?" The opening guitar riff, itself structured around a disruption of time, is repeated, freezing time as the Orbison persona passively waits to see what action the desired woman will take. Bob Dylan had long admired Orbison and had written "Don't Think Twice" for him, recording the song himself in 1963 only after Orbison decided not to record it. Most people think of Roy Orbison as just the smooth crooner who sang ballads like “Only the Lonely” and “Crying.” But Orbison was also a wicked guitar player, who ripped out several impressive solos with his iconic Gibson ES-335 guitar on early Sun Records singles like “Ooby Dooby.” By 1964, most of Orbison’s early rock and roll contemporaries were either dead, strung-out on drugs, or in jail, but Orbison’s musical career still hadn’t reached its peak. In between the ballads, he recorded singles like “Mean Woman Blues” (check his wild guitar solo) and “Oh, Pretty Woman” that showed upstarts like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Animals that Americans still could rock harder than any British band.

Roy Orbison and Buddy Holly opened rock 'n' roll to a wide range of emotions and intensity for other artists, far removed from the dominant macho posturing of the time. There were, to be sure, some elements of vulnerability in Elvis and others, but nothing comparable to Holly or Orbison. Buddy Holly had helped Roy Orbison with lead guitar structures on some of the songs Orbison was trying to write in the late 50s. When Orbison, from Wink, Texas, 125 miles south of Lubbock, heard Holly on KDAV, it certainly altered his life. It was Buddy Holly who showed Roy Orbison the guitar lick that would become so popular when Orbison recorded “Pretty Woman” in 1964. Buddy Holly’s detractors had been mostly mediocre C&W pickers who envied his talent, but they had a shattering effect on his self-esteem. And Holly began to withdraw from the crowd, turning inward. Despite his standoffishness, Buddy’s smart-aleck persona reasserted itself anytime he felt secure, especially when he was with other musicians, or a girl he liked. As a songwriter, Buddy Holly favored Major chords, as well as Brian Wilson (the favorite keys of Holly were A, E and D, whereas Wilson preferred to write in key B). Brian Wilson was another creative and sensitive pop genius who had no time for macho posturing ("I think cursing is a bunch of malarkey", Wilson once said). When he released his album No Pier Pressure in 2015, Brian Wilson explained: "The songs come to me sitting at a piano and out of the sudden, they come down from my brain and onto the keyboard."  

“I don’t want to be rich,” Buddy Holly had said to Sonny Curtis: “I don’t even want to be in the limelight. But I want people to remember the name Buddy Holley.” Buddy Holly had the kind of determination known only to heroes and fools. In profile, he looked strangely Martian, but when he faced the camera he was quite handsome, with a big, heroic forehead, gull-wing eyebrows, a squared-off chin, and a strong jaw-line. The rock ballad “I Guess I Was Just a Fool” was the first sign of Buddy Holly exploring deeper emotional states with insight and depth. It tells the story of a man who has lost a relationship but he's glad to know he’s at least capable of experiencing love. Buddy seems to be drawing on his ill-starred love for the wild girl of Lubbock. In the plaintive Mystery Girl Orbison admits freely "There are stronger men than me." Roy Orbison and Buddy Holly had the courage to be different as singers, songwriters and performers at a crucial moment in the evolution of rock 'n' roll. There are no stronger or more inspiring men than that. —Sources: "Roy Orbison: Invention Of An Alternative Rock Masculinity" (2003) by Peter Lehman and "This'll Be the Day: The Life and Legacy of Buddy Holly" (2009) by Maury Dean

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