Friday, December 21, 2007

The Ten That Made Springsteen: 4. Roy Orbison, Only the Lonely

''In '75, when I went into the studio to make "Born to Run", I wanted to make a record with words like Bob Dylan that sounded like Phil Spector, but most of all I wanted to sing like Roy Orbison" 1987 at Roy Orbison's induction in the R&R Hall of Fame.

Of all the R&R artists present in Springsteen's ground breaking album, Roy Orbison might be the one that is most pronounced. Even if it is only because Roy makes it into the album's opener "Thunder Road". But when Springsteen mumbles the line "Roy Orbison's singing for the lonely, hey that's me and I want you only" does a little more than just provide a superficial link to the Big O's work. Springsteen places the album where he needs it to be, smack dab in the middle of R&R's glory days of the late fifties and the early sixties. A time when radio's reign was supreme and offered you an ear into the heart of American music, the very radio that stood in Adele Springsteen's kitchen and gave him his first sense of R&R and a little more. Aside from the burgeoning R&R industry, Radio in the fifties and the early sixties offered you an ear to the great Pop hits of the day. In the fifties it wasn't R&R that dominated the airwaves it was Sinatra's coy voice, Nat King Cole's syrupy delivery, Perry Como's crooning and Julie London crying a river. Roy Orbison was among those artists that would combine R&R's sexual energy with the finesse of the Pop records of the day. Along with Lieber & Stoller and their protogé Phil Spector, Roy Orbison was one of the first who would make R&R into a form of high culture. With Roy the paradox of R&R was born, the no nonsense common man's great art of R&R. Two things that seemingly didn't gel together all that easy. But maybe Steve van Zandt recently explained it best when he called "R&R the great equalizer", maybe the only art form where races, classes and genders find common ground. R&R certainly democratized art, with the genre's simply chords and straight forward word play, art was suddenly within reach of anybody willing to master a few rudimentary chords on a guitar. Of course Roy Orbison's operatic song writing went a little beyond those basic chords.

In his Springsteen Biography Dave Marsh at one point quotes the lines "Only the lonely know the way I feel tonight, Only the lonely know this feeling ain't right" as the introduction to a new chaper. Curiously enough Marsh doesn't go into how seminal those lines seem to be for Springsteen's perception on himself. Springsteen who considered himself an outsider, who was seen as weird in college, the kid unable to fit in, the boy sent home for pissing in his desk, the adolescent constantly at odds with his father. "Only the Lonely" indeed. Springsteen himself must have known that feeling ain't right. Aside from those lines the parallels between Springsteen and those lines the comparison between the Big O and the Boss' background are a little more than just superficial. Roy Kelton Orbison was born on April 23, 1936 at 3:30 pm, in Vernon, Texas. Vernon made the small town where Springsteen grew up, Freehold New Jersey, look like a metropolitan area. Like Springsteen, Roy got grabbed by the spirit of American Music at an early age when his father bought him a guitar at six. Of course R&R didn't exist at the time but Orbison made his first careful strides in that direction by winning a talent show performing "Jole Blon ", one of those hill billy R&R prototypes. Roy would immerse himself in anything radio had to offer from Country to the string laden Pop classics of the day. By the time Roy recorded "Ooby Dooby" for the legendary Sun records he was an as unlikely R&R as Springsteen would be in his early career. Roy Orbison was the negative of R&R's machismo radiated by the likes of Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis, also signed at Sun. Although Springsteen's image these days is marred by beefy pumped up arms at the time Springsteen embarked on his most ambitious album to date, "Born to Run, he was nothing more but a scrawny punk. With his two first albums a dud and eager to bust loose like Orbison once had when he released "Only the Lonely", as much of a fusion of R&R and Pop radio as "Born to Run" would turn out to be.

By the time Springsteen tapped in on his early influences such as Orbison, Elvis and Spector, all three of them were sliding into R&R limbo, becoming curiosities from a long forgotten age. "Born to Run" was recorded in a time when the artistic side of R&R had become snobbish yet tame. Folk "rockers " and jam bands with their intellectual aura ruled the day. Although Springsteen had dabbled in such musical forms himself during a short solo stint before getting signed at Colombia and with his Cream-like "super group" Steel Mill, this wasn't the direction Springsteen was going to take. His small town anxieties were much better captured in those heroes of R&R's golden days when R&R's main objective seemed girls, cars and escape. The holy trinity captured in the album's title track. As such "Born to Run" would become laden with the classic riffs from Eddie Cochran's "Summertime Blues", Duane Eddie's "Rebel Rouser", Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode" and most noatably Bo Diddley's "Mona". The album winked at the classic studios as well with the Stax like horn lines of "Tenth Avenue Freeze Out" or Max Weinberg's Motown like drum approach. "Born to Run" had the grand ambition of capturing R&R history in little under 40 minutes.

For the albums production Bruce turned to Phil Spector for inspiration, creating layer after layer in a painstakingly recording process. Spector ultimately would become as much of an influence on the album as Roy Orbison was, maybe even more. In a sense Spector and Orbison were of the same breed, none too attractive R&R geniuses with a similar operatic approach to the genre. As Orbison, Phil had infused his brand of R&R with the theatrics of Wagner and the Pop sensibilities of Sinatra ( a little less recognized influence on Springsteen as well). Of course Springsteen hardly had the means Spector had to its disposal, brimming with ideas, hanging on a thread with the record company and no real studio experience to speak of Bruce recorded the title track in between tour dates in 1974. The many mixes of the song available on bootlegs (download here) with added strings and whole choirs stand a testimony of the singles exhausting sessions. An advance copy was released in November '74, the actual album being almost a year away from that date. Although the lyrics are an obvious Orbison throwback, Bruce had infused the song with his own majesty. "Born to Run" with its runaway American dreams, chrome wheel, fuel injected motor cycles, towns that rip the bones from your back was a R&R opera of adolescent frustration and big dreams struggling to be contained in four and a half minutes. The song is layered with Spector like glockenspiels, multiple guitar lines, a relentless throbbing base and ferociously pounding drums to keep it in check. How much Springsteen was indebted to Spector became apparent when he performed with Ronnie Spector in 1976 on stage, providing the perfect wall of sound backdrop for her with the E-Street Band and the Miami Horns (download that show here).

"Born to Run" would be the epic from which both the album and Springsteen's career would slowly unfold. The earlier mentioned February Main Point broadcast now gives us a look at how far the album was from being finished with "Born to Run" already riding the airwaves. "Thunder Road"was still called "Wings For Wheels" with Mary still being Angelyna, "She's the One" still had much of the lyrics that would ultimately go to "Backstreets" and "Jungle Land" was nowhere near as the impressive epic it would become. Springsteen's wordy rants still were in much need to be condensed to R&R's essentials. The creative process got an unsuspected boost when drummer Ernest 'Boom' Carter and keyboard player David Sancious left to pursue solo careers and were replaced with Max Weinberg and Roy Bittan respectively. While David Sancious had been instrumental in creating Springsteen's somewhat jazzy R&R beat poet image and 'Boom' had temporarily infused that image with his Jazz licks when Bruce had to sack the unpredictable first E-Street drummer Vini 'Mad Dog' Lopez, the "Born to Run" album needed a more straight forward approach with a grand feel. Max's relentless pounding and Roy's graceful piano lines proved perfect for that. Aided by Landau at the production reigns, much to the dismay of his then manager Mike Appel, Springsteen was able to bring the album to a good end.

"[I was] listened to Roy Orbison a lot doing this record" admitted some tow years back when he performed "Thunder Road" for the VH1 Storytellers broadcast. Orbison's mini epics might just have been what Springsteen needed to start trimming his lyrics, trying to get back to the essence of R&R, trying to recapture those three minute records. If Roy Orbison was able to tell his grand stories of anxiety, heartbreak and desire over the course of the A-side of a 45, so was Springsteen. Springsteen slowly started stripping his lyrics creating a that cinematic feel to them would become his trademark throughout the rest of his career when the process started with "Born to Run" would continue. Stripping the lyrics until they reach that bare essence they held on the Nebraska album. It is no coincidence that Springsteen was inspired by B-movies for the album, albeit only the poster of Robert Mitchum's movie for "Thunder Road". Film imagery provided the necessary back drop to which Springsteen would start to mold his songs. The moving pictures are present through the album from Mary dancing like a vision as the screen door slams, to the film noir of "Meeting Across the River" or kids who flash guitars just like switch-blades in "Jungle Land".

Roy Orbison provided Springsteen with the approach and inspiration he need to get his career off the ground. Bruce needed the Big O to fulfill the promise of R&R captured in "Born to Run". Without Roy the album might never have become the classic it is today. Ironically by the time "Born to Run" hit the market the record buying public had forgotten about the Big O as they embraced his successor. Springsteen payed his debt in part when he was part of "The Black and White Night" TV special that helped revive Roy Orbison's career. Something that might not even have been possible if performers like Springsteen hadn't saved R&R from its own pretenses and brought it back to the every man's art form Orbison had molded it into.

"Rebel Rouser" - Duane Eddie
"Summertime Blues" - Eddie Cochran
"Mona (I Need You Baby)" - Bo Diddley
"Walking In The Rain" - Ronnie Spector & the E-Street Band (live)
"Born To Run (alternate take)" - Bruce Springsteen
"Wings For Wheels" - Bruce Springsteen (live)

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