In the early ’60s, when rock & roll was still squirming in fitful adolescence, Roy Orbison’s great rhythm numbers throbbed from the speakers of car radios everywhere, the lusty growl of ”Oh, Pretty Woman” fueling the hump and bump in the backseats of borrowed Chevys parked clear across America.
But Orbison’s slow songs, his ballads, were something else, an almost operatic music born of dreams and despair, a music that spent its days on Lonely Street and its evenings on the morbid edge of a nightmare.
Yet aside from his sad, soaring tenor — an instrument that appeared to have its genesis in the netherworld, not the unlikely hamlet of Vernon, Tex. — to those who met him, Orbison seemed not so much a funereal figure as he did the rarest of rock & roll creatures: a genuinely sweet man.
Unfailingly dressed in black (the bottom-heavy singer resembled a black leather pear), he was so soft-spoken, well-mannered, and humble as to offset the visual jolt of his fright-wig hair, pasty skin, and ever-present dark glasses.
But the real Orbison, Ellis Amburn suggests in Dark Star: The Tragic Story of Roy Orbison, wore another face beneath it all. The biography paints a portrait of a man who wallowed in romantic excess to compensate for a lifetime of frustration and pain.
As a child — shy, geeky, big-eared, bespectacled, and so light-skinned that he was sometimes mistaken for albino — Orbison was ignored by his classmates to the point of feeling, as he remarked, ”totally anonymous, even at home.” By the age of 10, he was creating his own world where, armed with a guitar and an ethereal, tremulous voice, he slipped into dreams for solace. There, in dreams, one part of Roy Orbison languished for the rest of his life.
Back in the real world, however, the Orbison of Amburn’s account was sufficiently egomaniacal to claim sole credit for shared writing projects, to seek revenge for minor slights, and to indulge his appetites for pubescent girls and the demons of itinerant musicians — speed, sleeping pills, and, later, cocaine.
And when in a series of accidents his first wife and two of his children died within two years, he was so consumed with fame — and so preferred delusion to reality — that he came to regard the tragedies as little more than minor setbacks. Soon afterward he married a beautiful German woman 16 years his junior and apparently gave her total control of his life and career, cutting almost all ties with his indigent parents and surviving son out of fear of losing the pretty woman of his ultimate fantasy.
As a writer Amburn moves through this story with all the grace of a mastodon. (”Genetics had not been kind to Roy. . . .In the looks department he definitely got short-changed.”) And as a reporter, he abandons all pretense of primary research after the early years, so he is forced to document the middle and later years with headlines and tour schedules, repeating gossip without substantiation and without com-passion.
Yet Amburn’s real defeat is his failure to locate or account for the source of Orbison’s genius. At the end of this biography, Roy Orbison sits dreamily atop rock’s pantheon, cloaked in black, his dark glasses still firmly, and defiantly, in place.