Book Review

Dark Star." The Tragic Story 0f Roy Orbison
Ellis Ambum

Lyle Stuart, $18.95

Reviewed by Steve Eng

Anyone who has ever poured silver into a jukebox, in an effort to forget someone with a Roy Orbison song, needs this book.

Orbison's manic depressive melodies started in the doldrums, with minor chords deepening the sadness, then ascended in almost ludicrous crescendos, attaining new vocal heights, albeit abetted by falsettos sometimes. Orbison's voice seemed to pierce the clouds – clouds of dreams, we might add. He seemed more forlorn than anyone since Frank Sinatra or Hank Williams Sr., although his climbing chord progressions promised ecstatic hope, as in "Running Scared." More often in a Roy Orbison song, that delicious hurt just never seems to heal, as in "Crying, " or "Only the Lonely."

Dark Star was written in a rush, in the wake of Orbison's heart attack death in December, 1988. The frenetic haste somehow seems an asset, as the author collected dozens of interviews, from Nashville to Texas, including some wacky recollections. These included all the hometown insults about Orbison's face, complexion, albino-looking hair, later dyed as black as his trademark sunglasses and double-chin. It's refreshing to read about at least one rock 'n' roll star who was treated like a creep in his home town (Wink, Texas, in the oil fields).

Orbison's scuffling days in the mid-Fifties, getting started in rock 'n' roll, are well evoked. There is the almost routine contract conflict squabble, this one with Norman Petty, who tried to hold onto Orbison but could not (Petty discovered and likewise could not keep Buddy Holly.) Orbison gravitated to Sun Records in Memphis, along with Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and the other pioneers of rockabilly then, like almost all of them, deserted Sun for Nashville.

By 1961 country music was in the doldrums and the first wave of country-derived rock 'n' roll had receded, Orbison having barely caught its last phase. In this strange lull, he blundered quite accidentally, with his big voice, into the show-off style that would make his sound unforgettable. He wrote or co-wrote his own songs, in order to invent a kind of operatic rock 'n' roll. Ambum appears to understand this and notes how Orbison may have influenced Presley, whose dizzying "It's Now Or Never" seems to follow in the Orbison mode.

Orbison's seemingly solitary personality, hidden behind the dark sunglasses, is probed relentlessly by the author, who chronicles his addiction to diet pills, his love of motorcycles and, especially, his re-readings of Winston Churchill's World War II memoirs.

In his more sociable moments, the reclusive Orbison settled for groupies but the pretty girls always got away. Then the gorgeous Claudette Frudy married him and inspired the Everly Brothers hit "Claudette," but a year after "Ride Away" was a hit, she died on her motorcycle.

This accident was followed by a fire at Orbison's Hendersonville house, in which two of his sons died. He became strangely alienated from his other son, Wesley. Orbison's brother Grady was killed in a car wreck in the vicinity, leading to the morbid joke that the Phillip Robinson mortuary should have offered him a discount.

The mortuary is like a recurring character in the book. Patsy Cline's funeral also has a cameo role.

Claudette apparently foresaw her own death while watching someone else's funeral and Orbison especially lived "In Dreams," to cite one of his best songs, dreams that were both saccharine and somber "But just before the dawn /I awake and find you gone."

Orbison's marriage to a pretty German woman named Barbara brought him two sons and lightened his life, as well as the story. She became his manager during the comeback period of the 1980s following the fallow 1970s.

Orbison pushed himself and his body perilously in his lust for renewed doses of the limelight. Ambum professes to be shocked by this, but killing oneself so that the show can go on is commonplace in the music industry.

It appears that Amburn fairly wore himself out getting all this in and he did an uncompromisingly good job, unlike the another Orbison biographer who worked from clippings instead of interviews.

The book has a good discography and even a good bibliography, which his rare for a show business biography.

Roy Orbison had an opaque public image, but he could make listeners believe lyrics like "A candy-colored clown they call the sandman / Tiptoes every night to my room ... " and not laugh. Ambum has managed to make the withdrawn Roy Orbison knowable and believable, too.

(Steve Eng lives in Nashville and once booked Bob Lind as Roy Orbison's opening act for a 17-city tour.)