Roy Orbison made it okay to wear sunglasses at night and consequently there may be a number of typographical errors in this review. When Orbison started in the '60s, wearing glasses was stigmatic, and it took courage for him to wear them on stage for the first time, opening for the Beatles in London. He needed them for the prescription, but by wearing them he allowed a thousand rock stars to careen about in shades, often unnecessarily. Perhaps now and then they would bump into things (or people), but the advantage was that you could hide behind them if you were feeling a little frazzled.
Orbison may have had tired eyes in 1987 due to what appeared to be a sudden career revival. “Crying” was re-released as a duet with k.d. lang, and “In Dreams” was featured in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, sparking a renewed interest in the Big O. He was then inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He recorded an awe-inspiring live concert, A Black and White Night, with Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Jackson Browne, Tom Waits, Bonnie Raitt, and others. But perhaps most importantly he was working on material for a new album with Jeff Lynne. These sessions crossed with other work on George Harrison’s Cloud Nine, Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever and Traveling Wilburys Vol 1, so that an informal collective grew to help each other out on one another’s records. There was so much music being put out by all of them, that in 1988 Orbison delayed the release of Mystery Girl by a year until 1989. He died of a heart attack in December 1988; the album raced up the charts posthumously, his first album of all new material in ten years.
Orbison is wearing his iconic sunglasses on the cover of Mystery Girl, this Legacy re-issue. Whilst there was little wrong with the original (tremendous) release, the extras are generous and illuminating. There are nine additional songs on the CD; one previously unreleased, “The Way Is Love”, the bonus track “You May Feel Me Crying”, previously included on a 2007 re-issue, and the remainder made up of album demos. There’s also a DVD included which contains some excellent footage putting the album in context, and old and new official music videos. Consumerism may be an ugly business, but Orbison’s music has always been beautiful, so Mystery Girl is well deserving of the deluxe treatment.
The album itself is full of good stuff, Orbison’s extraordinary voice at its peak. The DVD certainly adds to the overall experience, and we’re taken through the songs individually to unravel the mystery of how the album was put together. It’s quite startling to see “You Got It”, the big and dramatic epic (and a posthumous single), being recorded in “Mike’s Garage”, Orbison surrounded by stacks of boxes, equipment, and assorted children’s bikes. From time to time dogs bark, and the musicians look around sheepishly. The finished production, though, is meticulously organised, lush and orchestrated. The footage of Orbison recording “In The Real World”, surely Orbison’s anti-anthem because of the over-reaching concern with dreams in his songs, is retrospectively chilling as the singer understatedly tells us that “Endings come to us / In ways we can’t re-arrange." “Dream You” takes the viewer back to the exquisite performance of “A Black and White Night”, and “A Love so Beautiful” to the flawless first take of Orbison’s vocal, recounted as one of the best moments of Jeff Lynne’s life. Orbison’s music always had an otherworldly but emotional nature, and the musicians interviewed were clearly moved by working with him on the record.
The origins of “She’s a Mystery to Me” are interestingly re-told by Bono, who wrote the song; nervous and struggling to sleep the night before a U2 concert in London, with “In Dreams” on repeat, he woke-up with most of a song in his head. After rehearsing it at sound-check, Orbison arrived unexpectedly after the concert to meet the band for the first time, and asked for something from them to record. Bono finished the song off for Orbison, and it was a perfect match, as if those iconic sunglasses are an essential element of the story to cope with the glare of reality: “Night falls, I’m cast beneath her spell / Daylight comes our heaven turns to hell." In the studio Bono instructs Jim Keltner to play “humble drums” and Orbison hardly opens his mouth, but at playback Bono is struck by “the voice of an angel”, a mystery indeed. The intimate studio demo is included on the CD with Bono’s instructions to guide Orbison through the track.
Similarly, Wesley Orbison (Roy’s son) interestingly describes how he came up with the idea for “The Only One”, as he tried to figure one how to survive with plenty of cigarettes but only one match. The finished song is altogether something different and is an album highlight, well accentuated by Steve Cropper’s Memphis Horn arrangement.
Perhaps missing is a commentary from Elvis Costello on Orbison’s performance of Costello’s “The Comedians”. The song encapsulates the drama that became the Big O’s speciality, artfully described by Bruce Springsteen as “the true master of the romantic apocalypse you dreaded, and knew was coming after the first night you whispered “I Love You” to your first girlfriend”. If ever you’re feeling heartbroken, Orbison’s music is a suitable soundtrack to indulgently wallow in regret.
Mystery Girl has a lightness of touch, and despite a number of different producers, has a cohesive feel. “California Blue” and “Windsurfer” are very obvious summer songs; “California Blue” came out of the first session with Jeff Lynne and Tom Petty, Orbison having asked Lynne whether he ever missed California, to which Lynne quickly responded “no”. Despite this, the song is a great advertisement for the Golden State, and as Jim Keltner recalls, it’s down to Orbison effortlessly hitting the high notes for the song with no stress or strain in his voice at any time. “Windsurfer”, co-written with Bill Dees who also co-wrote Orbison’s “Oh Pretty Woman”, is equally light and airy, but apparently began as an overt suicide song with a dead windsurfer on the beach. The final version is an altogether cheerier prospect.
Overall Orbison fans are well-rewarded with this release. Orbison’s delivery is stunningly transcendent, singing (as Bob Dylan said) “like a professional criminal”, in three or four octaves that made you want to drive your car over a cliff. The new song and demos are perhaps inessential, but anyone with more than a passing interest in music is likely to be interested in the documentary, showing Orbison as a gentle and extremely talented man with a voice like no other. Lefty Wilbury may have left the building, but the Big O is unlikely to be forgotten any time soon.