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Roy Orbison's 'Mystery' Success : The story behind his posthumous hit

March 19, 1989|ROBERT HILBURN

Go to sleep, everything is alright.

\f7 Those lines are from "In Dreams," one of Orbison's most famous hits from the '60s. Who would have figured that this delicate expression of longing would end up in one of the most memorable scenes in "Blue Velvet," David Lynch's brilliant 1986 look the forbidden zones of eroticism and violence? And who would imagine that it would be a key step in reintroducing Orbison's music to contemporary rock fans?

Certainly not Orbison.

The singer was shocked when he saw "Blue Velvet" at his neighborhood cinema in Malibu. In an interview with The Face magazine in England, he said, "I was aghast . . . because they were talking about the 'candy-colored clown' in relation to a dope deal, then Dean Stockwell did that weird miming thing with that lamp. Then they were beating up that young kid. I thought, 'What in the world?'

"But later, we got the video out and I really got to appreciate . . . how innovative the movie was, how it really achieved this otherworldly quality that added a whole new dimension to 'In Dreams.' . . . 'Blue Velvet' really succeeded in making my music contemporary again."

It was the film that convinced Virgin's Jeff Ayeroff and co-managing director Jordan Harris to sign Orbison. Both men had tried, while working at other record companies, to talk their bosses into signing Orbison, but it didn't work out. The argument throughout the industry on acts like Orbison was that pop has passed them by, that they are of a different era.

"But Roy was unique," Ayeroff said. "I thought he could be part of this era, too. There is something timeless about his voice and his music. When I saw 'Blue Velvet' at the Paramount in Hollywood, I started thinking the movie made Roy's music current again. I have absolute respect for David Lynch and if he sees the same thing in Roy's music, I knew I was on the right track."

To capitalize on "Blue Velvet," Virgin released a re-recorded "greatest hits" package that Orbison had been selling by mail-order on television. He also got MTV to play a video of "In Dreams," incorporating scenes from the film with original Orbison footage.

Ayeroff and Harris then put Orbison together with a T Bone Burnett, a producer whose work with Los Lobos, Elvis Costello and the BoDeans had shown a feeling for classic, roots-oriented rock.

Los Angeles-based publicist Sarah McMullen was hired to bring the media up to date. Orbison had done between 100 and 200 shows a year throughout his career, but he hadn't played major media markets in recent years.

"There was a lot of interest in Roy, but also a lot of misconceptions," McMullen said recently. "A lot of people thought he was blind because of the dark glasses. . . . They thought his first wife had just died. It was as if time had stood still. . . . So we got writers out to his shows to meet him. More than anything, they came away talking about his voice. They didn't think of him as a '60s act anymore."

The Springsteen speech at the Hall of Fame dinner and the Cinemax special, which also featured Springsteen, Costello, Tom Waits, Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt, created an even greater buzz.

Remarked Ayeroff, "I think it is the energy he got from great contemporary artists . . . during the TV show and during the recording of the album . . . that enabled Roy to have the confidence to bring the best out of himself."

"Mystery Girl" and Warner Bros.' Traveling Wilburys albums originally had the same release date in November, but Virgin decided to push back "Mystery Girl" to January so Orbison wouldn't be competing with himself.

Even as they watched the Wilburys album get rave reviews and move into the Top 10, the Virgin executives felt "Mystery Girl" was strong enough not to be overshadowed.

Reviewers agreed. In England, the influential Q magazine gave "Mystery Girl" a maximum five stars, describing it as "a stunning introduction to the magic of Roy Orbison." In the United States, Rolling Stone gave the album four stars and declared that it "encapsulates everything that made Orbison great."

And "Mystery Girl" won't be Orbison's farewell on record.

There was enough material left from the sessions for a second album, which is now scheduled for later this year. Virgin will also release the sound-track LP from the cable-TV special this summer.

What would Orbison have thought of all this attention and acclaim?

Barbara Orbison--who has a model's striking looks--considers the question for a moment as she gazes out the restaurant window in Malibu.

"When he finished the album, he was so pleased that it was a thrill to him even if no one had heard it," she finally said. "He knew it contained some of his finest work. Still, there was a side of him that loved it when people responded to the music. He used to talk about how thrilling it was to write a song in a little room and then play it for the musicians and have your heart light up when someone says they like it."

Orbison's widow then spoke wistfully about the tour that never was, including special L.A. dates in February.

"We had booked the Wiltern Theatre for the night before and after the Grammys so that everyone in the industry could see him. He had the look of a rock 'n' roller in his 30s. . . . He was down to 145 pounds and . . . had a twinkle in his eye because he was so proud of the album and was so eager to get in front of the public again. It was going to be the start of a tour that we had dreamed about for 10 years."

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