Roy Orbison: “A Black and White Night”

Roy Orbison has one of the three or four truly great voices of rock’n’roll. In 1988, just a year or so before he died of a heart attack at 52 (December 6, 1988), he recorded a tribute concert to himself called “A Black and White Night”.

You may wonder, what on earth do I mean by “to himself”. I mean that the project was financed, managed, and controlled by Orbison’s production company. It was “directed” by Tony Mitchell, a gentleman from my home town, Kitchener, Ontario. But Orbison had final cut and control of the film.

This is not the same kind of film as the one we got when Marty Scorcese directed the greatest rock’n’roll film of all time “The Last Waltz” with The Band (some would argue “Stop Making Sense” with the Talking Heads).

There is no rational artistic reason why it’s in black and white, and this video is a poster child for why some people believe in the principle of artistic economy, which is, if you don’t have any ideas at all about what you are doing with the camera (or mic, or paintbrush, or keyboard), replace artistry with volume or quantity. Go up to 11. Or, In this case, have the camera swoop back and forth and up and down and left and right and in and out, for no reason whatsoever other than to make it appear that you are doing something with the camera to make this production visually interesting.

There are moments when the musicians appear to be out of sync. There are even moments where they appear to be hamming it up. Could be that an editor dumped in a few shots taken out of sequence just for effect. Or there were dubs.

“A Black & White Night” is well recorded. Too well-recorded. I am convinced it was dubbed, though every effort appears to have been made to make it appear to be a live recording. You would think that nowadays it would be easy to find out the truth: it’s not. I’ve been searching the internet and all I can find it indirect references to it and drippy, adoring reviews by slavish worshippers of Roy Orbison.

Let’s keep that straight: I am an admirer of Orbison but here it is: Orbison is a truly great but one-dimensional romanticist whose work has limited importance. He was the master of the paranoid, masochistic, break-up song, in which the pain of the loss is elevated to a near hysterical embrace of spiritual and emotional suffering.

You might be surprised that this mode can only go so far.

Only the lonely
Know the way I feel tonight

Yes, those opening lines, the black suit, the sunglasses– truly magnificent.

But a lot of his early success may well have been due to arranger Fred Foster at Monument Records (where Orbison recorded from 1959 to 1965). After Foster left, Orbison rarely charted, until his return during the nostalgia craze in the 1980’s.

But, like Elvis and Michael Jackson, he was a pop star, and never more than that, and he doesn’t belong in the category of the truly visionary, brilliant minds that made rock music worth paying attention to, and made it more relevant and interesting than any other musical style in the past fifty years.

People who tell you the contrary just want to believe that a facile adoration of the sound of a voice is just as valid as an intelligent grasp of the fundamentals of music and idiom and lyric and melody and arrangement in terms of judging a musical performance.

Obscure note: like Elvis, Roy Orbison died on the toilet.

You really should see the performance of “Crying”, in Spanish, in David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive”.

The handful of truly great voices in rock’n’roll:

Roy Orbison
Judith Durham (The Seekers)
Jim Morrison (The Doors)
Jennifer Warnes
Aretha Franklin
Janis Joplin
Van Morrison

And a bigger handful of extraordinary voices:

Judy Collins
Elvis Presley
Art Garfunkel
Tom Waits
Susan Jacks
Reverend Al Green
James Brown
Screamin’ Jay Hawkins

Over-rated Voices:

Freddie Mercury
Kate Bush
Roger Daltry
Burton Cummings
Linda Ronstadt
K. D. Lang

Why over-rated?

A great singer puts his or her voice into the service of the music, not into the service of the singer’s ego, K.D. Lang.  Roger Daltry has a big voice, but he’s not really a particularly good singer. Linda Ronstadt: ditto: she gets louder and softer and louder again. Kate Bush is a diva: fabulous voice, and a show-off. Cummings has a great voice and he can sing, but never covered anything really super interesting. One imagines that if he did, the limitations would reveal themselves. Freddie Mercury can never be forgiven for “Bohemian Rhapsody”.

Don’t even get me started:

Whitney Houston (whine)
Michael Jackson (grunt)

Great Songwriters and their voices

Bob Dylan is actually a pretty good vocalist on his earlier albums, up to “Blood on the Tracks” and “Desire”. Around “Saved” his voice went into the tank and I don’t think any one around him every summoned the courage to tell him the truth.

I more I hear Springsteen the less I think of him as a vocalist. Now, even when I go back to “Born to Run”, I find it harder and harder to overlook his limitations. His voice is not really much prettier than early Dylan’s, but Dylan is far more interesting, in phrasing, intonation; sometimes a good sneer can come in handy.

Free Stuff

When I mentioned I am going to get rid of Obamacare they weren’t happy, I didn’t get the same response. That’s O.K, I want people to know what I stand for and if I don’t stand for what they want, go vote for someone else, that’s just fine… But I hope people understand this, your friends who like Obamacare, you remind them of this, if they want more stuff from government tell them to go vote for the other guy — more free stuff. Mitt Romney, July 14, 2012

As Rolling Stone Magazine pointed out, the day after giving his speech to the NAACP in which he was booed for declaring that he would rescind Obama’s health care legislation, Romney gave a speech to a more congenial crowd in Montana in which he made the comment about “free stuff”. Read it carefully.

Fox News rhapsodized about Romney’s “courage” in going to an audience known to be hostile to Republicans and laying it on the line.   Fox News can’t be serious– they don’t really like Romney.   He is way too moderate.  He practically invented Obamacare (check it out).

He allegedly gave them the same speech he gives to white audiences. That’s manly of him.

Except he did and he didn’t. That is, it would have been courageous if Romney had made a bold statement of his personal principles and then made a specific promise about things he was going to do as President which are necessary and right but which are politically unpopular, like increase taxes in order to pay down the deficit.

That is exactly what he did not do.

He basically told them that he would cut taxes to the richest people in the country, increase military spending to deal with the communist menace, and then magically make the deficit go away without having to cut any entitlements like Social Security and Medicare.

His speech was nothing more than the usual clichés and conservative stock phrases and platitudes. And he clearly didn’t care what they thought about it: the speech was not meant for them. It was meant for those folks up in Montana waiting for the line about “free stuff”. They got it.

He wasn’t booed because he advocated unpopular political positions but because he acted as if he was completely oblivious to where he was. It was as if your smelly old aunt with bad breath suddenly leaned in on you one day and urged you to get a haircut and go to church and get a job and find some girl and get married.

And you already have a job.

But here’s the most important thing: Republicans love giving away free stuff.  The earned income deduction.  The oil depletion allowance.  The military industrial complex.  Sports stadiums.  9/11 Victims Compensation (compare to Hurricane Katrina victims compensation), military bases in Congressional Districts that are no longer needed, tax incentives, and so on, and so on.

Yes, loads and loads of Free Stuff.

The Unfaithful NIV

N. T. Wright has written of previous NIV editions:

When the New International Version was published in 1980, I was one of those who hailed it with delight. I believed its own claim about itself, that it was determined to translate exactly what was there, and inject no extra paraphrasing or interpretative glosses…. Disillusionment set in over the next two years, as I lectured verse by verse through several of Paul’s letters, not least Galatians and Romans. Again and again, with the Greek text in front of me and the NIV beside it, I discovered that the translators had another principle, considerably higher than the stated one: to make sure that Paul should say what the broadly Protestant and evangelical tradition said he said…. [I]f a church only, or mainly, relies on the NIV it will, quite simply, never understand what Paul was talking about.[18]
(From Wikipedia, on the NIV

And that’s that. I don’t have too much to add, except that, now that I am older, I wonder just how responsible we should hold parents and church leaders for the deception. It’s not as if this is an accident. And it’s not as if they don’t think they have a higher calling than to ensure that the cornerstone of their faith is translated without deceit. It’s this casual, thoughtless adherence to the principles of propaganda. And how can you not wonder in what other localities of faith and sacrament and ritual they are lying?

Tea Party with the Mad Hatters of the Republican Party

I don’t think the Tea Party is really going to have a significant influence on this November’s elections in the U.S. They receive coverage that is vastly out of proportion to their actual influence because they are colorful, loud-mouthed, aggressive, and cruel. It’s lovely watching working class whites out there begging the government to take money out of their pockets and give it to Exxon and Dow and Citibank, and the various industries associated with the Koch Brothers. It is especially lovely when they proclaim how sick they are of being manipulated, deceived, and misled by intellectuals, reporters, and feminists.

They learn these things through Fox News and various conferences sponsored by the Koch Brothers.

Anyway, it would not be too much of a stretch to imagine that the Tea Party is entirely the creation of the Democrats. It’s a conspiracy to keep the Republicans from winning the White House and the Senate: those snarky Tea Party revelers get out there and act ridiculous and say ridiculous things– like “keep the government out of my Medicare”– and heap discredit on the entire conservative movement. I suspect that most Americans, especially in the swing states, don’t want to look stupid by voting for people who invariably look stupid.

PBS recently had a T-Party enthusiast, David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network (or, as I prefer, the Capitalist Broadcasting Network) on for an interview with Judy Woodruff. Brody came off pretty well exactly like the evangelical leader that President Bartlett kicked out of the White House in a memorable West Wing episode.

Why was he on? The only reason I can think of is that the Republicans have been known to go ballistic on the issue of Public Television and the perceived bias of this institution which used to receive substantial government funding.

PBS has lately moved beyond the fake controversy over global warming: they now act as if it is a proven fact, which it is, and examine the ramifications. It’s a courageous, intelligent move, and sure to enrage the Tea Party, if they noticed it, which they won’t because they only watch Fox News.

How Romney could win: easy!

  • endorse the Dream Act which gives some illegal immigrants a pathway towards citizenship
  • announce that you can compromise with Democrats on taxes and allow the Bush tax cuts to expire on those earning more than $250,000.00, and declare that it is more important to get things done in Washington than to score political points, as when the Republican House votes 33 times to repeal Obama’s Health care act.
  • sound statesmanlike as you soberly acknowledge that the nation must pay it’s bills and part of the plan to do that is to make a modest hike in taxes while cutting spending on programs. This would put Obama in a very uncomfortable position.   I’m not sure why he won’t don’t do it. Well, yes, I am sure: they are idiots who have fervently believed since Reagan that it is possible to cut taxes and claim to reduce the deficit at the same time and then blame the deficit on the Democrats when they are in office.
  • announce some policy that could actually be mistaken for something compassionate or kind. Your own party will HATE it, as will the Christian Broadcasting Network, James Dobson, Franklin Graham, et al, but who the hell else are they going to vote for?
  • The independents will flock to you.
  • announce that what a woman does with her own body is none of the state’s business. Your support among women voters will rise 2 – 3 %, I would guess.

Might be enough to tip the election.