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:
Judith Durham (The Seekers)
Jim Morrison (The Doors)
And a bigger handful of extraordinary voices:
Reverend Al Green
Screamin’ Jay Hawkins
K. D. Lang
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.