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Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Meeting Roy Orbison--and a Springsteen Connection

Folks, as some may know, I finished my first novel (see first chapter at that link) about a month ago and today I am wrapping up a memoir of my many years at the legendary Crawdaddy, for nearly all of the 1970s.   It's, of course, a very personal look at the decade, from rock 'n roll to film,  politics and social protest, titled This Ain't No Disco.   Here's the current Intro and, below, small excerpt, about meeting Roy Orbison in 1974, more than a decade after I helped organize a local chapter of his fan club in junior high.  The book, of course, includes for the first time the full story of meeting Spirngsteen--in Sing Sing--and 1972 and then helping to write the first major piece about him (and our friendship for years after). 
Not sure how it happened, but it came to my attention at Crawdaddy that Roy had finally signed with a new label, Mercury, after ten years with faltering MGM, the label that had seemingly driven him off the rails after he signed a mega-deal with them (he even starred in a crappy movie) after “Pretty Woman.”  When I contacted Mercury’s publicity director, he told me Roy was going to Chicago to talk to the press about an upcoming “comeback” album.  Would I like to meet him there? 
     Naturally, I said yes.  What a story.  Back when he could still hit the highs, lick the lows and invigorate the in-betweens, Roy had sold 30 million records.  He helped keep rock alive in the early 1960s before the British invasion, and played top bill to the Beatles and Rolling Stones in England.  On the other hand, he’d lost his wife Claudette in a motorcycle accident—after he named a hit he wrote for the Everly Brothers after her—and two kids in a fire, and hadn’t been high on the charts in over ten years.
    In Chicago—my first trip there since surviving the ’68 Democratic convention and “police riot”—the publicist introduced me to a very polite Orbison, already in trademark sunglasses on a dark night,  at the hotel.  Then we drove off together in a limo to dine with Mercury execs and then hit a club show starring Ray Manzarek, the former keyboard hinge of the Doors.   It turned out that the “Caruso of rock” was incredibly soft-spoken. “Oh, isn’t that awful?” Roy asked incredulously, barely glancing at the old, wrinkled fan club photo that I produced out of my shoulder bag. Actually, he didn’t look all that different from the guy in the photo, except he’d put on a few pounds, was wearing shades instead of horn rims, and had combed his pompadour over his forehead, as if still paying homage to his friends, The Beatles.
    When we got to the restaurant, the P.R. guy pulled me aside and advised, “Keep it clean—they tell me he’s very religious. And don’t mention the accidents [involving his wife and kids].  They really destroyed him.”  The dinner took place on the 91st floor of the new John Hancock building.  Someone from Mercury pointed to a spitball on the ceiling, courtesy (he said) of another act on the label, Rod Stewart.  The menu was in French.  “I’m generally satisfied with cheeseburgers,” Roy revealed.
    Then it was off to a Gold Coast club called PBM for Manzarek and his loose, probably drunken, set.   Joining the entourage was speedy Danny Sugerman, a former rock writer who had managed the Doors after Jim Morrison’s death and was now writing lyrics for Manzarek.  (Danny would later pen a bestselling Doors bio, manage Iggy Pop and marry Fawn Hall—yes, that Fawn Hall, of Oliver North fame). Roy chatted with one of the other members of our group about the cult Antonioni film, Zabriskie Point, which kind of surprised me. A cineaste
    In the ride back to the hotel, Roy said that his musical tastes these days ran to soft-rock or country, and mentioned Olivia Newton-John and Barbara Fairchild.  It was a long way from Jerry Lee Lewis. “Nobody fractures me,” he said.   He had recently attended a concert by his old buddy Elvis Presley in Tennessee, and “it was terrible.”  As for Roy, “Some of those old songs are bad, but we do them bad like they were.”  But he still sang “Crying” as if for the first time:  “I think the secret to my lasting success is that I’m not trying to be too clever, too progressive.”
    Over the next five minutes, Roy told wonderful anecdotes about his interactions with: Elvis, Buddy Holly, Johnny Cash, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Bob Dylan.  How many others in the world could do that?   Sample:  He once made a backstage deal with the Rolling Stones in London before they came to the U.S.  He would sing his worst song, “Ooby Dooby,” from his early days, that night if they would do their worst song.  He kept his end of the bargain, they did not. “So to make up for it,” he added, “Mick gave me a silver cigarette case inscribed with Ooby Dooby.”  
    The cab ride was mercilessly cut short by our arrival at the hotel.  We made plans for meeting the next morning. It was only 11:15, but Roy argued, “I’ve got to go beddy-bye now if I’m going to be any good for you tomorrow.”

The following morning the room-service waiter awakened Roy with a knock and we found him in the darkened room just out of the sack already decked out in his trademark shades.  Roy pulled the curtain open,  then puttered around in his green velvet robe, somewhat less mythic than the night before, the bulk of his body sitting incongruously on pale spindly legs, the diamond ring on the little finger of his right hand gleaming with past success.
    We talked over the table as he ate breakfast, starting with his childhood down in Wink, Texas,  later getting hooked up with Buddy Holly’s producer Norman Petty and then, via Johnny Cash, with the legendary Sun Records boss, Sam Phillips.   More anecdotes.  Buddy Holly was not “uppity.” The Everly Brothers passed on what would become his first giant hit, “Only the Lonely.”  Yes, “Crying” was based on a true story.  When he went to England to top a tour with the emerging Beatles for several weeks, who had not yet come to the U.S., he saw their placards all over town and asked, “What is this crap?” only to discover that John Lennon was standing right behind him.  (Roy, being Roy, had apologized profusely.) 
    Very shortly he grew so impressed with the Beatles—“not technically that good but they had a fresh look”—that he told them to get to America as soon as possible, despite their fears, predicting they’d go over great.  He even turned down a chance to handle their U.S. representation. Then he came home and told everyone, including Brian Wilson, gently, that the Beatles would be the biggest group in America in a few months (“I have the clippings to prove it”). 
    Well, I could have listened to this forever, but I was there to cover his latest comeback, so I asked about the new recording.  At the Mercury office I’d heard the first, countryish, single and, while “Sweet Mama Blue” was very pretty, it lacked  the sock of early Orbison—as if he was still battling to get The Voice back (he’d had some heart ailments).  Roy seemed pretty relaxed about it, perhaps more pleased with the record’s existence than the assurance of major success. And he had never stopped making money from sales and tours abroad, in any case. “I think I’ve got possibly 20 years of good singing and record-making left,” he advised.
    When he got back home, he asked his record company send me an original 78 rpm of “Ooby Dooby.”  Also:  He asked me to write the liner notes for his album (see upper left).  Done and done.
    As it turned out, “Sweet Mama Blue” did, in fact, bomb.  I interviewed Roy again over the phone and he said, “It’s already a hit record to me.  It’s done so much more than what I had done like two years ago. Hit records are important to me, and I don’t want this to sound like a cliché, but I’ve had my share of them.”  No kidding.  But was The Voice still there?  “You’ll have to put this nicely,” he pleaded, “because I’m not egotistical in any sense…the voice is ten times what it ever was.  The Orbison tag, the Big Sound, whatever you call it, it’s all still there.”
    It would take a few more years, but eventually, Roy would prove his voice was still there--with the Traveling Wilburys.

For several weeks, in writing the Orbison article, I had immersed myself in vintage Roy the Boy and was hyping him to all of my friends.  One of them, fatefully, was Bruce Springsteen. 
    A year before his Born to Run breakthrough, Brucie was still far from a household name. Let’s put it this way:  No one called him “The Boss,” not even the band members.  He continued to provoke a rapturous response to his live show, but his second lp, The Wild, the Innocent and the E-Street Shuffle, had inspired so-so reviews and sales.  My rave for that record in Crawdaddy, I was told by one inside source, had helped keep Columbia from dropping him from the label.  That meant they still had him when Jon Landau wrote his career-changing “I’ve seen the future of rock ‘n roll” review of Springsteen live, after seeing Bruce in a Boston club when he was touring between albums.  
    A couple of times, Peter Knobler and I tooled up the Palisades Parkway to visit Bruce at the 914 Studio in tiny Blauvelt, N.Y., where he recorded his first two albums and was starting on Born to Run, with some difficulty.  Work was going very slowly and members of the band sometimes slept overnight in the parking lot. At least there was a diner almost next door.  (In an amazing coincidence, fifteen years later I would move out of New York City with my wife and son—to a house just  over the hill, from the long-shuttered studio.  The diner’s still there, however.) Then Jon Landau started to seize production duties from Mike Appel, and shifted the recording to Manhattan.
    In those days, I’d come down to the Jersey Shore to hang out with Bruce a bit.  One weekend we got up at 5 a.m. to trek out to the famous flea market in Englishtown where we both bought boots.  That night we hit a late showing of the concert film, Let the Good Times Roll, starring Fats Domino, Little Richard and other ’50 stars—Brucie’s favorite musical era.
    Another night, with Peter Knobler, we drove to Philly to visit a club where Miami Steve Van Zandt, who had not yet joined Bruce’s band, was playing with The Dovells (of “Bristol Stomp” fame).  When we arrived there was this quirky surprise: The club, which had seen better days, was not only owned by one of Bruce’s boyhood DJ idols, Jerry “The Geator With the Heater” Blavat, he was also spinning tunes between sets.  The Geator, you might say, was the original “Boss,” as his long ago nickname was “The Boss With the Hot Sauce.”
    Only about three dozen folks were in the audience, but band members were still working the young women crowding the stage. Van Zandt was dressed in a cheap white suit and mugging right along with the Vegas wisecracks from the lead singer (better pay days were to come for Steve).  The rail-thin Geator was also playing to the crowd, sending out Motown and Spector tunes to “The girls from Morristown!” among others between sets. Suddenly he shouted out to the beefy bartender, “Macho Joe!”  Or was that “Nacho Joe”? Then: “Fur burgers!  All you guys got to see these girls from Morristown!” 
    As the Dovells moved back to the stage, Brucie approached the Geator, reached out to shake his hand and introduced himself, after Glavat failed to recognize him. Following a brief chat, the Geator was now pumping Bruce’s hand and pounding him on the back,  announcing to the crowd, “Girls, we got a star here!  My man, my man, Bruce Springsteen!”  A few minutes later, Bruce told us that he sensed Blavat still did not know who he was but had invited him on his local TV show that week. Small potatoes but he was tempted, calling it, with that big laugh, a “once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
    Equally memorable for me: A touch football game with all of the E Streeters, plus Miami Steve and girlfriends on a July 4.  That night Bruce drove me back to New York in his classic ’56 Chevy convertible, busting the speed limit continually. On another occasion, while I  cowered in the back seat of a Jaguar with my date, Knobler challenged Springsteen (in a Galaxy) to a drag race on some dark, nearly-deserted Jersey highway.  Bruce was up for it, and soon both cars were nearly hitting 100.  Approaching a car in front, Knobler eased for safety, giving Brucie (who disappeared into the dark) the win.
    On one visit to Bruce’s  apartment, he sat at an upright piano and knocked out a bit of the tune that would become “Born to Run.” To illustrate how the guitar for it should sound on record, he played an old Searchers song on his cheap phonograph, maybe “Every Time You Walk Into the Room.” He vowed that “Born to Run”  would be his first Top Ten smash, or he’d die trying.
When Bruce was in Manhattan, visiting music stores or recording or stopping by the Columbia bunker, he would sometimes stop by the Crawdaddy offices down on Fifth Avenue, and Peter and I would entertain him for awhile.  One day we had an epic “catch” with a tennis ball up and down West 13th Street as his red-haired girlfriend Karen watched, baffled.  Then there was the night we had an extra ticket for the once-a-year Yanks/Mets exhibition game and off we went, sitting behind the screen at Shea Stadium as he rooted like a little kid.  Indeed, he was a former player.  I learned that night what his line “Indians in the summer” from “Blinded By the Light” came from: The Indians were one of his Little League teams.
    One afternoon I took Springsteen  to our room in back that had a sound system and played him most of a Roy Orbison’s Greatest Hits album,  Of course, Bruce was well aware of Roy—and professed to love my Roy profile in the magazine--but, like most people, probably hadn’t heard much of his old hits lately.  He was blown away, and listened to a couple of songs again.  Then I lent him my album.
    Next thing I knew, via the Jersey grapevine: He had made a Roy tape off my album and the E Streeters were playing it on their tour bus all the time.  Bruce started performing Orbison songs during his soundchecks and  encores on stage.  One time I visited him back stage at, of all places, Philharmonic Hall in New York (he was opening for someone) and, across the room, he wordlessly greeted me with the opening notes of “Pretty Woman” on the guitar: Da-da-da-da-dum. My new theme song.
    The following year, lo and behold, what shows up at the start of the opening track “Thunder Road” on Born to Run:  What was destined to be one of Bruce’s most quoted lines ever.  “Roy Orbison singin’ for the lonely/ hey that’s me and I want you only.”  I never got a chance to confirm my role in helping to inspire it, but hey, that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

1 comment:

animal lover, quilt lover said...

Enjoyed reading this--thank you!