The opening lyrics to this song are sexually explicit (unusual for Orbison and even here it's done in an understated way) and possibly even a little creepy, although the song quickly veers and is more about emotional passion than physical passion. But the backstory of this is intriguing for other reasons, and offers a jumping-off point for musings on the nature of authorship and the possibilities of collaborations across time.
The song was written by Will Jennings, one of Orbison's later collaborators. Orbison recorded this, vocal and guitar only, sung into a boom box, in 1988. And died. His widow, Barbara Orbison, approached Peter Gabriel about producing it. Gabriel, busy with other projects, declined, but asked storied musician/producer Brian Eno
to listen to it. Eno produced it, and it was used in Wim Wenders' 1998 film, The End of Violence.
So what are we to make of this "Orbison" song? -- as Peter Lehman asks in his book. How much thought had Orbison put into this boom box recording? What was he trying out? Would he have continued with this song, had he lived, or put it aside? What changes would he have made? Was it a finished work from Jennings, or an intermediate step in a collaboration? Lehman points out that Orbison rarely used a verse-chorus-verse-chorus arrangement, yet this song has three iterations of the chorus. Is this because Orbison was comfortable with three iterations, or did Eno use one of them a second time to eke out scant recorded material? And is that why there are more instrumentals in this than usual?
(It's possible that some of these questions can be at least partially answered by Barbara Orbison, Will Jennings, or other of Orbison's late-life collaborators, but if so I don't think the answers are generally available.)
Lehman goes on to ponder other issues of authorship, issues that are probably well ventilated by many scholars in the age of the mash-up, but that are new to me because I simply never thought of repurposing content in quite this way. Here are some of the salient bits:
Eno, of course, is a rock 'n' roll great in his own right. In what sense, then, is this song Orbison's? He neither wrote it (though it was written for him by Will Jennings, his co-writer at the time of his death) nor produced it nor had any say over its production. And of course he had no control over whether or how it would be used in Wenders's film. Furthermore, the skeleton form in which he left it shows that he was far from finished working out even the preliminary vocals. Yet the song seems to me to be an important Orbison song...
[E]ven when a singer is alive, the issue of authorship is often complex.... As Entertainment Weekly put it, "In the end it's the goose-bump-inducing voice that endures." If these critics are right, how much does it matter whether that enduring voice is part of a record made after the death of a singer? To take the point to its logical extreme, why should we even privilege the original recording, made during the singer's life, over endless possible other recordings made after his or her death? This question challenges the most fundamental assumptions about authorship and integrity. But the recorded pop voice is a complex aesthetic text, and it is what should be compared to the dense notational text of classical music, or the dense aesthetic language of a Shakespeare play. Why can't it endure limitless production/interpretations and still retain its identify and integrity? It can."
I certainly would privilege the recording made during the artist's life, particularly in the case of a singer/songwriter, but the notion of Orbison's voice (or others' voices, for that matter) as a text or score to be "performed" by other arrangers, composers, producers, is an intriguing one. I am imagining a future in which the Orbison vocals of, for example "Only the Lonely", are reconceptualized and reorchestrated by any number of solid artists.
(bonus for halfmoon_mollie
-- check out the shoes at 2:10!)
Lehman, Peter. Roy Orbison: The Invention of an Alternative Rock Masculinity.
Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2003.