John Sieger
Sieger on Songs

“Only The Lonely”

Roy Orbison’s iconic song is still as fresh as the day he wrote it.

By - May 29th, 2015 02:06 pm
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Roy Orbison

Roy Orbison

Roy Orbison could have sung at the Met if he had wanted. With his magnificent pipes, he might even have been added to The Three Tenors, making a rousing quartet. Luckily he stayed with what he knew best and we got all the drama, melodrama and epic emotion, minus the stuff I may never be old enough to understand. Orbison employed the biggest canvas of any rock and roller, including Elvis, and created a unique and stirring catalog of songs that rings true to this day.

The favorite son of Wink, Texas can stir so much feeling and so many thoughts with just the mention of his name, you have to wonder — where’s the movie? The somewhat glad-handing documentary, A Black & White Night, produced by T-Bone Burnett, did much to burnish his legend, but that spectacular was so weighed down by hipster cameos that it was distracting. Too many late ‘80s heavy hitters paid their respects while beaming with self congratulation and it made it hard to focus on the lonely guy center stage.

Orbison may have been the least charismatic guy up there, he was always working from a deficit in that department. He wasn’t a greek god like Elvis — that much talent and beauty packed into one person might have shifted the world off its axis. He was plain looking and, despite the Ray-bans, never achieved the comfort level so easily displayed by the cooler cats. But what he lacked was more than made up in other ways. There was no one in his category when it came to sheer artistry.

Orbison wrote or co-wrote many of his hits and had a very peculiar M.O. His songs did away with Tin Pan Alley, and even Brill Building, pop templates. It wasn’t unusual for a song to start in one place, then wander off, never to return home. He was linear, following the thread of his melodies wherever they took him. Often, that was to a place of high emotion where all the pent-up tension blew up in beautiful fireworks. Symphonic is a word that describes him as well as it does Phil Spector or Brian Wilson.

I could have chosen any song by our Pavorotti of the Plains, but I’ve been thinking a lot about his song Only The LonelyIt comes down to that or Pretty Woman when trying to decide which was more iconic. I’m not in the mood to conjure up images of the Richard Gere film that borrowed that second title, so let’s stay with this towering monument to loneliness. (It certainly seems no coincidence Orbison’s label was Monument Records.) At two minutes and 24 seconds it creates a lasting impression, using very little to create so much. The lesson, for all who pile on mountains of words and notes, hoping it all adds up to something, is economy — and heart. Accept no substitute. It starts with the lyrics:

Dum-dum-dum-dumdy-doo-wah
Ooh-yay-yay-yay-yeah
Oh-oh-oh-oh-wah
Only the lonely
Only the lonely

Only the lonely Know the way I feel tonight
Only the lonely
Know this feeling ain’t right
There goes my baby
There goes my heart
They’re gone forever
So far apart

But only the lonely
Know why
I cry
Only the lonely

Dum-dum-dum-dumdy-doo-wah…

Only the lonely know the heartaches I’ve been through
Only the lonely know I cry and cry for you

Maybe tomorrow
A new romance
No more sorrow
But that’s the chance

You gotta take
If your lonely heart breaks
Only the lonely

Dum-dum-dum-dumdy-doo-wah

© Roy Orbison / Joe Melson

I deep sixed a lot of “dumdy-doo-wahs” in the lyrics and what’s left is pretty succinct. Who needs words when you have a voice and melody this divine? Orbison’s path to the top was rocky, with a false start at Sun Records, where he was either misunderstood or not quite ready to come out of his shell. He hit it big when he switched to Monument and teamed up with the spectacular Nashville session musicians, dubbed The A Team, a great producer, Fred Foster, who added strings (at Orbison’s insistence) and smooth background singers. The doo-wop was close miked and influenced by current hits like The Driftwoods Come Softly To Me.

This song was his breakthrough and blew up everywhere, including England, where he quickly became a deity to the groups who would go on to replace him on the charts. But this was his moment and he took the song and many more great ones to the top of the charts. And he never went away or became laughably out of style. You can see why — his themes are universal, recognizable to all, even in their heightened state. Loneliness and isolation, an almost paranoid apartness made unbearably real through his music, were his his trademark.

Tragedy would overtake him not once, but twice. He lost his wife Claudette in a motorcycle accident and later, his two oldest sons died in a fire when he was touring England. By the time that tremendous heart gave out in his early fifties, he had done everything and gone everywhere. He  was looking forward to a new record with Bob DylanTom Petty and George Harrison as a member in good standing of the Traveling Wilburys. A rich, full life, with as many ups and downs as one of his songs. Mercy!

0 thoughts on “Sieger on Songs: “Only The Lonely””

  1. Anonymous says:

    thanks for shining up Roy’s pedestal, John–
    Mercy, indeed!

  2. Anonymous says:

    You took me right back to that ’56 Ford, filled with friends on a ’60’s summer afternoon, all signing along with one of the special voices that thrilled us.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I read about Roy Orbison in Johnny Cash’s autobiography, how he had an indoor swimming pool and “walls of water” and during a storm some came crashing down on his son! Thank you for giving him attention, since so many of his love his haunting songs!

  4. Anonymous says:

    He has been my idol since 1960….met him in the 60s ,70s and 80s…
    The greatest singer in the world….My alltime favorite song is Walk on …..

  5. Anonymous says:

    Roy Orbison. Simply the greatest singer that ever sang singing the greatest songs ever sung.

  6. Anonymous says:

    I couldn’t agree more Ab…I miss him now as much as I did on Dec 7th 1988.
    Remarkable person and singer/songwriter.The very best of them all.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Terrific piece, so many great metaphors, thank you.

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