Song of the Week 42: She´s a Mystery to Me (Bono, The Edge) – Roy Orbison

Songs can be mysterious. Like dreams, they have their own logic. There´s often a wisdom at work there that comes from somewhere deep in the subconscious. They sometimes arrive fully formed on awakening. And like dreams, we´re not always sure what they mean…

Blue Velvetjpg

While touring the album The Joshua Tree, while having trouble sleeping the night before a show in Wembley Stadium, Bono was listening to the soundtrack of the David Lynch movie Blue Velvet on repeat, and kept lingering on the Orbison song In Dreams each time it came round. Dreams are like the paint Lynch uses to paint his motion pictures. Or maybe as an advocate of transcendental meditation he just wants to wake us from our everyday dreaming. “Silencio!”

Here´s the scene where that song appears in the movie…

Bono woke up the next morning with a song in his head, which he at first thought must have been a Orbison song that already existed. He played it for U2 the next day. After the gig, while trying to finish it,  Roy himself randomly turned up backstage saying that he enjoyed the gig, and would like to work with the band, asking “you wouldn´t have a song for me?” Another little synchronicity.

Orbison was then signed up by Jeff Ayeroff of Virgin Records, and was contracted to make an album for them.


Meanwhile, Orbison had been working with The Travelling Wilburys. You might know some of these boys, and those sessions produced the first song on the album, and its big hit, You Got It, which was co-written by Orbison, Jeff Lynne and Tom Petty.

Bono produced the session, and said this of Orbison´s “other voice” the moment he started singing that day: “He did have that thing… He had it in abundance… Any singer knows what I´m talking about. It´s just the moment when your voice is above you, and he seemed to have that on a regular basis the lucky bastard.”

I know it seems like Bono´s on every rock documentary extolling the virtues of _______ (insert name of legendary singer), but a video speaks a thousand words, so to save me the trouble of writing them, here he is again describing how he wrote the song, and talking about his experience producing the session, and you know, just being Bono, with footage of Orbison talking about going to meet U2 after the concert in Wembley.

Bono (Paul Hewson) and the Edge (David Evans) are credited as the writers, but it seems to have been a mostly Hewson-penned number.

a young Roy Orbison

Roy Orbison was not your typical rock n roll star. He was no Elvis lookswise, the thick-rimmed glasses and pale face in the early days put him closer in looks to Buddy Holly, but interestingly enough he was Elvis´s favourite singer.

He grew up in Texas. At age six, he was given a present of a guitar by his father and by age seven, in his own words: “I was finished, you know, for anything else”; music would be his life.

He started singing in a rockabilly/country & western group, The Wink Westerners, in high school and later The Teen Kings. He saw his schoolmate Pat Boone get signed to a label, which only increased his resolve that he could make it in the business.

In Odessa, he saw rising star Elvis Presley only a year older doing ‘outrageous’  moves on the stage, and then met Johnny Cash, who was playing on the same radio show as The Teen Kings. Cash convinced him to go ask Sam Phillips for a deal, to which Phillips replied: “Johnny Cash doesn’t run my record company!” However he let him perform what would be his first minor hit Ooby Dooby (composed by Dick Penner and Wade Moore in just minutes in a fraternity house in North Texas) and Phillips was impressed enough to offer the group a contract to join Sun Records.  Phillips was more impressed by Orbison´s guitar playing than his voice. Ooby Dooby reached number 59 in the charts and sold over 200,00o copies.

Elvis´s purple Cadillac

He was accepted into Elvis´s circle of friends, once picking up a date for him in his purple cadillac, but Orbison grew frustrated with Sun, and although he earned royalties after selling his song Claudette to the Everly Brothers, which they used as the b-side of their smash hit All I Have to do is Dream, he retired from the business for 7 months. His car was repossessed and he had to depend on friends and family for funds.

For a while, in the late 50´s he made his living writing songs for a company called Acuff-Rose sending his song to Wesley Rose, who would try to sell them on to potential recording artists.

Playing gigs late at night and living with his wife and child in a tiny apartment, Orbison used to take refuge in his car, where he´d write songs on his guitar. Joe Melson tapped the window of the car one day and asked him if he´d like to write some songs together.

Songwriter Boudleaux Bryant, responsible for that Everly Brothers mentioned above described the young Orbison as “a timid, shy kid who seemed to be rather befuddled by the whole music scene. I remember the way he sang then—softly, prettily but almost bashfully, as if someone might be disturbed by his efforts and reprimand him.”

As well as the core Nashville sound, and doo wop backing singers, Orbison requested strings in the studio and according to Rolling Stone´s History of Rock and Roll, brought “a new splendor to rock”.

He was part of that golden generation of early rock n rollers like Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran, who he had toured with, and his own golden period was between 1960 and 1964 when he had 22 songs in Billboard´s Top 40. He was one of the first artists to popularise the Nashville Sound in those early years, and influenced The Beatles and Elvis among others.Rare for recording artists back then, he wrote many of his own songs.

The first of those hits was Only The Lonely, which reached number 2 in the U.S. and number 1 in the U.K.  He had tried to pitch the song to the Everlys and Elvis, but neither wanted it. The note Orbison hit in falsetto “came not from his throat but deeper within…” He and Joe Melson were now writing songs with his voice in mind, to showcase the power and range he possessed.

Orbison told Rolling Stone in 1988: “I liked the sound of [my voice]. I liked making it sing, making the voice ring, and I just kept doing it. And I think that somewhere between the time of “Ooby Dooby” and “Only the Lonely”, it kind of turned into a good voice.”

When Elvis heard Only the Lonely, he bought a box of copies of the single to distribute among his friends.

The next massive hit was Running Scared, which hit number 1 in the States. It was a song based loosely on the rhythm of Ravel´s Bolero. For the recording of the song, Orbison was having trouble hitting the high note in the middle of the song without his voice breaking. He was being backed by an orchestra in the studio, and engineer Bill Porter told him he would have to sing louder as the orchestra could not play softer than his voice. Fred Foster had the idea to put Orbison in a corner of the room, and surround him with coat racks as a make-shift isolation booth to emphasize his voice. Orbison was unhappy with the first two takes, and decided to abandon using falsetto, and sang the high A naturally. This astonished everyone present so much that all the musicians stopped playing. On that third take Running Scared was completed and as Fred Foster later recalled: “He did it, and everybody looked around in amazement. Nobody had heard anything like it before.”

The rest, as they say, is history…

The Orbison template followed, which normally consisted of a vulnerable man facing loss or grief, and culminated in a ‘surprise ending´ with a crescendo showpiecing his voice.

Next came the Orbison look…

Photo of Roy ORBISON

His unphotogenic looks meant that he didn´t really have much of an image up to then. He didn´t have a publicist in the early 60s. His picture didn´t feature on record sleeves, and he was even described as the “anonymous celebrity”.  In 1962/63 he accidentally left his thick glasses on an aeroplane and was forced to wear his prescription Wayfarer sunglasses on stage. He found that he preferred wearing them, as they allowed the shy singer who suffered from stagefright to hide from the attention of the crowd.

Orbison performed standing stationary on stage, dressed in black clothes and dark sunglasses, and dark brooding voice, which lent the singer an aura of mystery and introversion, although off the stage friends claim he was never morose and had a great sense of humour. Because of his stage persona and his pale skin many thought he was albino or even blind as he was never seen without his shades.

“I wasn’t trying to be weird, you know? I didn’t have a manager who told me to dress or how to present myself or anything. But the image developed of a man of mystery and a quiet man in black somewhat of a recluse, although I never was, really.”

The Beatles in 1963

In 1963, with the release of In Dreams, Orbison was asked to replace Duane Eddy as top billing on a tour of the U.K. with an up-and-coming band called The Beatles in support. Surprised with the amount of publicity they were getting, and a little put out that he was no longer top dog, Orbison asked hypothetically…“What’s a Beatle anyway?” only to get a reply from John Lennon tapping his shoulder saying “I am.”

On the opening night, Orbison decided to go onstage first, although he was the more established act. The Beatles were already known for their energetic live acts, but this time, the four of them stood backstage dumbfounded as Orbison performed fourteen encores standing perfectly motionless.

Finally, John and Paul physically held him back as the crowd chanted “We want Roy!” again.

Here´s Ringo´s take on the Roy-effect.

“In Glasgow, we were all backstage listening to the tremendous applause he was getting. He was just standing there, not moving or anything.”

As the tour progressed, the musicians became friends as the Beatles grew to admire his work. Orbison felt a kinship with Lennon, but would go on to form a strong friendship with Harrison with whom he would team up with years later.

It was on this tour that he also earned the nickname “The Big O”, which would follow him back to the States.

For the next two years, Orbison was immensely popular, and the unphotogenic singer had to have his performance stopped in Ireland, so The Garda (Irish police) could pull teenage girls away from him.

It´s Over reached number 1 in the U.K. and would become one of his signature tunes, and probably his best known song would follow soonafter also hitting number 1, and selling seven million copies and hitting number 1 in the U.S. as well.

His wife Claudette had joined him on the next tour, having grown bored staying at home. She entered a room where Orbison was writing with fellow songwriter Bill Dees, who he knew from Texas. Orbison asked his wife if she needed money before she returned to Nashville. Dees said “Pretty woman never needs any money.” 40 minutes later they had completed the song, which would prove to be the peak of Orbison´s career. Oh, Pretty Woman was full of hooks including his famous ‘ growl’.

Mismanagement of Orbison´s career by Wesley Rose, with the continued British Invasion of the U.S. and change in the direction of rock music, meant that Orbison´s sound would go out of fashion, and his albums began to sell poorly. His wife was struck by a truck and killed as the couple were riding home one day.

He threw himself into his work, but as psychedelic rock took over the charts, Orbison said he “didn’t hear a lot I could relate to so I kind of stood there like a tree where the winds blow and the seasons change, and you’re still there and you bloom again.”

Sometimes the best approach is to do nothing, the best move is not to move. Don´t compromise. Don´t give in to changing fashions. Be yourself. They´ll come around…

He continued to tour, and smart real estate investments meant that money would never be an issue for him again. However tragedy struck a second time.

In 1968, while on tour, Orbison received the news that his house had burned down and his two eldest sons had been killed.  The property was sold to Johnny Cash, who planted an orchard on it. His youngest son was raised by Orbison´s parents. Orbison remarried with a girl he had met just days before his sons´ deaths, Barbara, and went on to have two more sons with her in the 70´s.

Orbison began to doubt his talent, but author Peter Lehman said of the enduring mystery surrounding the man…

“Since it was never clear where he had come from, no one seemed to pay much mind to where he had gone; he was just gone.”

The 70´s and 80´s was a lean time, although his influence was still there, especially on the new generation of country rockers like Gram Parsons & Emmylou Harris with Love Hurts, and Linda Ronstadt with Blue Bayou brought his music back into the public eye. A 1977 compilation would also hit number 1 in the UK. Meanwhile Bruce Springsteen (who would later induct him into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame) would end his concerts with an Orbison song.

With the appearance of In Dreams  in the movie Blue Velvet, Orbison went on to have a bit of a career resurgence. He died in December of 1988 of a heart attack at the age of 52, right at the zenith of that resurgence, the same year he joined The  Travelling Wilburys. Harrison came up with the name while working with his then producer, Lynne, paraphrasing here: “Don´t worry, we´ll bury the mistakes in the mix.” 

Orbison was a natural baritone, but music critics have suggested he had a three to four octave range, and was dubbed “the Caruso of Rock”, because of his operatic style voice.

Elvis Presley considered it the most distinctive in rock n roll, and where most of his contemporaries were coming on like macho men, Orbison was one of the first to express a quiet vulnerability.

Back to this week´s Song of the Week…

The video for She’s a Mystery to Me was directed by David Fincher, and was first aired in April 1989. Each video showed a girl departing on an aeroplane. In one of them a woman is planning to leave with a rich lover, while a faceless protagonist (symbolising Orbison) is shown mostly in close-ups of his black boots.

The second video ends with a young girl about to board a plane, with an older woman arriving at the gate at takeoff. The girl abandons the plane, and reunites with the woman, presumably her mother. The same actress plays both the pursued woman in the first video, and the pursuer in the second.

Mystery Girl Roy Orbison

The album, Mystery Girl, named after the song, was released posthumously in 1989. It joined Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1 at the top of the chart, which meant that Orbison joined his old friend Elvis, and Elvis´s successor to the throne Michael Jackson, in being the only singers to simultaneously have two top 5 albums on the Billboard Chart posthumously.

The musicians playing on the track are Roy himself, Bono playing some guitar, Howie Epstein on bass, Benmont Tench on piano, “cheap strings” and arranging duties, the perennial Jim Keltner on drums, and Don Smith engineering and mixing. The b-side was a re-recording of Crying featuring K.D. Lang. In the U.K.  live version of the song Dream Baby was also included.

Here´s the great BBC documentary Roy Orbison, The Big “O” in Britain.

The documentary Roy Orbison In Dreams is also worth checking out if you haven´t seen it. Unfortunately, the first part is missing from youtube.

I´m not Bono or U2´s biggest fan, although I do like the Joshua Tree a lot, but I have to admit they´ve written some classics. Here´s to dreams! Enjoy…


Darkness falls and she will take me by the hand
Take me to some twilight land
Where all but love is grey
Where I can’t find my way
Without her as my guide

Night falls I’m cast beneath her spell
Daylight comes our heaven’s turns to hell
Am I left to burn
and burn eternally

She’s a mystery to me
She’s a Mystery Girl

In the night of love words tangled in her hair
Words soon to disappear
A love so sharp it cut like switchblade to my heart
words tearing me apart
She tears again my bleeding heart
I want to run she’s pulling me apart
Fallen angel cries
And I just melt away
She’s a mystery to me
She’s a Mystery Girl

Haunted by her side it’s the darkness in her eyes
That so enslaves me
But if my love is blind then I don’t want to see
She’s a mystery to me

Night falls I’m cast beneath her spell
Daylight comes our heaven’s turns to hell
Am I left to burn
and burn eternally

she’s a mystery to me
She’s a Mystery Girl

6 thoughts on “Song of the Week 42: She´s a Mystery to Me (Bono, The Edge) – Roy Orbison

  1. Thanks for posting this interesting post! I love Roy Orbison he’s just one of the most amazing singers that ever lived.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s