Okay, here's the thing: nobody did heartbreak
better than Roy Orbison
. Nobody. And furthermore, they still don't.
It wasn't until 1960 that the world discovered this about Roy. Before that he'd been a rockabilly hepcat with the legendary Sun Records and then with RCA, but neither gig had really worked out. He'd had one moderately successful Sun single ("Ooby Dooby", which you'll recall from Star Trek: First Contact) but he hadn't made the same kind of splash his then-labelmates Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and of course Elvis Presley had. They'd all found their sound, their voices as artists. But nobody knew exactly what to do with Roy, the diminutive, pudgy, bespectacled nice guy with the quavering high voice. "Sing like this," they'd say, and it wasn't quite right. "Play it that way," they'd say, but it just didn't jump off the vinyl the way it should.
But when Roy signed with the Monument label in 1960, producer Fred Foster wisely decided not to try and fit him into someone else's mold, and just got out of his way. What came out was "Only the Lonely (Know How I Feel)". Instantly everyone recognized that ringing, operatic voice, so powerful and yet so painfully vulnerable, as the voice of complete and utter romantic devastation.
Nowhere, I think, does this come through better than in his 1964 hit "It's Over". Those of you who have been dumped will perhaps be familiar with that initial stage where a flood of horrible emotion comes pouring in on you all at once: grief, anger, fear, a sort of desperate, hollow hilarity at your own foolishness, and a bitter self-loathing that makes you want to drive that knife in as deep as it will go and twist.
I certainly remember the last time I went through that. Her name was Angela, and in the time I'd known her I had come to feel with a clarity and intensity unlike anything I'd ever felt before that she was The One. But even though she loved me too, her heart had been pledged to another. She struggled to decide between us, but I didn't worry. I knew that she would choose me in the end, because this was True Love and True Love always prevailed. Right?
When she told me that she had to try and make it work with the other guy, and that she still wanted me as a friend, I went home, turned out the lights, and, alone and hunched over in the dark, listened to "It's Over" ten times in a row.
Unlike some of his other heartache songs, where he paints a beautiful dream at the beginning and then lets us watch it fall apart, Roy starts right off with the awful truth in this one: Your baby doesn't love you anymore. Each stanza contains a line like this, a series of punches to the gut to drive it home: your baby won't be near you anymore. There's someone new. And those rainbows you used to see all the time when you were together and happy? You won't be seeing those anymore, because it's over. He repeats this last part again and again like that stunned, despairing, disbelieving voice in your head is repeating it. It's over, it's over, it's over, and the music is rising and his voice is climbing, high and loud, piercing, full of pity yet remorseless in bringing home the terrible fact of his and your abandonment.
A year later, Angela and I were married. We've been together for seven years now, but I still listen to those heartache songs sometimes. They remind me never to take her love for granted, and to treasure each moment of a happiness I almost lost forever.
Career highlights from my own memory and from http://www.orbison.com.