So Young (Love Theme from “Zabriskie Point”)

Roy Orbison, MGM K14121, 1970, #122 Pop

Before I came across this Roy Orbison single not long ago, I didn’t even know it existed. It’s called “So Young” and, in parentheses, “Love Theme from ‘Zabriskie Point.’” Really? Michelangelo Antonioni’s psychedelic desert critique of American lifestyles had a “love theme” sung by Roy the Orb? Wacky but true. Roy hadn’t had any hits in a couple of years and may have been up for anything. Antonioni probably hadn’t ever heard of Roy Orbison, but maybe had a staffer who threw the idea out there as a gag, and it stuck. Roy does indeed sing the song over the movie credits (I don’t know how I could have forgotten that—oh, wait, yeah, I saw it in the early ‘70s with my pot-dealer dorm-mate), but it didn’t make it onto the Zabriskie Point soundtrack album, which is mostly made up of the predictable folks: Pink Floyd, The Grateful Dead, The Rolling Stones.

…not bad for an obscure non-hit theme from a dated movie that got bad reviews.

Zabriskie Point’s love theme is a nice little song, written by Orbison, along with record exec-turned Republican politician Mike Curb and Brian Wilson’s former car-song collaborator Roger Christian. It follows the same arc as those young-love mini-melodramas from the early ‘60s: a lower-register set of verses that gradually build in intensity and rise in pitch to an operatic big finish. “So Young” is not quite up to the level of Roy’s timeless classics, but it’s not bad for an obscure non-hit theme from a dated movie that got bad reviews.

When I joined Bowley & Wilson as a member of their Blue Bathroom Humor Band, I knew I was getting into something out of my comfort zone. I was an introvert among extreme extroverts, a reader among party animals. But it was an opportunity, the first in a long while, to make a steady income playing music. Of course, it wasn’t like the music I had been playing. I went from pursuing the sensitive singer-songwriter route to playing bass and singing backup on B&W originals like “Let’s Do It Dog Style” and “Oh Shit, Wouldja Look at Them Tits?”

John Bowley and John Wilson, who’d met in the late ‘60s as frat-mates at SMU, developed and honed their shtick over the years to transform from a progressive country duo into a raunchy-rock-‘n’-country stage show with a rabid regular following, many of them the next generation of SMU students. They were loud and nasty, but they thought of their show as a variation on vaudeville, with a magician, instrumentalists to showcase, and lots of bits involving the audience. I was the serious relief.

With the band moniker Creepy Steve, I was the nerd of the group, dressed in a Boy Scout uniform. My predecessor on bass, Champagne Billy King, had been the nastiest, partyin’est band guy of all, and we all knew I could not fill that role. I was instead the misfit, the guy who didn’t quite belong, maybe a little embarrassed to be naughtily singing about tits and ass. During each set, I’d get a feature song, a chance to go from Creepy to The Voice by singing some bravura number. There were several over the years, but the one I got saddled with for long afterward was the Roy Orbison melodramatic mini-opera “Crying.”

The song was a favorite of mine for many years already when, while I was performing with my sixties cover band Circumstance, a regular customer told me he’d bump me some coke if I’d learn it. I did learn it, he rewarded me, and then continued to do so every time I sang it. In 1979, the cocaine was a great incentive. I sang the song a lot. After the coke phase, it was still exhilarating to sing, aided only by Cuervo Gold, Guinness Stout, or even just tap water. When we added it to the Bowley & Wilson show, it worked, night after night. Set in contrast to the dirty songs, it stood out: coeds swooned, frat rats cheered, bikers wept.

I went on to sing it at karaoke bars, in other bands, at parties—so many times that it lost its charm, lost its pathos, lost its power. Somewhere, there’s a videotape of me singing it, as I did every year by popular demand, at a family reunion. Listening to it, I can hear passion and verve, but the video exposes my empty, beerlogged expression. I was just going through the motions.

Bowley & Wilson broke up back in the late eighties, but over the succeeding years were booked for numerous “Final Reunions.” In each one, my showcase was “Crying,” sandwiched between B&W classics like “Baby Shit” and “How Can I Get You Off My Mind If You Won’t Get Off My Face.” It continued to work like a champ, until the first final reunion following my development of bronchiectasis. I was having voice problems and had not yet come to understand what exactly was going on and how to deal with it.

At our rehearsal for the final reunion, I informed Bowley and Wilson that I would not be able to sing “Crying.” “Oh no,” they protested, “you have to sing it!”

I suggested other songs I’d done with them, “Only You,” “Born to Run,” even as I realized it had to be “Crying.” I was getting paid a lot of money for this gig; I needed to fulfill my obligation. I came up with a compromise: moving the song down a step, so that instead of hitting the full-out, ringing high A note at the end of the song, I’d be hitting a not-quite-full-out but still-somewhat-ringing high G. It worked, and the audience members, I’m sure, had no idea I’d wimped out on the key. But I knew, and the band knew. I felt guilty getting paid for singing “Crying” in G.

I finally retired “Crying” a few years ago, after age and my respiratory condition made it too difficult for me to reliably sing it. At the most recent Final Reunion, probably the actual final Final Reunion, I sang “Only You,” and it went over just as well.

It’s a testament to Roy’s ethereal voice and exceptional song-craftsmanship that the shy and homely West Texas boy was the voice of young love in the early sixties. He had a string of six perfect works, recorded in the space of four years, that are among the greatest legacies of pop music.

In addition to “Crying,” here are Roy Orbison’s “Young Love Mini-Melodrama” masterpieces:

  • It’s Over (1964, #9)—my favorite Roy performance
  • In Dreams (1963, #7)—made creepily famous by Dean Stockwell’s pantomime in the David Lynch movie Blue Velvet
  • Running Scared (1961, #1)—“Oh, Pretty Woman” was Roy’s only other #1
  • Falling (1963, #22)—a lesser-known hit fully on a par with the others
  • Only the Lonely (Know How I Feel) (1960, #2)—another well-known oldies-collection staple

There are others that come close to making this list: “Leah” has the trademark upper-register intro statement and stratospheric big finish, but the story is too specific, and doesn’t really fit Roy. One can see him pining over lost loves, mistakenly fleeing from romance, agonizing over bad choices. But it’s just hard to picture him diving for pearls. But I think I can add “So Young”—classic Roy melodrama that remains obscure.

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