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.

All Alone

Cliff Edwards , Pathe 025124, 1924, #6 1925

Cliff Edwards chose the instrument that gave him his showbiz name, Ukulele Ike (misspelled four times on the “All Alone” record label as “Ukelele Ike”), out of practicality. He was singing in saloons in the 1910s, subject to unreliable, out-of-tune pianos, and wanted a convenient instrument to play. The uke seemed to be the most portable—other than the harmonica, which ain’t so easy to accompany your own singing with. He learned to play the instrument, and with it became one of the most successful recording stars of the ‘20s and ‘30s, also appearing in numerous movies. Much of the popular-song sheet music of the era features chords for ukulele accompaniment, thanks to Ike. We also should acknowledge that it was Ukulele Ike, and not Gene Kelly, who introduced the world to “Singin’ in the Rain,” back in The Hollywood Revue of 1929. It was a #1 hit for him. Uke Ike died, broke and forgotten, in 1971. His last recording had been ten years earlier.

Cliff Edwards is best known (often only known) as the voice of Pinocchio’s muse Jiminy Cricket. His rendition of “When You Wish Upon a Star” is exquisitely sweet, and every time my three-year-old Disney-fan daughter Kelley sang it for me I had to dab my eyes and blow my nose, Not known to most Disney-movie lovers is that Edwards also was the uncredited voice of the unfortunately named Jim Crow in Dumbo, and sang the minstrelly “When I See an Elephant Fly.”

Ukulele Ike could certainly ham it up on up-tempo novelty numbers, flailing away at his uke and scatting in a high register. That stuff’s pretty entertaining, but it’s the sentimental ballads, in the mold of “When You Wish Upon a Star,” that I’m especially fond of, and they sound so gorgeous on a 78 rpm disc. A prize possession of mine is Cliff Edwards’ recording of the Irving Berlin song “All Alone.” Ike’s frail tenor elicits a sigh every time, as he croons, “Wondering where you are, and how you are, and if you are all alone, too.” I sing along, gazing out my bedroom window with a longing look, swept up in the nostalgia for something I can’t name.

No fewer than seven artists, including Cliff Edwards, milked the song for hits in 1925. It is superbly crafted and perfectly simple, like Berlin’s better-known “What’ll I Do?” Edwards doesn’t appear to have recorded that one. If he had, I’d have it on my “must-have” list.

At any rate, I’m going to have daughter Kelley, now 34, learn “All Alone,” and I will accompany her on my tenor ukulele and try to keep my eyes dry until the ending.

September Song

Walter Huston, Decca DU 40001, 1945 (?)

Kurt Weill had a special knack for intriguing, alluring melodies, and was able to find lyricists to partner with whose words added to the effect rather than taking anything away. Weill’s songs are so strong that quite a few non-singers have done a little magic with them. Weill’s wife Lotte Lenya was not so much a singer as an actress, but her recordings of Weill songs from his German as well as his American musicals are considered definitive. She originated the role of Polly Peacham in Weill’s best-known work, The Three-Penny Opera (lyrics by Bertolt Brecht), which introduced “Mackie Messer”—known in the US as “Mac the Knife.” Her “Surabaya Johnny” (from Happy End, with lyrics by Brecht), sung in German, is chilling, even if you don’t understand German.

Also worth finding is Burgess Meredith singing “Johnny’s Song” from a 1956 recording of the songs from the 1936 musical Johnny Johnson (lyrics by Paul Green), Weill’s first American show after leaving Germany. The Penguin wasn’t a singer, but he acts his way through Weill’s complex melody, and it works.

Not so great was Lou Reed’s take on “September Song,” from Hal Willner’s Weill tribute album Lost in the Stars. Croaker Marianne Faithfull and growler Tom Waits are both suited to the material and make out better than Lou, who gives the exquisitely melodic Kurt Weill the Velvet Underground monotone treatment. (Hal Willner’s tribute projects are all uneven but provocative, and three of his choices of composers to salute are three of my favorite songwriters—Weill, plus Thelonious Monk, with That’s the Way I Feel Now, from 1984, and Nino Rota, with Amarcord Nino Rota, from 1981.)

Walter Huston is best-remembered for his role as the old gold-panner who puts Bogart’s character in his place in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. If you’re only familiar with the actor from this role, you may be unable to imagine him crooning emotional ballads. This record presents that other side.

Huston wasn’t a singer, but there is so much feeling built into “September Song”’s melody and lyrics (by Maxwell Anderson) that a great actor can wring a lot of emotional response from it. I’d enjoyed Walter Huston’s version of “September Song” on a cast album for Knickerbocker Holiday, and was thrilled to find it on shellac. He comes through, delivering a big emotional punch, and then does it again on the B-side.

I had no idea Walter Huston had done a version of “Lost in the Stars,” which was the bonus I discovered on the flip side of this record. Of all of Kurt Weill’s beautiful melodies, “Lost in the Stars” (from the musical of the same name, also with lyrics by Maxwell Anderson) is probably the most haunting. Huston’s version doesn’t top Tony Bennett’s version with The Count Basie Orchestra, but it is poignant and, in its own way, beautiful. These two recordings seem to be absolutely ideally suited to the 78 rpm format; I can’t really imagine listening to them any other way.

There is a mystery about the recording that I haven’t yet solved. The musical Lost in the Stars was completed in 1948 and debuted in 1949. I can find no mention of the title song existing prior to the collaboration of Weill and Anderson. Yet everything I can find regarding this recording states it was made in 1944. Since Cry, the Beloved Country, Alan Paton’s book upon which the musical was based, wasn’t published until 1948, my guess is that the info about the recording date is wrong. But I suppose it’s possible that Weill and Anderson collaborated on the song before they knew where they’d put it. As deliberate as Weill was, though, and as perfect the song is in the show, I doubt that was the case.