John Kruth is the author of Rhapsody in Black: The Life and Music of Roy Orbison (Backbeat Books). The following is part of a Q&A on MusicTomes.com. Please visit their site for the full interview.
You’ve previously written about the life and music of Townes Van Zandt and Roland Kirk, how did you come to choose Roy Orbison as your next subject?
I have pretty eclectic tastes and listen to all sorts of music from Don Cherry to George Jones to Ravi Shankar to Glenn Gould to Captain Beefheart…. but ultimately its passion for my subject when it all comes down to it. You better love your subject! Roy’s classic sides for Monument, to me, are some of the greatest records made in the last century from the way they were written, performed and recorded. Also the story of his life fascinated me, the way he overcame incredible tragedy and managed to continue creating in spite of the devastating cards that fate dealt him. Ultimately he was a sonic alchemist who turned pain into beauty.
Orbison’s widow, Barbara, has a notoriously tight-grip on all things Roy, and as you chronicle in the book, had a lot of control over Roy himself. Did this present any problems in your research or in contacting people who knew and worked with Orbison?
In my earlier 2 biographies I worked closely with both of the widows. I wish I could have spoken with Barbara but I was warned by a number of people that she would want to control the contents of the book. So I avoided any contact and just quietly forged on. There were a few people who declined interviews with me because the book is unauthorized. Sadly Barbara was ill and has since passed away. I was hoping that she might’ve liked my book and I could have interviewed her for the 2nd edition.
What did you run across in your research that surprised you?
Writing a biography is kind of like going out on a date with someone you really like but you don’t know all that well and the relationship is suddenly on the fast track and things are unfolding at an alarming rate. There are plenty of surprises, some set backs but you made the commitment. Perhaps it’s more like a shot-gun marriage – cause you gotta see it through at least until the baby arrives! Surprises? How great (and how lame) some of the MGM tracks were – check out the Hank Williams record that Roy made. I never heard it before, and most of the musicians don’t even recall recording it. Its wild, sounds like a Lee Hazelwood production.
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About the Book
Orbison’s singing has inspired everyone who has heard it, from Springsteen to k. d. lang, and laid the very foundation for goth. While fascinating from a pop culture standpoint, it is Orbison’s life’s journey that makes a great story that has yet to be told to its fullest. Rhapsody in Black: The Life and Music of Roy Orbison doesn’t shy away from or trivialize the personal pain, alienation, and tragic events that shaped Orbison’s singular personality and music. Roy Orbison wasn’t merely a singer but a sonic alchemist who, in the end, transformed unfathomable human misery into transcendent melody and platinum records. Rhapsody in Black contains new interviews with over 20 people who worked closely with Orbison throughout his life.
In the introduction to the book you give a great account of how you first began to pursue the music of Hendrix. What inspired you to write the book?
Frankly I was asked by Robert Rodriguez the FAQ Series Editor if I was interested in possibly writing a book for Backbeat. He had seen a piece I wrote about The Clash at my old website and contacted me. At the time, I didn’t know he meant a book for his FAQ series and so – 9 being my favorite number – I sent him a list of 9 music related titles on subjects that I thought would make good books and that I could write better than anybody.
I can’t remember all of them but I do remember suggesting The Clash in America, which would solely focus on The Clash’s concerts and recording sessions in America as well as their cultural impact on the country they had been bored with, and Jimi Hendrix: The Posthumous Years. I believe that as timeless as the three Jimi Hendrix Experience studio albums are, that it his posthumous recordings that have really contributed to his enduring fame. We had some back and forth discussions and that resulted in me writing Jimi Hendrix FAQ: All There’s Left to Know about the Voodoo Child.
Was there anything that surprised you in your research?
I was dismayed by his neglected childhood, by how many of his tales were really tall, and how isolated he was at the time of his death. But wanting to stress the positive let me say that what was really a discovery was how truly talented the Band of Gypsys was. That’s Jimi’s all black trio that included Buddy Miles on drums and vocals and Jimi’s army buddy Billy Cox on bass and vocals. Their legacy rests almost entirely on four concerts played on two consecutive nights after a few weeks rehearsal. Now they had been playing together at recording sessions since May 21, 1969 – a few of which are on the new People, Hell and Angels collection – but their performances at Bill Graham’s Fillmore East still stand out.
For example, “Machine Gun” is one of Jimi’s Top Ten iconic songs and that comes from these concerts. And the contributions of Jimi’s fellow gypsys to that song are profound. Billy’s ominous bass line and Buddy’s rat-a-tat-tat drumming really contribute to the song’s mood. And the notable thing that most people don’t realize is they played “Machine Gun” at all four concerts and all four are worth hearing. The one that’s readily available on Band of Gypsys is even arguably not the best version. Others include snatches of “Star Spangled Banner” during Jimi’s solos and I think Jimi didn’t want to release those versions because then it would make “Machine Gun” an anti-Vietnam War song and not the anti-war song that he wanted it to be. (All four versions are available on 2 Nights at the Fillmore, a 6-CD collection.)
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A modest man but highly competitive musician, Hendrix set the stage for many of the most significant musical movements to emerge between 1970 and 1999, including heavy metal, fusion, glam rock, and rap. Voodoo bluesman, sonic producer, the lyricist that out-Dylaned Dylan: these are what snatch our attention 40 years after his death, as do his “aw, shucks” smile in photos and the raw sexuality of his concert performances. It’s hard to find the man under all the falsehoods told by friends, business associates, and even Jimi himself. Jimi Hendrix FAQ attempts to present the facts in a fast-moving, fan-friendly read.
Robert Rodriguez is the author of Revolver: How the Beatles Reimagined Rock’n’Roll. He is also the series editor of the FAQ series, as well as the author of the two Fab Four FAQ books. The following is an excerpt of an interview with Music Tomes. Please visit their website for the full interview.
You’ve written extensively on the Beatles. What about the group first captivated you?
I had older brothers who were record buyers back when the Beatles were still recording; I was a little young for all of that. But I remember vividly the Capitol swirl and Apple labels – they stood out among the 45s, in my mind at least.
What grabbed me about the Beatles was their sound, and that didn’t click with me until I first heard the Red and the Blue albums – the 1962-1966and 1967-1970 compilations. That was mind blowing – having the scope of their career laid out on four discs; everything from “She Loves You” to “Strawberry Fields Forever” and beyond. To me, it was like every sound imaginable had been done – and by the same four guys! So those packages were the real gateway for me. Thereafter, catching A Hard Day’s Night and Help! on TV sealed the deal – these guys weren’t just great musicians, but compelling, funny personalities, too.
You’ve also written two books in the FAQ series on the Beatles. With so much written about the band, what is the ultimate goal of these books?
I imagined that, like myself, there were a lot of fans that were hungry for a single volume work that was neither a deeply scholarly analysis, nor an colorful series of superficial anecdotes. Or worse yet, trivia. Something that, furthermore, contextualized the Beatles’ achievements by placing them into the times in which they created.
At the same time, I thought it be great if somebody could deconstruct their story, so that you could zero in on exactly what aspect or another that you wanted to learn about. So the first FAQ was created as a way to present a ton of information broken down by facet, that invited readers to pick up the book at any point and begin reading where there interests lie, and let the history take them where they wanted to go.
No one else did it, so I stepped up!
The Beatles are a well-covered subject, but creating a narrative that got to the good stuff with immediacy was the goal. It didn’t feel like anyone had really covered their solo years as an integrated entity, hence 2.0. In a way, covering such a massive amount of ground with the two FAQs was easier to accomplish, with all the quantifiable milestones along the way, than Revolver, which was a narrowly focused topic.
But I wanted to challenge myself as a writer and researcher, and hopefully, bring something new to the table. So while the FAQs were straightforward reporting with some opinion thrown in, Revolverwas intended as a conversation starter, something to get people to re-examine their long-held opinions and see the Beatles’ work with fresh eyes.
Can you give us a sneak peek at some of the upcoming titles in the series?
We have a pretty well-developed “wish list” of titles that we are tracking down just the right writers for. But ones that are signed and sealed include The Twilight Zone, Star Wars, Film Noir and Doctor Who, on the TV/film side of things. With music, we have upcoming titles on The Who, Miles Davis, Jimmy Buffett and Hendrix.
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The making of Revolver – hunkered down in Abbey Road with George Martin – is in itself a great Beatles story, but would be nothing if the results weren’t so impactful. More than evenSgt. Pepper and Pet Sounds, Revolver fed directly into the rock ‘n’ roll zeitgeist, and its influence could be heard everywhere: from the psychedelic San Francisco sound (Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead); to the first wave of post-blues hard rock (Sabbath, Zeppelin); through movie soundtracks and pretty much everything that followed it – including every generation of guitar-based pop music and even heavy metal. More than any record before or after, Revolverwas the game-changer, and this is, finally, the detailed telling of its storied recording and enormous impact.