Roy Orbison died unexpectedly while visiting his mother in Hendersonville, TN, on Dec. 6, 1988. He was only 52.
A month before his passing, the man hailed as “the Caruso of Rock ‘n Roll” had finished work on his first studio album of new material since 1979. Entitled Mystery Girl, the all-star-assisted LP was the crescendo of a four-year-long comeback which found him jamming, recording and revisiting his iconic songbook of dark post doo-wop pop with such contemporary giants as Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, Jackson Browne and the four men with whom he would form the greatest supergroup of the Reagan age. His music was introduced to a whole new generation not only thanks to his invincible union with Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne and Tom Petty as the Traveling Wilburys, but also through lifelong fan David Lynch employing the singer’s 1963 hit “In Dreams” for the director’s 1986 cult noir masterpiece Blue Velvet.
Mystery Girl was recorded nearly in parallel to the first Wilburys album Vol. 1, and featured a generation-defying host of guests both playing and penning songs for the singer, including Bono and the Edge (who wrote the haunting “She’s A Mystery To Me,” which they play in concert occasionally), Steve Cropper, Diane Warren, The Memphis Horns, Petty’s Heartbreakers and fellow Wilburys Harrison and co-producer Lynne, yielding the top 10 Billboard Hot 100 hit “You Got It” and nine other beautifully crafted tunes culminating in what’s considered the best album of his career.
Orbison’s three sons, Wesley, Alex and Roy Jr., were all in their teens during this time. And while this period is undoubtedly a heavy one for the trio lovingly dubbed Roy’s Boys, in 2014 the sons revisited that era with a definitive deluxe edition of the album for its 25th anniversary, complete with rare demos of such LP highlights as “California Blue” and “Windsurfer” (co-written with “Pretty Woman” songwriter Bill Dees) and a star-studded documentary on the making of Mystery, capturing the story of how this resilient family turned tragedy into triumph.
With today (Jan. 31) being the 30th anniversary of Mystery Girl‘s release, Billboard spoke with Alex Orbison about his memories and recollections of this period. Here are nine key takeaways from the conversation.
Moving to California helped save Roy Orbison’s life.
Roy became such a recluse following the time of his first heart attack in 1978. He had tried to stage a comeback then, but his business wasn’t functioning the way it should have, and he wound up having a falling out with his manager at the time and there was a lawsuit. All that was settled in 1984, around the same time my mom quit drinking, which culminated with us moving to California and my dad trying to shed his reclusive skin and started to put himself out there. People wanted very much to do stuff with him. One of the first things he did was a celebration of his career in New York, and CBS was there to film it. From there, they asked if they could sit in on some of the recording sessions he was doing at the time. They were so fired up that Roy Orbison was back.
David Lynch was key in Orbison’s comeback in the mid-80s.
That was the first time someone had used something so beautiful overlaid with this really shocking imagery. The juxtaposition David Lynch used between music and film, that was a groundbreaking event right there. And Lynch was such a Hollywood darling from all the other work he was doing and how artistic he was. Having my dad wrapped up in that and then shooting the Black and White Night concert made him relevant again in Hollywood.
The Traveling Wilburys initially came together during the Mystery Girl sessions.
The next day after recording “California Blue” and “You Got It,” they did “Handle With Care.” And if you watch the footage on the DVD of the Mystery Girl deluxe set, you could see the spark of the Traveling Wilburys happen right on that film. That set the tone for the way Jeff Lynne, George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and my dad would work on the Wilburys stuff. It was very mellow and casual. It was like they were inside the music business, but they were outside of it all the same, you know? They had all been a part of record companies turning into corporations, then a bigger company buys that company and you get lost in the shuffle. I think they all felt burned by that twist and felt disenchanted with the corporate life, so this was the total opposite, recording at Mike Campbell’s house and at Rumbo Recorders at a very leisurely pace.
Mystery Girl came at the time of a great shift in the world of rock.
It’s funny, because parallel to my dad recording with the Wilburys and making Mystery Girl was the last gasp of hair metal and that kind of corporate rock which ended up spawning grunge. My dad and those guys had their own thing, which was the generation before, in where they would check in with the record company or the record label knew everything was good so they largely stayed uninvolved in the recording process. Then when my dad took over Rumbo to finish Mystery Girl, Tom Petty was across the way making Full Moon Fever, so it was more of that at-home feeling. And when Petty left, Don Henley came in and began recording The End of the Innocence across the hall. Meanwhile, you had Bono and my dad and Jim Keltner all together in the same room to cut “She’s a Mystery to Me.” Literally it was just the three of them in that room, and we turned up the tracking tapes, the rough studio demo, and put it on the Mystery Girl deluxe edition. It’s amazing how good everything sounds, which is a testament to how much the informal way they were recording was paying dividends for them.
Paul McCartney wasn’t the only legend Elvis Costello was working with in the late ’80s.
Elvis Costello says “The Comedians” was a Roy Orbison song that he wrote and had to give it back to my dad, which is a hilarious thought. He was alerted that my dad was doing a record by I believe T-Bone Burnett. He wanted to get that song directly to my dad. And it was so early it pre-dated Black & White Night. Musically, Elvis was one of the bandleaders at that concert, because he knew the songs and he knew the way they were supposed to go. So a lot of the cueing in terms of arrangements, people would look at him on his acoustic guitar back there.
Through his work on Harrison’s Cloud Nine, Roy’s Mystery Girl, Petty’s Full Moon Fever and the Traveling Wilburys albums, Jeff Lynne killed ’80s pop in Alex Orbison’s opinion.
When people talk about the glory days of music and the record business, that phase right there in the ’80s was where you had the pop sampling and compressed production that was big in music at the time. It was everywhere. And then Jeff Lynne single handedly hijacked popular music and sold 15-20 million records making these organic albums. It seemed like there was no way it would’ve worked at the time if you had to plan it. There wasn’t that “damn the torpedoes” mentality. These guys and the production Jeff brought to the table gave their voices an arch and helped them get across what they wanted to do so naturally. It was so beneficial, because it made turning on the radio fun again. I was born a dinosaur rocker.
Alex and his brothers were also at the right age to be in the thick of the vibrant Los Angeles rock scene.
We were literally at ground zero in L.A. back then, which would make Roy Orbison a part of that scene somehow. We went to liberal arts school, so that culture with Fishbone and the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Jane’s Addiction was all around us. My drum teacher when I was 13, I’d go down to the Sunset Strip to see him play. And Guns N’ Roses was at Rumbo before my dad working on Appetite for Destruction. It’s funny, because all the people at Rumbo were complaining about them, because they destroyed the studio and took all the toilet paper when they left. So my dad had heard about them, but not as the next big band but rather the group who made a mess of the studio and stole toilet paper (laughs). Then the “Sweet Child O’ Mine” video came out on MTV, and I told my friends, “These were the guys who wrecked the studio my dad’s working in!”
Roy was great pals with Chris Isaak.
Chris came down from San Francisco and hung out at our house for about a week. That was before Mystery Girl started, so Chris had access to the basket of demos that my dad had, which he would listen through and figure out what he liked. They hung out on the beach and went to the local coffee shop, and they did some writing sessions. Chris literally became a family member from that point on. I don’t think they ever recorded together, but with Chris it was about looking for songs together — he and Roy. They probably figured they’d get their own record out of the way and do some writing together. I remember once Chris was at dinner with us and telling jokes. He was so personable and funny. When we did the induction of my dad into the Austin City Limits Hall of Fame, Chris was the first person we called to have him sing “Only the Lonely” and other tunes. He helps us out to this day.
Mystery Girl was not intended to be the last Roy Orbison album by a stretch, and he wanted to go darker in his sound.
One of the terms I’m least happy with Mystery Girl being is the swan song effort of my dad’s, and it was not meant to be that. He looked at this as a plan, where it would be like a one-two punch that would find him going deeper and darker. And he chose to do so with Glenn Danzig, and they did “Life Fades Away” from the Less Than Zero soundtrack. It was a clue to what the second record would’ve sounded like, something dark but also something unabashedly, openingly loving as well, which was “You Are My Love,” a song he wrote for my mom Barbara. Just to tie it into Mystery Girl, the song “Windsurfer” — he had teenage sons and he looked at the way we saw the world back then. And who knows how dark it would’ve sounded to me and my brothers had he used the original lyrics. He sang “He wrote his name in the sand,” but the original lyric was “They found him face down in the sand,” which appears on the demo version from the deluxe edition of the album. Those lyrics were such a point to where my dad was headed being the Dark Prince of Rock ‘n’ Roll.