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A 'Lonely' friendship

ASU professor's book helped shape Roy Orbison documentary.
Documentary explores Orbison's roller-coaster life in rocker's own words.
Free Orbison screening in Tempe to be followed by discussion with filmmaker.
March 28, 2016

A trans-Atlantic correspondence between filmmaker, ASU professor leads to US debut of Roy Orbison documentary in Tempe

His was the loneliest and most unlikely voice in rock and roll, with a posthumous career to die for.

That impassioned tenor voice combined with his trademark dark shades and perfectly coifed jet-black hair set Roy Orbison — “the Caruso of Rock” — apart as a recording artist and ultimately made him a legend.

His legend will be told in a new documentary that will examine the life and career of the iconic rock balladeer.

ASU’s Center for Film, Media and Popular Culture and Arizona Humanities are hosting the U.S. premiere of “Roy Orbison: One of the Lonely Ones” on Wednesday at Harkins Tempe Marketplace 16, 2000 E. Rio Salado Parkway. The free screening starts at 7 p.m. and will be followed by a discussion with British documentary filmmaker Jeremy Marre and Peter Lehman, director of the Center for Film, Media and Popular Culture, who is also interviewed in the film.

Lehman’s 2003 book, “Roy Orbison: The Invention of an Alternative Rock Masculinity,” served as a scholarly touchstone for Marre's vision and cemented a trans-Atlantic friendship that brought the U.S. premiere to ASU.

“He (Marre) sent me an email that essentially said, ‘I’ve read your book and they are the same themes I want to explore in a documentary I’m developing for the BBC on Roy Orbison’s life. I’d like to talk to you,’” Lehman said.

That electronic correspondence was followed by a phone call. Lehman was impressed with Marre’s vision and knowledge of material; he had also directed documentaries on such famous musicians as Marvin Gaye, James Brown and Otis Redding.

“The conversation showed me Jeremy was taking the subject matter very seriously in not repeating the same cliches that are often associated with music documentaries,” said Lehman, who is also a professor of film and media studies in the Department of EnglishThe Department of English is part of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences..

“He was going to come to U.S. but ironically I was going to be in Italy for a silent-film festival that week. He asked me if I could stop in London on the way back, so I made some arrangements and it worked out perfectly.”

The extensive interview was followed by a friendly lunch. The two men vowed to stay in touch and did, even after the BBC aired the documentary in December 2015.

When Lehman received word that Marre would be stateside in March, the ASU professor of film and media studies invited him to ASU for a campus screening of "Roy Orbison: One of the Lonely Ones." He later asked Marre if he had a U.S. distribution deal in place for the film or if it had ever been shown in the U.S. Marre replied in the negative.

That’s when Lehman saw a larger potential coup for ASU and took it.

“Roy Orbison: One of the Lonely Ones” is told in the rocker’s own words, casting new light on the triumphs and tragedies that beset his career. Using previously unseen performances, home movies and interviews with many who have never spoken before, the film reveals Orbison’s remote Texas childhood, his battles to get his voice heard, and how he created such lasting hits as “Only the Lonely,” “Crying,” and “Oh, Pretty Woman.” The film follows Orbison’s roller-coaster life, often reflected in the dark lyrics of his songs, from success to rejection to rediscovery in the ’80s with the Traveling Wilburys.

“Roy Orbison is a legend today because of how unusual and distinctive he was within his time,” Lehman said. “He was a singer-songwriter and performer who ignored the norms in all three areas with a powerful three-octave voice singing emotional songs with complex structures that he performed with a dark, mysterious and nearly stationary persona.”

Roy Orbison
Roy Orbison in 1965. This and top photo courtesy Arizona Humanities

 

Though his persona was stationary, Orbison’s life was anything but stagnant.

The native Texan was born in 1936 and grew up in the towns of Vernon, Fort Worth and Wink, the latter a stark plains town, which he described later in life as “football, oil fields, oil, grease and sand.” Lehmann visited Wink in the early ’80s as part of his research for his Orbison book.

“Wink was a very small and desolate environment when I visited there, and Orbison talked about how lonely and disconnected he felt as a young man,” Lehman said. “He took a big interest in music and movies, and they became his escape. Both art forms became very important in his career.”

In 1955 a fateful meeting with Johnny Cash at a local TV station sparked Orbison’s musical career and landed him an invitation to Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee.

Orbison’s tenure there was brief, but a 1960 move to Nashville-based Monument Records led to chart hits like “Only the Lonely,” “Mean Woman Blues,” “Running Scared,” “Crying,” “Blue Bayou” and “Oh, Pretty Woman.”

Mike Shellans, a music professor in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts and a musical performer since the age of 17, said the song “Crying” is the perfect example of Orbison’s talent and why he still resonates:

“You can feel where it’s going if you’re familiar with Roy’s music. You know the topic because it’s the topics he’s dealt with before, but the surprise lies in what’s ahead because you know the high notes are coming,” Shellans said. “To me, that’s the meat of the song, that’s what I’m waiting for. Then the end comes and he soars from above with the high notes and it’s the reward of the song.”


Watch ASU senior music lecturer Mike Shellans discuss Orbison's classic song "Crying." Video by Ken Fagan.

Orbison’s five-year run at Monument yielded nineteen Top 40 hits, nine of which made the Top 10 and two — “Running Scared” and “Oh, Pretty Woman” — reached No. 1. The latter was written about his wife, the former Claudette Frady, with whom he had three sons.

Lured by a $1 million contract, Orbison left Monument and signed with MGM Records. Unfortunately, the hits almost dried up immediately — and then tragedy struck in 1966 when his wife died in a motorcycle crash.

His life for the next few years would be marked by joy and sorrow. Two years after he was left a widower with three sons, he met his second wife, 18-year-old Barbara Wellhonen, while on tour in Leeds, England. A month later, in September 1968, a fire ripped through his Tennessee home while his parents watched his three children. Only the youngest of his sons survived.

“I can think of no parallel with an artist so overlooked during most of his life whose critical acclaim keeps building and building.”
— Peter Lehman, director of ASU's Center for Film, Media and Popular Culture

Wellhonen, who became his wife in 1969, was able to help Orbison through his grief. They had two boys of their own and settled into a life of domesticity. Orbison’s career had taken a backseat to his personal life, which considerably slumped in the late ’60s and throughout the ’70s.

“He became quite obscure during that time period. I was living in New York and teaching in the public school system,” Lehman recalled. “I often would go into the city and go from record store to record store to look for Orbison’s latest albums. Record store managers would often say, ‘Roy who?’ or ask, ‘Is he still alive?’ It was unbelievable because this wasn’t many years after he had all those hits.”

As the 1980s began to unfold, the entertainment world rediscovered Roy Orbison and his career enjoyed a major renaissance — including director David Lynch using Orbison’s song “In Dreams” for his 1986 cult film “Blue Velvet” to great effect.

“It’s one of the most distinctive uses of a rock and roll song in a movie,” Lehman said. “His songs were naturally dramatic, and the critics who were never big on Orbison eventually came around because of film directors and other musicians and said, ‘Gee, we must have overlooked something.’ ”

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame didn’t overlook Orbison, who inducted him in their 1987 class. Taking advantage of his new momentum, Orbison cut “Mystery Girl,” his first studio album for Virgin Records. It was slated for a February 1989 release, one Orbison didn’t live to see. He died of a heart attack Dec. 6, 1988. He was 52.

“Mystery Girl” went on to become the highest-charting solo album of Orbison’s career, reaching No. 5 and launching the Top Ten single, “You Got It.” Decades later, Orbison’s career continues to hit high notes with NPR profiles, boxed sets and a lost-album release.

“Roy Orbison almost defies understanding how he constantly stays at the forefront of the music industry and keeps getting rediscovered,” said Lehman. “I can think of no parallel with an artist so overlooked during most of his life whose critical acclaim keeps building and building. It’s a very unusual trajectory.”

For more information about the March 30 screening of “One of the Lonely Ones,” call 602-257-0335 or RSVP through Eventbrite at www.royorbisonfilm.eventbrite.com

 
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A world of possibilities

Exposure to fieldwork introduces prospective students, parents to range of jobs.
Club founders hope to expand Nature@ASU to other universities.
March 28, 2016

Conservation biology students launch Nature@ASU club to show others the path to range of career options out in the field

Inspecting the teeth of a drugged Siberian tiger. Darting a tracking device in a whale from the deck of a pitching boat. Waking up in a tent to sunrise over the Tibetan steppe.

There are careers where you can do all these things, and be paid for it.

A group of conservation biology students at Arizona State University want to shout this to the high heavens. To that end, they are starting a club to focus on professional development for conservation biologists.

Nature@ASU, slated to officially launch next fall, will have five components: a mentorship program; an internship finder; a job-mining component; high school outreach; and a website.

“We all care about protecting our planet,” said Jessica Givens, Nature@ASU co-founder along with John Lebens.

Givens’ experience is a classic example of what she wants to change. In high school she always liked animals and biology classes. When she arrived at ASU, she was pre-med student. But when classes like biochemistry loomed, she thought, “I don’t know if I want to do this.”

She had no idea what she wanted to do. What she really wanted to do was be a force for change in the natural world. “I have this big feely thing where I want to protect the world,” she said.

A meeting with conservation biologist Andrew Smith, President's Professor and Parents' Association Professor in the School of Life SciencesThe School of Life Sciences is an academic unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Smith is also a distinguished sustainability scientist in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability, a guest professor in the College of Life Sciences/Center for Landscape Ecology and Sustainability Science at Beijing Normal University, and advisory board member for the Center for Biodiversity Outcomes, part of the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability., where he showed her his work and research, clinched the deal. She discovered what she wanted to do with her life.

“A lot of people are interested in conservation biology, but they don’t hear about it until they’re juniors or seniors,” Lebens said.

“We need to show students this is a viable (career) option,” Givens said.

She switched her major to a bachelor's in conservation biology and ecology, became president of the Central Arizona Chapter of the Society for Conservation Biology — a student-run, conservation-biology organization centered at ASU — and quadrupled its membership in less than a year. The chapter jumped into fieldwork, doing a jackrabbit survey, spotlighting black-footed ferret, and trapping prairie dogs.

“I’ve taken a lot of people out and they’re like, ‘This is my first sleeping bag,’” Givens said. “That’s what makes students great conservationists: being out there.”

A group of bio students pose at Saguaro National Park
A group of volunteers, including ASU students, completed a recent cactus survey at Saguaro National Park outside Tucson. Photo courtesy: ASU alum Carolyn Harper

 

About 167 students are studying conservation biology at ASU, mostly juniors and seniors. The subject ranges across the university: conservation biology and sustainability in Tempe; environmental science at the West campus; and applied biosciences at the Polytechnic campus.

Givens and Lebens recruited 16 undergrads to help with the launch of Nature@ASU. They want to elevate the club to the point where organizations like the Arizona Game and Fish Department and the Nature Conservancy call for project volunteers or internship candidates.

Ecosystem scientist Sharon Hall, associate professor in the School of Life SciencesHall is also a senior sustainability scientist in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability and associate director of education and diversity in the Center for Biodiversity Outcomes., will be Nature@ASU’s faculty adviser.

Hall said students going into the field need more of a hand than in other careers. Conservation biology is not like a law degree, where grads can expect to clerk after graduation.

“There’s a lot of pathways you can choose from, but they’re not very clear,” Hall said, citing the need to show a range of jobs.

There are two other groups who need education about the field. Parents are one. They may feel that a college degree is limited to business or law, and not understand that a good career can be had under mosquito netting as well as wood paneling. That’s why the outreach component of Nature@ASU is important.

“Make the pathways to conservation science very clear, and take it to parents and to high schools,” Hall said.

The other is kids that haven’t spent any time in nature and don’t know that they can do what they see on Animal Planet for a living.

“You have to have some exposure to nature to know what to expect,” Hall said. “It can be scary for kids who don’t have that background. They’re faced with how do I get a job? How do I make a living?”

Givens envisions Nature@ASU moving to other universities.  “What we need most is mentors,” she said. “Hopefully we get the stars to align.”

“What they need is to find and support each other,” Hall said. “If you’re interested in nature, we’ll help you choose. ... It’ll be student-driven. That’s the key thing.”

 

Top photo by Andreas Krappweis/Freeimages.com

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU Now

480-727-4502