How did you start playing music?
When I was six years old, Mom and Dad gave me a guitar for my birthday, and Daddy taught me the chords to “You Are My Sunshine.” We lived in Fort Worth, Texas, and Mom and Dad were both working in a defense plant during World War II. It was a good place for relatives and everybody to come by and play music. And it was a time of intense emotion in that the boys were going to one front or the other of the war, more than likely to be killed. And so when they were drinking, they’d drink with gusto, and when they were singing, they sang with all their hearts, and I got to sing with these guys.
I guess that level of intensity made a big impression on me, because it’s still there. That sense of “Do it for all it’s worth, and do it now, and do it good.” Not to analyze it too much, but I think the verve and gusto that everybody felt and portrayed around me has stayed with me all this time.
Was there so much fear in those early love songs because that’s the way you were in real life?
No. When I wrote, let’s say, a sad song, a melancholy song, I was feeling good at the time. Because I have to feel good and at peace with myself before I can think creatively. I’ve heard guys say, “Well, I got my heart ripped out and got wasted for three weeks and wrote this song.” I couldn’t do that. I’d be crying, I couldn’t eat and all that.
Of course, I knew what “Only the Lonely” was about when I wrote that. I had been alone and lonely. I wasn’t at the time, though.
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The image of you as a mysterious loner was reinforced by all those songs about being lonely and crying and running scared.
With “Only the Lonely” being the first, I guess they said, “Well, he’s a lonely singer.” But in “Running Scared” I got the girl, you know?
In a way, it must have been pretty daunting trying to come up with new songs that could stand alongside “Crying” or “Oh, Pretty Woman.” Did you feel much pressure making “Mystery Girl”?
I sure did. When I started, I said, “What kind of song can I write that will equal ‘Crying’?” And almost the minute I thought that, I said: “That’s idiotic. Just write a different song.” But for a while I was looking around for another “Crying” and another “Pretty Woman” or two, and I remember getting in the trap of trying to write for myself as a singer — trying to write for Roy Orbison, the rock & roll balladeer, the guy who sings high and low and lonely. … And then I realized it didn’t matter. What mattered was jumping in with both feet and being committed and working hard.
It has to do with my being as credible and viable today as I was when I just started. When I did start, rock & roll wasn’t part of our culture; it wasn’t acceptable as an art form. But there again, had I seen any limitations, like “You’re only as hot as your latest record” or “What are you gonna do when you’re thirty?” — had I listened to that, I would have cut the dream short.
You called it “the dream” — that’s always been a prevalent image in your songs.
Mm-hmmm. Without the word dream, or the concept dream, and without the word blue and the emotions, I would have been really limited in the things I’ve written and performed.
Are you ever going to go all the way and write a song called “Blue Dreams”?
I might [laughs]. “Lonely Blue Dreams.” I might.
When things are written about you in, say, rock & roll reference books, it seems that the one-line take on you is “Sad songs, big voice, dark glasses,” and sometimes they’ll add, “And he’s had a tragic life.”
Yeah. The tragic life … that one period of it was tragic. But there were a lot of years before and a lot of years after, so that’s very far from the truth. In fact, it’s totally the other way. But to be in the book is good enough for me.
If you wrote your own history, could you sum yourself up in a paragraph?
Hmmm … probably not. I might be able to do it in song. I’ve never done a song to encompass all that, but maybe in pieces of the songs. Parts of “Crying,” parts of “Pretty Woman,” too, and “Running Scared.” … Pieces of my songs would tell the story.