The first rock and roll dream song may well have been Elvis's "Mystery Train." But rock's most important dreamer was Roy Orbison, whose songs are suffused with fantasies in which his imagination deceives, betrays, and entices him into situations as threatening as they are compelling. In "Leah," "Dream Baby," "Blue Bayou," and several others, a dreamer awakens to find that what he's imagined true is not and is left at the end to live a life less complete than the one in his head.
It isn't surprising that there's a Freudian aspect to all this. Orbison was different than any other rock star of his period. He was relatively middle-class, college-educated and on easier terms with more kinds of music - opera and Mexican ballad singing, for instance - than any of his peers. His songs possess a psychological complexity that is commonly believed not to have existed in pop music until Dylan and the Beatles.
"In Dreams" is certainly the greatest of all Orbison's dream songs. Even David Lynch's seriocomic exploitation of it through Dean Stockwell and Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet has not robbed the original of its evocative power. Actually, Stockwell's scene identifies the song's surface attraction, its almost morbid atmosphere stemming from the kitsch of the opening recitative and the overblown string arrangement.
The song's sinister side is also caught, when Hopper later grabs Kyle McLaughlin by the face and snarls the central lines into his mug, spitting the monosyllables out one by one: "In dreams . . . I walk with you / In dreams . . . I talk with you / In dreams . . . you're mine, ALL of the time."
But Lynch misses Orbison's deeper, more spiritual side. In the remake Roy cut for the movie, it's written out of the arrangement. The new production flattens the beat, leaving the song engulfed in its own pretensions. But in the original, the Mexican rhythm and Orbison's ranchera phrasing redeem the kitsch. When Orbison swings from chorus to verse, his vibrato and melisma are so fluid and graceful that he might as well be singing in Spanish rather than his more guttural native tongue. And on the climactic line "Only in dreams," he sings somewhere between ranchera and a cowboy yodel, the twin products of the Texas plains where he grew up.
In the realm of pop radio, this approach is positively exotic. And within its framework, Orbison creates a moody landscape suffused with imagery that's as much a metaphor for psychic disturbance as the lovelorn saga it pretends to be. In this light, "In Dreams" shows its true face and reveals its full power, even if that power threatens conventional notions of what "ought" to be contained in a pop song.
"I'll let you be in my dream if I can be in yours," Bob Dylan once sang. A generation of bright college kids thought that was an attractive offer. Had they paid more attention to Roy Orbison, they would have rethought the deal.
From "The Heart of Rock and Soul, The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made", by
Dave Marsh, 1989.