Spokane, Washington

In Dreams by Roy Orbison

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A candy-colored clown they call the sandman
Tiptoes to my room every night
Just to sprinkle stardust and to whisper
"Go to sleep. Everything is all right" Read full Lyrics
Now, wait a minute! How could Roy Orbison's haunting 1963 classic "In Dreams" be connected with a physical place? Well, you're right, no place is mentioned specifically within the lyrics now in connection with the song at any time. But there is a thread here, deep in the unconscious, which we will follow through some very dark places, through shadowy passages in the mind where the walls are hung with half-remembered paintings of our personal hallucinations, and we will come out shivering in Spokane, Washington.

Because this song had its greatest moment of fame in a creepy scene in the movie Blue Velvet, whose location is based on that town.

To begin with, Roy Orbison was kind of a creepy character himself. He grew up in the '40s and came of age in the '50s, right at the height of rockabilly. Tragedy visited him many times, in the form of the death of his first wife and his children on separate occasions. He had a scary broad singing range, operatic song constructions, and spooky lyrics that made him sound scared, vulnerable, or desperate. Then he took his act onstage dressed in a solid black suit and wearing dark sunglasses, making him look like one of the Men In Black here to sweep up after an alien incident.

The Spokane River flowing through downtown Spokane, Washington, one of the few urban waterfalls in the United States.
Photo: jwpnw, Dreamstime

To say nothing of the lyrics to this song. A candy-colored clown that sneaks into your bedroom at night just might strike a nerve with those suffering from coulrophobia, which are people who are afraid of clowns. Ya think?

This song was a literal exercise in lucid dreaming. He actually went to sleep saying he was going to write a song in his dreams, and upon awakening, he sat down and bolted this out in twenty minutes flat. In hacker culture (reference: the Jargon File), they have a phrase for this: they call it "the genius from Mars technique": "A visionary quality which enables one to ignore the standard approach and come up with a totally unexpected new algorithm. An attack on a problem from an offbeat angle that no one has ever thought of before, but that in retrospect makes total sense." It fits. Roy Orbison was that original.

Orbison faded from the spotlight in the 1970s, and most likely was about to give up right there and retire. He was astonished, then, to discover that his songs were getting covered and his work was still popular into the 1980s. Ironically, considering that he refused David Lynch permission to use the song, it was the use of "In Dreams" in Blue Velvet that put him back at the top of popular culture again in 1987. Orbison started gearing up to return to his musical career again, giving interviews and writing songs, making a comeback - and then bam! He dies of a heart attack one year later, age 52.

As for Blue Velvet, the introduction of "In Dreams" stands out as a particularly unsettling scene in a deeply disturbing movie. But it fits perfectly. Psychopath, drug addict, and pervert Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) demands to hear this song again and again, and his swishy, prancing drug dealer obliges, lip-syncing along with the record while holding a lit lamp up to his face to simulate a microphone. Meanwhile, various characters from the movie stand about in various states of hazy, non-specific actions, and Frank Booth acts like he's going to explode in rage and joy at the same time.

And now, Spokane, Washington. While Lynch was born in Montana, he was raised all along the Pacific Northwest. Of Blue Velvet, Lynch admitted to certain autobiographical content in the film, saying that thanks to his exposure to Spokane, Washington, lumber and lumberjacks had come to symbolize America to him the way picket fences and apple pie do to the rest of us.

David Lynch, another genius from Mars who, like Orbison, lives mostly within his head. And we have movies like these, and songs like these, as the only windows into those heads, and the undiscovered dark worlds built within.

Pete Trbovich
July 17, 2010
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Comments: 1

  • Art from WhiteSpokane, I lived there fir three years and I assure you that it is my Spokane and always will be.
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