Produced by Bono and written by him and the Edge, it's a triumph on a par with Orbison's magnificent dramatic songs of a generation earlier. I've always associated it with a moment in time from my past. And yes, it involved a girl...
At the time I was earning an MFA in poetry writing, and trying to get over a crushing heartache. Here's a typical line I was writing: "Pop songs/remind me of you/especially when I eat alone/ in Chinese restaurants." (That was from a poem called "Jackie Wilson's Tears.") Orbison's song often chilled me as I thought about this girl. A long time after I last saw her, the song could still take me back. Here's a poem I wrote which makes much use of "She's a Mystery to Me."
Turns To Hell
for Roy Orbison
Night falls, I’m cast beneath her spell,
Daylight comes, our heaven turns to hell,
Am I left to burn, and burn eternally,
She’s a mystery to me.
From Mystery Girl
Just after you died, Lee asked:
well, Tom, which of us
is gonna write his tribute poem?
I smiled, said I didn’t know. Did scribble some notes
about being eleven and playing “Pretty Woman”
from a K-Tel collection so much that the vinyl
was scarred white, unplayable
after just a few months,
and then, that incredible 87 Cinemax special:
stunned I sat in my living room
you hitting every high note to “Crying”
and “Only the Lonely” as Springsteen smiled
in awe of his master.
Two years later I bought your last album, Mystery Girl
played the title song as obsessively as I did “Pretty Woman”
over a decade ago. On my walkman, train slowly rolling
across the bridge, I feel I’m in a video, watching cars
stopped along the FDR, with every word you sing
how she returned from Costa Rica unengaged
how she invited me over one December night
how I wanted to write my Milton paper but ended up
taking that train over this bridge
spending that night in those arms
knowing (for she told me)
she wasn’t in love with me anymore
how two weeks later she said
she was going back to Costa Rica
January 1, 1991: back in Pittsburgh,
jamming with Lee, Al, and Del
guitars very loud pounding on
dilapidated drumkit drinking cheap wine.
Now lying on Al’s couch reading Milton
I understand why you always wore the sunglasses
not to hide any tears, nor to shield your eyes
from the fires of the hells you sang about.
It’s because those eyes remained so calm, never flinching
no matter what the heartache,
no matter the turns to hell taken or mistaken,
you just keep going, the song ends, you play the next.
Besides, people forget the fires of hell are dark
as a subway tunnel when the train is stopped
I always thought that if I ever read the poem in performance I should bring a boom box and play the song behind me. Of the many poems I wrote about that relationship, I like the insights of this one, though I think I stole a bit from something Dave Marsh wrote about Orbison from a book called The Heart of Rock and Soul: the 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made (Plume, 1989). Milton also reminded me about the fires of hell being dark.
As I drove home tonight, listening to Orbison, I realized:I'm just over twice the age I was when I wrote that poem, when I lived that experience. I've grown up, found steady work, trying now to raise two kids without losing my mind. I wasn't connecting to the chills that drove me twenty-three years ago. I just heard the gifted voice, the great production. It's comforting to know that I've lived another life since the emotional earthquakes.
I wish I could let my kids understand this stuff, that the heart is a resilient muscle, as Woody Allen once put it in a movie. But the truth is you have to take those turns to hell, without being sure there is an other side to come out of.