In his autobiography Chronicles, Voume 1, Bob Dylan wrote a vivid passage about hearing Roy Orbison sing “Running Scared” on the radio back in the early 60’s. “He was now singing his compositions in three and four octaves that made you want to drive your car off a cliff,” Dylan remembered. “He sang like a professional criminal. Typically, he’d start out in some low, barely audible range, stay there a while and then astonishingly slip into histrionics. His voice could jar a corpse, always leaving you muttering something to yourself like, ‘Man, I don’t believe it.’ His songs had songs within songs. They shifted from major to minor key without any logic. Orbison was deadly serious— no pollywog or fledgling juvenile. There wasn’t anything else on the radio like him.”
Orbison and co-songwriter Joe Melson crafted a series of hits in that time period that somehow captured all the drama and torment of a broken heart. “Crying,” “Only The Lonely,” and “In Dreams” (which was a solo Orbison composition) soared to breathtaking heights by combining ingeniously ascendant melodies and Roy’s stunningly acrobatic vocals. “Running Scared” fits in with that group musically, sounding like something that would accompany a Shakespearean king on his way to a noble death. It’s in that vein lyrically as well up until the final lines, when a table-turning happy ending surprises us all.
“Running Scared,” a 1961 #1 smash, depicts a scenario where a frazzled narrator is terrified of the possible return of his love’s former flame into the picture. “Yeah, running scared, what would I do?” Orbison asks. “If he came back and wanted you.” As the song progresses, it’s somewhat of a gray area as to whether the faithfulness of his girl can really be called into question or if his own insecurity is just getting the best of him: “Just running scared, afraid to lose/If he came back which one would you choose?”
In the final verse, the bolero-like, sauntering rhythm of the opening sections gives way to a nervous strut as the thing the narrator most feared, the appearance of his rival, is realized. By this point in the song, the vocals have imperceptibly transformed from the stone-faced opening verses and risen in intensity in direct proportion with his angst. Yet the final lines, with Orbison scraping the stratosphere, rocket from the depths of despair to the glory of triumph in unforgettable fashion: “My heart was breaking, which one would it be/You turned around and walked away with me.”
In his late-career renaissance in the late 80’s, a number of rock’s top artists tailor-made songs in the fashion of Orbison’s classics for him to sing. Bono and The Edge (“She’s A Mystery To Me”), Elvis Costello (“The Comedians”) and his fellow Wilburys (“Not Alone Anymore,” which probably came primarily from George Harrison and Jeff Lynne) all crafted expert recreations of that classic winning template.
But it was the ingenuity of Orbison and Melson that created that template, a form of pop song that really hadn’t previously existed. To Dylan, songs like “Running Scared” were unbelievable, illogical, and unique. He has a whole lot of company among fans in feeling that way about the music of Roy Orbison.