I was thirteen years old when I first heard Roy Orbison’s “Crying.” It was the highlight of the soundtrack album for the Jon Cryer comedy Hiding Out, with Orbison dueting with then-newcomer k.d. lang, and it floored me.
At the time, I was mostly unaware of Orbison; this was a year before A Black and White Night and the Traveling Wilburys and Mystery Girl and then his death, the reporting of which helped teach me of his legacy. But in 1987, all I knew was “Oh, Pretty Woman” and probably “Only the Lonely,” and even then I probably couldn’t tell you who wrote or performed it.
I didn’t even know “Crying” was a cover of his own classic. It would be a few years before I finally heard the original version, which instantly let me down. A great song, to be sure, with a driving beat punctuating the drama of those high notes, but it wasn’t my “Crying.” But I didn’t prefer the 1987 duet just out of familiarity. I preferred it because it’s the better version.
What Orbison and lang do here is soften the edges while digging deeper into the emotional core of the tune. Gone is Orbison’s trademark rhythm and its youthful energy – even in sorrow, the original recording has a certain force to it. The duet slows the tempo, soothes the rhythm section, puts guitar and a restrained harmonica at the center. The mellower sound adds an internal ache, with the staccato line breaks (“I thought that I / Was over you”) losing the Boléro vibe of the original and instead playing like heartbroken pauses.
And man, what heartbreak. In the original, those famous high notes are fine vocal acrobatics, but here, when lang reaches them, it’s a primal scream pouring out into the world. The song then becomes something else, something more, something truer than it ever had been before, getting right to the bottom of the despair. It’s hauntingly beautiful in a way few songs have ever managed to be.