Tom Petty dead? My god, he was younger than I am. A huge talent, a vast catalogue. But this was special….
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George Harrison had been in a band. He wasn’t looking to start another. But in 1988 he had a solo CD coming out. He had a song that could be a hit single. He needed another song — a new song, a song not on the CD — as its “B-side”.
Back then, Harrison was living in Los Angeles and hanging out with Bob Dylan. And Tom Petty. And Jeff Lynne (once of Electric Light Orchestra). And Roy Orbison, the most distinctive singer in all of rock and roll.
As Harrison dashed off a song, he got an idea: “I thought, ‘I’m not gonna just sing it myself, I’ve got Roy Orbison standing there — I’m gonna write a bit for Roy to sing.’ And then as it progressed, I thought I might as well push it a bit and get Tom and Bob to sing the bridge.”
Would this crew sing with George Harrison? In a heartbeat. The very next day, Dylan was toying with the lyrics and Orbison was wailing, “I’m so tired of being lonely/I still have some love to give,” and Harrison was serving up a gorgeous guitar figure. Oops. The song had no title. Someone saw a sticker on a carton: Handle with Care. And, just like that, it was done. [To buy the CD and get a free MP3 download from Amazon, click here. For the MP3 download, click here.]
But there was a problem: “Handle with Care” was too good — too bouncy, catchy, joyous — to languish as the flip side of a single. It had come so easily; maybe there was more where that came from. A band with four acoustic guitarists — with four superstar guitarists who had no urgent need to be in a band? There was something egoless and attractive about the idea. So George Harrison asked his friends. No one turned him down.
Dylan was about to go on one of his endless tours; the songs for the CD needed to be written and recorded in about two weeks. A song a day, every day, for 14 days. In the dictionary, that’s one definition of “impossible” — for, in addition to the songs, the band lacked a studio and a name.
Harrison settled on the house of a friend who had a mixing deck and a kitchen large enough to double as a studio. The origin of the band’s name is lost in a fog of joints and beer, but it seems to have something to do with the idea of mistakes being fixed later, as “We’ll bury it in the mix.” That morphed to Trembling Wilburys, then Traveling Wilburys, with its suggestion of a clan of itinerant musicians.
Traveling Wilburys Volume 1 has been out of circulation for so long you probably don’t remember how huge a hit it was — about five million copies sold. Roy Orbison died a month after it went on sale.
The songs are easy-going rock, with more humor than profundity. Like this, from Dylan:
You don’t need no wax job
You’re smooth enough for me
If you need your oil changed
I’ll do it for you — free
And this, from a novelty dance number called “The Wilbury Twist”:
Turn your lights down low
Put your blindfold on
You’ll never know
Where your friends have gone
But the real pleasure is in the harmonies. No music is sweeter to me than voices blending together to make something finer than any individual voice could create. And that is totally the case here. It’s the coolest thing — Harrison set it up so almost every song has a rotating set of solos, but it’s the collective experience you take away. And I’m not talking about just music here. These are friends celebrating their friendship. There’s a sweetness about that you almost never see.
Because these CDs feel like professional music made for private pleasure, it’s nice that the two-CD set also has a DVD. On it, you’ll find the band’s videos, as well as footage from 1988. It’s riveting to watch Dylan write and record, it’s fascinating to hear the Wilburys talk about one another — hell, it’s a hoot just to watch these guys hang out.
Time changes everything. Orbison gone. Harrison gone. Petty gone. For a package that’s nothing but fun, you can’t help but get a lump in the throat when rich and famous musicians use their celebrity to connect with the least of us:
Don’t have to be ashamed of the car I drive
I’m just glad to be here, happy to be alive
And here’s the proof.