The Traveling Wilburys were a fluke. Endearing and spirited, they were nonetheless a spontaneous accident, a perplexing interruption in rock ‘n’ roll history. Together, George Harrison, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison, Jeff Lynne, and Bob Dylan wrote surprisingly guileless, unpretentious songs, but guilelessness and genius rarely go hand-in-hand.
With a few noteworthy exceptions, the Wilburys’ songs were carelessly composed and quickly recorded. Despite this — perhaps despite themselves — the Traveling Wilburys were awe-inspiring. The supergroup’s tireless optimism suggested that rock could still divorce itself from commercialism and engender pure, fun-filled, egoless music.
When Rhino Records re-released the music of the Traveling Wilburys in June 2007, the discs were hailed as a triumph for old-fashioned, non-digital albums. According to Sean Sennett of The Courier Mail, the Traveling Wilburys collection “gave consumers a reason to head back into retail.” Rhino did release a downloadable version of the collection; however, the delicious in-stores-only package included two compact discs and a DVD of rare footage, all for under $30.
Only months before, Radiohead released the heavily hyped In Rainbows on the Internet and let fans name their own price when downloading the album from the band’s site. But the Traveling Wilburys gave music lovers a different sort of commercial freedom, and the band’s collection sold well immediately. According to Music Week, sales hit 320,929 in the first 10 weeks — not bad for an out-of-date group that never toured and produced only two irregular albums.
It didn’t matter that the Wilburys’ music seemed like ham-fisted limericks when compared with Petty’s gritty ballads or Dylan’s lyrical acrobatics. The Wilburys invoked an experience that had everything to do with the people and the place and next to nothing to do with outside pressures. The band manufactured an authentic moment in rock history in which the music came before the musician.
Harrison described his 1988 collaboration with Petty, Orbison, Lynn and Dylan as magical, as something that could have only been the result of a full moon. “The thing about the Wilburys for me is that, if we’d tried to plan that, or if anyone had tried to plan that, it would never have happened,” he said. “It’s impossible.” The collaboration was magical: an all-star band made up of seasoned songwriters making tossed-off, upbeat music in a makeshift Los Angeles studio.
Stories about how the Traveling Wilburys got together are as plentiful as 1980s’ Elvis sightings. Even the story that Harrison relates on the recently released DVD sounds like a legend. Harrison needed to record a B-side for his single, “This Is Love”. He had dinner with Jeff Lynne and Roy Orbison, and invited them to tag along when he went to write a tune the next day. Harrison knew that Dylan had a little studio nearby. He called up Petty, drove there with him, and next thing they knew, the four musicians were writing “Handle With Care”. This sort of serendipity is the stuff dreams are made of.
The members of the Traveling Wilburys took on kooky pseudonyms with Wilbury as last name, a gesture that made perfect sense given the nature of the music they made. A name change could not do anything to temper their popularity, but it could emphasize their equal footing within the group. As Lucky Wilbury, Dylan the poet had no more songwriting sway than Orbison the crooner.
All of the Wilburys music is simple. The tongue-in-cheek liner notes of the first Wilburys album describe the band members as “stationary people who, realizing that their civilization could not stand still forever, began to go for short walks.” Eventually, the stationary people “evolved simple rhythmic forms to describe their adventures.” Though many songs are laboriously half-baked, some are delightful in their underdevelopment. “We made fun music,” Orbison said. “That’s what it was all about. There wasn’t a lot of deciding of what to do, not a lot of time spent planning out anything. So we just wrote the best songs that we could write and sang them as best we could.”
Spontaneity and authenticity — two loaded concepts that some artists spend entire careers trying to unpack — encompass what the Traveling Wilburys did best. Two of the biggest Wilburys successes remain “Handle With Care”, the first tune the group composed, and “End of the Line”, a song that couples a live-and-let-live nonchalance with tender maturity.
“Handle With Care” functions as love song and sentimental retrospective. Each singer takes a turn at the microphone, making a biographically informed claim for his own fragility. The song works so well because it isn’t confessional or self-pitying. Instead, it’s straightforward and open, as if each of the Wilburys were so comfortable with themselves and each other that they didn’t even notice their own vulnerability. The same goes for “End of the Line”: A bunch of guys, some in the midst of late-career slumps, singing about nearing the end of their lives could have become melodramatic. But instead, “End of the Line” sounds more like a new beginning.
These two songs alone redeem the whole project. Though a few other gems highlight the Wilburys repertoire — “Not Alone Anymore”, featuring Orbison’s inimitable vocals, is one — others didn’t work out. Dylan’s mock-Springsteen tune “Tweeter and the Money Man” is awkward; “Congratulations” sounds gimmicky. But none of this mattered when the record was released, and it matters even less now. The Wilburys’ albums give audiences a chance to experience uninhibited, unpretentious optimism at its best.
The band’s charm is less about songwriting chops than it is about collaboration for its own sake. They made music not as a product, but as mode of camaraderie and memory-making. While never sophisticated, the Wilburys brought an adventurous whiff of fresh air to the music business. They collaborated and made mediocre music because they wanted to. And that was more than enough.