Sunday, March 4, 2007

Traveling Wilburys Revisited

The Traveling Wilburys Volume 1 reminds me of a classic episode of the blockbuster hit TV series Seinfeld during which Jerry and George head into NBC Studios to pitch their idea for a pilot series. Here’s how part of that meeting went just to refresh your memory.

RUSSELL: What about you, George? Have you written anything we might know?

GEORGE: Well, possibly. I wrote an off-Broadway show, "La Cocina." ..Actually, it was off-off-Broadway. It was a comedy about a Mexican chef.

JERRY: Oh, it was very funny. There was one great scene with the chef - what was his name?


JERRY: Oh, Pepe. Yeah, Pepe. And, uh, he was making tamales.

SUSAN:Oh, he actually cooked on the stage?

GEORGE: No, no, he mimed it. That's what was so funny about it.

RUSSELL: So, what have you two come up with?

JERRY: Well, we've thought about this in a variety of ways. But the basic idea is I will play myself-

GEORGE: (Interrupting) May I?

JERRY: Go ahead.

GEORGE: I think I can sum up the show for you with one word: NOTHING.

RUSSELL: Nothing?

GEORGE: (Smiling) Nothing.

RUSSELL: (Unimpressed) What does that mean?

GEORGE: The show is about nothing.

JERRY: (To George) Well, it's not about nothing.

GEORGE: (To Jerry) No, it's about nothing.

JERRY: Well, maybe in philosophy. But, even nothing is something.

I picture the scene in Bob Dylan’s garage studio for the Traveling Wilburys album unfolding in much the same manner that a Jerry Seinfeld/ Larry David writing session probably did. Instead of a show about nothing, three legendary musical figures collaborated with two younger rock stars for a Tin Pan Alley/ comedy sketch writing conference. Checking their egos at the door, they took on new identities and poked fun at the state of the music industry in the late 80’s. The Wilbury family consisting of Lucky (Bob Dylan), Nelson (George Harrison), Lefty (Roy Orbison), Charlie T. Jnr.(Tom Petty) and Otis (Jeff Lynne) poured their collective wits into a ten song collection that was as satisfying as any sitcom and as musically charming as anything that was pressed on to CD that year.

Almost twenty years ago, in May of 1988, George Harrison needed to create a B side for a twelve inch 45. Searching for inspiration and a place to record, George and his producer of ELO fame, Jeff Lynne, contacted Dylan to see if they could use his studio located in his Point Dume, Malibu residence. Dylan invited the pair over. George needed to pick up a guitar at Tom Petty’s place. Petty who was fresh off a couple of tours with Dylan, decided to join the festivities. Roy Orbison, who was also working with Jeff Lynne at the time, was asked if he’d like to stop by for the session - it was an offer he couldn’t refuse. A simple twist of fate had united these stars that had all seen better times in decades gone by.

A label on a cardboard box in Bob’s garage baring the words handle with care caught their attention and would be the impetus for their initial collaborative effort. Just like the idea of a show about nothing took flight, the Traveling Wilbury adventure was launched with those three words that would become their first single – “Handle With Care.” George Harrison sang the first two verses set against an infectious acoustic guitar driven beat. The bridge quickly introduced the lonely, trembling operatic voice of Roy Orbison. As the bridge progresses, the whole group chimes in, but it’s the voice of Bob Dylan that steals the spotlight as he growls, “Everybody… got somebody… to leeeeean on’/ put your body… next to mine…and leeeeean on.” If The Beatles had invited Dylan to harmonize with them on Ticket to Ride in 1964 it might have sounded something like that. Imagine how Dylan might have sounded on, “I don’t know why she’d riding so high/ She oughta think twice she oughta do right by me.” Far from being just a fun loving get-together, this was a fresh collaboration between an ex-Beatle and Dylan with Roy, Petty and Lynne thrown into the mix. This was a fantasy studio session that could only be brought on by destiny. The karma worked because it wasn’t preconceived. To validate that theory, one only needs to listen to the Traveling Wilburys volume 3, their putrid follow-up effort.

Getting back to Handle with Care, a succinct Harrison electric guitar solo marks the mid-point of the song. We then hear a few new versus from George followed by the same bridge with Bob noticeably delaying his entrance until he bursts upon the scene pouncing on the words “leeeeean on.” That little nuance once again shows Dylan’s flair for vocal dramatics. After George delivered the last verse, Bob makes his third theatrical appearance with a stunning harp solo. There’s nothing technically brilliant about it, but it shines in its own Dylanesque glory, just like the distinctive sound of Miles Davis’ trumpet. I must confess that every time I hear It, I leap to my feet and play air harmonica. Handle with Care, a masterpiece of simplicity, fades out to the lush sound of Harrison’s guitar paired with Dylan’s harp.

After Harrison played the tapes for record executives at Warner Brothers, everybody in the room knew they had more than simply a B-side 45. The Wibury boys decided to get back in the studio and see if the magic they had produced could give birth to an entire album. After checking their schedules, everybody was commitment free except for Dylan, who in about two weeks was about to commence on what would eventually become known as the Never Ending Tour. They decided to attempt to complete this project over a ten-day period before Dylan hit the road. This fly by night strategy was integral to the success of this recording. I get the feeling that any delay or additional preparation would have diminished the end result. With just their acoustic guitars and one roadie, the creative sessions for the Traveling Wilburys Volume 1 would take place outside of Bob’s house. Roy Orbison said, “there’d be a barbeque, and we’d all bring guitars, and everyone would be throwing something in here and something in there, and then we’d just go to the garage studio, and put it down.” That must have been quite a scene, I wonder if Bob had a gas grill or if he was out there fussing with charcoals and lighter fluid.

Dylan emerged as the most prominent Wilbury as three of the ten songs featured him on lead vocals. Best exemplifying the jovial mood of these sessions, the energetic second track, Dirty World, features the group writing a song that spoofs the type of tune Prince might have created. In his trademark nasally twang, Dylan croons silly lines like, “if you need your oil changed I’ll do it for you free/ Oh Baby, your such a tasty treat/ but I’m under doctor’s orders, I’m afraid to overeat.” The pulsating acoustic guitar rhythms combined with Dylan’s lively vocal performance turned this slapstick jingle into an irresistible pleasure. After Dylan’s verses, Dirty World ends with a group round sing off that gives this number some additional pizzazz. Even though the Wilburys were keeping things simple, one can’t help but notice the little nuances of masters at work.

With all the songwriting genius on hand, it’s not surprising a masterpiece was accidentally born with Tweeter and the Monkey Man featuring lead vocals by Dylan in a narrative style similar to Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts or Black Diamond Bay. Also sounding like a precursor for 2001’s Tweedle Dee and Teedle Dum, Tweeter is one of Dylan’s finest works of the 80’s. The teacher pays homage to the pupil as Dylan name checks five Bruce Springsteen numbers which include Jersey Girl, State Trooper, Stolen Car, Mansion on the Hill and Thunder Road. What might have started out as a humorous nod to Bruce Springsteen ended up a becoming a Dylanesque bonanza, even including a biblical reference in the chorus.

We’re immediately introduced to two outlaws named Tweeter and the Monkey Man who deal cocaine and hash. Most of the engrossing action-packed tale takes place in New Jersey. There’s a car chase with guns, an ambulance, an undercover cop, and we even discover that Tweeter was a boy scout who went to Vietnam and may have had a sex change operation. What’s good is bad, what’s bad is good is the order of the day in another classic Bob outlaw tale. Dylan even sings the line “hear them tires squeal,” just like he did on 1983’s Sweetheart like You. The Wilburys must have had a rip-roaring good laugh while they were writing this at Dylan’s abode. The momentum of his vocal performance is characteristic of Dylan at the top of his game - it reminds me of A-Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall. As each verse passes, the listener gets drawn in as the intensity in Bob’s vocals heat up. Tweeter and the Monkey Man is a tasty treat featuring the ingredients of other Dylan classics with a generous splash of Wilbury wit mixed in.

If Bruce and Prince are the targets of the Wibury’s shenanigans, in the song Congratulations, the fellas may be poking a little fun at one of their own. Is it possible someone in the group suggested that they write a song like Dylan would? Congratulations is simpler than most of Dylan’s jaded broken-hearted tunes, but he performs the vocals in an emphatically whinny manner. I’ve always found this song to have a humorous edge in spite of the bleak lyrics. It sounds like they decided to parody a typical Dylan kiss-off song to an ex-lover with Bob being a very willing participant. There’s an insincere air to Dylan’s performance that doesn’t convey the pain of a breakup. It’s just comes off like five buddies sitting around a barbeque pitching a wang dang doodle.

Margarita, a nonsensical and silly delight, is further proof that a song can be about nothing. The bouncing acoustic rhythms intersect with a catchy Harrison riff before Bob sings a brief verse about getting into a fight in Pittsburg and then proceeding to take a bite out of the Big Apple. The Wilburys follow that be harmonizing these lines, “I asked her what we’re gonna do tonight/ She said Cahuenga langa-langa-shoe box soup/ We better keep trying till we get it right/Tala mala sheela jipur dhoop.” Were not talking about the artistic genius of Highway 61 Revisited here, but the Traveling Wilburys debut album went double platinum satisfying die-hard fans as well as the general record buying public in the late 80’s. Petty concludes this spoof by coyly proclaiming “She wrote a long letter on a short piece of paper.” Margarita could be easily dismissed as a goof, it is a goof, but it’s so innocent, I have no choice but to embrace it. It makes no false pretenses; Margarita strikes the funny bone in my brain.

Last Night and End of the Line are both High-quality group efforts similar to Handle with Care featuring Petty handling the lead vocals. Dylan falls back to a submissive role on these numbers and Orbison turns in another memorable vocal bridge on Last Night. The Wilbury shield gave these guys a chance escape their celebrity and just be the average guys at the bar with guitars thinking and talking about the girls who had done them wrong the previous evening. End of the Line is the final track and delivers the upbeat everything’s going to be alright message. Tom Petty references Hendrix’s Purple Haze and one of the choruses contains the line, “everyday is Judgment Day.” I’m inclined to believe that Mr. Dylan added that Judgement Day phrase.

Sounding like Great Balls of Fire, Rattled features Jeff Lynne on lead vocals. The highlight of the song is a Roy Orbison “grrrrrrowl” that sounds like it came straight from Pretty Woman. I’m fond of Rattled’s inclusion on this album because it’s the one number that captures a real 50’s feel. Harrison steps to the forefront on Heading for the Light, but it’s almost identical to I Want to Tell You from the Beatles Revolver – it’s the one tune from this collection that seems to lack a creative spark. Roy Orbison delivers a fine vocal performance on the bland ELO styled You’re Not Alone Anymore, but even these two less substantial numbers failed to clutter or interrupt the exhilarating flow of this album.

Few albums keep me focused start to finish like this Wilbury collection. My CD, which I purchased on its release date October 18, 1988, looks like it’s spent the last twenty years being dragged across the Cross Bronx Expressway. Currently, the Traveling Wilburys Vol 1 is not available on retail shelves, but I’ll be first in line when it’s reissued by Rhino Records in June. Over the past fifteen or so years, whenever I listen to it, I fall in love with it all over again. This CD was the soundtrack of my college years in New Paltz. It was the Dylan album that was universally acceptable to play at any social gathering. And when I hear it these days, I tend to listen to it numerous times over the course of a couple of days. My predilection for these joyful songs refuses to fade. What was captured at Bob’s studio at the tail end of the Reagan era is as intimate as the Basement Tapes. The Wilburys was a more commercial endeavor, but definitely more spontaneous. We’re blessed to have the opportunity to be flies on the wall for both.

Outside of Seven Deadly Sins, and Dylan singing, “You, you, ya, ya, ya, hoo!” on the chorus of New Blue Moon, the next Wilbury album in 1990 was a flop. The album sounded forced, and the group was never able to fill the void left by the tragic death of Roy Orbison who suffered a fatal heart attack soon after the release of the first album. George Harrison, Roy Orbison, and Tom Petty all had successful solo albums produced by Jeff Lynne in the aftermath of the first Traveling Wilburys experience using similar formulas.

More than just a successful commercial footnote in Dylan’s portfolio, these ten days in May of 1988 helped rejuvenate Dylan’s career. Other factors, such as touring with the Grateful Dead in 1987, helped Dylan rediscover his artistic desire. Dylan slowly rebuilt his career from it’s nadir by touring non-stop and going on to win multiple Grammy awards culminating with his first Number One album in 31 years in 2006. In End of the Line the Wiburys sing, “Well it’s alright, even if you’re old and grey/ Well it’s alright, you still got something to say.” That’s something that those slumping middle-aged rockers ascertained in Port Dume. They had reached a fork in the road, and not sure what to do, they picked it up and ran with it. The Traveling Wilburys Volume 1 still speaks volumes today – its distinctive magic is timeless.

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