In the late 1980s, a rock n roll miracle occurred. George Harrison was asked by his label to record a b-side for one of the singles from his big comeback album, Cloud Nine. Through an incredible set of circumstances, he and his producer, Jeff Lynne (of ELO fame), found themselves in the studio with Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and Roy Orbison. The feeling was so good that they decided, on the spot, to make a full album together, and release it under the name The Traveling Wilburys. There had been no plan – it just happened:
(If the video’s down, go here.)
The story of the Traveling Wilburys is a story of grace. These guys were friends; they loved and respected one another and were close enough in stature that they clearly felt some sorely needed kinship. With the exception of Petty, the “relevant” phases of their careers were behind them. The pressure to make important statements, in other words, to prove themselves, or even receive credit at all, was gone. In its place they found freedom, humor and a shared love of rock n’ roll. They let down their guards, and the songs simply poured out, spontaneously and haphazardly. As if to underscore the playful and selfless spirit of the project, they all adopted silly pseudonyms and traded instruments.
Listen to the records, especially the first one – after being out of print for years, it was finally reissued in 2007 – the joy still leaps out of the speakers! There is simply not a trace of ego in the grooves; it is the sound of genuine fellowship, the kind which can never be engineered or commanded, calculated or planned. Their collaboration was the fruit of feeling loved and known, the by-product of the great time they were having rather than the occasion for it.
The fun was clearly infectious. The Wilbury phenomenon spilled over into each of their solo careers, resulting in number one hits for Harrison (“Got My Mind Set On You”), Orbison (“You Got It”) and Petty (“Free Fallin”, “Won’t Back Down” – in fact, the entire Full Moon Fever record). For more details, go here.
The intended b-side that brought them together, “Handle Me With Care,” remains the purest expression of the Wilbury sound and spirit, capturing the camaraderie in both its roundtable arrangement and its sweet, self-effacing lyric. It also happens to be one of the best singles of the 1980s, period. I have no doubt it’ll be playing in heaven: