Thursday, January 5, 2012

"We'll bury 'em in the mix"

Last week's viewing of A Black and White Night prompted me to watch The True History of the Traveling Wilburys, a short documentary about the peerless and improbable super-group composed of George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, and - until his death in December of 1988 - Roy Orbison. I was introduced to the Wilburys' music as a preteen, and took to its charms immediately. A decade-plus later, I still find both of their albums, Vol. 1 and Vol. 3, to be irresistibly tuneful, witty, and feel-good. The warmth of the songs is bound up in the band's love of making music and their admiration for one another.

The idea alone of the Wilburys is impossibly cool: five (then later four) musicians of legendary stature coming together to make two albums of breezy, buoyant, acoustic-driven rock 'n' roll. They even acquired nutty pseudonyms. The driving force of this "magic" (as he put it) was Nelson Wilbury, otherwise known as George Harrison. He wanted to record a B-side for "This Is Love," the third single from his 1987 album Cloud Nine. He enlisted the help of Lynne and Orbison, and arranged to use Dylan's home studio in Malibu. Petty got involved because George's guitar was at his house. The five of them went on to record "Handle with Care," which turned out so well that they decided to make a full album - Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1, a triple-platinum success that was cut in just ten days and featured two stellar singles in the form of "Handle with Care" and "End of the Line." Vol. 3 followed in 1990.

In Petty's words, the Wilburys were "a bunch of friends that happened to be really good at making music." The documentary emphasizes what a joy it was for these friends - even Dylan - to be around one another, collaborate and hear each other perform. In essence, the project was a celebration of music and friendship, and an instance of the two working as one. George said he marveled at how spontaneously Dylan fashioned the lyric for "Tweeter and the Monkey Man," an ingenious mock-Springsteen narrative about Jersey lowlifes. Petty reserved especial excitement for Orbison, saying he would occasionally think to himself, "Wow, Roy Orbison's in the band." He even dubbed that famous voice the Wilburys' "ace in the hole" (Which is true. Whenever Orbison comes on, the songs seem to reach full bloom. It's also why Vol. 1 is better than Vol. 3). The spirit of the music - light, quirky, and content with itself - reflects the pleasure everyone took in the Wilburys. They were just happy to be there, and it probably would've still meant a lot to them if they hadn't recorded or released anything.

Beyond the songs I've already linked to, I'd recommend "Last Night," "Margarita," "Inside Out," and "New Blue Moon" if you want to experience the best of the Traveling Wilburys.

*The quote in the title, which has to do with "recording errors," comes from George. It's the source of the Wilburys' name.

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