In the coming days and weeks, millions of words will be written in an attempt to eulogize and quantify the enormity of Tom Petty, who died on October 2nd. That is not my goal here.
Obviously, I didn’t know Petty, and I’ve never seen him in concert (regrettably). I don’t want to write here what others will say better elsewhere in regards to his importance to an entire industry over the course of five decades. However, it is no overstatement to say that he is indeed a musical giant. He’s the rare artist that is without detractors. Everyone knows the words to at least one Tom Petty song, whether they mean or not. Have you ever heard anyone diss Tom Petty? It’s a rare bird that flies for that long without the public, at some point, turning against him. And, yet, that’s exactly what happened with Petty.
So, instead of looking at Petty’s life or one of his many albums, either solo or with the Heartbreakers (which will be covered ad naseum elsewhere), I’d like to take a slight detour to an album unlike any that has ever been recorded. That sounds hyperbolic, but it’s not. It’s fact. That album is 1988’s Volume 1 by the Traveling Wilburys.
For many, the story of the Traveling Wilburys has been lost to time, as the members of this band have, in their main gigs, far eclipsed any work that the Wilburys put to tape. The Traveling Wilburys were, to stop beating around the bush, the supergroup. Comprised of Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, George Harrison (of The Beatles, obvs), Roy Orbison, and Jeff Lynne (of ELO), this collection of musicians and pals put other so-called supergroups to shame. While they won a Grammy for Best Rock Performance, nearly 30 years after their formation, they seem to have become a footnote in most of the involved musicians’ careers.
How this group came together is a story unto itself (recounted on their official website in some detail), but here’s the long and short of it: These five guys, all music industry behemoths but at differing stages of their careers, came together over the course of ten days to collectively write the ten songs that would later become Volume 1.
Operating under not-at-all veiled personas and using pseudonyms like Charlie T. (Petty), Nelson, Otis, Lefty, and Lucky, the Traveling Wilburys even created a backstory, detailed in the liner notes of Volume 1: “The Original Wilburys were a stationary people who, realising that their vicilisation could not stand still for ever, began to go for short walks–not the ‘traveling’ as we now know it, but certainly as far as the corner and back” and on and on with more tales of nonsense.
Basically, here were five of the biggest names in music deciding to shrug off the conventions and expectations that go with their “day jobs” in favor of something else. This, I guess, is why, as news of Tom Petty’s death came rolling in on Monday afternoon, I went not to his stellar, oft-cited hit albums. Rather, my first thought, with regards to his music, was of the Wilburys. On the day where Tom Petty died and Americans woke up to news of Las Vegas being terrorized, I fell back instinctually to an album that sounds like exactly what created it: Friends having fun, the real stuff that makes the world go round. That’s what I want to talk about today.
This album, having been released in 1988, probably predates many readers by a considerable many years. For me, having only been six when it was released, I didn’t even encounter it until 2006. That year, Jenny Lewis (of Rilo Kiley and the movie Troop Beverly Hills) released her first solo album, Rabbit Fur Coat. I listened to that album near-constantly, and I also saw Lewis in Omaha on her tour to support that album with my now-wife. As good as that whole album is, the one stand-out track is “Handle With Care.” Supported by vocals from Conor Oberst and M. Ward, Lewis sings the album’s best cut with gusto. Turns out, there’s a reason that was the best track on the album. It was written by the Traveling Wilburys. After becoming wise to this, I dug into the source.
Volume 1 leads off with that track, “Handle With Care.” Primarily sung by George Harrison, Roy Orbison and Bob Dylan jump into the bridges of this galloping folk beat. It’s a near perfect opener to this record, as it clearly defines everything else to come. This is not to be a brooding offering of musical heavyweights taking themselves too seriously. “Handle With Care” is a lightweight take on love, complete with the meta-analysis of this group’s own careers:
Been beat up and battered ’round
Been sent up, and I’ve been shot down
You’re the best thing that I’ve ever found
Handle me with care
Been stuck in airports, terrorized
Sent to meetings, hypnotized
Handle me with care
It’s simple and it’s perfect and it’s perfect in its simplicity.
The next song is “Dirty World,” a song that, in a nod to its title, is full of double entendres. Dylan takes the vocals here, and this might be the most fun he’s ever been. Driven by a steady drum beat, “Dirty World” tells of a man playfully attempting to win over a girl with lyrics that would sound completely absurd in lesser hands: “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.” This song is worth the price of admission just to hear Dylan singing such frivolity.
“Rattled” has another strong drum beat that basically necessitates a toe tapping good time. This is Jeff Lynne and Roy Orbison doing their best impression of Jerry Lee Lewis. It’s rockabilly that’s fun. Does it recreate the wheel? No, but it doesn’t need to. It’s a nod to the past, complete with Orbison replicating his “R” roll from “Pretty Woman,” which is the type of tongue-in-cheek touch that permeates this whole album.
Tom Petty finally takes over the verses in “Last Night,” which, once you hear it, you’ll immediately remember from somewhere. It’s a tale of a one-night stand that goes sideways, but you’d never know it from the Caribbean whimsy of the beat. This song puts me on a beach with a beer, and, really, what more could you ask for?
“Not Alone Any More” sounds completely different from any track thus far, as it’s a weeper from Orbison, who has one of the most distinctive vocals in all of rock. There’s a bit more of a cinematic feel to this number, with Jeff Lynne’s keyboards adding a nice production element that make the song even bigger. This track doesn’t age as well as some of the others, but it still works well for what it is.
Bob Dylan plays the heartbroken narrator in “Congratulations,” and your feelings about this song will largely be dictated by your feelings about Bob Dylan. If you like Dylan and his singing (especially his work from this same time period), you’ll like this. If not, at least stick around for the harmonizing from the rest of the group and George Harrison’s guitar playing at the end of the song.
The next song, “Heading for the Light,” can only be described as upbeat. George Harrison does a fantastic job on vocals, playing the idealistic but downtrodden lover. The horns and production level here are top notch. This could have easily fit in with Harrison’s solo work, but the tone of the song fits nicely with the Wilbury material.
“Margarita” is the strangest song on the album by a considerable margin, as a synth beat opens the track before transitioning into guitar and horns. The lyrics sound almost tossed off, as if the group was having too much fun and went with free association as a writing technique. That’s not a critique, by the way. The actual song is great. If anything, it shows the talent on display from these five guys to be able to do such a thing and make it sound sonically engaging. My only complaint is that Lynne’s production gets in the way here, with his out-of-place synth leanings serving as more of a distraction than anything.
Boby Dylan leads “Tweeter and the Monkey Man,” which is the most Bob Dylan song title of all time. If you were to listen only to the lyrics of this song, you’d often find yourself wondering just what the fuck Mr. Dylan was talking about. It helps, then, to know that this is Dylan having some fun with Bruce Springsteen (often touted as the “next Dylan”). It doesn’t appear to be mean-spirited, but there’s definite references to Springsteen songs, themes, and places. Even without that, the song is a fun listen, as Dylan is in full theatrical story-telling mode. One of my favorite songs on this fine album.
Volume 1 ends with the most appropriate of song titles, “End of the Line.” Just as disparate voices joined together to start the album, all five voices come together here to wrap things up, and it works absolutely beautifully. The “It’s All Right” refrain is continually reassuring, as the Wilburys explore philosophical questions in the most musically fun way possible. This song is a joy to listen to, especially in the wake of the tragedies of the past few days. And maybe that’s why, when shit went down with Petty’s death and the Las Vegas shooting, I mentally came to this album first. It’s optimistic, playful, and just plain fun most of the time.
Are there better Tom Petty albums out there than the Traveling Wilburys Volume 1? Yeah, probably. But this Traveling Wilbury album is the sound of friends gathered around a fire pit on a fall day with guitars in hand, a full cooler, and stories to tell. It’s the sound of a cooperative operating at full consciousness, alternating between playful, thoughtful, and incisive. Today, that’s just what the doctor ordered.