n 1988, George Harrison was working on a B-side to “This Is Love,” and, because mega rock stars tend to run with the same, he invited Roy Orbison, Tom Petty, and Bob Dylan to help. Jeff Lynne of ELO produced. They recorded “Handle With Care,” an awesome song ostensibly about dying, which nobody really noticed, because everyone was too famous and having too much fun. They gave themselves dumb names and pretended to be brothers and put on sunglasses, except for Lynne who had worn them uninterrupted since 1970, and recorded an album—Volume 1—in ten days. Roy Orbison died shortly thereafter, and rumor had it that the Wilburys nearly asked the significantly less mythic Del Shannon of “Runaway” fame to take Roy’s place for Volume 3, but didn’t (Petty denies this; Shannon shot himself with a rifle in February that year); still, they had John Candy in the video for “Wilbury Twist” (who also died within five years). When asked why these records have been out of print for a really long time, Petty recently answered, “I think our record deal ran out, and I guess we never got it together to renew it.”
Mike: Volume 1’s a mishmash. They’re all used to having their way; getting together, it just sounds like a messed-up jigsaw puzzle—the result is incredibly colorful, if disjointed.
Alfred: Also: can you tell from the two albums that George is supposed to be the leader? I can’t.
Mike: I can’t either...is he really supposed to be?
Alfred: Their “spiritual” leader, maybe. I wouldn’t be surprised if these guys took his cranky cosmic folderol seriously—or worse, “respected his beliefs” or something. Of course, the positively delicious irony here is that George, forever craving autonomy, is more himself in this context than alone.
Mike: Isn’t that what good friends do—make you more yourself?
Alfred: Absolutely...“With a Little Help from My Friends” rewritten for and sung by George?
Mike: “With a Little Help from My Friends” but not stupid and much looser. I mean, the thing about Volume 1 is that, like I said, these are guys used to having their way, and by the time this record came out they were too tired to bother—except Petty, who was actually the most famous at the time, but way out of his depth, or at least, like, the frosh in the pile-on. Don’t you think there’s that elder-statesman looseness to the proceedings on both albums?
Alfred: Oh totally...but elder statesmen making jokes about their senility (“Wilbury Twist,” “Handle With Care,” “Cool Dry Place”).
Mike: It’s also nice because we get to hear them all being cartoons of themselves in ways that relieve us of the long project of lionizing their every fucking move.
Alfred: But the thing is, Dylan was already senile and cartoonish by the time they made Volume 1. Disco Dylan (the unspeakably shameful but riveting Empire Burlesque) was three years earlier. Getting back to “Heading for the Light,” it’s a Wilbury song in name only; it’s a George song that’s been Wilburyized. Anyway, I’m not sure I can make the case for “...Light” being a better spiritual number than “My Sweet Lord,” but I want to.
Mike: It’s got the shuffle of ELO’s “Turn to Stone,” which was lifted from Phil Spector, from whom, I guess, Harrison had already stolen competently, having lost an infringement case over “My Sweet Lord” in 1976 for directly ripping the melodic structure of Spector’s “He’s So Fine.”
Alfred: Wow, that’s true.
Mike: Isn’t the point to take your burden to the Lord and leave it there? I mean, I’d rather sing about my own death surrounded by other rich guys wearing sunglasses—my people. Anyway, it’s not even my favorite song on the record by a mile. “Dirty World” is pretty much a perfect song. The first detail about “Dirty World” that has to be pointed out is the part where Dylan sings “I can’t wait to introduce you to the other members of my gang” and they all chime in with “Hello,” cascading.
Alfred: I always thought it was a weird call for a brotherly gang rape.
Mike: It’s better! And less threatening: Dylan is in the doorway, the girl is half-naked. I’m not sure if Dylan has been invited or not, but he is definitely there. He’s got a cane—some sort of accessory. All of the sudden, when he says the line, the Wilbury brothers’ heads just pop out comically from behind the door frame one atop the other. It’s like those old Beatles movies, but cast with the same type of guys who masturbate on public buses—or at least think about it. I love that George comes in at the end to half-heartedly remind us that this is just the way life is.
Alfred: So is “Not Alone Anymore” a coy reference to the Wilbury’s “brotherhood” meme? (I love Petty’s lowsung harmonies on this).
Mike: It’s with absolutely no trace element of regret that I say “Not Alone Anymore” is a gilded pedestal for Roy Orbison, and fitting that he could get out something so brilliant and essential (literally) before dying.
Alfred: Even as a child I gasped when I heard Orbison sing his bit on “Handle With Care.” The song turns ridiculous and awfully moving, and it’s like the song ALMOST can’t support this weight.
Mike: First of all, his vibrato is borderline maudlin; and he haunts the song before he actually died, which is sort of a neat trick, especially given that Dylan was, by most metaphysical accounts, actually more dead at the time of recording. There is kind of a remarkable amount of death material here.
Alfred: Then there’s co-commander Jeff Lynne singing boilerplate rockabilly like “Rattled....”
Mike: The way I see Lynne in this, he’s usually facing a wall. I mean, he’s remarkably like Bernie in Weekend At Bernie’s. Like, I imagine them being all “Jeff?” and they don’t realize he’s sleeping behind his shades. Then he wakes up and throws that Kraftwerk synth arpeggio on “Margarita” and fixes himself some fresh juice.
Alfred: As for Volume 3 it’s perfectly competent—what you’d expect from four professionals.
Mike: I think it’s a testament to the impromptu charms of the first album that the second couldn’t recreate it. I’m reaching for a metaphor, something about synergy.
Alfred: Well, why would you rebuild a mausoleum? Keep in mind: this is one in which they buried their egos, personae, and one Wilbury. And they were gonna replace Orbison with Del Shannon! Old geezers don’t know when to quit. With the same last name anyone becomes interchangeable. Think about that concept. You may as well have had Ringo in there too.
Mike: It’s sort of like falling in love with someone for a couple of hours, and then trying to fish it out of the river when you know deep down it was a passing thing.
Alfred: “She’s My Baby” is exactly what you’d have expected from Volume 1 before hearing it. And you get to hear Dylan raving about some chick sticking her tongue “right down” his throat.
Mike: You say “You get to hear Dylan...” like it’s a privilege. I think Volume 3 is a classic ‘bad’ album. It’s uninteresting on every level, and it has none of the naturally schizoid fun of the first. It tries to be relevant, which is pathetic, especially when the first one was so unknowingly relevant.
Alfred: Copping to “relevance” is the Wilburys’ way of avoiding the obvious—their most beloved, crucial member is dead. The first album is steeped in death, the third avoids it. But don’t you think the third album was inevitable? The first album made a lot of money.
Mike: I like to imagine Roy Orbison saying no, and them waiting for him to die.
Alfred: Also: notice how Petty and Lynne dominate Volume 3 Dylan and George are reduced to cameos.
Mike: Interesting, yeah.
Alfred: Well, by the time of Volume 3 he’s got commercial clout. The first Wilburys record peaked at #3 and is multiplatinum. At one point the Wilburys album, “Mystery Girl,” and “Full Moon Fever” were in the top 10 at the same time. It was the last time MTV played the hell out of a video starring five ugly middle-aged men. “Handle With Care” was everywhere. Speaking of which, I suppose one of us must mention the Jenny Lewis cover.
Mike: OK, that takes care of that.
Alfred: Care to speculate on who should form a latter-day version of the Wilburys?
Mike: The Wilbury concept is shit. If these guys all fell out of the same vagina I think their first album would’ve been immeasurably less interesting.
Reviewed by: Mike Powell and Alfred Soto
Reviewed on: 2007-06-15