Fabulous fakes

Charmed by the Traveling Wilburys
By CHARLES TAYLOR  |  August 10, 2007


VIDEO: Traveling Wilburys, "At the End of the Line"

If “The Basement Tapes” had been conceived for the Top 40, it might have sounded much like the Traveling Wilburys. The connection goes well beyond Bob Dylan’s appearance in both sets. The Wilburys sing songs of the weird and the gnomic. Their music is cryptic, salacious, funny, defiant, heartbreaking. What distinguishes it from the songs Dylan and the Band recorded in Big Pink is that you can dance to damn near every one of the little boogers.

The two Wilburys albums — Traveling Wilburys, Volume 1 and the follow-up, which George Harrison, with Pythonesque tongue in cheek, named Traveling Wilburys, Volume 3 — have been brought together along with a DVD of their videos and a new documentary in The Traveling Wilburys Collection (Rhino). And it’s a tribute to the Wilburys’ weird achievement that even this somewhat deluxe treatment doesn’t make the music into any big deal. It still has the casual oddity that from the time the first album appeared, in 1988, was always its charm.

Warner Bros. Records “Chairman Emeritus” Mo Ostin explains in his liner notes how Harrison, ELO leader Jeff Lynne, and their buddies Dylan, Tom Petty, and Roy Orbison came together to record “Handle with Care” as the intended B-side of a Harrison single. Ostin thought it was too good to toss away on that, and he persuaded Harrison and his buds to expand the masquerade into a full album. By the time a second album was made, a few years later, “Lefty Wilbury” (Orbison) had died. Volume 3 is dedicated to him; a photo in the CD booklet shows the four surviving Wilburys sitting around a kitchen table on which sits a pair of sunglasses that might well be Orbison’s ubiquitous shades.

In 1988, Orbison was making the lovely comeback LP Mystery Girl, but none of the other Wilburys was at anything like a creative peak when they recorded Volume 1. The joy of what they created in the studio has much to do with their treating the enterprise as a lark and not with any supergroup solemnity. The paradox is that these adopted personas allow the performers to seem effortlessly like themselves. It’s doubtful, for instance, that Harrison ever got the puckish humor of his screen appearances into his music the way he did here.

Throughout, there are bits of the blues, country, even Jamaican toasting (on “Last Night” — which, along with Blondie’s “The Tide Is High,” is the song I most want to hear Lily Allen cover). But the touchstone is ’50s rock and roll. You can hear that in the guitar work on “Heading for the Light,” or in the echoey sound of “Rattled.” Yet the ’50s vibe lies more in the communal spirit, the what-the-hell, let’s-try-anything approach, the sense of tall tales being spun on the spot and passed off as ancient legend. These are white boys coming out of the sticks determined to have as much fun as the Coasters. Dylan’s dope-dealing yarn “Tweeter and the Monkey Man” is something like Chuck Berry’s “Tulane” as rewritten for Highway 61 Revisited. And every once in a while, Orbison’s peerless falsetto provides a straight shot of yearning, a door opened from the ’50s and early ’60s to the present. In both their emotion and their humor, these fake brothers achieved something certain real brothers might have applauded: the Louvins, the Everlys, the Marxes.

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