Traveling Wilburys

Wilbury Records 25796-1

There was a time when the rock ‘n’ roll super session seemed almost meaningful. Clapton and Winwood–together! Beck and Stewart and Truth! Crosby and Stills and Nash and Young! It was thought that opposites–John and Paul-style–could somehow attract, calm each other’s excesses, and produce good music. More often it was the case that the project suffered from one or more of the myriad Sins of Collaboration–pretentiousness, pointlessness, drugged overconfidence–but you do have to admit there was a certain drama to the idea of CSNY. Today there’s Barbra Streisand and Don Johnson singing duets, and George Harrison collaborating with ELO’s Jeff Lynne, the noted Beatle manque. (And Brian Wilson collaborating with his psychiatrist.) Wasn’t that some chemistry between Jimmy Page and Paul Rodgers in the Firm? Between Robert Palmer and certain members of Duran Duran in the Power Station?

It’s enough to make you long for the early 70s. The greatest of all the supergroups, of course, came a few years earlier. The Masked Marauders recorded a two-record set of the same name in mid-1969, during a historic three-day session in a small town in northern Canada near the site of the original Hudson Bay colony. The lead players were John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, and Bob Dylan, with George Harrison on guitar and a drummer who was never identified. Who could forget Dylan’s 18-minute cover of “Season of the Witch,” or Paul’s definitive “Mammy,” or Jagger’s timeless rendition of “I Can’t Get No Nookie”? The Masked Marauders were the ultimate supergroup.

If you’ve never heard the record, it’s because it never existed. It was a hoax dreamed up by Greil Marcus and Bruce Miroff and perpetrated in the form of a record review in the pages of Rolling Stone. (The review was credited to T[he]. M[agic]. Christian.) The article appeared in the issue of October 18, 1969, and was inteinded as a parodic rebuke to super-session mania; but Rolling’ Stone’s readers, a gentle and ingenuous melange then as now, were intrigued, and barraged the nation’s record dealers with requests, nay, demands, for Harrison and Dylan’s lovely acoustic version of “Kick Out the Jams.” The retailers responded with confusion, until Warner Brothers, taking pity on a nation (and understandably feeling that them that asks for it gets it), rushed out a record that was indeed called The Masked Marauders and that did indeed feature such songs as “I Can’t Get No Nookie,” “Season of the Witch,” and “Kick Out the Jams.” It didn’t exactly feature Mick Jagger and Bob Dylan and John Lennon and Paul McCartney performing those particular songs, but that was perhaps too much to ask. Rolling Stone later claimed that the record sold 100,000 copies.

Now, 20 years later, we’re older and wiser by half, and so of course are the Masked Marauders. They never existed, but they could’ve existed, and if they only had we could note that the survivors have reassembled, with a few stand-ins, as the Traveling Wilburys. This record is not a fake: it’s a genuine document and a strange and compelling testament. In it, Dylan and George Harrison–with John dead, Mick lost, and Paul busy working with Elvis Costello–are joined by Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, and the late Roy Orbison, on the penultimate recording of his career. Dylan and Harrison worked together on Harrison’s All Things Must Pass LP and the concert for Bangladesh; Dylan and Petty toured together two years ago; and Lynne, the one-time leader of the Electric Light Orchestra, is currently riding a wave as a “fixer” producer brought in recently to oversee successful albums for both Harrison (Cloud Nine) and Randy Newman (Land of Dreams). The music magazines have covered the genesis of the Traveling Wilburys record with no little interest, and it turns out that there’s now a movie in the works. It seems that Lynne was producing records for Petty and Orbison (the latter is being readied for a January release) when Harrison stopped by and suggested that they all go over to “Bob’s” house. They then recorded a B-side for a Harrison single as a hoot; the record company (Warners, of course) liked it so much they demanded an album. The result is Traveling Wilburys, Volume One.

That original B-side was “Handle With Care,” the album’s leadoff track and its core thematically and musically. Harrison sings lead on the song, which makes a curious equation between stardom and love. “I’ve been beat up and battered around,” sings George, “. . . overexposed, commercialized / Handle me with care.” There is a rueful undercurrent, but this and many other tracks on the record display as well a new-agey aura of self-satisfaction. The backing track, as on certain other key songs, has a charged acoustic-guitar attack, courtesy of Lynne and Harrison’s production and the group’s five rhythm guitars. Things go off-kilter only when Roy Orbison comes in on the bridge. Orbison was over 50, his voice had perceptibly weakened, and it sounds like Lynne had him bound and gagged and stuffed him in another studio down the hall; his voice still hits the record like a hurricane. Harrison, who sings the verses, dollops his voice with echo and boosts it occasionally with double-tracking: when Orbison comes in, however, Harrison sounds like he’s singing in the middle of the invasion of Normandy.

The rest of the record, with the exception of the three Dylan songs, contains similar elements: a sentimental self-referentiality to stardom, a tight and animated Lynne-dominated production, and the recurring spectacle of Orbison singing like a vengeful angel. Harrison’s “Heading for the Light” has an insular 70s pop feel, like “Beach Baby” as done by the Electric Light Orchestra. Lyrically, the song is a gentle spoof of Harrison’s religious searches. The album’s unquestioned low point is Lynne’s main songwriting contribution, “Rattled.” The gang gussies it up good, but nothing could overcome the banality of the song’s concept or the false jollity that Lynne tries to leaven his singing with. By contrast, the most extraordinary track is “Not Alone Any More,” an Orbison solo effort that he probably wrote (all songs are credited to “the Wilburys”). The words–a methodical lost-in-love tale with a slight twist–are economical and pointed; his vocal is shattering. Everyone else contributes some restrained sha-la-las and otherwise quite sensibly stays out of his way. Lynne tosses in some cascading synth lines that are just the right touch. The result is one of the high points of Orbison’s career and perhaps the most accomplished single track produced by any rock band this year.

Dylan stands out, as he would in any group. His contributions are quite odd, but they are interesting, which alone raises them above the level of most of his other recent work. His last record, Down in the Groove, accelerated the precipitous decline of his recording career; only an exciting, stripped-down tour earlier this year rescued him from almost total irrelevance. On Traveling Wilburys his three songs range from a bawdy workout (“Dirty Work”) to a nonsense epic (“Tweeter and the Monkey Man”) to an unconvincing put-down (the sarcastic “Congratulations”). Like the two notable Petty contributions, all three suffer from an obvious carelessness and haste in construction: cliches fill out lyrics, and narratives end up pointless. “Tweeter and the Monkey Man,” for example, includes half a dozen not-so-sly references to Bruce Springsteen songs, from “Mansion on a Hill” to “Thunder Road” (and including “Jersey Girl,” which Springsteen didn’t even write). To what purpose, however, isn’t clear.

Still, the melodies on the record are almost uniformly pleasing, and the whole thing sounds great. It’s hard not to read between the lines–things about what five genuine talents, all of them somewhat on the ropes, think about life. “I’m so tired of being lonely,” sings Orbison, movingly, “I still have some love to give.” Petty, on the album’s sing-along closer, “End of the Line,” warbles, “Maybe somewhere down the road a ways / You’ll think of me and wonder where I am these days / Maybe somewhere down the road when somebody plays / ‘Purple Haze.'” For his part, Harrison contributes, “I’ve been uptight and made a mess / But I’ll clean up myself I guess / Oh, sweet smell of success.”

The supergroups of the past, even while interesting in concept, rarely overcame the overcharged clashes of stardom. The Traveling Wilburys faced a different dynamic–they were three old geezers with one young upstart and a producer trying to tell them how to make records; what problems there were must have stemmed from sheepishness rather than ego. It would be unfair to suggest that the Wilburys were all in the twilight of their talent, though one is dead now and the others have each given us reason to think so. But all did overcome the project’s inherent ironies, some of which approached indignity. (Chief among these must be Lynne’s participation as a guarantor of commerciality.) The result is at worst an oddity, at best a minor success. “Well it’s all right / Even when you’re old and gray,” sings Lynne on the record’s closer. “It’s all right / You’ve still got something to say.” And that’s the real question, isn’t it? For now, the Traveling Wilburys seem to have finessed the issue quite nicely.