Friday, October 22, 2010

In defense of the Wilburys...

I have in my life, like anybody, some sacred cows, cultural endeavors that I've elevated to a degree of unassailability. Milton Caniff, if you read this blog, is the most obvious. For TV - "All in the Family"; for movies - "Superman". For music, it's Jeff Lynne, in general, and here specifically the Traveling Wilburys.

A recent book has assailed this beloved cow of mine. Biographer Clinton Heylin has completed an ambitious project. He's reviewed the songs of Bob Dylan, song-by-song, writing about the story behind each song. The first volume, "Revolution in the Air", covered the years 1957-73, from Dylan's self-titled debut to the soundtrack for 'Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid'. The second volume, "Still on the Road", picks up in 1974 and ends with 2006's 'Modern Times'. It's in this book where he reviews the Wilburys albums: 'Volume One' (1988) and 'Volume Three' (1990).

The Wilburys formed in 1988 after what Heylin aptly describes as "a series of serendipities." Lynne, George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and Roy Orbison joined together to create a band synonymous with the term "supergroup." The etymology of who wrote precisely what in the Wilburys is somewhat hard to discern. The album credited all the writing to the group. Interviews have provided us with who had the main ideas for which songs, bolstered by the sheet music book for 'Volume One'. Each song is credited to the group, yet administered by different publishers. The publisher for three of them - "Congratulations", "Dirty World" and "Tweeter and the Monkey Man" - is Special Rider Music, Dylan's publishing company.

"There is certainly very little Dylanesque about the seven songs on Volume One where he contributes only backing vocals," Heylin writes. I disagree. Of those seven, he's counting "Margarita", on which Dylan has a lead vocal. The song's closing line - "she wrote a long letter/on a short piece of paper" - if not by Dylan, it's certainly worthy of him. And although not verified, it's clear that bits of "Handle With Care", the first Wilbury song, are his.

Heylin seems to have a grudge against the group, as if but for Dylan they'd have been a colossal failure. "Tweeter and the Monkey Man" is singled out for praise among, to Heylin, the also-rans. He calls it "the real heavyweight the album had been missing" and "the one truly significant outcome" from Dylan's involvement. As if the rest of it was so much chaff. He doesn't mention that this came after Dylan's string of '80s flops, that he rarely sounded better than under Harrison and Lynne's bright production, and that for some people, like me, it was their introduction to Dylan. Like my Lynne bias, Heylin clearly has a Dylan bias. After all, he calls Dylan the "preeminent talent" of the group. You can debate that with devotees of the other members, but I think you've got a solid group when even the sidemen (e.g., Jim Keltner) are legends.

Heylin also gets things wrong. He says the title to "Handle With Care" came from a guitar carrying case. George Harrison said it came from a box in Dylan's garage. That may be nitpicking, but when something is billed as authoritative, then fine-tooth combing the details is in order. Then comes his pronouncement that the song "should really be called "Handle Me With Care", because that is what Harrison actually sings." As if Heylin's come up with some great revelation. Next he should say, "You know, Captain Kirk never said "Beam me up, Scotty?"

Heylin does get one thing spot on. The reissue of both albums in 2007 gives us little more to go on, and the film portion of the Wilburys in action "is frustratingly brief."

Heylin can't make up his mind on Volume Three (which, by the way, was released twenty years ago this week). He criticizes it for not having enough Dylan and also for having too much Dylan. There are 11 songs on the album. Dylan has the lead or shares the lead on 9 of them. Yet he accuses Harrison and Lynne of removing Dylan vocals "with something approaching gusto." Basically, Heylin would have preferred a Bob Dylan solo album with the others as backing musicians. The removal of Dylan vocals was, according to Heylin, out of jealousy by Lynne, and that Harrison was "complicit", as if a crime's been committed. His complaint is that the other Wilburys relied too much on Dylan for lyrics, then took his vocals out. Vocals, by the way, that Heylin maligns as sounding "far worse that they did on the last leg on the Never Ending tour."

Let's look at the three songs he cites and who sings in the final version:
"Where Were You Last Night?" - Lead Dylan vocal, the other three harmonize a chorus
"Seven Deadly Sins" - Lead Dylan vocal, the other three doing calls to Dylan's answers.
"She's My Baby" - The four trade verses. Of the five verses, Dylan has lead on two.

Such changes, Heylin writes, "drew Dylan's ire. To Gilmore he stated, "That was when I found I'd really had it" (with making records)." Here, Heylin is citing Dylan's 2001 Rolling Stone interview with Mikal Gilmore. But in the context of the interview, he was talking about being burned out after recording "Volume 3" and his own solo album, "Under the Red Sky", nearly simultaneously. He revisited a decision he made after 1988's "Oh Mercy" to not record anymore. "I'd rather play on the road," he told Gilmore. "It was clear to me I had more than enough songs to play. Forever."1 Dylan does not say anything about changes made by the other Wilburys to his material. In fact, Dylan expressed the opposite opinion"[O]utside of writing with the Traveling Wilburys, my shared experience writing a song with other songwriters is not that great."2 This also contradicts another Heylin assertion, that Dylan "must have felt the whole exercise to be unrewarding." His only evidence is that Dylan has not performed any of the Wilburys songs live. This speculation is also contradictory, since Dylan hasn't performed "Tweeter and the Monkeyman" live and Heylin spends three pages praising it.

1Interview with Mikal Gilmore for Rolling Stone, December 22, 2001
2Interview with Paul Zollo for Songtalk, 1991


Anonymous said...

Interesting post. Good to see someone taking Heylin with a few grains of salt. I've read a lot of his stuff and frankly think he's one of the worst commentators on Dylan out there. For one thing, his work is just riddled with factual errors. There are hundreds if not thousands of them in his biography of Dylan. All kinds, ranging from basic typos to factual errors. I wonder if he has ever employed an editor, much less a fact-checker. There's some good stuff in his work, but no one should ever accept his facts unless they're verified by someone more competent.

oneeyedog said...

Dylan has performed "congratulations" live, at least once, in Glasgow
john h

Anonymous said...

Amusing review of the first vol of heylin book in TLS or London Rev of Books last year (can't remember which) by Wesley Stace that really takes him to task for his approach and style. Well worth seeking out. David

Pete said...

Interesting post. Doesn't make me want to seek out Heylin's comments. I'd add two: 1. That George Harrison was quite good, and of course an old friend of Dylan's, and George was the one with the contemporary big hit (he'd had a few before, y'know). 2. The real problem with Vol 3 is the lack of Roy Orbison due to a prior commitment with the angels -- they miss his voice and I suspect they miss something intangible that respect for Roy provided to the enterprise. Vol 1 is still a lovely record, but I think it should have been a one-off; you can't do magic to order. Thanks for making me go play it again!

Anonymous said...

If I'm not mistaken, I believe Dylan played Congratulations at Toads Place!