1988 Countdown #89: The Traveling Wilburys, “Handle With Care”

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Very little happens in this video. But then again, very little needs to. Somebody clearly made the calculation that having George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, and Roy Orbison in one room would provide enough entertainment value by itself, and they were right. Twenty years later, the appeal of the Traveling Wilburys and their pleasant music is exactly the same as it was back then: saying, “These guys are really in a band together?”

We open with a slow pan across racks of guitars. A pickup truck overladen with chairs rolls down a dusty road, presumably arriving with the surplus furniture from the Crowded House video. We have a brief shot of George Harrison singing, which kind of spoils the dramatic buildup of the rest of this introductory sequence. Five men enter a cavernous warehouse, carrying their guitar cases. Light streams in behind them, and we see them only in silhouette. It’s actually a lovely composition.

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The camera wheels around like it’s filming the pot-smoking circle on That ’70s Show, remaining at foot level of the Wilburys, ending with their bass drum. We get a brief glimpse of drummer Jim Keltner, who in a stunning display of overliteralism appears to have rested his hat on his high-hat cymbals, and then see Harrison in a big floppy white jacket. The Wilburys are standing in a circle around a microphone dangling from the ceiling, looking reasonably well-groomed and playing guitar. Tom Petty’s doing a little shimmy. Roy Orbison is sporting a long ponytail that doesn’t help his appearance any; the video makes sure we catch only fleeting glimpses of it. (Much like Rick Allen’s left shoulder.) Bob Dylan appears bored and vaguely contemptuous. I love that somebody thought it was a good idea to put together a group where Dylan would sing backup vocals.

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The song, written by Harrison, is a bit odd. The chorus feels pasted in from another song (or since it’s the section where Orbison, Petty, Dylan, and Lynne take the microphone, maybe four other songs on four different albums). I initially had a hard time even identifying that section as the chorus –it feels more like a sequence of bridges. If Harrison sang the whole composition straight through, it’d feel a lot clunkier, but the track gets by on the kick of other famous voices (which I suppose was basically the point of the Wilburys). The lyrics start off as the plea of a battered heart (“I’m so tired of being lonely / I still have some love to give”), and slides into complaints about his musical career (“Overexposed, commercialized”). Basically, it’s a big lump of undigested self-pity.

The video continues with the five men standing around the microphone, with the camera moving around in a desperate effort to keep things interesting visually. Shafts of light come in the side of the warehouse, and a roadie walks around in the background, doing important roadie things. As the clip continues, we see a black-and-white photograph of each Wilbury as a boy: generally, a shot from when he was twelve years old or so. But Bob Dylan don’t play that: he appears to have given the video-makers a photo from his early twenties.

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Petty is playing bass, as he did in his first band, Mudcrutch; everyone else has a guitar. (Lynne steered the Wilburys towards a lumpenacoustic guitar sound on most of their tracks.) As mentioned previously, top session man Jim Keltner is on the drum kit. It’s nice of the band to include Keltner in the video, but it points to a huge missed opportunity: shouldn’t they have recruited Ringo Starr to be a Wilbury?

As the song fades out, there’s a harmonica part that nobody bothers to mime and a guitar solo that Harrison doesn’t replicate on-camera: filmed from behind, he wiggles his hips and gyrates to suggest the great passion he’s feeling. The video ends with the pickup truck rolling out, leaving Lynne, Harrison, Petty, and Orbison sitting amidst their luggage by some railroad tracks. Then Dylan rides past them on a red bicycle. I suppose a motorcycle would have been in poor taste.

“Handle With Care” peaked at #45 on the Billboard singles charts. You can watch the video here.

posted 10 July 2008 in 1988 and tagged , , , , , , , , . 5 comments

5 Comments on 1988 Countdown #89: The Traveling Wilburys, “Handle With Care”

  1. Chris M. Says:

    I liked the Wilburys record a lot back in the day, but it hasn’t aged well, as Rob S. seems to agree (I believe he downgraded the formerly four-star-rated Volume One to two stars in the recent RS Record Guide).

    It also seems, in retrospect, like Lynne’s prototype for every production job he did from the late ’80s to the mid-’90s: Harrison’s Cloud Nine (which actually precedes the Wilburys), Petty’s solo record, Lynne’s own solo record, and least successfully, the Beatles’ 1995 comeback. I’d say “Handle With Care,” as heavy-handed/thudding Lynne productions go, is up the middle: not as desecrating as “Free as a Bird” (a not-bad Lennon song badly marred by Lynne’s attempts to turn it into the Reclamation Of George Harrison project), not as deft and smooth as Full Moon Fever. On “Handle,” the double-tracking Lynne puts on Keltner’s downbeat at the end of every stanza is some kind of dreary metaphor for the boxy sound of late-’80s production.

    P.S. You’re so right about Ringo. Unless the music video for Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” is a bit of fakery, Ringo obviously is tight enough with that gang to play drums when asked. And that song came out, like, six months after this one! Nothing against Keltner, but why didn’t they just get Ringo?

  2. Chris M. Says:

    P.P.S. Sorry, one further thought…

    I could’ve brought this up on your Glenn Frey post, but it’s even more clear here: You know what really dates this countdown? The inclusion of music appealing primarily to people over 30. And I kind of miss it; I was 17 in 1988, but I liked the Wilburys back then, and it didn’t seem weird or embarrassing to me that it was cheek-by-jowl with the likes of Pet Shop Boys.

    Sure, VH1 existed in 1988 — I believe it was around three years old — and clearly this got a lot of play there, but that didn’t automatically disqualify a video from some lesser amount of straight MTV play. Of course, that was when both MTV and VH1 filled their days largely with music videos and thus needed a wider selection.

    And of course, nowadays, even VH1 (forget MTV) is going for a demographic too young for this video. Not that either channel plays videos anymore. Ah, crap, now I’m starting to sound really old and grumpy.

  3. Gavin Says:

    You’re right, Chris. Oddly, there’s more demographic variance now in the album charts (because the numbers week-to-week are small enough to get weird cultish stuff into the top ten), but less on MTV or pop radio.

    Rob’s Wilbury review was in the magazine, not the record guide. Here’s a link. Questions for further study: Why did Full Moon Fever come out so well? Was it just that Petty had a firmer idea of how he wanted it to sound? And why has Lynne’s 1970s work (with ELO) aged so much better than his 1980s productions?

    I haven’t listened to Volume One in a long time, but I pulled out Volume 3 (which I always preferred) last night, which confirmed my suspicions on the Wilburys: the funny songs (like “Tweeter and the Monkey Man,” “Wilbury Twist,” and “Cool Dry Place”) have aged well, the rest of it hasn’t.

    By the way, I assume that harmonica solo was Dylan’s, because really, if he’s hanging around, why would anybody else do it?

  4. Tom Nawrocki Says:

    The best thing in that video is Dylan riding the bike at the end, just like the best thing in his video for “Things Have Changed” is him eating a sandwich at the end. I think it’s important for Dylan to occasionally remind us that he is indeed made of human flesh.

    In addition to the lack of harmonica visuals and lack of guitar-solo visuals, someone harmonizes with Harrison on the last verse, but no one is shown singing along with him in the video.

  5. Gavin Says:

    Just heard Chrissie Hynde on the radio, about to play a Dhani Harrison song, making the offhanded comment that George Harrison and Jim Keltner were best friends. Which probably explains why Ringo didn’t get the call.

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