I will soon be celebrating my 55th birthday, and I am finally embracing the fact that I am middle aged. I am not becoming middle aged, I will not soon be middle aged. I am middle aged. In fact, I probably became middle aged quite some time ago. This article, ironically published on my birthday last year, suggests that some people think that middle age starts at 35, while the formal definition is being pushed to as late as 75. Whatever. I’m almost 55. I’m middle aged.
As a lifelong music fan, my life is less defined by arcane news articles trying to tell me how old I really am than it is by the music I have listened to through the years. Playing “8 Days a Week” by the Beatles after school on the brand new turntable in my room. Coming home from college and buying the album Will the Wolf Survive by Los Lobos on the living room stereo, trying to get my dad to listen to contemporary corridos and accordion soaked Hispanic rock and roll. Cranking up the great Neil Young and Crazy Horse album Ragged Glory in the first house I ever owned, a duplex, and getting noise complaints from our shared wall neighbors. Dancing to “Have a Little Faith in Me” by John Hiatt with my young daughters in the kitchen, playing on the CD boombox, before putting them to bed. Cooling out to Different Voices, Different Rooms by Nanci Griffith with my wife Lynn on a lazy Sunday morning. Playing the pristine Three Chords and the Truth album by Van Morrison, played loudly all through the house on my Sonos wireless sound system, when there is no else home.
And now here I am, about to be 55, and thinking again about music I listened to in those earlier years, and how sometimes that music speaks to me today. While in college I worked at a local record store, and one day we got shipment of a new album. The cover showed the silhouetted images of this strange new group of five guys called the Traveling Wilburys. To my college-aged perspective, they looked older, maybe even old. I took a closer look at the cover, and then read press clippings, and realized these weren’t just any old guys. Assuming familial pseudonyms, they were in fact some of the greatest rock and roll artists of all time, and they created maybe the greatest super group of all time.
George Harrison (from The Beatles) was Nelson Wilbury, Jeff Lynne (from ELO) was Otis Wilbury, Tom Petty (from The Hearbreakers) was Charlie T. Wilbury, Roy Orbison (you know, from the 1950’s) was Lefty Wilbury, and Bob Dylan (yeah, that Bob Dylan) was Lucky Wilbury.
Though the highly fictionalized folklore of the group traces their origins back to the dreaded disease of “strangling dingleberries,” the real story of their formation is actually much more interesting. In 1988, George Harrison had to record a b-side for a single from his Cloud Nine album, produced by Jeff Lynne. They were hanging out with Roy Orbison, and needed to find a studio they could record at immediately, and the only space they could find was Bob Dylan’s garage in Malibu. As they set up, Dylan worked the barbecue in the backyard while Harrison went to borrow a guitar from Tom Petty, who lived just down the street. Soon enough, they all found themselves hanging out in the garage, putting together the song George needed to record. “What is it called?” Dylan asked. Harrison saw a box in the corner, noticed the label and shrugged.
“Handle with Care!” he announced.
I will soon be three years older than Roy Orbison was when he recorded this song, the oldest of the group, and I love listening to this song now that I know what I know, and now that I have had the experiences that I have had. “Handle with Care” is a loving tribute to middle age, and an even finer tribute to rock and roll stars who may find themselves quickly aging off the charts, and afraid of fading into obscurity.
“Been beat up and battered around
Been sent up, and I’ve been shot down
You’re the best thing that I’ve ever found
Handle me with care”
The Wilbury’s had all survived personal tragedies of some kind, their careers had reached enviable high points, and inevitable low points. They had each been beaten up. They had each been battered around. One day you’re a Beatle, and then your solo album is being panned by critics as a “shoddy piece of work.”
But baby, you’re adorable
Handle me with care”
For some reason, the vocal mix of these five disparate solo artists work. As five acoustic guitars all play in unison, Harrison takes the lead vocal with his familiar sweet, yet sad voice. There is a descending bass line as we hear George reflect on life’s troubles, and the comfort provided by the person he loves. We reach the chorus, and Roy Orbison’s operatic voice soars gloriously above all else. The strange little man from Memphis with the Coke bottle sunglasses, who had built his career on songs of loneliness and regret, sings a few lines with a familiar legacy message.
“I’m so tired of being lonely
I still have some love to give
Won’t you show me that you really care?”
Then from the sweet and sad verse and chorus, to a dissonant and coarse bridge. Bob Dylan and Tom Petty harmonize, and sing for “every man,” to tell of those things we all need, those things we all strive for as we face head on the ups and downs of any life. Jeff Lynne and Roy Orbison join in to sweeten the last few words.
“Everybody’s got somebody to lean on
Put your body next to mine, and dream on“
To now, the lyrics have been somewhat generic in nature, able to be sung genuinely and sincerely by anyone who has experienced a hardship, or has survived a setback. But knowing who the Traveling Wilburys really are, it’s hard to read the next two verses as anything but an aging rock star confessional. Whether they are performing for enthusiastic and ebullient young teenage fans, or skeptical and subdued adult fans, the risks inherent in being a rock star endure.
Business managers stealing your money, and being forced to stay awake through endless tour and promotional meetings. Waiting for hour after hour, in airport after airport, for the flight to the next stop on the tour. Promoting your music in a way that will both sell albums and maintain your dignity and artistic integrity.
“I’ve been fobbed off, and I’ve been fooled
I’ve been robbed and ridiculed
In day-care centers and night schools
Handle me with care
Been stuck in airports, terrorised
Sent to meetings, hypnotised
Handle me with care”
They sound like they love singing together. They know what these lyrics mean, and they take comfort singing them together. They’ve lived this story, they are still in the story. There is an easiness and familiarity to the song, and the whole album sounds like we are hearing a group of friends who truly love being with another, and making music together.
Bob Dylan was 47 years old when they recorded this song. Tom Petty was 38. George Harrison was 45, Jeff Lynne was 41, and Roy Orbison was the oldest at 52. They had all achieved their primary success years ago, and sadly Roy Orbison died just about six weeks after “Handle with Care” was released, but Lefty, Otis, Charlie and Nelson would regroup a few years later to record an excellent second volume of songs called, of course, The Traveling Wilburys, Vol. 3.
Tom Petty had not had a big hit with the Heartbreakers for quite some time before the Wilburys, but would release his first solo album Full Moon Fever in 1989 (produced by Jeff Lynne), which became a massive success. George Harrison had released his album Cloud Nine in 1987 to critical and commercial success, and spent the 1990’s on various tours and Beatles projects before dying of cancer in November, 2001. The last few Bob Dylan albums before the Wilburys had seen disappointing sales, but he immediately followed the Traveling Wilburys with Oh Mercy, one of his finest albums ever.
“I’ve been uptight and made a mess
But I’ll clean it up myself, I guess
Oh, the sweet smell of success
Handle me with care”
An ode to middle age. An ode to the aging rock star. A statement of optimism, that even with your greatest success in your past, there can still meaningful success in your present and future. A song I am sure I will be playing from my iPhone in my car, the day I turn 55.
Handle with Care
Written by the Traveling Wilburys
Performed by the Traveling Wilburys
Released October 17, 1988