Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Thursday, November 16, 2006

The Beatling Wilburys with the last fifth Beatle, Jeff Lynne of ELO

I horde music. My collection pales in comparison to many, but I wouldn’t trade it for anybody’s -- because I have the Best Taste in the World. (Don’t you too?) Nobody else’s collection would suit my listening desires as well.

Hording is about repetition anxiety. I want to have repeated listening experiences on demand. If I don’t possess a desired recording, I cannot listen to it over and over. And over and over. And over.

I’ve been listening to the Traveling Wilburys lately, especially “Vol. 3,” which didn’t have the hits, and didn’t have better songs, but it has surprising qualities: more enthusiasm and more abandon as well as more plushness. It’s a surprising combination -- enthusiasm and abandon and plushness. The hopped-up rock rhythms convey the enthusiasm and sometimes even abandon; the knee-deep-shag guitar mix is super-deluxe plush.

“Vol. 3” ’s opening track, “She’s My Baby” -- how enthusiastically silly, sending up rock cliches with such glee and real musical vim, and with deft deployment of voices. Like a jazz combo arranging to show off different lead instruments at different times, the Wilburys trade the lead from voice to voice. “She’s My Baby” proceeds up the ladder of intensity and distinctiveness, starting with the lovely and smooth singer Jeff Lynne, onto the idiosyncratic and laid-back Tom Petty, then to the incomparable Bob Dylan, and then, surprisingly, topping Dylan’s virtuoso croak with George Harrison’s emotion-laden warmth and wit. If you listen to the early Beatles records, George’s lead singing does not portend that by the late ‘80s he would become a commanding vocal presence, but he did. “She’s got a body for business and a mind for sin” -- it helps that he has a witty line. Dylan takes the song back at the end for the last verse, though, to no shame for George; and who but Dylan could sing with such a hilarious croak, the song’s last line before the out-chorus, “She likes to stick her tongue right down my throooooat,” sounding like death itself as he holds that long Oh, before the group vocal comes back to close it, “She’s Myyyyy Bay-buh.” Masterfully joyous, witty, noisy rock and roll.

The posthumous Beatles single “Free As a Bird” repeats the same trick even more astonishingly. A sweet melancholy unfinished Lennon demo, fleshed out into a full record by the surviving Beatles (produced by Jeff Lynne, unexpectedly turning this Beatles record into a Wilburys-offshoot group, the Beatling Wilburys). The other day I listened to it over and over. Astonished at how Harrison grabbed the song’s climax.

After Lennon’s sweet slightly melancholic verse, Paul added a sweet, slight, love-song bridge --

Whatever happened to
The life that we once knew
Can we really live without each other
Where did we lose the touch
That seemed to mean so much
It always made me feel so free --

neatly and Beatle-esquely tying back into the verse, the first word of which is “free.”

Second bridge, George truncated Paul’s stuff, singing with more intensity, and suddenly it’s not a sweet, slight love song, it’s a heartfelt intense love song of grief to his dead friend the missing Beatle John.

Whatever happened to
The life that we once knew
Always made me feel so free

And then his guitar solo stabs me right in the heart, as the weeping guitar is held aloft by the angelic choir of background Beatle-singing “Ahhhs.”

I listened to the song three times in a row and then twice in a row a few days later, and it was only in the fifth listen that I didn’t burst into tears at the guitar solo. And it felt very good to burst into tears, I enjoyed it very much, it was soothing and cathartic. I was glad to have this hoarded music to play over and over to grab the tears out of my body. I don’t quite understand it and I doubt I ever will and that’s OK.

But what I want to know is this: what fan of “Do You Want to Know a Secret” would have predicted that by 30 years later George would be the most commanding singer of the group and given the climax of a song? And he really had a deep emotional range as a singer by the end, joy and grief and goofiness and melancholy. Which is to say -- life.

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