There are certain dignities and indignities that come with old age. Most of us would like to be considered wise, but we also want to run fast and be sex symbols. All of that is relative, of course. There are plenty of intelligent teenagers and elderly imbeciles. I ran a half marathon when I was 31 and people twice that age were passing me.
The word “old” is as relative as the attributes associated with it. You can join the American Association of Retired Persons at age 50, collect Social Security at 62 and retire from your job at a wide range of ages or never. I think I was 27 or 28 the first time one of my friends seriously commented that we were “getting old.”
Well, sure, we’re all getting old. But when are we actually old? Do our looks and physical/mental fitness have anything to do with it, or is “old” just a number?
I say it’s just a number, because I can’t, in seriousness, walk up to more wrinkled people my age and ask, “what’s it like to be so old?”
This coming week marks the 30th anniversary of the release of The Traveling Wilburys, Vol. 1. I was 15 years old at the time George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison, Tom Petty and Bob Dylan formed their famous supergroup. From the first moment I heard and saw them together — singing “Handle with Care” on MTV — I was an instant fan.
But I also knew the Traveling Wilburys were geezers.
Why would a sophomore in high school love a song like “Handle with Care”?
Been beat up and battered ’round
Been sent up, and I’ve been shot down
Sure, I’d been beat up and shot down a little by age 15, but I knew nothing about being “sent to meetings hypnotized.” That comes a little later in life.
Maybe I was partly buying into the supergroup hype. If the same album had been put out by five nobodies it might not have captured my attention. It also wouldn’t have been possible for the album to be as good, because just removing Roy Orbison’s voice would have sank the group to somewhere slightly above mediocrity. (That’s verifiable, of course, because the Wilburys put out a second album without Orbison and it was slightly above mediocrity. But I parenthetically digress.)
It turns out having five incredible songwriters in a band isn’t that much better than having one, but having one Roy Orbison in a band makes all the difference. This was not at all lost on Harrison, Petty, Lynne and Dylan. Four of the most successful musicians of all time were giddy like schoolgirls that they somehow convinced Orbison to be in their band.
This supergroup was so super that the members didn’t even put their names on the liner notes. Harrison was credited on the album as “Nelson Wilbury,” Lynne was “Otis Wilbury,” Orbison was “Lefty Wilbury,” Petty was “Charlie T. Wilbury, Jr.” and Dylan was “Lucky Wilbury.” But their faces were on the cover art and everyone knew who they were. They adopted new Wilbury names for their second album and no one was confused, because no one cared about the Wilbury names. Whether they were trying to be modest or silly or both with those Wilbury names, it certainly did nothing to disguise them.
If there were any doubt the band was made up of a bunch of old timers, consider that when the second video came out, ol’ Lefty Wilbury had already died and a guitar in a rocking chair took his place. Seriously.
Well it’s all right, even if you’re old and grey
Well it’s all right, you still got something to say
Maybe I had a bit of an “old soul,” and that’s why the Wilburys appealed to me at age 15. But there were a lot of crusty old pre-Generation X musicians putting out popular albums in 1988 — Leonard Cohen, Robert Plant, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Herbie Hancock, Keith Richards, Frank Zappa, Eric Clapton, Paul Simon, Rod Stewart, Elton John, Steve Winwood, Patti Smith, Tom Waits, Randy Newman, etc., etc. — and it’s doubtful the majority of people who bought those records were born prior to 1950, like all of those artists were.
Music, of course, transcends age pretty easily. Your album collection probably doesn’t divide up evenly among genres or languages or the artists’ gender and ethnicity — most people have a favorite type of sound or lyrical philosophy. But the copyright dates on your music likely span numerous decades with just a bit of favoritism to your younger days. Not all music is timeless, but almost all of the good stuff is.
Why were the Traveling Wilburys considered an old-timers band when so many other old timers weren’t branded that way? Well, at the risk of sounding like Yogi Berra, I have to point out the Traveling Wilburys were older than the other musicians their age.
What does that mean? It means other than Leonard Cohen on “Tower of Song” and a few other exceptions, most of the older singers of 1988 were writing songs from the perspective of youth being eternal. But the quality of being an old windbag seemed to be summed up on every Traveling Wilburys track. Take, for example, “Inside Out” from the second album.
Look down your drain pipe
What color do you see?
It’s got to be yellow
Don’t try to fool me
No one is mistaking those lyrics for the works of youngsters like Milli Vanilli, Metallica, Rick Astley, Guns ’n’ Roses, Bon Jovi, MC Hammer, the Smiths, Jane’s Addiction, Salt-n-Pepa, UB40, Bruce Hornsby and the Range or Lita Ford.
But wait a minute. Have my 1988 references to being old and young gotten old?
When I approached the age of 40, my friend Barrett Chase — who is eight days older than me — came up with a new way of thinking about age.
“I call it the Wilbury Index,” he told me. “It answers the question: How many Traveling Wilburys are you older than? — using their ages at the time of the release of ‘Handle with Care.’”
Simple enough, ay? If you are older now than Tom Petty was in 1988, you are at least one-fifth Wilbury. If you have more years on you than Roy Orbison did in 1988, you are a full-on Wilbury, my friend.
You could be surprised to discover these old coots might not have been as ancient as you thought 30 years ago. Petty was just 37 and his best songs were ahead of him. Orbison looked older than he was at 52. He was in bad health and never saw 53. One of his finest albums, Mystery Girl, was his last. He died of a heart attack within weeks of completing it. (Listen to the title track of that album to hear a nearly dead guy sing his way into eternity.)
Here are the band members’ ages when The Traveling Wilburys, Vol. 1 came out, and their birthdays:
37. Tom Petty – b. Oct. 20, 1950
40. Jeff Lynne – b. Dec. 30, 1947
45. George Harrison – b. Feb. 25, 1943
47. Bob Dylan – b. May 24, 1941
52. Roy Orbison – b. April 23, 1936
I’m no spring chicken, but I’m a little surprised I’ve already reached three-fifths Wilbury status and soon will be four-fifths. How long will that be? Well, let’s nerd out on the math like old people, shall we?
Bob Dylan was 47 years and 146 days old when “Handle with Care” was released on Oct. 17, 1988. So my four-fifths Wilbury day comes 146 days after my 47th birthday.
If you see me on May 15, 2020, wish me a happy Lucky Wilbury day. I’ve got until June 15, 2025 until I’m a complete Wilbury. That’s when you can call me “old.” Until then I’ll accept “middle aged.”
And what do we have to learn from the Wilburys? What did five old musical poets conspire to tell us in 1988? It’s more than just the obvious reflectiveness and sentimentality that jumps out of those lyrics. They are striving to be genuine. They’re rich, famous and revered — but sometimes they’re lonely, they crave sincerity and more than anything else they relish simple acts of silliness shared with friends.
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