Song 317: Traveling Wilburys, “If You Belonged to Me” (1990)

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The term “dad rock” seems to get thrown around a lot these days, seemingly applied to every band from Wilco to Dawes. If an indie record has a touch of country and some well-placed electric guitar, chances are one of your favorite media outlets has slapped the moniker on it like a warranty label on a lawnmower.

But let’s face it. That term, at once loving and derogatory, should be reserved for one band and one band only: The Traveling Wilburys. Was there ever a band assembled more perfectly for the tastes of my generation’s dads? Tom Petty, George Harrison, Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan, and Jeff Lynne, pear-shaped and gray-bearded, shuffling around and singing about being pear-shaped and gray-bearded. It is the very definition of baby boomer dads. Not fathers. Dads.

And why not? The band—which was reduced to a quartet between its two albums, following Orbison’s death in 1988—was lovable and self-effacing, well aware that they were older than everyone else on MTV. They probably had no expectation that they’d even be allowed on MTV, but there they were, singing about how the “end of the line” was approaching. They also won a Grammy. Ah, the eighties.

My favorite Traveling Wilburys song is “If You Belonged to Me,” which finds Bob Dylan in fine form. It’s an age-old concept—“You’d be happy as you could be if you belonged to me,” goes the chorus—but it’s also typical Dylan. “The guy you’re with is a ruthless pimp,” he sings in one verse, “everybody knows. Every cent he takes from you goes straight up his nose.” Like the best Dylan songs, it’s prickly but not alienating; in its gentle ribbing of the subject, it’s “Like a Rolling Stone” Lite.

I’m not always a fan of Jeff Lynne’s production. He’s done some great work—Petty’s Full Moon Fever, and especially “Free Fallin’,” for one thing—but I generally find it too polished, too fussy, too shiny. It’s an odd fit for the Wilburys, a band whose informality was central to their appeal. But I love his work here, especially on that “ruthless pimp” verse, on which the mandolins chug while the drums thump and clack like a train. It’s an ingenious combination.

So now that I’m becoming (more) pear-shaped and graying, has my love of the Traveling Wilburys grown? Yes. There’s something to be said for knowing how old you are, and though I’m still a ways from the fiftysomething Wilburys, I’m a dad with a receding hairline, and my love for puns and middle-of-the-road rock songs finally has a logical place. I’m growing into my age, just like a Wilbury.

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Song 67: George Harrison, “All Things Must Pass” (1970)

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Why do such simple statements sound so profound when coming from George Harrison? There’s something in his delivery that’s so trustworthy, a kind of grizzled wisdom that the other Beatles could never muster (nor, I guess, did they want to). Harrison always seemed like the most centered of the group; Paul is so goofy, John was distractingly self-conscious, and Ringo, though he definitely seems comfortable with his place in the Beatle pecking order, is still Ringo.

I can’t think of many other musicians and songwriters who can pull off something like “All Things Must Pass” without coming across as cloying. This isn’t self-help nonsense, this is meant to comfort by telling you some facts: everything ends, good and bad. Like my favorite Beatles song, “Here Comes The Sun,” this song is almost spiritual in its simplicity. Things happen. You’re not special, but you’re part of something big, and that makes you valuable.

Some have interpreted the album cover as depicting Harrison’s newfound independence from the Beatles. His former bandmates had rejected “All Things Must Pass,” which now seems like a ridiculous notion (they wanted “Back In The U.S.S.R” but not this song?!), and Harrison must have been thrilled to be out on his own. It sure paid off.