In Hear This, The A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week: Songs about endings.
Traveling Wilburys, “End Of The Line” (1989)
I discovered the Travelling Wilburys when I was 10 or something, having stumbled across the group’s debut album on a tape my parents had tucked away in the back of their stereo cabinet. I don’t know where they got it—my parents are more library people than purchasing people—but I really liked the tunes. They were poppy and catchy in equal parts, and right up my pre-teen alley.
It wasn’t until years later that I actually figured out who the Wilburys were. When I was 10, I just thought they were guys with funny hats or something, never having bothered to read the tiny cassette liner notes. I knew who George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, and Tom Petty were at the time, but I knew them as individual artists or as members of larger acts like The Beatles. Learning, when I was 18, that those guys all banded together with ELO’s Jeff Lynne to form a supergroup was pretty confounding. Even now, the concept of the Wilburys still seems pretty ridiculous. A bunch of mega-stars who just happen to be friends get together and make a couple of records—and those records aren’t terrible. In fact, they’re pretty good. It’s shocking.
While my favorite Wilburys track is the group’s first single, “Handle With Care,” there’s a lot to love about the gang’s second single, “End Of The Line,” as well. An extended metaphor that smashes together a bunch of freight-train references and thoughts about living your best life, “End Of The Line” is full of lines extolling the virtues of “[living] the life you please” and how “the best you can do is forgive.” The Wilburys weren’t old guys when their first record was released in 1988—Tom Petty was 38, for instance, while Harrison was 45—but the song sounds like the group was making peace with the end of their respective lives. Together, they’d all lived hard and long, and were apparently feeling pretty zen about the whole death thing.
All that end-of-life musing is particularly poignant when you consider the music video for the track was filmed right after Orbison’s untimely death from a heart attack at 52. Orbison’s vocals are still on the track—he’d recorded them long before the video shoot—but he’s conspicuously absent from the clip, represented by just a rocking chair and a guitar. Though Orbison’s death was somewhat of a surprise—he’d complained to Johnny Cash that he’d been having chest pains, but still no one thought he’d end up having a heart attack—it was as if, with this song and alongside his pals in the Wilburys, he’d learned to come to terms with not only all the tragedy he’d faced in his life, but with the possibility of his own demise. Unfortunately, that death came much too soon.