Some people blast through life with hardly a care. Their misfortunes forgotten, their mistakes glossed over and their hearts intact. Not everyone is quite so lucky.
Most of us get to a stage in life where we’re tired of being hurt and downtrodden and resolve that “this will never happen to me again”. Not everyone sees through the promise they make to themselves.
But after a while, we have to come to terms with either insulating ourselves from the world for ever, or daring to open up our armour just a little and risk getting hurt all over again. Not everyone treats this vulnerability with kindness.
“Handle With Care” by The Traveling Wilburys is a song about this experience.
Been beat up and battered ‘round
Been sent up and I’ve been shot down
You’re the best thing that I’ve ever found
Handle me with care
Like all great lyrics, these words could be about a lot of things. Given The Traveling Wilburys was the name given to a loose association of some of the greatest musicians of all time (George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Jeff Lynne and Tom Petty…with session drummer extraordinare Jim Keltner), it’s tempting to see the lyrics as the story of every musician’s rise to fame and fortune.
I’m less sure.
The idea for the song supposedly came from George Harrison, a hugely under-rated talent who had both the luck and the misfortune to play second fiddle to the Lennon and McCartney creative powerhouse at the heart of the Beatles, but his own creative talents never got the recognition they deserved in the shadow of the two more famous songwriters in that band.
While all The Traveling Wilburys share the writing credit, there are two members whose creative work I detect more than any other in the lyrics.
George Harrison’s sensitivity shines through, as does Bob Dylan’s wordsmithing. The lyrics to “Handle With Care” have the polish of a master lyricist and, even in a group of tremendous musicians like The Traveling Wilburys, only one of them has the level of lyrical skill deployed on “Handle With Care”.
I’m not saying Dylan wrote every word. We don’t know, and many of the ideas may well have come from other members of the group. But the ideas are buffed to a particularly bright sheen. The lyrical structure and the importance of the way they sound, as well as telling the story…especially on the verses…has the hallmark of a future Nobel Prize for Literature winner about them.
Consider how well this verse works…
I’ve been fobbed off and I’ve been fooled
I’ve been robbed and ridiculed
In daycare centres and night schools
Handle me with care
Apart from on his own records, I’m not sure there’s a more Dylan-esque lyric in the popular music canon.
But back to our story…
This is a song about someone who is trying to open up to another human being.
That’s hard at the best of times. And it’s harder when you have to claw your way through years of hurt, loneliness and disappointment first. It’s tempting just to give up…until you meet someone who makes you want to spin the wheel just one more time.
As Roy Orbison sings…
I’m so tired of being lonely
I’ve still got some love to give
Won’t you show me that you really care?
By this point, our hero has learned not to just launch into something. He’s lifted the veil a little to tell someone how he really feels…what’s really going on inside his head…but he needs to see something back. He needs to know this time is going to be different from all the other times he’s been hurt in the past.
And it’s important that she “shows” that. He’s had people telling him how great he is. How much he matters. How the world revolved around him. Only to find himself cashed in at the first opportunity.
Telling is cheap. Plenty of people will say what they have to say to get what they want. Showing that they really care is all that matters in the long run…showing is a lot harder to fake than telling…
Showing is what makes the difference between a temporary transaction, designed to squeeze as much as possible out of you for little or no return, and something more meaningful…
Been stuck in airports, terrorised
Sent to meetings, hypnotised
Handle me with care
This is the verse that sounds more like a musician’s experience than any of the others. But it could be a metaphor for those times when your partner tries to make you something you’re not, even something you’re not at all comfortable with. But you go along with the idea anyway to try to please them.
Little do you realise this is just another way for them to get what they want out of you before moving on.
If you’re lucky, eventually you transcend all this.
By the late 1980s, the musicians who formed The Traveling Wilburys could write their own ticket. They were some of the most famous and best-selling artists in popular music history.
Earlier in their careers, maybe they were “overexposed, commercialised”. But now they called the shots and only did what they wanted to do.
One great thing about The Traveling Wilburys is the mutual respect that the members had for one another. I saw an interview with Jeff Lynne not that long ago where he went on, unprompted, for a good 10 or 15 minutes about how fabulous his fellow Wilburys were, their skills, their contribution, their craftsmanship.
Maybe “Handle With Care” really is about life as a musician. Maybe I’m reading too much into the lyrics.
But whether the lyrics are literal or metaphorical, they’re wonderfully crafted and convey an important message.
We all have a range of experiences that travel with us through life. With luck, some of those…maybe even the majority of them…will be pleasant memories.
But everyone’s been hurt. Some a lot more than others.
Some have been hurt so badly, the only way they can cope is to seal themselves off from the world to avoid getting hurt again.
You never truly know anyone else’s journey. So everyone you meet, handle them with care…
PS — just before we get to the video, if you enjoyed this article, please give it a “clap”. You can also follow me on Medium (here)to get new articles as soon as they’re published. And why not check out my book “No Words, No Song”, where I write about more great songs like this one, available in the Kindle Bookstore (here).