“Just By Magic”

wilburysFor those interested in historical narratives and the topic of origins, consider the following documentary from 2007, about the rock group that, as it turns out, just happened to have been formed when George Harrison had dinner with Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne.

Harrison narrates the origins tale (beginning at about the 0:48 point):

To recap, he says:

“I had dinner with, ah, Roy Orbison and Jeff and I said to Jeff, ‘Look, tomorrow I’m just gonna go in the studio and make up a tune, and do you wanna come and help?’ He said sure. Bob, we knew, had this little studio. I phoned Bob up–I mean, sometimes you can phone him and not get through for years, but he picked up first ring and said ‘Sure, come on over.” My guitar was at Tom Petty‘s house, so Tom and Jeff picked me up and we went over to Bob’s; I got the first line, it said, ‘Been beat up, battered around’ and then, wham, they just kept coming with all these lines.  And there’s Bob saying, ‘Well, what’s it called, what’s it about?” Well I finally saw the … big box with a sticker on it saying ‘Handle With Care.’ I said ‘Handle With Care?’ and he said, ‘Oh yeah, good.”

What do we make of this tale he tells?

Well, first off, the significant role played by sheer accident — who happened to be where and when — can’t escape notice; how do our histories of human affairs take this into account? (Or is the unspoken purpose of historical narrative to erase the happenstance, giving the impression that the historian has god-like access to the full sweep of events?) What’s more, for those intent on mono-causal origins (e.g., B happened because of A — you know, the sort of simplistic answer undergrads are mostly expected to feed back to their Professors when asked such tremendously complex things like how World War I started), the lyrics of the song that resulted indicate the importance of entertaining multiple and divergent sources; for social products are likely the unanticipated results of multiple (perhaps competing, maybe even contradictory) social actors with diverse motives. We can call this a model of polygenesis — the so-called sausage-making process to which lawmakers liken their work in government.

But most important of all, perhaps, is not to erase the voice of the narrator himself in all this: George Harrison sitting down in front of a camera, long after the events transpired, long after all the recording sessions, to film an interview that will become the documentary that goes with the album. For suddenly we recognize that both the happenstance and the multiple sources are not historical facts but, instead, are items of discourse, of a social actor in the present, spinning a tale to suit his purposes: we didn’t set out to do this, it just happened, and that makes the result all the more magical.

Lesson? Handle origins tales with care, whomever tells them.

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