The Story and Meaning Behind “End of the Line,” the Picture-Perfect Closing Track on the Traveling Wilburys’ Debut Album

On their rollicking debut album in 1988, the Traveling Wilburys needed just the right song to send the album out on wistful, yet upbeat note. George Harrison, the man who started the group, came up with the idea for “End of the Line,” a perfect closer that fate would render way too prescient.

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What is the song about? How did Harrison and the rest of the band put it together? And how did the band pay tribute to their departed friend in the video? Let’s find out all the answers surrounding “End of the Line.”

From a Single Song to a Full-Fledged Band

It’s mind-boggling to consider the hypotheticals surrounding the creation of the Traveling Wilburys. What if George Harrison hadn’t needed to churn out an extra song to fill out the 12-inch single of one of the songs from his 1987 Cloud Nine album? And what if one of the participants had, say, a dentist’s appointment that day and couldn’t join Harrison?

Instead, he and Jeff Lynne, in search of a studio, contacted Bob Dylan. Roy Orbison, who was having dinner anyway with Lynne, came along for the ride. A guitar Harrison wanted to use was at Tom Petty’s, so he was called to join in the fun.

When Harrison heard “Handle with Care,” the spur-of-the-moment song that they had produced that day, he realized it was far too good to waste on just a glorified B-side. But what to do with it? It was only after sitting with the tape for a few days he decided he should ask the other members if they wanted to make this collective a bit more official. The Traveling Wilburys were born.

Drawing the “Line”

When the Traveling Wilburys released their debut album in 1988, the oldest of its members, Roy Orbison, was 52. That seems like nothing today, considering rockers in their 80s are touring the world. But it’s important to remember that Orbison, Harrison, and Dylan came up in the first wave of rock and roll. Thus, at the time, they were as old as any active star musicians out there, which gave the Wilburys the feel of a tried-and-true veteran outfit.

That’s why “End of the Line” serves such a crucial purpose. It touched on that veteran vibe, and the title could easily refer to that figurative location where they would be hanging up their guitars and calling it a day. When Roy Orbison died suddenly just a few months after the release of the song on The Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1, the song felt far more bittersweet than its original intent.

When the surviving Wilburys gathered to make the video for “End of the Line,” they decided they needed to pay tribute to Orbison. The video takes place on a train, as the four men with their guitars mime the track. At the moment that Orbison’s vocals in the song kick in, a rocking chair with a guitar on it is shown on screen swaying back and forth, implying that the legendary vocalist was there with them in spirit.

What is the Meaning of “End of the Line”?

The vocals are divided up just right on “End of the Line.” Harrison, Lynne, and Orbison take the verses, characterized by the It’s all right refrain that makes the song feel so laid-back. They dispense easygoing wisdom throughout: Every day is judgment day; Even if you’re old and gray / You still got something to say; and The best you can do is forgive.

In the connecting sections, Petty takes over on lead vocals and offers a more sardonic take on aging. (Although Harrison started writing “End of the Line,” the other members of the Wilburys contributed, and it’s easy to imagine Petty contributing these parts of the song.) When the narrator talks to a former lover, he imagines that she’ll think of him, Maybe somewhere down the road when somebody plays / “Purple Haze.”

The song goes out with Harrison’s well-meaning words: Even if the sun don’t shine / Well, it’s all right / We’re going to the end of the line. What a way to end one of the finest supergroup albums ever made. “End of the Line” sends a message that’s funny, helpful, and heartfelt all at once, even if you’re not an aging veteran who can see that part of the journey a bit clearer than others.

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Photo by Frank Micelotta/Getty Images

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