“Heading for the light” and “Last Night”: Bob Dylan’s input into two Wilburys songs

By Tony Attwood

This website is dedicated (as I am sure you know unless you just stumbled onto this page by chance) to the musical compositions of Bob Dylan.  Which, when it comes to the Wilburys, gives me a problem since the songs are credited to everyone in the band.

One or two of the Wilburys songs I am omitting from the site completely because there is evidence that Bob simply wasn’t there on the day that song was written and recorded.  But others are more problematic so I have resolved to give them a mention.

The complete track list for the first album is

  • Handle with Care
  • End of the Line (x)
  • Dirty World*
  • Rattled
  • Last Night
  • Not Alone any more
  • Congratulations*
  • Heading for the Light
  • Margarita*
  • Tweeter and the Monkey Man*
  • End of the Line
  • Maxine
  • Like a Ship*

The last two songs were added in the 2007 re-issue of the album. The songs with the * have Dylan singing a main vocal part, which is probably a strong clue concerning authorship – although as the guys said in interviews, much of the time they sat around throwing lines at each other.

I have decided not to include “End of the Line” because not only has it got no feel for being a Dylan composition at all, but also I don’t think Dylan contributes anything to the vocals or instrumentation.  I guess he had a day off.

I’m including “Heading for the Light” really to put in a note to say yes, I know Bob was there, and maybe he contributed a line or two somewhere, but this really isn’t a Dylanesque composition at all – from the start it sounds like George Harrison, and (to me) a not particularly inspired George Harrison at that.  In short, what I hear is just a pop song – a thought backed up by the fact that Harrison’s publishing company claims the title.

One section here that stands out as non-Dylan is

Oh, I didn’t see that big black cloud hanging over me
And when the rain came down, I was nearly drowned
I didn’t know the mess I was in

Dylan, even on a bad day, wouldn’t really do “that big black cloud hanging over me” – at least not without a kick sideways in the next line.

As for “Last Night” this is clearly a Tom Petty song, and his publishing company claims it – but commentaries suggest the whole band had an involvement.

Although the lyrics have that elegant simplicity that Tom Petty can deliver so perfectly there is the occasional touch of Dylan in this.  If Petty wrote

She was there at the bar; she heard my guitar
She was long and tall; she was the queen of them all

Then I suspect Bob might have replied

She was dark and discreet; she was light on her feet
We went up to her room, and she lowered the boom

To which Tom came back with the riposte

Down below they danced and sang in the street
While up above the walls were steaming with heat

Certainly somewhere there is Dylan in that back and forth.  There is also an element of story-telling in the above which Dylan perfected in writing with Jacques Levy and carried forwards thereafter.

I was feeling no pain, feeling good in my brain
I looked in her eyes; they were full of surprise

I asked her to marry me, she smiled and pulled out a knife
“The party’s just beginning,” she said, “it’s your money or your life.”

That is a kick sideways, and Bob might have thrown that in to stop it all getting too sickly.   But I think the ending is pure Tom Petty.

Now I’m back at the bar; she went a little too far
She done me wrong, all I got is this song

It is the antithesis of

I’m gonna free fall out into nothin’
Gonna leave this world for awhile

Yes I certainly think Tom Petty could have done that.

Of course I am guessing here, but what else can one do?  I must admit I still play both the albums – although generally for certain specific tracks.   But there is a lot of warmth here, a lot of relaxed fun, and it is nice to come back to the whole album occasionslly.


Dylan Year by Year, decade by decade

The Chronology Files: These files put Dylan’s work in the order written.  You can link to the files here

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