Almanac Music: Wichita Lineman and me

In my mind I’ve mapped the itinerary. Of course, a massive RV will hurl us along some of Route 66’s celebrated black ribbon. All the iconic music cities: Chicago, Memphis, Nashville, New Orleans.

On my first sojourn stateside I noticed a Hotel California in Santa Barbara. Just off the handsome esplanade of palm trees and roller-bladers, it was unexpectedly modest. Of course, I didn’t go in because, as the Eagles cautioned back in 1976, the leaving gets a bit tricky.

It may surprise that Kansas is a personal musical attraction, and more particularly its largest metropolis. Why? Jimmy Webb’s “Wichita Lineman” as performed by Glen Campbell.

Like many remarkable artworks; Mona Lisa and The Great Gatsby spring to mind, it’s smaller than anticipated, coming in at only 117 words, which, let’s understand, might only be part of a Dylan verse, as magnificent as the Noble Laureate is. Webb could’ve penned this song on a beer-coaster.

With only two verses and a fractional refrain, it’s also chorus-free. Each verse opens with a modest personal observation

I am a lineman for the county

And I drive the main road

And then in the second

I know I need a small vacation

But it don’t look like rain

Whilst the song is simple in structure, its meaning is complex, and following each verse’s introductory image we find an abstract idea

I hear you singin’ in the wire

I can hear you through the whine

There’s expert use of alliteration here with “wire” and “whine” as the lyricist announces our central character’s romantic yearning. As many could attest living and working away from loved ones is tough, although the narrative’s about being lonesome, but not lonely. It’s also solemn, but not melancholy.

Like so much in life my “Wichita Lineman” journey is circuitous. I’d always known the song as Mum and Dad had a Glen Campbell record or two, but was alerted again to its genius by REM, who’ve performed it occasionally.

My thinking was that if Michael Stipe liked it then it must be magnificent, and his plaintive singing invests it with quiet elegance. Sometimes we need to come to something through a third party, like overhearing a stranger remark how great your friend is, which makes us smile and remember why we liked them in the first place. From time to time we all need this reassurance.

Sparsely presented but broad in their evocations, the peak of Webb’s craft is

And I need you more than want you

And I want you for all time

Here, he arranges simple words into a profound sequence, and these are among my favourite lyrics. Have you heard anything more romantic?

Rightly called the “first existential country song,” the considered angsts of an electrical worker in Kansas are as instructive as any, but they’re also universal in their poignancy. There’s aching authenticity of voice too, and his earthly investment is real. Someone once said that it’s a song about nothing, but also a song about everything.

Is it country music or a pop song? Probably neither, probably both.

One muggy Singapore afternoon I was with friends in an Orchard Road bar, bursting with American sailors. Drowning their final hours of shore-leave before departing for Iraq, we talked with a few of them. Already some were homesick and missing their family, while others were eager for some desert adventure.

Above the throng a vast TV screen played continuous country music: awful, thoughtless fodder. Think, “Achy Breaky Heart” but without the subtle insights into the human condition, and majestic instrumentation.

Between Budweisers I said, “Hey Colin, have you noticed that every singer is wearing a Stetson?” Considering the televisual entertainment Colin took a swig, and replied, “Yep. Uncanny, isn’t it?” Indeed, the primary musical skill seemed to be the generally accurate and unaided wearing of a hat.

That night there was no “Wichita Linesman.” On the cusp of its fiftieth anniversary it transcends the dusty prairies, and remains suspended above time.

It’s the perfect distillation of hope. Play it to someone you love.

 

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About Mickey Randall

Late afternoon beer, Exile on Main St playing. Sport like cricket, most types of football, golf, squash, horse racing. Travel, with Vancouver my favourite city, but there’s nowhere I’ve not happily been. Except Luton. Reading. Writing about family, sport, music, the stuff that amuses me. Conversation. Wit. Irony. McLaren Vale cabernet sauvignon, Barossa shiraz, Coopers Sparkling Ale. Jazz and especially Miles Davis. Lots and lots of music. I live in Adelaide with my wife Kerry-ann and our boys Alex and Max.

Comments

  1. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says:

    Of the many (undiscovered?) wonders hidden in our parents’ record collections, Wichita Lineman is in the main pack.

    That Webb guy went alright, didn’t he Mickey?

  2. He did Swish and owes a minor debt to a few American cities- Phoenix, Galveston and Wichita. Probably best he didn’t pen a song about Intercourse, Pennsylvania. Although, who can say?

    Of the old vinyl at Mum and Dad’s Glen Campbell is much better than Herb Alpert Presents Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66. But this is just my view.

    Thanks.

  3. Rollicked around Europe last year with Glen Campbell’s Greatest Hits on high rotation. How do I know all the words after 40 years when I can’t remember my PIN number? The mark of great songs and songwriters – the earworm lies dormant in our heads until the opening bars.
    Watched the Glen Campbell documentary about his Alzheimer’s “I’ll be Me” on Netflix recently. The Avenging Eagle avoids that sort of stuff at all costs having lost her beloved dad to it a few years ago. We were both riveted – honest, joyful, painful – just like the disease itself. Highly recommended. And the latter songs and albums “Ghosts on the Canvas” and “I Won’t Really Miss You” stand up against the earlier Webb classics.
    Thanks Mickey.

  4. Well said, Mickey.

    I saw REM do “Wichita Lineman” in their encore at a show at the Myer Music Bowl. The moment was slightly spoilt when they called Jim Courier out to play drums on the track.

  5. PB- thanks for the tips on the documentary and other GC albums. I also love hearing a song after many, many years and being taken back to another place. Brilliant. I reckon there’s some stories in this.

    Wouldn’t it be sad if we recalled our PIN and passwords and not songs?

  6. Smokie- When thinking about this song and Jimmy Webb and Glen Campbell and REM, I didn’t imagine that we’d also consider the Australian Open (1992, 1993) and French Open (1991, 1992) winner! Did Courier mishear “Lineman” and think “Linesman?”

    I think Stipe is a great singer, and his voice is especially suited to Wichita Lineman.

    Thanks.

  7. G’day Mickey.
    Lovely images you evoke there.

    I am particularly taken by the lines you highlight:
    “And I need you more than want you
    And I want you for all time”

    So much weight and so much light. Wonderful.

  8. Thanks David.

    In a song in which the lyrics represent a superb distillation, I think this couplet is the finest example of this. There’s a story that Glen Campbell recorded the song and then Jimmy Webb protested that he hadn’t finished it, which some suggest is one of the best miscommunications ever- a happy accident for all.

    It reminds me of the advice that Les Murray gave on writing poetry when he said that once the poem is finished you should immediately chop off the final two lines for then you’ll have a much improved piece.

  9. Points deducted for dissing Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66 in your comments Mickey. One of my first records was an EP (explain that to your kids) with their version of McCartney’s “Fool on the Hill”. Great swirling rhumba beat and cool female voices. The Avenging Eagle and I still cut a great dash to it on the dance floor at the Cousins Club.
    I think it was the mysterious lyrics that attracted me as much as Serg and the girls:
    “Well on the way, his head in a cloud
    The man of a thousand voices
    Is talking perfectly loud
    But nobody ever hears him
    Or the sound he appears to make
    And he never seems to notice
    But the fool on the hill…………………”
    Not quite Webbian brevity but the allusions appealed to my adolescent brain (still as much at 61 as 14).

  10. PB- I’m listening to Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66’s version of the Beatles classic as I type, and can’t help but think that it might feature in an especially bloodthirsty scene in an upcoming Tarantino film.

    I know it’s a stretch, but I do have significant affection for the José Feliciano version of “Light My Fire.” Released less than a year after the original Doors’ track it’s bold and a utterly different interpretation.

    Thanks.

  11. Peter Warrington says:

    yes Jimmy W tells a great story about meeting Campbell and GC telling him they thought they had a hit with that Wichita thing. And Webb saying it wasn’t anywhere near finished. “it is now…”

    he also reckoned the studio wanted a screamer of a chorus, “WICHITA, I’m GOING TO WICHITA” etc.

    perfect the way it is.

    also exquisite is the bass intro, so delicious. it took me years to believe that it wasn’t a guitar. them Wrecking Crew should get some of the credit for the signature version.

    The Drunk the Monk and the Spunk used to do a pretty solid version in the 90s.

  12. I imagine it was fairly brave to write and also to record a song without a chorus at the time. How great that it happened! The bass intro is wonderful and tells the audience that this will be an unconventional three minutes.

    Thanks Peter.

  13. i have conflated my stories here. it was Phoenix that the execs wanted him to chorus; but Wichita was definitely “unfinished”.

    (brain addled by a week off work.)

  14. Luke Reynolds says:

    Sometimes the simple songs are the best. What a classic Wichita is.
    Searching for the REM version now, must admit I’ve never heard it.

  15. Thanks Peter and Luke.

    There’s something enigmatic about the making of music. I love the stories of how the songs came to be. I’m happy to be corrected, but I don’t reckon there’s similar intrigue in how books are written, or even how films are produced. I’ve only seen a few, but the Classic Albums documentaries are wonderful, even the one on AFL poster boy Meatloaf.

    Hope you found and enjoyed the REM version, Luke. It’s a treat!

  16. Dave Brown says:

    Yeah, I’m with you Mickey. My folks had a reasonably large and mostly not-played during our childhood record collection from their younger days. Glen Campbell nestled snugly with Marty Robbins’s Gunfighter Ballads and Gene Pitney’s Only Love Can Break a Heart. You could always tell my dad’s favourite songs of that era though because as he did the dishes on Saturday nights with radio headphones (listening to 5DN?) on he would belt out the ones that spoke to him. Wichita Lineman was in that bunch and it speaks to me too – tied to childhood, so a strong bond.

    Have heard REM do it live and not surprising. It fits very well with the American soundscape they have created in a couple of their albums – particularly their Reveal / Up period. Cheers

  17. Thanks Dave. The evolution of how we listen to music is interesting. From your Dad taking in 5DN as he did the dishes to today’s myriad digital options. I’m a big fan of Spotify and much prefer our boys to use this on my laptop than the games they sometimes wish to play. I also like tunein radio, and will never not be astonished that I can access this to listen to BBC Radio 6 Music in the car as I head home from work some days.

    The REM albums you mention are great. I know it’s unfashionable but their much heralded early works are too murky for me and Stipe’s voice is buried. New Adventures in HiFI is wonderful although it wasn’t a massive hit. Hearing “Electrolite” played live in London’s Hyde Park one summer evening a highlight. I wasn’t surprised when they called it a day as I thought their final two records were flat. But they did have two pretty good decades!

  18. Neil Anderson says:

    One of the morning TV hosts announced the death of Glen Campbell and said he was famous for his song ‘Rhinestone Cowboy’. That was the best they could come up with to tell everyone who he was. I immediately thought of all his other hits, including of course ‘Wichita Linesman’ and all the other hits written by Jimmy Webb. It wasn’t cool to listen to Glen Campbell when he outsold the Beatles in 1968, but it sure would be now when we take time to listen to those lyrics you have examined so well Mickey.
    Let’s hope we hear a lot more of Jimmy Webb’s music as they pay tribute to Glen Campbell. I think Jimmy Webb was in Australia just recently.

  19. Joe De Petro says:

    Fantastic read, Mickey. We lose another good ‘un.

    Without these songs, would Aussies know anything at all about places like Wichita, Phoenix and Galveston? I doubt it but somehow, these, in all likelihood, dreary little towns hold romantic memories for us.

  20. Thanks Neil. “Rhinestone Cowboy” is a good, fun song, and for many the entry point to GC, but it’s no Wichita. There’s a sparseness to the song- lyrically and musically that makes it work so very well.

    Cheers Joe. I imagine you’re correct about Wichita and Galveston. I spent a night in Phoenix and my memory of it is that it was surprisingly air-polluted. Something to do with surrounding mountains and the pollution having no escape. Not what I expected for a place in the desert, albeit a pretty big one- approaching five million for the metro area. There’s something undeniable about the romantic sense of place in these and other songs.

  21. Rick Kane says:

    Hi MR, can’t believe I didn’t comment on this the first time around. But on his passing we should stop and take a moment. Lineman is a terrific song, as much heart felt singing as it is decent lyrics. Maybe even more so. Campbell’s sense of timing (iread somewhere that he played guitar to the start of the beat to make it sounded like it was just ahead but not really), as a musican served his singing really well. He also was in that very small group that could hear the song deeply. Elvis was of course the master. Charlie Rich wasn’t too bad either. Glen Campbell knew a good song inside out. Think of the songs he covered in his last couple of records. He was still finding gems. I would also suggest Rhinestone is much more that a good fun song. In fact, finding a joyous melody in what is really a downbeat story makes the song even better. (think what Bruce did with Hungry Heart and Dancing in the Dark). But when Campbell sings “there’s been a load of compromisin on the road to my horizon but I’m gonna be where the lights are shining on me” it takes my breath away. I don’t really have a fave GC song, WL is right up there but the two songs I return to again and again are Gentle on my Mind (that’s existential) and Try a Little Kindness. Cheers

  22. Jim Kesselschmidt says:

    Really enjoyed reading your writing. Funny how many times I’ve heard it but always remembered it and sang it (to myself that is) as “Wichita Linesman”.

  23. Rick- “In fact, finding a joyous melody in what is really a downbeat story makes the song even better.” is true for much art I reckon. This seeming disconnect somehow makes the whole so much richer and worthy of contemplation. I think Scott Fitzgerald did this as well as any. I read more today of GC’s acclaimed work as a session guitarist and some of the massive songs he lent his playing to. For this alone we should be grateful. Thanks Rick.

    Jim- I’m sure most of us have a song or two that we habitually mis-sing! No crime there. My wife has always sung the Ben Folds’ number “Rockin’ The Suburbs” as “Rockin’ The Summer”, and our oldest is now doing this too. It is obviously genetic.

  24. Earl O'Neill says:

    I was much irritated to hear that Glen Campbell “was known as the Rhinestone Cowboy” when it’s a bit of a derisive term. ‘Wichita Lineman’ features one of my alltime fave gtr solos, clean, simple, elegant, like the song. And, when I heard it on 2CH today it was preceded by Sergio Mendes’ tasty pyschedelic samba arrangement of ‘Scarborough Fair.’
    Glen said that his days of playing sessions were the best of his life. “Every day I’d go to the studio and play all these great songs with my friends” (quoting from memory.) He played on hundreds of classic singles.

  25. Earl O'Neill says:

    Damn, posted before clarifying, the Washington Post made that irritating and inaccurate description.

  26. it’s a sad sad day. But not unexpected, it was pretty clear from the Jimmy Webb gig that he wasn’t doing great.

    what an awesome singer and guitarist. a giant has fallen : (

  27. Earl- his guitar work on Elvis’ Viva Las Vegas alone gets him huge points.

    Peter- agreed. Great voice, but an even better singer.

    Thanks.

  28. Jimmy Webb penned a few words about his friendship with Glen on his Facebook page today. Well worth the read: https://www.facebook.com/JimmyWebbMusic/posts/1812201325474480

  29. Rick Kane says:

    This is from a good friend and one of Australia’s best music writers:

    http://www.aroundthesound.com.au/content/glen-campbell-remembered

  30. Gigs- that’s a beautiful set of insights.

    Rick- that concert in Perth would’ve been remarkable. To see such a luminous star in physical descent: humbling, touching, inspirational.

    Cheers.

  31. Grant Fraser says:

    @Gigs Jimmy’s recent performance in Melbourne was basically a love story about him and Glen. The most touching point was when Jimmy spoke of Glen coming off stage after performing Lineman, and asking Jimmy “Did you write that?”. There was a collective intake of breath in the audience as the message sank in. So sad.

  32. A beautiful vignette Grant. There’s often poetry when the artist and the person are blurred.

  33. Earl O'Neill says:

    586 songs in 1963 alone, that doesn’t include unreleased tracks.

  34. Peter Fuller says:

    Gigs,
    Thank you for the pointer to the Jimmy Webb FB entry. Hauntingly poignant.

  35. Galveston, a tune that stands the test of time. Interesting reading a recent article he ‘performed’ in Galveston, during his teenage years, playing in a bordello for tips. He never performed a ‘legitimate’ show in Galveston until 2004.

    Jimmy Webb is an intriguing character.The Supremes, Johnny Rivers, Richard Harris are all performers who recorded songs written by Jimmy Webb. His work with Glen Campbell includes classics such as Galveston, By the time i get to Phoenix,and Galveston. Truly a talented songwriter who is recognised by winning Grammy Awards,and various songwriters awards. Apparently, By the time i get to Phoenix was the third most played song between 1940 & 1990

    Vale Glen Campbell.,

    Glen!

  36. Glen!- I assume you mean tips of a monetary kind, but either way I’m sure it was instructive for young Glen. Third most played? I guess Yesterday is high on the list too. No doubt Achy Breaky Heart is right up there, post-1990, in a grim reflection of the times!

    Thanks Glen!

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