Galveston and me

In New York City I thought about two novels. I was eager to explore Central Park and within its savannah we took in the summery games on Heckscher Ballfields and weaved around the picnickers sprawling in the sultry heat.

 

Of interest was The Pond given the fascination this held for Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye. He was inquisitive as to where the ducks went during the frozen winter and like many teenagers was troubled about his future and our shared vulnerabilities. I could picture Holden watching his sister Phoebe on a carousel, tears streaming at the happiness he’d finally found.

 

Nearby on 5th Avenue is The Plaza Hotel. Hosting the toxic quarrel between Gatsby and Tom in Scott Fitzgerald’s famous savaging of selfishness, The Plaza’s a grand building in this swirling city. Seeing it amplified the novel for me, and I could almost hear Daisy protest from up in one of the elegant suites, “You want too much!”

 

However, there’s an ignored American town in which I’d love to immerse myself while contemplating another significant work. My favourite intertextuality: locale and music.

 

Galveston.

 

The opening line is as euphoric as any sung. At, “Galveston, oh Galveston” we’re elevated by the combination of soaring string-section, guitar and Glen Campbell’s impossibly-honeyed voice. This proclamation is so joyous, so devout; it’s an irresistible invitation but also a prologue and an epilogue. Then, of course, there’s darkness to follow.

 

Jimmy Webb’s genius presents as achingly exquisite simplicity. In three lines he engrosses us with evocative place, love and foreshadowed dread. And this is it: an entire story, captured haiku-like with all the fictive elements required for a comprehensive saga, or epic cinema.

 

I still hear your sea winds blowing
I still see her dark eyes glowing
She was twenty-one, when I left Galveston

 

The lyrics are almost deceptive with their innocent rhyme and sparse vocabulary. Here the repetition of the adverb still conveys the protagonist’s endless torture and hauntedness. We wonder if he’ll ever return. His torment is ours, too.

 

Debate centres on the historical context. Is Webb referencing the American Civil War, the Vietnam War, or the Spanish-American war?

 

while I watch the cannons flashin’

 

While of interest to those with a military bent, the superior reading is that it’s any war, and indeed, every war.

 

“Galveston” is an anti-war declaration, but there’s a deeper premise at play. Ultimately, it’s pro-love, pro-life and celebratory. Our main character is a soldier, so hopeful, so eager to re-embrace his former world’s vitality that this amplifies his terror. He misses his girl, home town and old life. As we all would. He wants to live well.

 

The sonic qualities intensify this triumph with strings by the Wrecking Crew that are majestic; stirring; elemental. These lift the song ever-skywards, investing it with golden light. Tellingly, they’re only silent in the instrumentation when Campbell sings, “I am so afraid of dying” and their omission here bequeaths the necessary desolation.

 

Then there’s the remarkable vocal performance. With perfect phrasing it’s Sinatra-like, while displaying an enveloping, earthy warmth, and a weighty authenticity. Campbell is both the central figure and also each of us, and like a Sampras backhand, a Richard Ford sentence, or a Barossa Shiraz, there’s an outward effortlessness that leaves you sunny, but also gasping at the beauty within.

 

Along with “Wichita Lineman” and “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” Webb set these in decidedly unregarded parts of America, for he considered it best to lyrically escape the famed metropolises. The world agreed. While this particular tune uses an inconsequential resort town it speaks timelessly. The cycle’s other towns in Kansas and Arizona are now invested with an imaginative, cultural gravity. These owe Webb and Campbell.

 

Common across these is dislocation. They feature a man who’s someplace else; jettisoned and in disequilibrium. Briefly but profoundly, we’ve glimpsed the characters’ lives at a nexus. Do we dare guess at how they turned out? Did he get back to Galveston? Did he again experience those sea winds?

 

How is all this achieved in one hundred and eleven words? When the vocals are done in two minutes? It seems a bigger song: more Guernica than minimal art.

 

Our youngest, partly primed for his musical voyage by his Dad’s captaincy, has, in the bath and while getting dressed for school, started singing snippets of “Galveston.” In time, I reckon he’ll also want to come on our literary tour to this minor Texan town.

 

Locale and music.

We’ll stand on that windswept shore by the Gulf of Mexico and imagine lives other than our own.

 

 

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. Trucker Slim says:

    Hey MR,

    It is one heck of a song and GC version (the definitive version) is quite remarkable. Taking it from an explicit anti-Vietnam war song and making it a more universal lament was an inspired decision. You have done the song a great service in your analysis and very justified praise.

    Can I alert you to two other songs? The first by Springsteen is called Galveston Bay and imagines Americans and Vietnamese working their boats in the bay, following that mess of a war. It is not nearly as good but it does reference the JW song to take up and follow another thread.

    The other song is Camooweal by Slim Dusty. In this song a small western Qld town is the main character in another unrequited love song. Sad and beautiful.

    Cheers

  2. DBalassone says:

    Thanks for this analysis Mickey. I’ve been waiting quite awhile for your take on this song.

    It is a very beautiful song. Beautiful melody which carry the lyrics perfectly. I’ve heard many instrumental piano versions which are just as beautiful.

    And Trucker, I’m with you completely on Camooweal. My favourite Slim Dusty song. I just put that song on repeat when I’m on the open road.

  3. george smith says:

    Thanks for mentioning Slim Dusty, Trucker Slim. If you check Slim’s catalogue you will find a large collection of unrequited love songs, including “Losing my Blues Tonight”, “Drowning My Blues” and “Sunlander”, which would make Hank and Willie themselves so proud. Even “Lights on the Hill” has a slice of heartbreak.

    Of course when the heartless siren spurned the Slim character, he didn’t head for Nashville, he went outback!

  4. Galveston is on high rotation on the Faves travelling mix. Along with the other Glen’s.
    That opening riff – the rising guitar strum and then the descending bass riff – and the song is away. Your mention of the Wrecking Crew made me think of the Funk Brothers – the outrageously underpaid jazz session musos who added so much to the Motown classics. Standing in the Shadows of Motown is a great doco tribute film about them.
    I reckon Galveston was one of the first music videos (black and white on GTK) that didn’t just show a band strumming and lip syncing. Creatively inserted the wind swept girl with the Allison Durbin hair that he was longing for. Had this 13yo boy swooning.
    I think of Glen as this outrageously talented Mozart savant genius to Jimmy Webb’s Salieri. Webb sweated to create while music just flowed out of Glen. The I’ll Be Me documentary about his latter years with Alzheimers shows the man in all his shade and light. Its on Netflix.
    Grand stuff Mickey. Your words sing to me.

  5. Thanks to all for reading and commenting.

    Rick- I enjoyed the Springsteen song, thanks for the tip. So Galveston Bay kind of references the JW lyrics and is on an album with a title that directly links to the Grapes of Wrath. Lots of fine intertextuality there. Much re-imagining of the American landscape.

    DBalassone- cheers. Hope it lived up to your expectations. I’d been wanting to write a piece on the song for a while, and sat down late last week and made it happen. It’s a sublimely beautiful piece of music. And the guitar/outro goes for the final third of the track. I didn’t discuss this, but it’s a wonderful solo.

    george smith- thanks for this. I’m always astonished that Slim released 100 albums. That’s astonishing. I’ve not studied it in detail but would be interested in reading more of the similarities and differences between American and Australian country music in terms of aesthetics and embedded attitudes etc.

    PB- lots of great follow-up material suggested. I`m on it. The evolution of the music video is interesting to a point where now it`s rare to see a performance film. These still have a place. The Webb and Campbell partnership is one I need to find out more about.

  6. Great treatment of the song Mickey. Loved the bit about your young fella singing snippets. My now 16 year old daughter plays it constantly after I indoctrinated her on a trip around Tassie, before ratcheting it up a notch when camped at Ulverstone on a windy night and substituting it into the lyrics!

  7. Thanks B-rad. I reckon parenting can be a mix of freedom and indoctrination. Our boys are rightly NOVA listeners but I sneak other stuff into their diet just to assist. Ulverstone works nicely! Sadly for South Australians and Queenslanders Gladstone is one syllable short.

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