Almanac Music – ‘Wichita Lineman’: a 42-minute version

Glen Campbell is waiting in the studio for a song. He has an album to finish. A courier rushes in with a cassette. The Wrecking Crew, a collective of session musicians, gets to work.

 

The song is ‘Wichita Lineman’ and the writer Jimmy Webb. Under pressure to finish it, he sent an incomplete version, but heard nothing back. Bumping into the singer weeks later Webb said, “I guess you guys didn’t like the song.”

 

Campbell replied, “Oh, we cut that.”

 

“It wasn’t done! I was just humming the last bit!”

 

‘Well, it’s done now!”

 

Yes, it was.

 

Indeed, Webb had scarcely completed two verses totalling a dozen lines. He’d intended to add a third if required. In this space Glen Campbell put his now famous and improvised solo.

 

I wonder if Jimmy Webb ever finished his lyrics. What might he have said? What else might he have taken from the lineman’s interior monologue? In the original he moves between the immense three of love, self and work. What else is there?

 

It’s a great unfinished artwork like Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon, and Gaudi’s Basílica de la Sagrada Família.

 

If Webb had now penned a third verse I’m unsure I want to read it. Would it be like painting a hat on the woman in the Mona Lisa?

 

The song’s superb just as it is.

 

*

Lengthy songs have always fascinated me for their enhanced narrative possibility, and I enjoy entering these protracted sometimes strange worlds. I find The Doors’ ‘The End’ (11:43), ‘So I’m Growing Old on Magic Mountain’ by Father John Misty (9:58), ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’ by Creedence Clearwater Revival (11:04), and Frank Zappa’s ‘Billy the Mountain (24 minutes) are all, for me, enduringly absorbing.

 

Early in our post-Sweden isolation, I was scanning the alternate music website Pitchfork when I found a post on suggested music for these uncommon times. Seeing the song title ‘Wichita Lineman’, I leant closer to my screen. It was the famous song but a cover version by the Dick Slessig Combo. No, I hadn’t heard of them either.

 

There was a YouTube link and my search indicated that the song wasn’t on Spotify. Indeed, trawling the internet I’ve discovered that they’re from LA and formed after the demise of cult group Acetone with guitarist Mark Lightcap common to both. They pressed a few hundred CDs. That’s about it.

 

*

 

Clicking the link I hear a slowed, almost eerily subdued set of notes. The iconic melody only arrives after seven minutes, and the entire piece – ‘song’ seems inadequate – drifts and hovers with guitars quietly climbing before falling away like an elderly priest. Over its 42-minute duration it’s entirely instrumental.

 

The soundscape conjures both the empty landscape of Kansas and the protagonist’s mindscape with graceful use of tremolo and reverb.

 

Vast and sprawling, it evokes Webb’s everyman “apparition.” It’s not sad or lonely but rather about aloneness. There’s deep beauty carried in the music and a compelling, respectful fragility. It probes and portrays.

 

Like the original, it’s inward-looking but also a meditation. Given the deep and universal thoughts of Webb’s character, the existentialism is expressed perfectly with the sound flowing like an ancient holy river.

 

The occasionally maligned Billy Joel once said “Wichita Lineman” is “a simple song about an ordinary man thinking extraordinary thoughts.”

 

The Dick Slessig Combo offers an exquisite tribute and exploration of the song’s haunting, singular image.

 

It’s transcendence.

 

 

@MichealRandall5

 

You can read more of Mickey’s colourful contributions by clicking here.

 

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About Mickey Randall

Favourite film: The Shawshank Redemption Favourite song: Khe Sahn Favourite holiday destination: Gold Coast Favourite food: steak Favourite beer: VB Best player seen: Dogga Worst player seen: Frogga Last score on beep test: 3.14159 Favourite minor character in Joyce’s Ulysses: Punch Costello

Comments

  1. Colin Ritchie says

    ‘And I need you more than want you, and I want you for all time…’ One of the great lines! Fab read Mickey.

  2. Thanks Colin. It certainly is although debate continues about this couplet. Is it a healthy situation? Is the protagonist a little unstable given this is more about need? Or is it simply a highly romantic metaphor? I’m prefer the final of these positions.

    Coincidentally I’ve just received an early birthday present which is a book entirely devoted to this song called The Wichita Lineman: Searching in the Sun for the World’s Greatest Unfinished Song. By GQ editor Dylan Jones, I’m really looking forward to it.

  3. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    “I mix the paint up in the doodad”

  4. Of course Swish. I don’t know why Webb didn’t go with that!

    “Searchin’ in the sun for another overload”- is this really part of the job description for a lineman in Kansas? Seems a little vague and as they say, undeliverable.

  5. Jim Kesselschmidt says

    “Billy the Mountain” wow what a blast from my past. Ethel was a tree Mr Zappa more than once told me.

    I think I posted before that I always heard “Wichita Linesman”

  6. Thanks JIm. What a visionary, guitarist and song writer was Zappa. I knew of Zappa previously but one night on their great Sunday night show the Coodabeens were briefly chatting of Zappa and all agreed that “Billy the Mountain” was his best song so I bought the album “Just Another Band From LA” and was transfixed by the scope of the song. A few years’ ago I wrote a piece about the song for the Almanac’s sister site, Stereo Stories-

    https://www.stereostories.com/billy-the-mountain-by-frank-zappa/

    The lineman/linesman dilemma is interesting as in Australia we have a history of using the latter so I often think that should be the song title.

  7. roger lowrey says

    Brilliant Mickey.

    I’m glad to know there is someone else out there who has been as fascinated about this song as long I have been. The lyrics have always been as haunting as the simplicity of the musical arrangement.

    No, I can’t quibble with your “not sad or lonely but rather about aloneness”. If I could add a dimension though, what strikes me most is the, perhaps, resigned wistfulness rather akin to Jimmy Buffet’s Come Monday.

    Keep up the good output though comrade and don’t let any of this distract you from your Captain Ahab like quest to understand the true meaning of sausage rolls and the Little River Band.

  8. Thanks Roger. Appreciate your thoughts. Agree that there’s a haunted quality but of course, we’re unsure of the details. The fun and engagement comes in speculating about the cause or causes of his wistfulness.

    Listening to Jimmy Buffet only last Friday- uncanny!

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