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Wichita Lineman: a 42-minute version

WL

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.

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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.

 

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Viral Stories

 

FA

The Footy Almanac is a magnificent community for reading and writing, and occasionally it runs competitions. It recently held a microfiction event in which twitter stories with a maximum of 280 characters on the theme of the current virus were sought.

It was terrific and the entries were varied and offered compelling insights into the challenges and human responses to our circumstances.

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The stories are collected here-

https://www.footyalmanac.com.au/almanac-writing-competition-almanac280-covid-19/

Claire and I were in Europe when this contagion accelerated. In chronological order here’s my three stories.

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post-Sweden isolation

 

At the outbreak of the outbreak in a Swedish cottage. Beyond the cold glass are the forest, lake, brisk air, and our sublime late afternoons. We breathe our words to and fro. The cottage is a meniscus, and like migratory atoms, we are within, and then, without.

 

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Our languid breakfast is done. On the table: a carton of milk, muesli, a punnet of berries. Two coffee cups, almost nodding at each other like we might’ve done at a party decades ago, a conspiracy of caffeine. The day stretches its arms. Isolation begins.

 

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The light bends in and falls across us like soft piano notes. A tiny expansive space. This is our morning and evening altar, and here we share the day’s fresh promise and sink into night’s snug entwining. Outside, an earth spins. Inside, it’s our second week.

 

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2

Sausage Roll Review: (not quite) Hurling on Hurtle Square

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Colonel William Light’s vision for Adelaide included five public squares: Hindmarsh, Light, Victoria, Whitmore and Hurtle. Each has a distinct appearance and mise en scène and despite driving through it for decades I’d not enjoyed the latter’s leafy space.

Claire and I bought a late lunch from this state’s dominant petrol retailer and biggest private company: an On The Run (OTR) service station. Of course, its customers are rarely running anywhere as they’re in vehicles and as such are necessarily sedentary, and most outlets of this type haven’t provided any traditional service for epochs. Simply fill the car and then scoop up hideously overpriced drink and food and go to the cashier. The only service offered is a chirpily redundant, “Would you like your receipt?”

Hurtle Square is in the south-eastern corner of the city and mostly surrounded by low-rise apartments whose balconies look out over the greenery. Arboriculturally, this park is diverse with magnolia and thin pine trees and other trees in seemingly random arrangement. But I remember that like a late-period Steely Dan album, it’s possible to over-engineer.

I’ve a cheese and bacon sausage roll. It makes a positive optical impression with agreeable pastry that’s neither flaky nor oily, but my context is reminiscent of the soon-to-be-regecided King Duncan gazing upon Macbeth’s home when he remarks: this castle hath a pleasant seat.

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Unsurprisingly, this pastry’s sinister mission is to protect an inferior filling, like a heavy-set Secret Service agent from a 1980s film starring Brian Dennehy. While it’s admirable, camouflage and strategic distraction are evident and I note that yet again subterfuge lurks in my simple foodstuff.

Its texture is uncertain and mushy, and I understand that sausage rolls don’t contain real sausages, but if this were encased and sizzling away on my barbeque in front of people both dear or of mere acquaintance, I’d have an acute case of Sausage Shame (SS). Knocking sullenly on the office door of my superior, I’d hand in my tongs and apron and barbequing badge (a scene from a different Brian Dennehy film).

The cheese I was promised is barely present. Instead it’s like the elusive memory of cheese from, say, my middle past, and in the manner of a Wordsworth conceit it’s both troubling but also hopeful in that one day I may again enjoy cheese, possibly in a sausage roll advertising such. In 2020, even cheese is complicated.

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My longing deepens when I gaze over at the Coopers Alehouse. It began as the Earl of Aberdeen before Dame Edna Everage reopened it with a new name in 1987 (wouldn’t Sir Les Paterson been better placed to handle this?). Like many pubs it has a forlorn canvas advertising pick up only meals from 5-8pm.

Still, it’s a breezeless, mild May in our mostly safe and opportunely isolated state. SA’s had no new cases for twelve days and Audrey’s vintage coffee van was doing a lively trade this morning on the Glenelg North esplanade as I ambled through.

While my sausage roll was of motley quality Claire and I now turn to the next course of our alfresco eating: an unapologetically decadent vanilla slice with a calorific count probably beyond a K-Mart abacus.

As the Two Fat Ladies’ Clarissa and Jennifer used to rejoice, “Munch on, munch on, what a lovely luncheon!”

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The Depraved, Godless, Sicko Hedge Sparrows of Yorkshire, and other documentaries

Among the week’s high points is watching Shaun Micallef’s Mad as Hell with Alex. Our favourite part is his preview for a ridiculous nature documentary which always makes us laugh like lizards.

We think it genius.

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2

A Good Friday in Glenelg North

Shuffling past the Old Gum Tree Reserve at lunchtime my boys are playing golf.

They’ve designed a course and while each hole is unique they share one green, located near the back fence and made with a disposable drink cup. Both carry various irons and woods and they’ve the park to themselves, but I hope the putters don’t suddenly become light sabres or Samurai swords.

Continuing west I mourn that in 2020 we’ve not yet had a BBQ in the park as circumstances haven’t allowed the simple joy of snags in a public place. This now belongs to a distant, almost unknowable era but one day…

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Every Proclamation Day the park hosts formalities and a morning tea to mark the province’s beginning. A few years’ ago a friend, Sarah, took a selfie with Julia Gillard, who was in town for Christmas.

Bounding up to the then PM as she made her way through the scone-loving crowd, Sarah asked the question and so they both paused, smiled and click. Just like that. No burly black suits panicking into their lapel microphones and leaping like bears onto a salmon. I love that this could happen, just down the road.

It’s a kilometre from home to the beach and then another along the waterfront so my round trip’s about four kilometres. While I once ran, to now call it a jog might be hopeful. I could time myself with a sundial.

Over Tapleys Hill Road, I pass the MacFarlane Street reserve with its playground guarded by orange bunting. Alex learnt to ride a bike here. Palm trees patrol the perimeter and on spring mornings magpies swoop me. One once pecked my skull but I was clearly under-cooked as he didn’t come for a second bite. I wouldn’t eat my head either.

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Waiting for me is the unhurried Patawalonga River. It’s only seven kilometres in length, but this is decidedly Mississippian compared to Kuokanjoki, the shortest river in Finland which connects lakes Sumiainen and Keitele. It’s three and a half metres long.

The King Street Bridge conquered I reach the esplanade and the sea swims into happy view. To my left is the sand castle-like Marina Pier with its now ghostly restaurants and apartment balconies. Turning right the pavers follow the beach and bounce along the dune line. There’s an energetic torrent of walkers and cyclists.

Glenelg North’s beach is wide and dotted by dogs, and with a gentle sky above it’s easy to momentarily ignore the cataclysm. People appear joyful. There’s communicable resilience.

Rip-rap rocks armour the shoreline against erosion. I recall how in 1983 during a Year 12 Geography excursion with our teacher Ali Bogle we visited this very spot on a balmy Thursday prior to our penultimate Kapunda High School social. I was astonished when Ali told us that it costs a million dollars a kilometre to build this protection.

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The esplanade rises gently as I go, but on a rough day with a headwind it seems Himalayan. The eastern side is flanked by houses, all glass and chrome and dazzlingly white. Soon all will be modern, when the sixties-build apartments are bulldozed.

I often smirk at Number 20 with its outsized silver numerals on the front wall, and remember Shrek seeing the size of Lord Farquaad’s castle, and asking Donkey, “Do you think maybe he’s compensating for something?”

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A sunshiny addition to this landscape is Audrey’s coffee caravan. It’s homemade with wooden window frames and pop-riveted aluminium and a chalkboard menu out the front. There’s always a punter or two waiting and drinking in the aroma.

I’m nearly at West Beach and the enviably positioned Sewerage Treatment Works on Anderson Avenue. Gee, poo often enjoys an idyllic (temporary) coastal address. Just short of the dunes there’s a small shelter. Occasionally, a pair of Jehovah’s Witnesses sets up a pamphlet display to conscript the dog-walking, beach-loving, track-suited clientele so affectionately referred to in the Old Testament.

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Although they cheerfully ignore me I recall the words of Bill Bryson: I don’t know why religious zealots have this compulsion to try to convert everyone who passes before them – I don’t go around trying to make them into St Louis Cardinals fans, for Christ’s sake – and yet they never fail to try.

I turn for home.

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1

After isolation

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In the driver’s seat and turning the key I notice the windshield is dusty. It’s nearly a month since my car went anywhere. It’s been in quarantine too.

Having reversed out the garage I change gears. Crunch. Like a dawn golfer on the opening tee-block I’m easing into my routines.

Up the end of our street I see a girl, bent down in the driveway, admiring her chalk drawings of pink and blue on the grubby concrete. Home-schooled, her Art lesson’s done.

I’ve not been outside in Australia since early March. April 1st is a fitting date to tiptoe out. Over the past fourteen days the mostly imagined, newsfeed horror of supermarket fights, deserted malls and shut playgrounds has battered me. A girl drawing out the front of her home is a welcoming image; at once pristine and sweetly unknowing.

Heading towards the city Anzac Highway is quiet although a bus cuts me off. I almost applaud. The ancient annoyances are now likely to comfort. I see an old man at a bus-stop. Squatting next to him is his terrier. Both appear calm. There’s a patience about them. What choice do we have?

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Triple J is playing something antagonising. Maybe now, I’m finally too old. I push the radio button for Triple M. Some dire 1980’s song. Maybe not.

I pass the monolithic and charmless Highway Inn, all shut except for its drive through. It’s mid-morning, but a couple utes are in there. Taking opportunities when they can. Never have I so acutely felt the tension between self and family and community.

Up near South Road a new petrol station is being built. Half a dozen tradies are in the forecourt, on the canopy, putting in windows. Previously, I’d connect this to cars, fossil fuels, climate change. But today it’s a reluctant symbol of growth and hope.

I then see an old BP. Fuel is 84 cents. This seems more 1991 and not 2020. I rub the back of my neck. No. No mullet there. The day before we flew to Sweden fuel was $1.40.

On our final night in isolation I shaved off the first-ever beard I’d grown. Confinement offered opportunity too. The patio pavers enjoyed their first pressure clean in a decade. Claire got stuck into the cupboards. I rang family and friends. Sat in the sun.

Arriving at work to collect a camera for the globally-compulsory Zoom meetings, I pulled into the barren carpark.

I was also there for my flu shot.

In our world of heightened immuno-consciousness, this seemed an urgent idea. I fumbled for my security tag.

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0

Kenny Rogers and me

K D

In 1983, during Year 12, these are the songs I unforgivably thought were cool:
“Twisting by the Pool” by Dire Straits
“Bop Girl” by Pat Wilson
and this, yes, this
“Safety Dance” by Men Without Hats.

How could this ever have happened?

Later that year, just after I turned seventeen, Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton released “Islands in the Stream” (named after a Hemingway novel) and I scoffed at it. Country music! Old people! Corny! I was seventeen.

It was unlikely played on 5SSA-FM as SA-FM was then known. I can’t recall hearing it on the Morning Zoo with John Vincent and Grant Cameron as I drove my sky-blue HR Holden to Kapunda High to endure the poetry of Gerard Manly Hopkins (“I caught this morning morning’s minion, kingdom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon”).

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I didn’t appreciate its alternating lead vocals, superb harmonies, and thrilling key change until, I’m ashamed to share, much later in life. And Dolly, somehow both tiny and colossal, is the perfect partner to Kenny’s warm yet seasoned voice.

Often now making an appearance on the back patio at a BBQ it’s one of the great duets.

*

Growing up in the 70s, Mum and Dad had some of Kenny Rogers’ vinyl including his greatest hits and the compelling Eyes That See in the Dark (of course, he could never have been Ken Rogers for he’s obviously the manager of your local hardware store). The albums are long gone but I remember him spinning on the Pye 3-in-1 (turntable, cassette and radio) and his voice. It was golden but with an edge of experience and slight menace as needed. It also hinted at a mythic America of adventure and promise. It evoked a place I wanted to go.

As with much in art and music there’s often a dramatic gap between the sunny melodies and the lyric’s dark narrative. “Coward of the County” is about sexual violence, “Reuben James” explores deep-seated racism and “Ruby” concerns a Vietnam veteran whose disability renders him unable to satisfy his wife so she ventures into town- “painted up your lips and rolled and curled your tinted hair”- to get her needs met, but my childhood ears were deaf to these distant themes.

*

The Big Lebowski is my favourite film and Kenny contributes to this too. In this shaggy-dog story bringing together a congregation of random, found objects, “Just Dropped In (to See What Condition My Condition Was in)” fits the much-loved dream sequence perfectly. It’s by The First Edition and lead vocals are by Kenny. The scene begins when porn star Jackie Treehorn drugs The Dude’s White Russian.

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The Dude is the main character played by Jeff Bridges and presents like Kenny if he’d let himself go and frequented his local supermarket Ralph’s in his house pants and dressing gown. Featuring bowling, Saddam, love interest Maude in Viking costume, and some Johnson-dismembering Nihilists welding novelty-sized scissors, this psychedelic pop track is an irresistible accompaniment, and gave Kenny some late-career pop culture panache.

The lyrics open thus:
I woke up this morning with the sundown shining in
I found my mind in a brown paper bag within
I tripped on a cloud and fell-a eight miles high
I tore my mind on a jagged sky
I just dropped in to see what condition my condition was in.

Just like the Dude, and most of The Big Lebowski, these are joyously nonsensical.

*

Early this century on my first big overseas trip I saw much that bedazzled me. The Berlin Wall, Big Ben, the Colosseum. But, among the strangest sights was one at the start in Penang. Wandering about Georgetown, the muggy, sister-city of Adelaide, and staring at the Chinese, Indian, Islamic and British architecture beyond the downtown markets, I saw what appeared as yet another American restaurant.

Getting closer, I squint at the signage. Kenny Rogers Roasters. Oh, must be another of that name I thought. A local icon I’ve not heard of. Fantastic. That’s why we travel. But the face seems familiar. White beard, grandfatherly. Vaguely Colonel Sanders so that is right for a chook place. Intrigued I stroll in.

It was that Kenny Rogers. With his own restaurant! In the middle of Asia! A long way from Nashville. What a glorious, unforeseen world.

Inside the walls were festooned with gold records and beaming (possibly photo shopped) pictures of Houston’s favourite country star. “The Gambler” strummed out beneath the slowly circulating ceiling fans. Still disbelieving, and considering the menu, it seemed neither Southern American nor Asian but possibly a Mississippian/ Malaysian fusion.

A decade or so later there was a Kenny Rogers Roasters (although the last American KRR diner closed in 2011, it’s still powering in Asia) across from my Singaporean condominium at the geographically-confused shopping centre Great World City. Fresh to the country, I took the boys there once for a dreadfully expensive meal of chicken and chips, and wondered how mad the unrelenting stream of Kenny’s Greatest Hits might send even the most devoted of wait staff.

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*

Kenny Rogers has drifted in and out of my life in both affectionate and minor ways. Glancing at his back catalogue, there’s an ungodly number of Christmas albums, but he’s made a personal mark. Yesterday with everything spiralling, a mate sent me a message which said:
Kenny Rogers dippin’ out in the middle of an apocalypse is the most “know when to fold ‘em” shit I’ve ever heard.

Well played, Kenny. Thanks.

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