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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.

WL book

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.

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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.

 

5

Wichita Lineman and me

wl

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.

*

I am a lineman for the county

And I drive the main road Searchin’ in the sun for another overload

I hear you singin’ in the wire

I can hear you through the whine

And the Wichita lineman is still on the line

 

I know I need a small vacation

But it don’t look like rain

And if it snows that stretch down south

Won’t ever stand the strain And I need you more than want you

And I want you for all time

 

And the Wichita lineman is still on the line

And I need you more than want you

And I want you for all time

And the Wichita lineman is still on the line

 

Here’s a 43-minute version. Highly recommended.