2

At 5pm we drive around Lake Bonney and guess how many cars we’ll pass

My thong presses the accelerator as we pass the Bluebird Café and steer along Queen Elizabeth Drive with the lake on our left and a row of beige residences on our right. We see the besser block holiday unit I stayed in with Mum, Dad and my sister Jill when I was thirteen.

In that hot bedroom I played Hotel California over and over on my little cassette player when I wasn’t walking to and from Barwell Avenue and gazing in shops or drifting by the jetty just across from the town oval, home to the Barmera Roos.

We’ve decided upon the guessing order for the week and each must declare their prediction before we leave the town limits.

Max goes with his traditional low number. He’s already a student of the form, and gets us away with a crisp, ‘Three.’

Alex quickly declares, ‘Four’ and Claire participates with an optimistic, ‘Six.’

I then finish the formalities with what history tells us is an unlikely seven. All moving vehicles count, but we must pass them on the road itself before we get to the finish line. We call it the Lake Lap and it’s now in its third big season.

It’s a January afternoon and time for our daily tradition. Just before 5pm we coax the boys into the car from the jetty or the caravan park pool or their cabin chairs in front of the Test and alight in the pub drive-through where we negotiate our refreshments. A soft drink for the boys and a can of something serious for Claire. I get a Sparkling Ale. Alex says, “Dad, can we have some jerky too?”

‘No’ is my automatic reply, ‘you won’t eat your dinner.’ The protests begin. I then say to the drive-through attendant, ‘Can I leave the boys here with you for an hour?’

‘No’ comes his automatic reply. He’s a wizened, laconic type who looks like this job is to get him out of the house. ‘I should be immune to the noise. I’ve got eleven grand-kids.’

Easing through Barmera’s empty streets I note the bowls club and recall my first long-distance journey as a learner driver. It was 1983 and Dad had a tournament up here. In the green Ford Falcon I was legally limited to 80 kph, irritating a trailing and snarling V8. After a lengthy period he growled past me with horn blaring and outrage billowing from his twin exhausts. A mile or so later I saw a flashing blue light and the grumpy driver taking roadside receipt of a speeding fine. How I itched to honk my horn back at him, but this wouldn’t have done for a L-Plater with his Mum and Dad.

Lake Bonney’s shore is defended by dozens of dead gum trees and with the open road ahead we gather speed, but I keep to an unhurried ninety so we can better enjoy our circuit. Lonely caravans squat on the bank with their deck chairs and murmuring AM radio and late-afternoon mugs of strong tea. Above us is a soaring azure sky, and save for the mighty river and this lake we’re in a desert of scrub and sheep stations. There’s few vehicles on this section of the lap.

The radio’s on Triple J and the boys’ musical world is expanding along with their limbs so I introduce them to Tame Impala’s best album Innerspeaker and they enjoy the swirling psychedelic guitars. Is one of the selfish joys of parenthood inflicting your culture upon your offspring? Our other aural routine is Ben Folds’ Rocking the Suburbs on the way to Barmera, once we leave the Truro bakery and descend Accommodation Hill.

Drifting by the ruins at the Morgan Road intersection we then see Chambers Creek which feeds the lake’s 1700 hectares. To our right the road goes to the Overland Corner Hotel and it’s again changed hands, but is without a license until February and, of course, this is unbeknown to us on our Slim Dusty visit. Like many Murray landmarks it boasts a sign indicating the eye-widening 1956 flood level. No-one went thirsty back then.

More traffic is likely now and the current sedan score is only two so I tease with Dad comments like, “I can see a convoy of cars coming!” or “What if we pass the Hell’s Angels?” We pass the ubiquitous Pelican Point and its advertised Nudist Resort, but don’t call in as we’re overdressed. Along a fence there’s a teapot atop each of the strainer posts. With the bitumen curving about, vehicles might suddenly emerge as they make their way around the glittering lake.

After the ceaseless slog of parenting the boys as babies and toddlers they’re blossoming and rewarding company, and now choosing shared rather than solitary fun. Our daily Lake Lap represents this happy change, and I hope in years to come it’ll remain a keenly anticipated holiday routine and one they’ll discuss with affection and gentle mockery of their Dad.

Reaching the Sturt Highway today’s game concludes with Max again victorious. We’ll drive back to the cabin for a barbecue or to the Cobby Club for schnitzel night or maybe a swim in the parched, motionless evening.

5

Wichita Lineman and me

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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.