2

Galveston and me

 

postcard

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.

Galveston picture

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.

Galveston record

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.

sea bird

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.

Galveston music

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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

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