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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

line

 

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July 2005: It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)

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I stop the Macbeth video and flick on the radio. My Year 7’s leap around, shrieking and pink-cheeked. Ties are flapping.

IOC President Jacques Rogge begins, and with delightful, British style, the boys link arms and make a circle. Their camaraderie is catching. I laugh. Either way, we’re about to have a moment.

At 12:46 pm and ‘Lon-don,’ they erupt. England to host the 2012 Olympics! It’s lovely, and I’m happy for them, but the day after, I can barely believe it happened. A terrible contrast was coming.

*

‘Chris goes through Liverpool Street Station about this time,’ says Jane, tears starting, ‘and I can’t get him on his phone.’

‘I’m sure you’ll reach him soon,’ I offer, her panic cloaking me. Texting to check on friends, I agonize, the seconds stretching, waiting for my phone to pronounce their safety.

It’s July 7. I’m at school in St Albans, where news of the suicide bombings rushes upon us. In our desperate and sightless ways, we try to tether ourselves. The stabs of horror come quickly, as just to our south, London is wounded. This bespoke violence makes home seem mercilessly remote.

Emerging from her Hammersmith train, Juanita messages in that cheery way Australians often have during a crisis- “all good mate.” She’s only escaped by minutes. Jane gets through to her husband, finally. He’s arrived at his office in the City.

We lived twenty-five miles north of the Themes, in cloistered, handsome Hertfordshire. That evening our answering machine blurts a succession of messages from Australia. Our parents; hotly anxious, friends; fretful, and even people we’d seldom talk with have called.

The day is draining, and forces a deep, pounding introspection. It’s our twenty-fourth month away.

In his remarkable Guardian op-ed piece* Booker prize winner Ian McEwen calls the terrorists’ minds ‘unknowable’ and asks, ‘How could we have forgotten that this was always going to happen?’

*

REM’s Around the Sun concert is postponed because of the attacks, and on Saturday week as we board the Jubilee line I try to think of the fun ahead. It’s our first Tube journey since the unspeakable awfulness, and my hands become sticky as our train crashes through the uneasy dark. My fear races like gas. My eyes zip incessantly.

A streak of jets howls across, the full moon beams, and here we are with 85,000 folk, just across from The Serpentine, in Hyde Park. It’s chardonnay and sushi, not black t-shirts and insurrection. It’s wonderful. Kerry buys a slice of watermelon.

For me, today again confirms London as the planet’s finest theme park. Just walking about is compelling theatre. Send me out on foot for the day, let me meander, and then late afternoon, tip me into a boozer like The Moon and Sixpence in Soho. Sorted.

Twilight falls. REM begins. The concert’s more gorgeous picnic than Glastonbury. Mainstream’s replaced alternative edginess for these Athens, Georgia natives.

Jangly pop doyens, they also have picturesque moments. “Electrolite” from New Adventures in Hi-Fi is one, and I’m thrilled to hear it. It’s their tribute to an often unloved Los Angeles, but the joyousness applies, right here, right now

You are the star tonight
You shine electric outta sight
Your light eclipsed the moon tonight
Electrolite
You’re outta sight

Unhurried and summery, it’s threaded by Mike Mills’ jaunty piano and Peter Buck’s banjo, and insulates us, fleetingly, against our broader catastrophes.

Michael Stipe introduces punk iconoclast Patti Smith to sing on ‘E-bow the Letter.’ It’s her sole appearance on the tour, but in that quotidian, London way, she’s in town. After, with a coda of swirling, Sonic Youth-like guitar feedback, ‘It’s the End of the World as We Know It’ closes their show.

The wife and I zip through the crowds along Oxford Street, and then turn towards Kings Cross. An accusatory light blazes out at us. There are police everywhere, and yellow police tape.

It is Tavistock Square. On the street beneath the light is a silenced double-decker bus, untimely torn by the bomb that detonated ten days ago. Our musical buzz vaporizes.

This tableau’s between University College Hospital and Great Ormond Street Hospital, but for those on the number 30 Stagecoach, both were too far. How could this occur in Bloomsbury? Once associated with arts, education and medicine, and now death. We go home.

July 2005 continues, as it must. Lance Armstrong retires after winning a seventh consecutive Tour de France. Mumbai receives forty inches of rain within a day, and its city decelerates massively, but like London, cannot be halted.

And later, as witness to the gargantuan persistence of this capital, the cricket! Yes, the slow, strange cricket in which we find sanctuary commences with the opening Ashes Test at Lord’s. While Australia wins this match, the longer narrative develops astonishingly, and reminds us of all that’s decent and affirming. In Yorkshire and Cumbria and Cornwell, summer’s in bloom.

We stumble on.

ashes

* http://www.theguardian.com/world/2005/jul/08/terrorism.july74