"Wichita Lineman" / Glen Campbell
I won't even tell you how this song got stuck in my head -- suffice it to say it had something to do with a fantasy conversation I was having with Nick Lowe. (Come on, can't you just hear Nick covering this song?)
At first, I'll admit, its melody was all tangled up in my memory with "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother," that stirring 1969 ballad by the Hollies (although -- fun facts from Wikipedia -- Neil Diamond actually recorded it first, and I'll wager it's Neil's rendition that drilled it most relentlessly into my brain). "He Ain't Heavy" is beautiful but, come on, admit it, just a tad self-righteous and histrionic.
"Wichita Lineman," on the other hand, is spare and heartfelt. Once you get past the syrupy strings and Glen's trademark yodel, it's a breathtaking ballad about love and loneliness and the American west. In fact, it's so spare and subtle that you need to load on the the syrupy strings and Glen's yodel to load all the sentiment into it.
Glen put this song out in 1968, when the barriers between rock and country music were mile-high stockades. Glen had short hair and wore string ties and suits and cowboy boots -- there was no way we rock fans were going to buy this record. I remember a friend of my mother's giving my older brother the Wichita Lineman album for his birthday; I can still see the grimace on his face as he tried to thank her politely. Chances are he never listened once to that LP.
Now I'm embarrassed that music snobbery blinded me to this song. Written by Jimmy Webb, who also wrote "By The Time I Get To Phoenix" and "Galveston" for Glen, it has a wonderful high-country loneliness to it. In fact, it's downright existential. Nothing much happens here; the singer is stringing telephone wire in some vast western landscape ("I am a lineman for the county," he humbly introduces himself, "and I drive the main road / Searching in the sun for another overload.") Later he admits, "I know I need a small vacation, / But it don't look like rain" -- this is the kind of ordinary Joe who only gets a rest when the weather's bad. He's just an American working man, way back before Bruce Springsteen made that kind of guy glamorous.
With nothing to distract him out here, he can't get his mind off his girlfriend/wife (could even be his boyfriend, for that matter). There's no back story provided -- it's not like they're in the middle of a break-up, or he's just found out she's cheating on him, or she's been sick, or anything. He just . . . well, he just misses her.
In fact, she's such a part of him that she seems to be everywhere. "I hear you singin' in the wire / I can hear you through the whine" -- is that not the most poignant thing you've ever heard? (Meanwhile, the strings whine like the wind in the wires.) And then he tops that in the next verse, when the same heart-breaking melodic phrase gets these words: "And I need you more than want you / And I want you for all time." That's as splendid as the biggest horizon, a sweeping majestic statement of love.
In both cases, he's jerked back to reality with a dull jolt: "And the Wichita lineman / Is still on the line." He jumps an octave to that last dissonant note on "line," underlaid with a throbbing riff like a Morse code signal. He's still out there, for all we know, still searching in the sun for that overload. Iconic.
Wichita Lineman clip