Tuesday, April 14, 2009

"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


Betty C. said...

I love this song, and it brings back huge memories of my childhood. Nothing more profound to say...

wwolfe said...

Glen's album from last year, "Meet Glen Campbell" was terrific. Very well-chosen songs from the past two decades (for the most part) with sympathetic arrangements that remind us of his old hits without straining to replicate them. His version of Jackson Browne's "These Days" is one of those performances that carries an entire life in its three minutes. The fact that Glen's voice still sounds as good as it does after three score and ten years is hard to believe. It just occurred to me that Glen may have served, more or less, as the Nat King Cole for the Beatles generation: exceptional voice, good-to-great interpretor of other people's material with an ability to excel at a wide range of material, remarkable musicians, and both the seeming soul of affability that almost anyone could feel comfortable with. (Nat wore cooler hats, though.

Anonymous said...

"Glen put this song out in 1968, when the barriers between rock and country music were mile-high stockades"

Hmmm. I think The Byrds might disagree

Holly A Hughes said...

Yes, they were always tiresome in that way....

Co-opting country sounds is one thing, but courting the Nashville crowd, or trying to get played on country stations, was something entirely different. There was never any question which camp the Byrds were in -- that just proves how clear-cut those boundaries were at the time.

Carabella said...

I love this tune and "Galveston" as well. Glen can play and has a golden voice. I even liked it when I was a hip bay area girl in my teens and made no apology. My adult son, an amazing guitar player, has a poster of Glen on his wall.

Anonymous said...

Years later I saw Glen on some late afternoon talk show (was it Merv? or Mike Douglas?) a little bit on the downside..."playin' the clubs," so to speak. Not the huge headliner anymore. He had a little troupe; a couple of guitars, some brass, a drummer. After the required chit chat at the couch he was asked what his next number would be. I couldn't believe it when he said "MacArthur Park"!

How could he do it? How could he even try? Leave it alone, Glen, this song is Richard Harris's and you can never trump your partner's ace. It would be like Steve Martin doing a remake of "The Out Of Towners." I love Steve, but that role is singularly Jack Lemmon's all the way down to him losing his dental cap in Central Park and whistling through his teeth.

Wrong again.
Glen Campbell nailed the Jimmy Webb classic that day. Fire. Longing. Gusto. Majesty. A great performance.

And I'll never have that recipe again.