A Couch Trip with The Wichita Lineman
Updated: Jul 19, 2020
There's a great little bargain bookshop on the Chiswick High Road in West London which I frequent, called Bookcase. Unlike a lot of bargain book stores which have suffered at the hands of the digital realm over recent years, this one seems to have stayed in business mainly due to the types and quality of books, many of them 'left field' titles and subject matter. Prices are keen and I like to frequent the place not only for this but as I think the printed page needs supporting more than ever, especially the small retailer. This one seems to cater for the discerning reader. You won't find any paper mush in this little store.
The physical book is important to me (although I confess to having a Kindle Reader on my iPhone 11) and I appreciate when the subject matter has depth, the content is well-researched, the use of the English language is exemplary and explanatory in a way that I actually might learn something which will deepen or broaden (maybe both?) my knowledge which I may be able to put to good use in the business of writing, either prose or songwriting and music production. I always look in the music subject matter section where previously I have scooped up books on Ableton Live, Pro-Tools, Mixing, Mastering, Music Theory and a few biographies (one of which was Willie Nelson's "My Life - It's a Long Story" which I found to be a hilarious read!). Last week as the store re-opened for the first time since the pandemic "lockdown" I noticed, in this very section, a small red-covered hardback by Dylan Jones called The Wichita Lineman (Faber & Faber), with the subtag 'searching in the sun for the world's greatest unfinished song'.
I knew the song of course - an enduring classic - written by Jimmy Webb and made famous by Glen Campbell in 1968 but later recorded by everyone in every style it seemed; sometimes well, sometimes not. The cover design just drew me in. Dylan Jones, also a West London resident, is an author of great repute having written among other bestsellers, a stunning biography of David Bowie. Immediately I learned something from the cover - I wasn't previously aware that this super classic was actually an unfinished work! How could anyone possibly write a 300 page book about a song which only has sixteen lyric lines? I was intrigued on a personal level too - I had had a meeting with Jimmy Webb back in November 2005 where I briefly had the chance to discuss the very same song with the composer. This legendary song wasn't just any ordinary hit. Firstly, it was never a number one, not even for Glen Campbell, although it was in the Top Ten on both sides of the Atlantic when it first came out. Secondly, it wasn't an obvious hit - the lyrics were left field and abstract and the song had no hit sound or hit structure. This might have been okay if it had been psychedelic pop, but it was a Middle-Of-The-Road ballad. Nevertheless, it became a great Standard. I had to know more. I bought the book, came home, spread out on the couch and read it cover to cover.
It is fascinating. Dylan Jones has written the definitive biography, in my humble opinion, of possibly the world's most perfect recorded three-minute (two, fifty-eight to be exact) song. He has done a masterful job of writing almost 300 pages on sixteen unfinished lines which, slowly but surely, shook the recording industry with its perfection. Of course the book does more than discuss the sixteen lines in depth - it wouldn't have many readers if it did just that. It builds from the similarity in background to the two mid-westerners of relevance who went west and made their fortune in California, the dust-bowl poverty they grew up in, their individual love with and abilities in music, the common thread of two geniuses which lead to the serendipitous production of possibly the world's greatest ballad that can wear all labels yet none. Through archive material and interviews with various personalities and recording industry heavyweights, Webb included, it shows how the song came to reinforce a great working relationship between two unlikely 'brothers' (as they eventually came to think of themselves, despite their political differences) and propelled their individual careers.
Webb was under pressure to send the song to Campbell and producer Al De Lory. He sent them what he had but let them know it wasn't finished - there was no bridge or 'middle eight' and no third verse. Campbell, with his eclectic and expansive experience as the famous 'Wrecking Crew' session guitarist as well as America's top singer at that time was in many ways Webb's mentor. Without telling Webb, he and De Lory recorded the song, with De Lory adding the lush string arrangement. Campbell's vocal was plaintive, heartfelt and magnetic. I've said enough. I don't want to spoil that which could be a fascinating read for you, especially if you are a fan of the song. Who couldn't be?
I first heard Wichita Lineman as an eight-year-old back in 1969 on BBC radio. Even so, I remember the song quite clearly having an immediate impact on me, mainly one of awe and intrigue. I loved the lush strings. It even had a film made for it (we'd call it a music video these days) and it was played on BBC TV's Top of The Pops. I'd never heard a song like this before. It was a 'pop' song but I couldn't understand a single line. "I am a Lineman for the County and I drive the main road / searching in the sun for another overload". I remember asking my mother what it meant. One of the (many) complaints my mother had about 'pop' music back then was that she could never understand the words of the songs, they were so badly enunciated (herself an outstanding soprano, she'd trained in opera). Although Campbell's vocals were as clear as a bell, she wasn't sure. "I'm no really sure", she told me. "Maybe it's aboot the man that paints the white lines doon the middle o' the road, ye ken (you know), he works for the County Council". I remember thinking "Why would anybody sing about that? And what's an overload? And why's he searching in the sun for it?". I should say here and now that this language usage was alien to both me and my mother. After all, I was raised in Kilmarnock, the 'county' as referred to by my mother would have been, at that time, Ayr County Council, 'lineman' wasn't a job description used in Scotland and as it rained most of the year, it's unlikely he would have been looking for an 'overload' of anything in the sun! I asked my father. "Och, it's jist rubbish!". A big-band swing man exclusively, music wasn't music after 1955.
When it came on the radio periodically during the 70's, it was still recognisable to me and I still liked it, despite still being clueless about the lyrics. My mother's neighbour, Jean was a big Country and Western fan and bought the vinyl LP of 'Glen Campbell's 20 Golden Greats' when it came out in 1976. She let me borrow the album after a few weeks. There it was, this enigma of a song, Wichita Lineman. And I still had no idea what it was about, but I was still hooked by the lush strings and the 'morse code' break between the verse and the instrumental. Being almost sixteen by this time, I had worked out that this song must be based in the USA somewhere, presumably wherever Wichita was, a 'lineman' must be like somebody who works for the Electricity Board (as this seemed to link with 'overload' and sun was a feature of the USA, in my mind anyway). But there seemed no obvious connection with the next two lines, "and I need you more than want you / and I want you for all time / and the Wichita Lineman is still on the line". As it progressed, the song appeared to be chock-full of non-sequiturs. "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.." etc. However, it still sounded good.
Many years later and after I had long given up on trying to work out what the lyrics meant, the penny dropped. It's a treatise on desperate loneliness. A telephone line repair man (long before the days of mobile phones) up a pole doing his job alone in the wilderness thinking about the love of his life, how deeply he was in love, his desperate isolation, his commitment to his task-at-hand. The lyric fitted perfectly with the panoramic sound of the music. Campbell's delivery was gifted. And yet the paucity of words gave the song a resounding depth yet still retained some ambiguity; was he actually talking to his love or just thinking about her? Was he worried he was going to lose her? Was he "still on the line" physically. i.e., doing his job or was he "still on the line", i.e., on the phone with her and waiting for her response to his desperate plea while all the time stranded up a telegraph pole? The depth of the lyric and the structure of the song therefore can justify, with the right writer, a whole book on the subject. Jones appears to have been the right writer.
Over the years I grew to like Campbell's work and became appreciative of a lot of Jimmy Webb's work, so much so that if either of them had been appearing on stage I would have traveled a couple of hundred miles to see that man, no questions asked. Then, as chance would have it, I was living in Reading in 2005, in the town centre directly opposite the Old Town Hall, by then a function facility and concert hall mainly for classical music. I saw an announcement for Jimmy Webb who would be playing there in a matter of days. I went in to the box office and got a ticket.
On the night Webb performed superbly, the only performer, on a Steinway grand. Stories and anecdotes interspersed with his songs, he was charming. After the gig finished, his PA announced that merchandise was available on the circle landing and that Mr. Webb would be autographing some albums and photos. I joined a line of people after buying his then latest CD, "Twilight of the Renegades" and saw that I was last in line for a brief and unexpected meet-and-greet. He was seated behind a catering table, smiling genuinely and thanking each fan/purchaser for coming, each one going away thrilled to have his autograph. At last I came to meet him. The first thing he did was smile and stand up to shake my hand with a firm shake. A big guy, he was warm, genuine and charming. As he sat back down I said to him I promised not to keep him long as it was late. His assistant came with a cup of coffee for him and looked at me and said, "would you like a coffee?". I politely declined, as I thought it was the right thing to do.
As he autographed my CD, I told him about the first time I heard Wichita Lineman when I was a kid, how I had no idea for a long time what the lyrics meant but that somehow the song had become an earworm for me, even at that early age and how I finally 'got it' many years later. I thought it was one of the finest songs ever written and also that his piano performance of it that evening was outstanding, which it was. He said, "thank you Sir, you're very kind". I gave him my business card and looking at the card he said "Oh, so you're Jim too! And you're a songwriter? It's good to meet a fellow songwriter. I'm glad you liked my work. How's it going for you?" He was genuinely interested. I replied that I had had some competition success and was learning more with each composition. We briefly discussed the then nascent online music business, mainly how things were changing and Myspace (for those who can remember!). About my writing he said, "That's great. Keep working it, don't ever give up. Thanks for your card, I'll check out your webpage". I thanked him and said I'd go now and let him get organised. He said, smiling at his assistant "oh yeah, she takes good care of me". He then got up , shook my hand once more then said "Goodnight, Jim and get home safe".
I'd just met the great Jimmy Webb. He was a consummate professional and an absolute gentleman. Only someone like him could have had the emotional depth and pathos to write such a classic as Wichita Lineman, a song which is now over fifty years old and will outlast us all, I think.