wichita lineman no. 2: glen campbell, “wichita lineman” (1968)

Here is, as best I can reconstruct, how I came to hear Glen Campbell’s version of this song, which might have been the first version I came to hear of “Wichita Lineman”.

In the summer of 2001 I was living in Rome. There at the same time were some writers for a travel guide, with whom I became friends. They were living in an apartment rented from an American woman who lived in Rome; it was in Prati, north of the Vatican and near the river, on the top floor of the building. They threw parties; the owner had left her CD collection, which was mostly uninteresting, but had two things that I liked: Pulp’s This Is Hardcore – which isn’t worth going into now – and Isaac Hayes’s Black Moses. For whatever reason, I’d never sat down to listen to Isaac Hayes, despite having the perfunctory college student’s appreciation of Shaft & the music thereof. But we listened to Isaac Hayes while everyone was getting a little more drunk than wise. That’s all.

And then I left Rome and moved to New York, which seemed the obvious thing to do at the time. I don’t remember much of late 2001 or early 2002, where I think I was reconstructing a worldview. (I listened to This Is Hardcore a lot during this time.) By late 2002, my life had stabilized to a point where I started to self-analyze myself and my recent past; my mind returned to where I’d been that summer in Rome, and I remembered listening to Isaac Hayes. Wanting to hear him again, I downloaded a copy of not Black Moses but Hot Buttered Soul, which is a fine album indeed. The last track on that is a cover, gloriously extended to 18 minutes, of “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”. Like “Wichita Lineman”, it’s a song made famous by Glen Campbell, written by Jimmy Webb. (“One of the great young songwriters of today” declares Hayes, who then goes on reconstruct the life of Jimmy Webb in such a way to make me fervently wish that he’d done the same thing to “Wichita Lineman”; alas, as far as I know, he hasn’t.)

Soon afterwards, made curious, I downloaded Glen Campbell’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”, “Wichita Lineman”, and “Galveston”. These remain the only Glen Campbell I’ve heard; all three of ’em are Jimmy Webb songs. I think I downloaded “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” first, then “Wichita Lineman”, because the name was familiar from the KLF, then “Galveston”. What I thought: that these sounded like the arrangements of the early Scott Walker records, even if Glen Campbell wasn’t as interesting a singer as Scott Walker. But I liked the strings in the background.

Campbell’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” isn’t nearly as good as Isaac Hayes’s, but that’s not much of a surprise. “Galveston” is the weak leg of the three songs. I assume the name sounded familiar, or evocative at least (it’s something of a surprise that none of the titles for the KLF’s Chill Out, their ersatz psychogeography of the American south, include “Galveston”). There are other songs that Jimmy Webb wrote for Glen Campbell, but I didn’t bother with those. Or any of the rest of Glen Campbell – these are still the only songs by him that I’ve heard. Maybe the other songs didn’t have city names in them? or maybe I didn’t want to push a good thing too hard? I don’t know.

But the Glen Campbell “Wichita Lineman”: what to say about this? A thesis: this works because it’s a beautifully arrangement of a slightly off-putting song. It’s a weird song when anyone performs it, but the Campbell arrangement is so perfect that the weirdness goes largely unnoticed, except for a nagging feeling in the listener that something more is being talked about in the song.

Why does the narrator begin to refer to himself in the third person (“And the Wichita Lineman is still on the line”)? Why a “small” vacation? The obsessive note (“And I need you more than want you / And I want you for all time”) being sounded while he’s still on the job. “I can hear you through the wire” – is this the Lineman hearing his lover through the telephone, or imagining the voice?

What’s interesting about this musically is how desolate this doesn’t sound: it’s lush, an odd counterpoint to the laconic lyrics. The triumphant galloping off at the end: why triumphant? especially when it sounds like he’s run out of words? It’s a brilliant use of constraint & counterpoint.

There’s something frightening, perhaps, in the song’s lack of syntax, and how Campbell sings it: “And if it snows that stretch down south won’t ever stand the strain” says a lyrics page on the web for one of the lines. This can be read any number of ways, and the voicing doesn’t make this clear. “That” and “stretch” are both ambiguous: looking at it, it seems clear that “that” is functioning as a modifier of “stretch”, which is a noun. If it snows, a stretch of wire south of where the Wichita Lineman is won’t stand the strain of the weight of the snow. Is this happening towards the winter? This sounds like a summer song (“searching in the sun”).

Happily, it seems like Glen Campbell doesn’t notice any of this. This is not, perhaps, a smart rendition, but that’s not to its discredit.

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