Sleeve Notes - Wichita Lineman
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Of the many songs that I love I chose ‘Wichita Lineman’ I think because it sums up the crux of life for me, without me fully understanding why. I was brought up in a house with a Dad whistling; singing, or humming and his rhythms and chosen modes of delivery underpin this song for me. Counterpoint to his deep, diverse and emotionally hewn versions is my mum singing her high pitched, clear and sweet take whilst making us doughnuts in the obligatory 70's chip pan. It's a song that I feel I've always known even if I've never fully understood it. It's a song that I've always felt I understood on some deep level in spite of that. It's a song that lives in your bones and makes you feel alive and capable of reaching new levels of being even if you're never quite sure what that might mean. It's a song about climbing above and soaring with intensity in the everyday despite the existential pain I think.
I went to see Glen Campbell in 2010, and was terrified that his rendition of the song that Jimmy Webb wrote especially for him wouldn't live up to my years of expectation. It was perfect. Too short obviously but still somehow perfect nonetheless. Not too short in itself, it ends when it should, like any perfectly executed poem. Too short a period of being up there with the Lineman. Normally I would move the needle back again and again. Instead in real life as compensation I got that special feeling where you're crying but it takes you a while to realise it because you're so caught up in the source of the emotion. Add to this that a quick scan around shows that all your friends are silently crying too and this song underlines that whatever the mistakes and obstacles you have at least picked the right people in life. That synergy of silent crying is quite the reclamation of the screech of previous karaoke versions murdered en masse. This song is that big, which is amazing really because it is so understated.
Wichita Lineman is so all-encompassing in its juxtaposed literal/allegorical nature that it really doesn’t matter if you have no idea what it’s about; it pulls you along like magnetic highway tumbleweed anyway. I am proof of this. I’ve always subscribed to the make your own words up for singing round the house school of lyrics. If I’m honest my appreciation of what actual instruments are being played is sometimes a bit sketchy too with piano and violin possibly being interchangeable depending on my mood. It’s a bit like with books. I can love a book to death but I’m very unlikely to be able to quote you my favourite lines. What I’m left with is a deep imprint of feelings, lines of emotional truth that seep in to be carried until subconsciously needed. There are few actual lines to Wichita Lineman but many lingering ones. This is how it should be.
When I first heard the song I had no idea what a Lineman was or what or where Wichita was. All I knew was that it was how I felt when I turned the table, a blanket and chair into a wagon and found myself alone on the wagon trail cooking up the last of my beans and worrying about dying of distemper (It would be years before I knew that distemper is something that dogs get). I was alone in my world but feeling alive in it even if this was based on imagined death by dog disease. Occasionally I would ride off on my imaginary horse, probably searching for some kind of emotional overload, or maybe even someone to play with. As I got older and I watched more TV, the song conjured up for me some homesteader who was needed and wanted so badly that I could imagine myself as Maureen O’Hara running down to be swept up by John Wayne. If I’m honest that’s because I liked her hair and apron, but that’s not the point. The point is the power of so few words managing to chime with something deep within even though I had no idea what that was. I was wandering and crying with The Littlest Hobo, pretending to ‘drive the main road’ but really exploring and wanting to break out and get above myself somehow. Later on in life the song conjured up for me the vast empty beauty and savage disconnect of Badlands, the skies of My Own Private Idaho, the Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner even. I got caught up in the idea of stopping off after a long hard day on the wire at a café created by Carson McCullers. All these things were brought to me by this one song.
A song is obviously the sum of its parts but I’m not going to deconstruct the musical composition as I wouldn’t know how and again that’s not the point. You just know that the chords, the melody and the whole beautiful tone are just right, sweeping the words along but never overpowering them. Then there are the lyrics, so sparse yet so embracing of what it is to be human. In almost mundane references to rain, snow and sun Glen sings to the elemental within us. How we balance ourselves with the world, what we would like versus ours responsibilities. Possibly, how routines and structures can actually afford us freedoms. Although the lyrics are presented as literal in terms of him, the lineman, checking and keeping the phone system working, really it’s a mind blowingly casual allusion to how we exist and connect and keep going as humans. There is something so tragic and noble about him keeping the lines of communication open whilst we can only assume that his personal words go unheard. I don’t like the word stoical; I prefer to think that he’s elevated by hope.
I’m supposed to dissect it line by line but we don’t need to do that because let’s face it there’s only one couplet that we’d have on our gravestones if we were that way inclined. A couplet that obliterates the need for a chorus by simply grabbing your emotions, leaving your mind spinning over the sheer scope of what that actually means, only to underline the yearning by reappearing once more, and once more only.
Under normal circumstances if someone sang:
And I need you more than want you,
And I want you for all time
I would be on high alert to an overly clingy suitor who is in love with the idea of a person rather than their reality, someone who confuses blinkered worship with romanticism, but not here. Instead I am thrown time and again by the sheer enormity of these simple words. For me I don’t care if the Lineman is addressing a current, ex or potential partner because to me these two lines are actually the almost painfully joyous affirmation of life. ‘Searchin’ for another overload’, the ‘singin’ in the wire’, to me these are all the cumulative connections that build to the core of the song. It’s such a brilliant example of the well- worn dichotomy of life – how do we balance our individual selves with others? How does our public role fit with our private? Can we ever truly be alone or do we always carry bits of others with us, singing through our wires, sensing them whatever the whine around us? Would I want to be the woman bearing the weight of that emotion if directed at me? I’m not sure. Do I jump for joy inside whilst crying on the outside every time I hear it? Yes, because it’s about being needed as well as needing, feeling part of the wider landscape in a way that bolsters the small and large human connections. It’s ultimately about feeling the energy run through us and the pure and painful joy of what it is to be alive. It’s the perfect combination of melancholy and yearning with soaring everyday humanity. If you smile and silently cry at my funeral then you’re very welcome to be there as that will indeed mean that ‘the Wichita Lineman is still on the line’ - unless I’ve died of distemper that is.