Cold Fury

Harshing your mellow since 9/01

Wichita whineman?

Steyn writes another of his brilliant music posts, this time on the passing of Glenn Campbell. I was never a big fan of his, frankly. But I can still hear a good many of his songs in my head—sometimes to my great chagrin and annoyance. But the one Steyn digs into would have to be one of his best, and is one I actually do like:

In October 1968, Campbell called Jimmy Webb and said he’d really appreciate another song that was like “Phoenix” – “something about a town”. With the cockiness of youth, Jimmy told Glen that the Rand McNally phase of his career was over. Campbell persevered: Okay, if not a town, how about “something geographical”?

It was the first time Webb had been asked to write a song to order, for a particular performer – and in this case his very favorite performer. As usual, they wanted it that day, so Webb pottered around:

I had been driving around northern Oklahoma, an area that’s real flat and remote – almost surreal in its boundless horizons and infinite distances. I’d seen a lineman up on a telephone pole, talking on the phone. It was such a curiosity to see a human being perched up there.

Imagine trying to pitch that to a publisher or producer: “It’s a song about this guy who works for the utilities company…” But Webb meant it:

I am a lineman for the county
And I drive the main road
Searchin’ in the sun for another overload…

He saw the poetry in the isolation:

This exquisite aesthetic balance of all these telephone poles just decreasing in size as they got further and further away from the viewer – that being me – and as I passed him, he began to diminish in size. The country is so flat, it was like this one quick snapshot of this guy rigged up on a pole with this telephone in his hand. And this song came about, really, from wondering what that was like, what it would be like to be working up on a telephone pole and what would you be talking about? Was he talking to his girlfriend? Probably just doing one of those checks where they called up and said, ‘Mile marker 46,’ you know. ‘Everything’s working so far.’

But nobody needs a song about “Mile marker 46”. Whether or not the lineman was thinking about his girlfriend, Jimmy Webb certainly was: Her name was Susan Horton, the homecoming queen at Colton High School. But she married a schoolteacher called John, and Jimmy wrote “Wichita Lineman”, “Up, Up and Away”, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and even “MacArthur Park” all about his lost love in hopes of staunching the wound.

At the time Webb was living in the former Philippines consulate, just above Hollywood and La Brea, in Los Angeles. This being California in the Sixties, he was digging the communal vibe and had thirty or so housemates coming and going. The night before, as yet another jolly jape during the endless party, the communards had decided to turn Webb’s baby grand a most un-piano-like color. So he found himself having to compose a new song for Glen Campbell on a green piano whose paint was still wet. To the old question “Which comes first – the words or the music?”, the answer in this case seems to be: A fresh lick of paint. 

Steyn goes on from there with his usual insightful analysis, but eventually comes to a bit that kind of…well…uhhh…

Jimmy Webb manages the transition far more economically – three lines of job talk (“that stretch down south won’t ever stand the strain”), and then:

And I need you more than want you…

And the modulation makes it seem the most natural transition in the world. He continues:

And I want you for all time
And the Wichita Lineman is still on the line…

In his fine book on songwriting, Tunesmith, Jimmy Webb writes:

It is dreadful the way the same mistakes are perpetuated over and over again in songwriting, particularly the same careless false rhymes (identities) – ‘time’ with ‘mine,’ for example, ‘self’ with ‘else,’ ‘girl’ with ‘world…

Wait a minute, ‘time’ with ‘mine’? What about “want you for all time” with “still on the line”? Longtime readers will know I loathe impure rhymes, but I can sometimes, reluctantly, live with them buried in a verse or peripheral couplet or separated out in a quatrain. But this one (“time”/”line”) comes right at the climax, and is an undeniable blemish on one of the most original songs ever written.

A “blemish”? It’s the most beautifully poignant and compelling passage in the whole damned song, and to hell with any “false rhyme” nitpicking. But then again, I maybe say that as shouldn’t, to quote Sam Gamgee: I’ve written plenty of songs myself, and I never once bothered myself about false rhymes, although I was certainly aware of them. In truth, false rhymes have gotten me out of jams and cleared out bottlenecks plenty of times, and I’ve been pretty shameless about using ’em when I needed ’em.

Not that I’m anywhere remotely near the tunesmith Webb is, of course, and would never presume to present myself as such. But his angst over the false rhyme seems a bit unnecessary to me just the same; pop song lyrics aren’t serious poetry, or aren’t really supposed to be, although in the hands of a master like Webb they can certainly achieve some lofty heights indeed.

But how much, in the end, does such arcane minutiae really matter? People love Webb’s words, and remember them; I have, for my whole life. Steyn inadvertently highlights the problem:

Long ago on TV, I once had the honor of being asked to sing this song, and had no real idea of what I would do when I got to the false rhyme, but, when I did, it stuck in my throat and I found myself going back to the first verse:

And I need you more than want you
I can hear you through the whine
And the Wichita Lineman is still on the line

– which isn’t the way anyone would write it, but I’ve always loved that “I hear you singin’ in the wire/I can hear you through the whine” passage.

Hate to say it and all, but…I don’t, or not shoehorned into that spot, anyway. Steyn’s improvised alteration is little more to my ear than pure butchery of the most wonderful part of the original song, and all fussy fretting over false rhymes be damned. “And I need you more than want you/And I want you for all time” go together like beans and cornbread; the one is indivisible from the other, and to alter them is to diminish them, no matter what comes after. Be the rhyme false or not, some things just work. Steyn’s version…doesn’t. Not for me anyway, not by a long yard.

Wichita Lineman is one of those damned near perfect songs just as it is. I can’t say I’d ever care to hear anyone but Glenn Campbell performing it, either. The combination of the song and the artist is just…well, perfect. That’s a damned rare thing, and to get bothered to even a slight degree over as footling a complaint as false rhymes ain’t ever going to be something I’m interested in doing. Might just as well try to piss over a ten-foot statue whilst standing on the ground in a strong wind, seems to me.

Be all that as it may, it’s another great Steyn music post, and you’ll want to read it all. And: Rest in peace, Glenn. You brought a lot of happiness to a lot of people over a lot of years, and that damned sure ain’t nothing.

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3 thoughts on “Wichita whineman?

  1. Somebody call Mike Rowe; let him know Glen Campbell never sang a song about the Wichita cubicle dweller with a college degree. 😉

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