Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Obsessive Compulsions: Wichita Lineman

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

Even a steely-hearted bastard like me can melt when confronted with the right piece of music. There are only two songs that can reduce me to a shattered puddle of messy emotion. The first is Otis Redding’s I've Been Loving You Too Long. And the other is the song made famous by Glen Campbell.

Wichita Lineman gets me every goddamn time.

It may be a clichĂ© to talk about “the hairs on my neck standing up”, but it happens to me every time I hear it, as soon as that second chorus cuts in right on through to the very last note.

I hear you singing in the wire
I can hear you through the whine
And the Wichita Lineman,
Is still on the line

A masterpiece of evocative minimalism, with only a handful of beautiful, yearning lyrics, alchemically commingling with those swooping strings and that glorious guitar solo, it’s just an exhausting song. And there isn’t a finer couplet in music than: “And I need you more than want you, and I want you for all time.” That just kills me, and every time I look at my wife or my daughter, I know exactly what those words mean.

I feel physically shattered every time I hear it, and then I have to listen to it again immediately. But it’s not masochism. It’s a desire to revel in the unguarded vulnerability and wrenching honesty of it.

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.

The song subtly shifts from the POV of the Lineman himself to third-person narration and back again, before being subsumed by the loping caress of the guitar that salves his heartache, at least for a short while anyway.

The song has been covered many, many times, and the Wikipedia page for it has a not-remotely-exhaustive list of all extant versions. I’ve got a handful of them myself, from a stripped-down Johnny Cash rendition to a truly wonderful version by the Swamp Fox Tony Joe White. Then there are the jaunty riffs by Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66, and the Dee Felice Trio (a latin jazz vocal-trio that was a side-project for James Brown back in the ’60s when he liked to wear his producing hat) which, whilst they have an air of alluring lounge exotica about them, don’t really slice straight into your heart the way that they should. No, the real gut-puncher is the original recording by the Rhinestone Cowboy, Mr. Glen Campbell.

For the fascinating history of this amazing love letter to an unseen and eternally unrequited love, click here. And here’s a great version with Glen Campbell playing with Stone Temple Pilots. If listening to it don’t kill you, it’ll just make you stronger:

And I need you more than want you.
And I want you for all time.
And the Wichita Lineman,
Is still on the line

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