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Still on the Line? (Let’s get lyrical)

February 15, 2011

Writing about a selection of my favourite lyrics for the Edinburgh/Glasgow celebration ‘Let’s get lyrical’, I realised that the great Jimmy Web had merited much more attention than I gave him. I got to thinking about his lyrics and why they make such an impact and realised it would be difficult to really do him justice in one piece of writing.

From the voice he gave to non-singer , Richard Harris, in ‘MacArthur Park’ and a couple of idiosyncratic but effective albums, to the hits he achieved with the ‘clear as a bell’ tenor sound of Glen Campbell, he had the ability to make his mark and enter our musical memory with a combination of tune, words, and setting in a way that few other late 20th century songsmiths achieved.

He is a writer of contrasts – mundane stories with expansive scores, Americana with a universal appeal, difficult progressions for limited voices. In a way, he introduced we Europeans to a ‘real America’ at which Hollywood, Elvis and TV shows could only hint.

His ‘road song’ – By the time I get to Phoenix mentioned places that had seldom featured in our American movie generated experiences previously: Phoenix, Alberquerque, Oklahoma; ‘Where’s the Playground, Susie?’ gave us a bitter sweet take on relationships gone sour, and, in ‘Galveston’. he wrote a moving anti war song that linked the Civil War with Viet Nam, and, for a whole generation, gave a soft focused view of a rather unremarkable Texas oil town. There are many many more songs – hits and otherwise – that testify to his unique songwriting ability, but, for ease of analysis, perhaps his biggest hit is worth a focus.

I am a lineman for the county.
And I drive the mainroad.
Searching in the sun for another overload.
I hear you singing in the wire.
I can hear you thru the whine.
And the Wichita Lineman,
is still on the line.

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

‘Lineman’ is a song that has variously been described as ‘the first existential country song’ and the ‘perfect song’. Actually, I’m not even sure it’s Webb’s best bit of writing, but it’s certainly a song that brings together all his skills and was perfectly set up to be the long lasting ‘hit’ that it has become.

Radio play being a necessity in 68, an arresting start, that the DJ could hook into, helped get airplay, and ‘Lineman’ certainly achieves that with a short sharp bass intro followed by trademark Webb sweeping strings. Perhaps part of his ability was to use strings and fairly lush orchestration without evoking schmaltz; like a film score, the breadth of the strings here opens out the sense of space on the wide Kansas plains.

Webb liked to hook listeners by writing cryptic lyrics, and it’s fair to say that a minority in the US, and virtually no-one elsewhere in the world, had any idea what a lineman was, or indeed what was the meaning of those first three lines. (Indeed, a couple of weeks ago, no less a wordsmith than Ian Rankin admitted that until recently he’d always thought the line was ‘Searching in the sun for another rodeo’) It was the mystery and the loneliness evoked by the musical tone that drew the attention.

I hear you singing in the wire.
I can hear you thru the whine.

gives us a hint, and we maybe start imagining telegraph wires on poles, stretching across the countryside. A solo figure in a big landscape has always been a potent image – you could say it’s Hardyesque, and we now have the music matching the imagination in the sound of the electricity humming through the wires, the wind moaning and reminding him of who he is missing.

Even in the sound of the music, Webb uses imagery. In music, production and lyrics, it’s a wonderful, treble, evocation of time, place and feeling – despite the fact we aren’t exactly sure of what he is or where he is. Many of Webb’s songs make use of hitherto unknown place names: their mystery intriguing and hooking us further. It’s a common technique – who would have heard of Tulsa without Bacharach and Pitney, or Boisie, Idaho, without Harry Chapin? But Webb was the master at placing his songs in a landscape and inviting us, with his lyrical help, to imagine it. Think of the journey to Phoenix. You could imagine the places if you’d felt the feelings.

Then, even as the backing evokes the whine and the hum of the wires, Webb, ever one to promote the mundane, reminds us that we are talking about hard manual work here, as the lyric goes from the poetic to the prosaic need to get a break, but needing rain to gain time ‘away from the line’, and the worry that snow could entail long hours of overtime because of overloads and fallen lines. Master of the lyrical oxymoron, Webb seamlessly glides from romantic longing to workbased worry.

Then, having brought us to earth, as it were (see how many electrical images are possible!!!), he soars lyrically again, with one of the most intense declarations of hopeless love and devotion ever put in a song:
‘And I need you more than want you
And I want you for all time’

It’s more than a want, it’s a need.

And in the end, he’s still ‘on that line’ – in as many ways as you want to imagine.
The backing taps out the morse code of the telegraph wires and echoes the wind as it howls its way between the poles; the iconic six string twangy bass sound ensures that no-one who hears this song will ever forget it; and the sweep of the instrumental as it fades out conjures up the lonely drifter riding the range, for anyone brought up on the westerns of the sixties. It’s a cowboy song about modern technology, a song for Americans, accessed by all nationalities, a love song about blue collar work, a solo figure on a landscape, surrounded by the feelings of all who envisage him. It’s the energy of contrast, it’s Jimmy Webb.

And yes, at the end of the day, it’s just a pop song – a very good one, but a 45rpm record, made to sell. But, if it is a confection, it’s most certainly a box of Belgian quality, rather than a packet of Rolo!


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