Since Freaky Trigger is currently hibernating, I thought I’d reproduce my piece on Glen Campell’s Wichita Lineman right here. Less of of music review than a travelogue, it was the first (and so far only) time I’d attempted to write anything that went to more than three paragraphs. I was pretty pleased with the result and, surprisingly to me, others liked it too. So thanks to everyone who said nice things, especially Geoff Parkes of Sydney, who I really should have responded to by now…
I can vividly remember the first time I heard music on the radio. The station was 2YA, New Zealand’s equivalent of BBC Radio 4, and one day the non-stop chatter, farming news and politics were interrupted with what must have been a belated, desperate and doomed attempt to lure listeners away from the station my parents wouldn’t listen to, the far more popular and populist 2ZB. The two records chosen to represent what everyone else was listening to were Lobo’s appalling “Me and You and a Dog Named Boo” and Glen Campbell’s “Wichita Lineman”. The latter immediately became my favourite pop record (out of the two I was aware of) and remained so.
It’s one of the few perfect records ever made. Aside from being desperately, hopelessly romantic, it’s one of the few tunes that doesn’t waste a single moment of its three minutes and three seconds. Written by Jimmy Webb, it tells the story of man whose job is on the road, maintaining the electricity grid in Wichita, whose mind is split between the woman he loves (“I hear her singing in the wires”) and the work ethic that that keeps him from seeing her more often (“If it snows that stretch down south won’t ever stand the strain”). The music compliments the lyrics beautifully, conjuring up images of the remote loneliness of the Kansas landscape. Campbell’s delivery is exquisite, heartfelt and anguished yet full of restraint and dignity. A few years ago I saw Jimmy Webb perform the song at London’s Jazz Caf?and he told a story of being driven through Kansas as a child, and looking up at the sky in wonder at all the telegraph poles. It was this image that provided the inspiration for the song many years later. After hearing this, I decided to make a musical odyssey. I would one day travel to Wichita.
So, 5am on October 11th 1998 finds me at the Greyhound depot in downtown Flagstaff, Arizona, after a whistlestop tour of Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon, steeling myself for the 28-hour trek to El Dorado itself. I’m tired and more than a little concerned about what the journey might hold — my host in Los Angeles had cast serious doubts on my sanity after being informed of my plans, insisting that no one in his right mind would choose Greyhound for a twenty minute trip, let alone one that would take over a day. But hell, I was on a mission. Not only was I finally heading towards Webb’s geographical muse, but the first part of my crusade would follow the almost mythical Route 66 before twisting north at Oklahoma into the heart of America.
And so the nightmare begins. My first companion is a young Texan off to join his brother in the army. He claims to be heir to the Ping golf fortune and seems amiable enough for the first twenty minutes or so. That is, before he decides that I’m worthy enough to share his worldview with and launches into a tirade of racism and homophobia that would make a Klansman swell with pride. I feel trapped. I can’t move, as there are no spare seats on the bus, and the batteries on my Walkman are dead so I can’t even shut him out. This goes on for hours, my feeble attempts to counter his bigotry falling on unwilling ears, until he finally leaves the bus at Amarillo. The next few hours to Oklahoma pass without incident and I try and catch some sleep.
I have a three-hour wait for my connection to Wichita, and 2am finds me outside the terminal smoking a cigarette, beginning to wish I’d never had this idea in the first place. I’m approached by a man who’s face is covered in dried blood, but he’s smiling and underneath the mask seems not to be threatening, so I stand my ground. He starts to talk:
“Where you going?”
“Good decision! Oklahoma is a baaaad town. Look at me!”
“Two guys jumped me, stabbed me in the neck and stole my shoes. I’m only here for a day.”
I look down to see that he is indeed shoeless. “Why did you come here?”
“Oh, I’m here every month to see my brother. He’s in jail. For murder.”
All of a sudden I’m really sweating and my stomach has taken up gymnastics. I fumble quickly through my excuses and go back inside the building. Desperately wanting to avoid another conversation, I bury my head in a book and try not to make eye contact with anyone, but half an hour later comes a tap on my shoulder, and I look up at one of the meanest looking people I’ve ever seen. He looks like Brad Pitt in “Kalifornia”, a wiry, tattooed inbred with eyes too close together and not much in the way of a forehead. He too wants to talk:
I have to suppress the urge to laugh, as I’m immediately reminded of a Bill Hicks sketch in which he’s approached by a group of threatening rednecks whose opening gambit is “looks like we’ve got ourselves a reader” And so I make the mistake of telling him that I’m very much enjoying Arnold Rampersad’s excellent biography of Jackie Robinson, the first black baseball player to break through the colour barrier when he signed for The Brooklyn Dodgers in 1946. Brad’s eyes narrow even further and he’s obviously not happy. He almost spits out the next sentence.
“Whatcha readin’ ’bout that nigger for?”
Suddenly I realise that I’m in a part of the US where cross-burning isn’t just a historical embarrassment. There are probably people round these parts who miss the “good ole days” and I think I’ve just met one. For the second time in an hour I’m forced into cowardly retreat and I end up locking myself in a cubicle in the toilets, scared to face anyone outside until my bus finally pulls in two hours later.
The rest of the journey northwards passes in a surreal blur. For the first few hours the seat directly behind me is occupied by an Ali G style wigga who initially spends his time amusing himself with human beatbox noises much to the annoyance of his fellow passengers. When he finally stops, it’s only to start sniffing glue. In the seat next to me is a very polite young man who seems to be struggling to fill in a form provided by the Kansas City Parole Board and who only speaks to me once — to confirm spelling of the word “arson”. Meanwhile I’m preparing myself for my arrival by playing “Glen Campbell’s 24 Golden Greats” on my revived Walkman. Each time I reach “Wichita Lineman” I go back to the beginning of the CD, not wanting to spoil the moment. Finally we reach the outskirts of the city, home to Pizza Hut and Erin Brockovich, and I play the song.
I lay back in the seat and look out the window and upwards towards the sky. And there they are — telegraph poles. Dozens of them, beautiful, all different shapes and sizes, each with a bewildering number of wires spidering off in seemingly random directions. I should feel overjoyed, but I only feel relief, and I’m close to tears. I have arrived.
Wichita turns out to be a dump. It’s one of those American towns without a heart — the centre has been deserted as business moves to the cheap rent malls and business parks in the suburbs, and the streets are virtually empty. I’m supposed to be here for two days, but there seems to be nothing to do, and in the end, six hours is enough. I book myself on a flight to Memphis rather than face another day on the bus, and I’m glad to be gone.
“Wichita Lineman” is still my favourite record.