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.
Oh dear , you have just shattered one of the images imprinted in my mind.
Like you , I had an image of Witchita’s beauty . This stems from the wonderfully titled Pat Metheny album ”As falls Witchita , so falls Witchita falls ”.
Maybe you can see it yourself ,
my Witchita is a small happy town surrounded by corn fields , where mother nature has been allowed to thrive .There in the distance are the Niagara type falls cascading down from the mountains.
Similarly , when i was a kid I heard that the US Open was played at ”Flushing Meadows”.
An image of a dozen grass tennis courts flanked by beautifully manicured gardens was conjured up in my head , tennis’s answer to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and not a concrete shitheap next door to an airport.
Maybe i’m doing ”Flushing Meadows” a disservice but i’m sure you get my drift.
Thanks mate , you have saved me a fortune !
does anyone else think it is food for thought that mohammed died 666 years after christ was born
No, I think it’s idiotic. He wasn’t.
WITCHITA UPDATE !
IT HAS BEEN POINTED OUT TO ME THAT WITCHITA AND WITCHITA FALLS ARE TWO SEPARATE PLACES . THEY ARE IN FACT IN KANSAS (AS YOU WELL KNOW) AND TEXAS (NORTH WEST OF DALLAS) RESPECTIVELY.
THE DREAM LIVES ON !!
I think that’s right.
Brilliant piece of writering there boy. We’ll make a reader of you yet.
Yes, Wichita and Wichita Falls ARE two different places. But, sorry to bust your bubble, marlin, Wichita Falls is not all that wonderful either. I’m not sure where the “Falls” came from but there is no waterfall there now. It’s kinda flat and hot and dry.
On the bright side, it’s the home of one of the largest bike rides in the U.S. On the last weekend of August, 10,000+ bicycle riders get together to try to ride a hundred miles in a hundred degree plus weather. They call it the “Hotter ‘n Hell Hundred” and it’s quite the macho painfest. Quite a lot of fun! :)
Just got back from Wichita for my brother-in-law’s wedding. It’s a true American town, adrift on the Interstate system, a lonely island on the prairie sea.
My impressions from Wichita Lineman were always of the barren stretch of cattle-lands north of town. There is an amazing amount of absolutely nothing in that part of the country, and the vastness of the view really would tug at someone working on electric poles, far away from their sweetheart.
I’m sorry your Wichita experience didn’t put you north of town, but maybe now you’ve got a reason to revisit? Avoid the bus though – rent a car and experience the alone-ness, like Jimmy Webb’s protagonist.
I used to live just north of Wichita during my gap year. To be fair, it’s not *that* bad, you just have to know where to go and where to avoid. I don’t know if your comment about El Dorado was literal or figurative but there is a small town just outside Wichita on highway 254 called just that. Except they pronounce it Ell dor Ray doe. I used to drive there 4 mornings a week, once when it was -11C in a car with crap heating. It wasn’t pleasant.
I’ve never been to Witchita, and now I have absolutely no desire to go.
Good, stay away. Wichita is good for those that either know the place or know someone there otherwise, you’ll have a better time elsewhere.
BTW – the words to the song are, “I am a lineman for the county…”. Wichita (the city) is in Sedgwick County. Wichita County is in the far western part of the state (population under 3k) and if you couldn’t make friends in the largest city in Kansas, you couldn’t possibly find a thing to do there.
Bill Hicks had more comments about LA.. or should i say.. “Hell A”… i have no reason to visit THERE either, as well as ol witchy-taw. Thanks for the heads-up.
its funny that this song is your favourite and that it stirred something within you. it does exactly the same to me and a friend of mine stumbled across your site and sent it to me.
the song has a winsome, elegiacle quality about it that stirs something deep inside and though ive never been to wichita the song conjours up a wonderful image in the minds eye.
i enjoyed your story immensely
I have the same feeling expressed by kaisersose. The orchestration and Glen Campbell’s sincere voice evoke such a powerful feeling of love and solitude; so much so that I had to search the web for clues as to why this simple 2-verse song has been haunting me since I heard it again on an oldies station last week. Thanks to all on this board for posting.
This was my (our) wedding song! We travelled from Ireland to ge married on the Brooklyn Bridge NYC. A musician friend living in NY called Dan Donnelly asked us what he could sing for us. When we requested this song he had to go get the CD to learn it. The pleasing thing is it has become one of his favourite songs, if only for the moment – he’s a bit of a romantic!
I spent almost three months in Wichits whilst workin for the government. all I can say is thank God for the nice Hotel I was in and porn stores.
My single (but lasting) impression of Wichita Falls comes from driving through in 1992 on a ski trip to Colorado and making the mistake of stopping at a shitty Whataburger, where I was acosted by a smelly vagrant carrying an empty bottle of Thunderbird and a large velvet painting of Jesus Christ, who told me I should go bake a cake.
I enjoyed reading about your bus ride. Having grown up in Wichita ( an electricians son ) , I know a lot of what you experienced is on target. Let me say this though, There are plenty of really good people in Ks-OK-Tx, and there are 2X as many cattle as people. But, if you would rather romantically imagine-instead of giving us a chance, maybe you should keep your nose in your book. And if you would rather taste a cow without ever having to smell it–Kansas may not be the place to visit. Wichita Falls Texas had their falls washed away by a massive flood way back, but now they have a man-made one. It is about 100′ wide and 20′ high, right there on the Wichita river. You push a chromed button and the water starts falling. It’s free, but you might meet some people. So maybe you’d better stay home a sing a song.
your piece was good, though sad.
Any town in the midwest is pretty much the way you described witchita. There is no downtown, there is only a strip malls on the highway and there is never anything to do! I know, I have lived in the midwest my whole life!
As for the racist people there are a few of them down south (I’m in southern missouri on the oklahoma border), but really, they’re all just prats who prattle on because their heads are empty and they can only repeat like parakeats what they were taught to say!
I’ve grown up in wichita, it is a great town, up and comming, it is behind the other cities of size and claiber. But they are organizing now to make the city better. There is now the Old Town Buisness district that is a GREAT place to have fun, and hang out. There are the minor league sports teams, ie the Thunder hockey team, Wrangler baseball team, and the Stealth Indoor team. There are plenty of things to do in town, u just have to get “out side the box.
Anyone still on the line?
I still remember the specific moment I heard this song, lying back as a primary school child in the back seat of the family car, heading back east in the late Sunday afternoon, the sun falling behind us in Jerry’s Plains, NSW, Australia, highlighted by vast rows of telegraph poles. I keep returning to this source through life. It haunts me and I don’t fully know why. The message that tugs so much is not perhaps so much about Wichita, but about the way isolated places and utter aloneness in that space can bring up heartrending thoughts of love and those close. I think you can go into a kind of dream state and this loosening of associations is given away in the song, where he is mixing messages of work obligations with frank yearnings…
Well, there are many places other than Wichita,Kansas mentioned in Jimmy Webb’s songs (the most talented songwriter in modern American history) that you can visit. For example, you can drive from Callifornia and pass through Phoenix, Albuquerque and finally arrive in Oklahoma when she is sleeping. Down in Galveston, Texas you can stroll the beaches where a civil war soldier cleaned his gun and dreamed of his love and being back in Galveston. You might also want to peruse the carousel in Anytown USA
I’ve lived in Wichita for 14 years now.
It’s a great place live but theres no reason to visit here. The locals seem to like it that way.
Thanks for keeping their secret.
Has anyone heard Cassandra Wilson’s version of Wichita? It creates a great sense of vastness and of a shimmering hot day,
Wichita Kansas is one of the worst places in the world to be, alteast Iraq has some action.
I was born and raised in Wichita, Ks. I didn’t appreciate the city until my husband was stationed in Germany then moved to Boston. I love Wichita and there are many things do do there. Lots of Arts and Sporting events. You can’t beat the midwest hospitality. You aren’t going to get cursed at for letting someone turn in front of you, or driving the speed limit. Like any decent sized city, there are certain area’s of the city that ” aren’t as nice ” as others. You obvisously didn’t take the time to see those parts of the city. Well, my own personal opinion is I LOVE WICHITA.
To the comment ahead of me, My husband was stationed in Iraq also and he too feels Wichita is by far a better place.
Somehow, and I don’t quite know how, I knew about this song before I heard it. So when I finally did hear it for the first time I though: aha! Wichita Lineman, it’s about time I heard this.
And when it was over I regretted not having heard it earlier in my life.
(This was only a few days ago, by the way. I was in the kitchen unloading the dishwasher.)
Also I believe the movie Planes traines,and automobiles was filmed there. Which I enjoyed very much. Including the song, that”s two reasons to peak my interest!
Wichita is a a big city wilth nearly 400000 people there. The Dub is the bomb.