Following on from my claim in the debate (see last post) that “Wichita Lineman” is a great work of art some folk had asked why I think so. I’m inclined to think that anyone who had heard it would know why, surely?
Jimmy Webb is a genius, I think, and the Glen Campbell version is the definitive one.
Most obviously it’s a beautiful song which is beautifully arranged and beautifully performed; a micro-opera with an obvious narrative – a beginning, middle and end - which condenses all that it needs to into its 3 minutes (and I'm convinced that there's something about a chiming chord change from G Major to Minor which captures a fundamental truth about the human condition.)
It’s a love song, of course, but one that struggles against the constraints of the pop idiom. This is something that all the very best pop does: to offer the promise of transcendence from within the parameters of a medium that will thwart and undermine those ambitions.
Contained within those three minutes there is an existential allegory: “I need you more than want you; and I want you for all time.” Those lines just floor me every time. Just there you have a perfect expression of the human-all-too-human plea for contact with another human in a world in which we are, essentially, alone. This is more than a desire for love; it is a need, a basic and perhaps destructive compulsion. It’s a thirst for communion that can never be slaked. Yet the Lineman must continue to do so; and his isolation in the sun bleached prairie is relentless. There doesn’t seem to be any respite to his Sisyphean task: “you know I need a small vacation; but it don’t look like rain”. So still the hard and cleansing and cooling rains don’t fall. When we leave the song we leave him “still on the line”; he’s still there now; still searching.
We are all like him; all “searching in the sun” for another “overload”. This is the song of both a solitary everyman and a Zarathustra in rhinestones. He is alone in a solitary quest for meaning in an essentially meaningless and indifferent world that constantly overwhelms (“overloads”) him. His world is one that is relentlessly teetering on the edge of collapse: “And if it snows that stretch down south, won't ever stand the strain” but one that never reaches the redemption that collapse and chaos might bring.
The pay off, though, is that this is a song about communication sung by someone who is utterly alone with no-one to communicate to. The character is a line-man. His job is to maintain the operation of telegraph lines so that people can communicate. The telegraph itself is an odd, mute form of communication that is inherently modern and inherently alienating (or at least must have seemed so to The Lineman): it happens silently and bloodlessly over a distance through the abstract dots and dashes of morse code.
The art historian and iconographer of The Weird Aby Warburg noticed this effect of distance and finishes his distinctly odd essay on the serpent rituals of the Pueblo Indians with his strange nostalgic requiem:
“Telegram and telephone destroy the cosmos. Mythical and symbolic thinking strive to form spiritual bonds between humanity and the surrounding world, shaping distance into space required for devotion and reflection: the distance undone by the instantaneous electric connection.”
The Lineman's fate is ruled by instantaneous electric connection. He must monitor the “overloads” and power outages that arise when there is too much, communication; a surfeit, a glut that threatens the system. But he himself is denied it. He hears the melody of his lover’s voice not via the code but “singing in the wire” and “through the whine” of the wind in the desert of the real. His own song, then, matches that of his lover and the whistling of indifferent nature; the song of the wind that blows through the wires above his head.
These dots and dashes of indifferent communication are then mimicked in the recurring motif in the song (the flute-like sound going “da da dada…”). In the end the world of the Line Man and our own world begin to mesh. We too begin to hear the morse code that he monitors and the whistling of the wind. Through the aeolian harp of the telegraph wire we too can hear the singing that he hears in his exquisite isolation. Ultimately, then, he does communicate; but not with his lover, but with us the listeners, with those outside of his world who listen on and on, only just able to stand the beauty of the strain.