Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Glen Campbell "Wichita Lineman"

I had today off due to Rosh Hashanah, which allowed me some time to actually sit down and watch a Glen Campbell documentary I had been meaning to see. It's mostly about his struggle to do his last tour right after being diagnosed with Alzheimer's. Having had a family member suffer from it when I was younger made the film feel very familiar to me.

I find Campbell to be a fascinating fellow since I am a little obsessed with the so called "Wrecking Crew," the gang of LA studio musicians who played on an insane number of the pop hits of the 1960s. He was the rare case of an anonymous studio musician hitting the big time as a performer. He also seems to have existed in a place in the pop world that doesn't exist anymore, which is probably why you'll see Glen Campbell records at practically every Goodwill and yard sale in the country. Campbell played pop music with a country twang, inverting the crossover formula taken by country artists like Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton later on. His songs, despite their down home elements, were centered around the kind of mannered singing common in the world of vocal pop, a dying genre (just ask Frank Sinatra circa 1966).

Needless to say, liking Glen Campbell isn't cool.

However, he happened to perform what I think is one of the most affecting pop love ballads of all: the Jimmy Webb penned "Wichita Lineman." It's the story of a working man going about his daily tasks stringing and repairing telephone lines, all the time longing for the woman he loves. "I need you more than want you/ And I want you for all time" gets me every time. The narrator's mind wanders as well to his task at hand, worrying if "that stretch down south will ever stand the strain." If you've ever worked a manual labor job that requires working along before, you'll know the strange mix of thoughts described here. "Wichita Lineman" is one of the realest pop songs about being in love, the real kind of love that lasts after years together and the fading of infatuation, a rare subject in the youth-driven charts.

It's also a great song for demonstrating the Wrecking Crew's abilities. The strings swell and pull on the emotions without being overbearing or schmaltzy. Carol Kaye, the great Wrecking Crew bassist, starts it off with that beautiful descending bass line, the kind of thing you never heard isolated like that in a pop song of the time, unless she was doing it (like she did on "These Boots Are Made For Walking.") The moody, understated guitar solo sounds like a surf rocker lost in Nashville, wandering lonely streets in search of a home. (Still not sure if it's Campbell on this or Al Casey.) As pop music is more and more computerized and mechanized, it's good to hear what human musicians were once able to make with it.

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