A sad farewell and thank you to Glen Campbell, whose powerful interpretations of Jimmy Webb’s lyrics have enthralled audiences since he recorded them in the 1960s.
The three songs here, written by Webb and performed so brilliantly by Glen Campbell, are mini-dramas which position emotional anguish in lightly-evoked, unforgettable locations which transcend their geographical identity.
The lyrics take on universal significance, and speak to everyone who has ever experienced love, longing and loneliness.
Wichita Lineman begins with a deceptively simple introduction, as the singer addresses us in the first person, stating his occupation, a lineman working in Wichita, Kansas.
It’s a vivid picture, the county employee in blue overalls, we imagine, driving along the rural highways, scaling telegraph poles to check faults or overloads in the telephone system.
The sun beats down on him as he hangs on the wire, and the mundane situation suddenly becomes drenched in pain and yearning as he hears his absent loved one’s voice in the whistling and humming of the wires.
In his head, everything merges. He is aware of his mental and physical fatigue, his tiredness and his need for a break. At the same time, his professional self assesses the atmospheric conditions and the likelihood of a system breakdown. And through it all pulses his loneliness and his longing for his lover.
The ordinary man perched high on the wire doing essential maintenance work becomes a philosopher, as he ponders the balance between need and love, the overwhelming nature of desire, and the awareness of eternity.
Galveston is a haunting song, in the tradition of works which evoke the realities of war by creating a picture, not of a war zone, but of the home and the people who the young soldier leaves behind.
Home here is Galveston, on the coast of Texas. The place is evoked through images of sea winds blowing and waves crashing on the shore, and sea bird flying with the freedom he doesn’t have. The war is evoked through images of guns and flashing cannons.
And the girl he had to leave is present throughout, standing by the shore, looking out to sea, tears streaming down her face. ‘Is she waiting there for me?’ he asks, and suddenly, most movingly, blurts out the truth that resonates through the years: ‘I am so afraid of dying.’ Awareness of mortality gives urgency to his longing to be back with her and dry her tears and see once more the sea birds flying in the sun.
The repetition of Galveston at the end of the song imbues the place with qualities of peace, nature, love, freedom.
By The Time
I Get To Phoenix
By The Time I Get To Phoenix tells, in parallel frames, the story of a man leaving a woman.
In the early hours of the morning, he creeps out of the home he shares with his lover and stealthily drives away, leaving a note for her to find when he’s gone.
At each stage of his journey he imagines what she will be doing at that point. His physical journey is sketchily described, marked by references to Phoenix, Albuquerque and Oklahoma, presumably his destination, but the bare bones provide a structure for complex emotional impact.
Although the story is told in the man’s voice, the woman is vividly portrayed through his words and what he imagines her doing. We see her getting up in the morning and finding the note hanging from the door.
We’re not told everything that the note says, only that it doesn’t begin with the information that he’s leaving her. She has to read on to come to that part — and when she does, she laughs.
Why? Because he’s always doing this, that’s why. He leaves, and he comes back. So she goes to work. Perhaps she tells her pal at work, oh, he’s at it again, threatening to leave me, what’s he like.
As the narrator approaches Albuquerque, he imagines her giving him a call in her lunch break. That’s funny, there’s no reply. Does she begin to think that something may be wrong? We imagine the realisation slowly dawning on her as, while he crosses the line to Oklahoma, she cries alone in her empty bed and finally accepts that this time, he’s never coming back.
And what is he feeling, this deserter, as he drives further and further into the distance? Although the tension between our knowledge of his whereabouts and his intentions and the woman’s blissful ignorance is painful, he doesn’t come across as callous or insensitive.
Rather, we see a man who has for a long time been desperate to leave, but unable to do so. There is nothing heroic in the nature of his departure, far from it, but he has finally summoned the will or the courage to do what he must. He may be going back to his original home, he may be returning to a formerly deserted wife or lover.
The string arrangement of Glen’s rendition brings melancholy and tenderness to the song, which strikes a chord with all who have dreams of leaving, if not always for Oklahoma.