There’s always “the one”, the friend that was either too hip or too nerdy, too edgy or too zealous to fit in with the rest of your friends and or family. You know the one:
- Their name elicits snickers when mentioned.
- They are allowed in the house only if an exit strategy is already in place with your folks.
- Any positive traits seem to be known only to you.
If songs were people Wichita Lineman would be “that” friend.
Maybe it’s because it was too popular too many years ago and when it was popular our parents liked the song just as much as we did. We also have to consider the lobster-in-the-pot syndrome as well – Americans tend to drag down a star just as quickly as a lobster escaping a pot of boiling water gets pulled back by his companions – and that song made a whole bundle of money. Unfortunately what it boils down to for Wichita Lineman is that over the years the song has become the poster child for the comically un-hip; ironically touted as aural kitsch, which can be evidenced by its use as Uber-nerd Matthew’s rock anthem on NBC’s wickedly funny ‘90s sitcom NewsRadio.
It most definitely was not viewed so dismissively when it was released in late1968 as yet another hit song penned by Jimmy Webb. Wichita Lineman stayed on the top 100 for 15 weeks and as of Glen Campbell’s1 passing in 2017 it had sold over 350,000 downloads. Back in the day it was covered by a staggering number of A-list recording artists from a wide range of genres, and was praised by British music journalist Stuart Maconie as “the greatest pop song ever composed”.
…but that’s not why I love it.
For most of my youth I lived in areas where the wind blew.
All. The. Time.
With marginal tree cover there wasn’t much to keep the wind from coming off the Siskiyou Mountains and roaring past our home in Little Shasta Valley2. Likewise with Sterling Alaska: our ranch was situated right in the middle of the scrubs, snags and saplings trying to recover some of the 300,000+ acres leveled by the Skilak Lake Fire of 1947.
In both locales the wind blew past the homes, outbuildings, and through the winding lengths of power lines, phone line antennae, and guy wires that surrounded all those buildings, creating a haunting melody that changed as the wind altered its direction and speed. Despite the lack of a Walkman or even a transistor radio we never lacked for a haunting musical soundtrack to outdoor activities be it work or play.
By the use of high-pitched violins and strategically-placed changes in key, the instrumental background to Wichita Lineman comes closer to the sound and feeling of wind in the wire than any other piece of music I’ve ever heard. While the lyrics specifically refer to power company maintenance workers the message applies to anyone who has spent time around power or telephone lines running through a desolate windswept area; people who know that those lines aren’t just making noise – they’re voices talking – or better yet – singing to you.
It brings to mind Henry Farney’s masterpiece from 1904 Song of the Talking Wire.
I’ve lost count of the times I’ve found myself standing in this gentleman’s moccasins. This image and Wichita Lineman come the closest to capturing the essence of solitude on a windy winter night – especially as I would walk in between hitched rides and listen to the wind and the wire sing. It gave me a sense of connection with something larger than myself – something cosmic.
….which makes this closing clip all that much more cool…in more ways than one.
It’s a very faint, very subtle sound and even with augmentation it’s hard to pick out, but what you are listening to is a recording of the wind as recorded by the British seismometer package carried on Nasa’s InSight lander as it detected the vibrations from Martian air rushing over the probe’s solar panels.
At least that’s what the BBC say it is.
To me it’s the sound of the wind in the wire as I’m walking from the highway to the ranch along Scout Lake Loop road.
- It was only when Glen Campbell passed away in August of 2017 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s that the snarky comments began to slow down. It was then that Mr. Campbell, and by extension his work, started receiving the objective appraisal he so richly deserved. Consider for a moment the following list of achievements:
- Twenty-nine Top 10 hit songs
- Twelve gold albums
- Four platinum albums
- One double album
- Multiple Grammy awards
- A hit CBS TV series in the late ‘60s
Most noteworthy was his status as a charter member of the legendary group of session musicians known as the Wrecking Crew. The Monkees weren’t the only pop musicians that “didn’t play their own instruments”. Top 40 headliners from the Beach Boys on down would rely on the Wrecking Crew to provide instrumental back-up to their vocals when cutting a record.
2. located in the actively-volcanic high desert of northern-almost Oregon California.