This piece is longer than usual, as it is a chapter from a wider book – Across America In Song- due for completion and publication in 2018. It is somewhat longer than the usual pieces on TravellersWrites but hopefully you’ll get an idea of a larger story. Marc Jones, June 2016.
I don’t remember the exact first time I heard Jimmy Webb’s masterpiece, Wichita Lineman. It’s like it’s always been there. It’s got to the stage where I know it’s playing when just that very first of Carol Kaye’s five elegant falling bass notes at the start enters my consciousness.
From my very early childhood I have a vision of my mother la-la-la-ing along to it in the kitchen in our small South Wales flat as I’m sat presumably on the floor near her, and I also have a vision from a few years later of the great Glen Campbell in sky blue rhinestone singing it out hard and proud in front of an orchestra on some American tv ‘special’ beamed into our homes by wonder of satellite.
We would have been transfixed, not just by the immaculate song and it’s almost unbelievably perfect Campbell delivery, but by the glamour that America represented to us in working class Cardiff in 1968 when Webb wrote the song, and through to the grim grey early seventies. At that time, Great Britain was an economic dead-zone, hit by strikes, power shortages and weak unambitious government, whilst America offered glitz, dynamism, joy and sheer exhilaration. We were outsiders looking longingly at America on our televisions, almost like the kid not invited to the party, but watching the games and the picnic through a hole in the hedge. Whilst my brother and I played Subbutteo by candlelight during power outages, Americans were riding cool bikes on their own long driveways, building tree-houses and being part of cool gangs camping out by the river.
Yes of course it’s unlikely it was ever that simple, but the television seemingly made it so. And beyond that we had visions of space age high rise cities, of crystal clear lakes, huge mountains and vast deserts. The Tuesday night western that my Grandmother and I watched together were magnets for this longing and it’s those vast plains and grasslands that ring again when Wichita Lineman strikes out at my senses.
Perhaps never has there been a song so cinematic. The sheer sweep is astonishing, and yet the narrative never leaves the one spot. A lone telegraph worker sat high on one of the poles that stretch out across the wilderness of Kansas and down into Oklahoma. It’s unforgettable opening with those bass notes falling into lush lazy orchestration brings immediate visions of the wide open West captured on film by John Ford.
When Webb wrote the song it was originally about Washita in Oklahoma, his home state, preferring the scan of Wichita just over the Kansas Sate border when turned to song vocal. He saw a ‘lineman’ working atop one of the poles and started to think about him, his life and the thoughts in his head as he worked in isolation miles down the line.
I’m looking for that very image as I arrive in Wichita by Police Car, having been picked up from a failed hitchhiking attempt twenty miles North in Newton, Kansas. The officer is a smiling character, on his way between the two towns, and happy to get me off the interstate. We’re about the same age, and I start a conversation about the America I imagined between 1968 and the mid-seventies, the sweeping West, the wide roads and avenues, and the seemingly endless summers. I receive a smile back from the policeman in his rear view mirror, and it seems already I’ve missed reality with my generalisations.
“I grew up here in Wichita and it was just a blue collar town like anywhere. We had industry, we had jobs and we had things to look forward to, but time hit Wichita hard, and what you see now is what it is…a town in almost incessant regeneration…but never actually regenerating”.
I can already see his point. We drive into the city and other then the state-of-the-art sports stadium (now almost de rigeur in any American town) the inner heart of the town is one of run down streets, closed up shop fronts and dusty avenues. It’s a weekday and at around lunchtime I’m struck by how empty the streets are. At the junction of West 1st Street and North Waco Avenue in the heart of downtown, there’s a huddle of vagrants sat leisurely on the sidewalk, and despite the signage of stores stretching out behind them, only two are actually open.
I stop an office worker walking out from a glass door down the street and ask where I can get some coffee nearby. She actually thinks long and hard before pointing me towards old town, about half a mile away, shrugs her shoulders and strolls off, the only pedestrian in sight.
The Old Town is exactly how the policeman described to me. a regeneration that in no way looks complete. Redstone cobbled streets on an 8 by 4 street grid assist to create a quaint delineated area away from the grey dirty streets of inner city Wichita. But this is quiet too. a couple of bars light up their windows for the lunchtime crowd, but the bar I walk into is almost empty. Far busier is the restaurant just down past the Wichita Eagle newspaper offices.
The Beacon Diner is full. Looking for a seat, I ask a young man if I can join him and he nods amiably, moving his jacket and rucsac from a chair so that I can settle down. After the usual opening banter about my accent, and where I’m from (guesses of which range from Australia to England, from Canada to bizarrely France) I’m able to order coffee and a late breakfast. Nothing on the menu is more than $15 and most people are eating the house breakfast which would come in at around $8. Around me is blue-collar America. These are the people who have watched the town slow down as firstly technology, then electronics, then International trade became distant shadows that cast towards the town. The jobs of Wichita are outside the centre, on the beltway around the outskirts of what is Kansas’ largest city, in skilled jobs in aeronautics, aircraft manufacture and allied trades. Low skill manufacture, public service, agriculture, tourism, and new technologies are all only lip-served here, and the mood in the Beacon Diner reflects this. Wholly working class couples, families and largely elderly customers sit quietly in murmured conversations.
The guy who let me sit down could be the protagonist from Webb’s song. James works for the City sanitation team and spends his days lifting drain covers looking below for leaks and floods. He used to work five days a week, but now, almost reflecting the town itself is down to three days and a slower, more restrained lifestyle.
“Used to race cars out near Newton, but had to sell my car. Used to do lots of things, but its about getting by now”. I tell him about my conversation with the policeman, and how he described Wichita as in incessant regeneration… “could be, could be” James shrugs. “All I know is the town ain’t New York”. He laughs. When you get James talking about Wichita, something recognisable comes through. He talks of always having lived here, and of no intention to seek somewhere new. He’s not exuberantly happy here…but it’s home. And perhaps more significantly, “it is what it is”.
“I do my job, I go home. That’s it. One day I’m sure I’ll be back to five days, but the kids are doing fine in school, their grandparents are all here in Kansas, so I’m in no rush to shake that around”. It resonates in my head…and as he talks I drift off to jimmy Webb’s words of Wichita Lineman.
I know I need a small vacation, but it don’t look like rain
And if it snows, that stretch down south won’t ever stand the strain.
In other words…”it is what it is”. James and the lineman before him are completely dedicated to the town, have lived their lives here and see no reason to change that.
I check into my hotel in Old Town. A former ‘Keen Kutter’ tool factory, the hotel itself standing as a metaphor for the changes Wichita has undergone. Sympathetically restored, there are echoes of the past sitting in display cases, in the furniture, and indeed in the staff who proudly talk of the history of the building and indeed of the town. Of the now closed railroad station (the nearest working one is twenty miles away) and of how Wichita is the birthplace and bedrock of flight. Of how ‘all the great planes were built here’. This just adds to a melancholy as I step out into deserted streets once more.
Walking out I follow instructions to the square at the heart of old town but this doesn’t add any colour. As someone who has always travelled, I’m trying to understand what is here that keeps Wichita in peoples hearts and makes them stay. The square is about a hundred yards by fifty and has the restored Warren Theatre at one end and rows of cafe’s and grills, beauty salons and small stores around it. Not all of the shops are open, and the first movie screening in the Warren Theatre isn’t until three-thirty. It’s not a ghost town, but it’s almost eerily quiet. Taking a coffee at the empty Hana Cafe, Im advised that to really see the people of Wichita getting behind their town, I need to take in a baseball game. Never one to turn down an experience, I head to the Lawrence-Dumont Stadium that night for the big clash in the Southern Division of the Independent American Baseball League between Wichita Wingnuts and the Laredo Lemurs.
Erica at the Hana Cafe was right. Almost out of nowhere, the people of Wichita have shown themselves. I’m almost taken aback at the crowd. Whilst at times today, walking the empty city streets I have felt like I was a loner, on the outside of a secret, now here I am just one of a few thousand who have turned out laughing, chatting, and cheering as their team take to the field. Baseball is seen as ‘America’s Game’…evoking clean-cut sportsmen, crowds of smiling faces cheering every pitch and hit, hot dogs, beer and a real sense of pride in the hometown and the hometown team. The National Anthem rings out and everyone, and I mean everyone, takes off their caps and places their hand over their heart. Children are silenced, laughing stops and the crowd are as one. Wichita reveals itself here more than it ever did downtown earlier in the day.
I’m welcomed to the game by Pete ‘Red’ Weiss and his wife. Pete has lived in Wichita all his life before retiring from his role as a grocery store owner only last year. He insists on buying me a beer and Mary cracks open some sandwiches she made for the game. I try to explain to Pete that I understand the rules, but he’s getting too much pleasure from explaining every single element of it to me. He has a lovely slow Kansas drawl, like the actors in those movies I watched with my Grandmother, and I’m very happy to let him carry on talking as Mary hands me a sandwich so full of ham and cheese that the slices of bread end up about four inches apart. This is a Kansas welcome. And it’s true that I’ve been nothing but welcomed the entire time I’ve been here. I’m probably the only non-American in the crowd, but all I have had is kind comments, welcoming remarks, and frankly no little polite affection. Into our second beer, Pete insists I call him ‘Red’. This must at some stage have referred to a mane of red hair, but now he’s completely bald under his USA baseball cap.
I talk of why I’m here, and the search for a Wichita that I learned about over forty years ago in a song, on a radio more than three thousand miles away.
“My brother Bob WAS a lineman” he almost shouts with a huge grin on his face. “Oh yeah!…he used to look after the wires out past Viola and Conway Springs”. Mary chips in at this stage “We used to sing that song about him!”… they look at each other and both laugh, like I’ve reminded them of happy days. I like this moment between us a lot.
Red continues….”when it was his birthday or even if he was just over for a few beers or dinner, someone at some stage would always sing that song….BOB is a lineman for the county”… I’m absolutely delighted to get this first hand family story, and I ask about Bob. Sadly Bob passed only six months earlier, but during his working life had been a lineman for twenty or more years and according to Red, it was what defined him. He was a proud working man who had raised a family, including adopting a seriously disabled child, and dedicated his life to them, seeing his work as the bedrock of his families security. His job made him proud and he was proud to do it. Not resigned to it, or ‘satisfied’ with it, but actually fiercely PROUD of it. The reason I’m smiling at Red as he tells me about this, is that I’m almost singing the opening lines of the song as he talks. The orchestration leads us out to the plains outside the city, along the road, gathers us at the telegraph pole and soars us to the top where the lineman waits to proudly deliver his defining message;
I am a lineman for the county, and I drive the main road
Searching in the sun for another overload
It’s so simple. Yet in that lush orchestrated opening Jimmy Webb’s genius is to lead us TO the lineman. It’s as though there’s something important about to be said and we’re being taken right to the spot. The lineman stops his work for a moment and then proudly tell us what he does and who he is. And that last part…WHO HE IS, is what resonates across Kansas and Wichita while I’ve been here. The lineman is everywhere. And yet, I’m not seeing the vista’s or indeed getting the sense of place here, that I imagined back home as a boy in Wales. A sense of the man yes…in James at the Beacon Diner, and in Red Weiss’ brother Bob. But not the place. There’s something missing and nagging at the back of my mind.
Back at the hotel I’m listening to different versions of the song in my room. It’s almost as though it’s been covered in every genre. REM’s version is a little overdramatic and I don’t feel the isolation anymore. Hank Marvin manages to make it into a characterless background, Tom Jones does what you expect and it’s a breathy yet shouted exultation. I’m still not sure what I’m missing. Ray Charles is soulful, Kool And The Gang do something weird and inexplicable, Sammy Davis Jr makes it funereal, and frankly God knows what Marti Pellow is trying to do with it. I make it through the first few bars of that version and shut it down before anger sets in.
I think back to when I saw Jimmy Webb perform it himself. In a church in Bristol, England, I’m sat on a pew a few yards from him, and he talks in leisurely casual tones, namedropping all the stars who’ve recorded from his incredible catalogue. He rattles off names like a machine gun, and then places his hands on the Piano and begins. His run through is conservative, it’s honest, and even with only the one instrument on stage, the sound is cinematic. It’s beauty is in the perfect marriage between the words and the rise and fall of the music, reflecting the rise and fall of the telegraph wires stretching out across the plain. Towards the very end of the song, as the protagonist states clearly how he’s not going anywhere, and how he’ll always be “still on the line” Webb starts playing at the high end of the piano a repeated dit-dit-dit until it clearly becomes the sound of the telegraph rising and falling and rushing through the wire. The pushing of a single key becomes a tension rising in the audience that needs breaking, but Webb keeps pushing “dit-dit-dit……..dit-dit…..” until it seems as though all the air in the room has gone. Finally he stops and almost slumps at the keys. The room is SILENT…..two, three even four seconds of silence and I realise I’ve stopped my breath. Then a RUSH of breath and applause and cheers and more applause and it’s almost endless.
Here now…some years later in a Wichita hotel room I’m wishing to get that sensation again, but it’s as though the town has let me down. It’s as though all those years of imagery in my head have left me needing a new big-screen cinemascope in my head. The old one was wrong. It’s not a town in splendid isolation, it’s a dusty town in need of regeneration. It’s not a clear vista of plains and grasslands, it’s an industrial town partly decaying by the side of the interstate.
I go back to the original 1968 Glen Campbell version, and I stop thinking of the place, as that doesn’t ring true anymore, and I focus on the Lineman. On Bob, proudly working the line for his family, and on James from the Beacon Diner, lifting drains and checking for flooding and leaks three days a week for his kids, wishing only for the chance to work five days a week. And I think of what drives them to stay in this place, carrying on with a job in isolation, waiting for the moment when they go home to live with their loved ones for a few hours before its back to work the next day.
I’ve heard the song a million times. I know it inside out, hell at a push I can even play it. Well…the start anyway, but now with Bob and James, and Red and Mary in my head something new and very real comes out from Campbell’s beautiful diction. It’s always been there, and it’s always been beautiful, but tonight it’s loud and it’s clear in my head, and I realise it’s the honest bell-ringing part that’s been missing. After the lineman has introduced us to his life, and after he confesses he needs a small vacation, but hey, it’s not a big deal…we get to realise EXACTLY how he does it. EXACTLY how he stays every day in Wichita, doing his job in isolation, EXACTLY why he doesn’t think of stopping, and EXACTLY why he has the strength to know he will ALWAYS do it.
And I need you more than want you…..and I want you for all time
Right there is the song. The lineman does it, and more importantly CAN do it, because of the strength and pride and security of someone he loves. Someone who is so crucial to him that everything else can only happen because of her. It’s tear jerkingly beautiful and it’s honesty from a blue collar heart is disarming. F.Scott Fitzgerald said ‘There’s no second acts in American lives’ and that plays out in the lineman. This act, this job, this life is what he does. This is it, and the thing that makes it bearable, that keeps him there, and keeps him proud in what he does, is the unfailing knowledge that he does it for her.
I came to Wichita looking for the geography of the song. I’ve always pictured the place, but I was wrong. The song is very much in the man.
Wichita will recover from post industrial decay, because of the people. The heart is strong in this town, as I discovered in the unity at the baseball game. The people of Wichita will stay because of the love, pride and strength they find in each other.
Jimmy Webb wrote a masterpiece and put the name Wichita in the title. But I’ve discovered he didn’t write about Wichita, or indeed Anytown USA, he wrote about the human condition. And in doing so, Hell, he may just have written the greatest song about the importance of love ever penned.