Power lines

Jimmy Webb wrote one of the greatest songs ever, but don't tell him that

Webb sang of growing up as a child of the bomb, of a cotton-farmer father and a religious mother who preached the gospel of the coin: "I can still hear mama say/You gotta work for a dollar/To earn a dime, Jimmy/They'll take it from you every time." He sang of sleeping in a cheap California motel room in 1965 "trying to stay alive," and of the ensuing glory days, when "the money rolled in/And it came so easily." But, finally, he sought penance: "I almost forgot the original thought," he offers...until he finally realizes it's time to get back to work, time to feed his own kids.

Webb would not release another album of his own work for another decade, instead penning scores for films (Hanoi Hilton) and television shows (including Tales from the Crypt and ER). Not that he stayed away from songwriting--he wrote almost an entire album for Art Garfunkel (1978's Watermark), contributed four songs to Linda Ronstadt's Cry Like a Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind, and made his own Suspending Disbelief in 1993. But solo records filled with confessionals do not pay the bills.

"When I pick up an article in a magazine and see Joni Mitchell talking about her absolute honesty, it makes me feel...a little weird, because I'm not absolutely honest," Webb says of his old and dear friend. "If she is, more power to her, and God bless her, and I'm happy for her. But I'm not. I don't mean I go around lying my ass off to people all the time. I just mean from the standpoint of art, if you're going to really subject yourself to that kind of introspection on every note and every word you put down, I think the first thing you have to realize is it's going to take a lot longer to write a song than it used to.

"So do I aspire to that? I don't know. I kind of admire that. I see where she's coming from. But in a way, it's already too late for me. The body of my work doesn't stand up to that kind of microscopic examination. I've gone out there, and I've written the blatantly self-serving commercial song. I've done it, and I've became famous for it. So do I deserve a place in the same artistic world where Joni Mitchell lives if the things she says about herself are true? Probably not."

As a young man growing up in Kentucky and Ohio, Dwight Yoakam had no idea Glen Campbell sang "Wichita Lineman" or that someone named Jimmy Webb wrote it. To him, the man singing the song on the radio was that lineman for the county, repairing phone lines as he worked his way across the flat and lonely land. Bubba Kadane of the band Bedhead--whose beautiful, droning music one wouldn't immediately associate with Webb's heavily orchestrated output--grew up in Wichita County, Texas, playing Campbell's "Wichita Lineman" 45 so often there are pictures of him listening to the single. And as a child, it never occurred to Kadane either that the song was a songwriter's fiction. That's how perfect a song it was...and remains.

"I thought the song was specifically about my family's little world," Kadane says. "When I hear the song now, though, it's not with an overwhelming or blinding sense of nostalgia that one has for certain songs from youth. It's a song that moved me as a child and does now even more genuinely as an adult. It has a cyclical feel to it, and like the woman that the narrator wants 'for all time,' I want the song to loop forever when I hear it."

In the end, "Wichita Lineman," written in 1968, was just another nugget fallen from Webb's assembly line. He knew it would be a hit before he had even written it, so sure was he not only of his own talents but of the star-making machinery at work down below him. Even now, he recalls the story of the song's genesis like the best professional, recounting every detail with a journalist's clarity and a poet's extravagance.

He tells of living in a place that once housed the Filipino embassy, a structure located just above Hollywood and La Brea on Camino Palmero. There, he lived with about 30 people--"It was chaos," he recalls, "God knows how I ever wrote anything"--and whiled away the hours when he wasn't writing by partying with friends and drop-in strangers. He recalls receiving a phone call from Campbell and other Capitol Records executives; they were in the studio recording Glen's next record, they told him, and desperately needed another hit to follow "By the Time I Get to Phoenix."

"They needed it right away--they always do, by the way," Webb remembers, laughing. "So I said, 'Well, let me see what I can do,' and my thoughts couldn't have been any farther away from writing a song at that particular moment. So I cleared some of the people out of the room, put out some of the joints, and shut some doors. There were 30 people livin' with me, and I quieted the scene down somewhat and sat down at this green piano and started doodling this melody. You have to understand, by the age of 19 or 20, I was a hardened professional. I knew what follow-ups were, ya know? So I said to myself, 'I know that they're gonna want something that has a little geography in it, because that's gonna tie right into "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," and that's gonna make airplay come easier for them.' So I really sat down to write something that would please them mostly.

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