Power lines

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

"And as I sat down to write, this poignant image came through my mind. I had just been back to visit my family, and I had been up in the flat country along the panhandle in Oklahoma, drivin' along, and I had seen these telephone poles along the road. It was kind of a surreal vista and hypnotic, and if you're not careful, you can, like my dad says, go to sleep and run off in the bar ditch. I was drivin' along there, just blinkin' and tryin' to stay awake, and all of a sudden there was somebody on top of one of those telephone poles--out of thousands of telephone poles, there's one that has a guy on it, and he had one of those little telephones hooked into the wires. I could see him on top of this pole talkin' or listenin' or doin' somethin' with this telephone. For some reason, the starkness of the image stayed with me like photography. I had never forgotten it."

Webb began to write:
I am a lineman for the county
And I drive the main road
Searching in the sun
For another overload

And he tried to imagine what the lineman might have been thinking. He put himself atop that pole and put that phone in his hand, and he imagined what the lineman might have been saying into the receiver. Webb had often written of his first great love--"Up, Up and Away" was about meeting her, "MacArthur Park" was about spending a lovely and perfect afternoon together, "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" was about leaving her, and "The Worst That Could Happen," a No. 3 hit for the Brooklyn Bridge in 1969, was about her marrying another man. And so "Wichita Lineman" became another in a series of love songs aimed at the woman who would eventually marry Linda Ronstadt's cousin and remain Webb's close friend.

I hear you singing in the wires
I can hear you through the whine
And the Wichita lineman is still on the line

But the line that perhaps stands out, the one that makes "Wichita Lineman" something more than just a great song, is the simple couplet: "And I need you more than want you/And I want you for all time." It's this sentiment that performers and writers have been trying to understand for decades. Quite simply, this sort of love is too enormous to bear, its ramifications too huge.

"That verse kicks me in the gut," says Yoakam, who recorded the song for his just-released Under the Covers. "That's a pretty profound statement. That's nuclear need! That's got a half-life of--what?--a billion years, that need! Hi-ya!"

"It's about that first love affair he was in," Campbell offers. "She just tore him a new rump, boy."

"Sometimes I wonder how I lived through it," Webb offers, "because I really took it so, so very seriously...Sometimes I feel like apologizing to her, because it must have been such an onslaught for her to have me at her throat and for me to have the whole record business at my disposal to bombard her with personal messages over the radio," he laughs. "If you see what I mean. Sometimes I feel like apologizing. But when you're in that state, there are no sins. You can't see that you're doing anything wrong. I see very easily how stalkers evolve. It's only just a width of a matchbook cover, really, between being hopelessly in love with somebody and being a stalker."

When Webb turned in the song, Campbell recalls that "every hair follicle stood up on my body...It's just a masterfully written song."

Yet "Wichita Lineman" is certainly not the most-performed Webb song: According to BMI, "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" is the third most-performed song of the last five decades, and "Up, Up and Away" is, oddly, not far behind. Webb doesn't even want to hear about how wonderful the song is. He wants to get back to writing something for tomorrow, not a thousand yesterdays ago. He has another solo album inside him, one he's desperate to make. "Wichita Lineman"? Leave it at the door.

"I'm just tellin' you from a songwriter's point of view that sometimes I am absolutely amazed at the take someone will have for one song and how oblivious they are to another one that I've labored over and burnt the midnight oil over and suffered over, and it goes by with no notice whatsoever," he says, not with any anger but with something approaching incredulity. "I'm somewhat bewildered by it. I would like to be as grateful as I could possibly be. It's just another song to me. I've written a thousand of them, and it's really just another one.

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