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Oklahoma-born, occasionally Texan (he's spent some years in the Lone Star State), songwriter Jimmy Webb has a history as a musician's dream. Webb wrote some of the great classics of the modern era—"Up, Up and Away," "Galveston" and "By the Time I Get to Phoenix"—deceptively poppy hits that actually comprise intricately laced chord progressions and dark lyricism. He also wrote what many have called the greatest song of all time, "Wichita Lineman." In honor of Webb's upcoming show at Poor David's Pub—believe it or not, his first ever in Dallas—the Observer is reprinting an excerpt from a story written by Robert Wilonsky we originally published in 1997. What follows is the story of "Wichita Lineman," perhaps the best song ever written:
In the end, "Wichita Lineman," written in 1968, was just another nugget fallen from Jimmy 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 Glen Campbell and other Capitol Records executives; they were in the studio recording Campbell'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.
"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.
"It's about that first love affair he was in," Campbell offers. "She just tore him a new rump, boy."
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 1,000 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 1,000 of them, and it's really just another one."