I remember hearing this song for the first time while sitting in the front seat of my dad’s car. I was only 8-years old — the Ford Galaxie 500 parked on the dirt driveway of a farm house in southern Louisiana. It was in the twilight of a humid autumn day as I watched the sun fade over sugar cane fields immediately visible to me through the windshield. Dad had left me alone while he was inside the farm house peddling either Yellow Page ads or Jesus to whomever was listening — (his two trades in those years.) Thankfully, during the solitary moments of that gloaming, I had unrestricted access to the forbidden fruit of rock-n-roll radio — so, I was perfectly content for as much time as he needed to either close the deal or save a soul. With the windows down and the volume high, the humidity and heat didn’t register at all.
Spinning the knob up and down the AM dial, I found myself suddenly captivated, then paralyzed by Glen Campbell’s voice on a song called, “Wichita Lineman.” Then, a little more than half-way though the lush string arrangement came the haunting sound of that freshly strung guitar . . . no ad lib . . . no flash . . . nothing more than a reprise of Jimmy Webb’s perfect melody. A moment of life forever sealed in my memory, and relived every time I’ve ever heard this song.
I don’t think I knew who Glen Campbell was at that time. I certainly didn’t know the songwriter, Jimmy Webb. And it wasn’t until years later that I recognized how rare it was for the random molecules of two disparate talents to collide at the perfect moment in time to create such an emotional masterpiece. Something so influential as to affect and transform the direction of an 8-year old boy, for all time.
25 years later, at an awards show in Nashville, I purposed to corner Glen Campbell, and tell him this story. During the afternoon sound-check I saw the seat reserved in his name — so I rehearsed over and over in my mind how I’d introduce myself, and how quickly I’d get to the point of the story, so as not to come across as one of those kind of fans. As it happened, Glen was a no-show, and his seat remained empty throughout the evening.
Is “Wichita Lineman” the greatest pop song of all time? Some music critics say so. I think so.
The version linked below showcases Glen Campbell with Stone Temple Pilots as his back-up band. Yes . . . STP — who Rolling Stone Magazine once declared, “the band that saved Rock and Roll.” Such a starkly contrasting pairing, alone, speaks volumes to the importance of this song.
And, of course, not to be overlooked . . . is the most urgent lyric of inestimable love ever composed:
And I need you more than want you . . .
And I want you for all time
If you do not understand, and are not sufficiently moved by the depth of that lyric, then I can only refer you to the Justin Beiber catalog for your deserving personal amusement in Hell.
One year older than my dad, Glen Campbell has Alzheimer’s disease. My father is also some seven years in the grasp of Alzheimer’s. George Otis Baker no longer knows who I am. He doesn’t know my sisters. He doesn’t know his wife of 54 years. I have the suspicion, though, that despite the fucked-up cruelty of that disease, if he heard this song, he’d remember Glen Campbell’s voice and he’d remember every lyric — just as he still remembers the words to “Amazing Grace” and “How Great Thou Art.”
Dad left me alone, a lot. Not just that night, but, entirely too often. He never attended a single one of my high school band concerts, and never once saw me perform as the featured soloist in a halftime marching band performance. Sure, when I was a kid, he propped me and my horn up on the pulpit, in front of countless backwater Bible-Belt congregations. He was proud of what I could do — I suppose — but, the music of my professional career is mostly unknown to him. Financial survival and nightly assemblages of sinners-to-be-saved were always more important to him than his son’s musical pursuits — whether sacred or secular. In fact, the last thing he ever said to me while still of sound mind, was, “If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing.” (Well, there you have it.)
But, on that one night, circa 1968, on the edge of a Louisiana sugar cane field, my father unwittingly left me in the loving care of Jimmy Webb and Glen Campbell. I have no other memory so persisting, so affecting — so bittersweet.
Glen with Stone Temple Pilots: https://youtu.be/HDPuK_tqG-Y