Singer Glen Campbell died yesterday of Alzheimer’s disease. In my mind, he’s still the handsome, fresh-faced thirty-something guy who came to fame in the recording studios of the 1970s and variety TV shows like The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. He was married three times and had a brief, tabloid-tempestuous relationship with another country singer, Tanya Tucker, in the early 1980s, but both soon moved beyond it, and beyond Hollywood, into real life.
The obituaries all mentioned that Campbell was most famous for the song “Rhinestone Cowboy,” a throwaway song that purports, in Hollywood fashion, to tell us how shallow people and things are out there, while in reality telling us nothing–exactly the kind of song the music industry makes its living on.
But there are singers, like Glen Campbell, and songwriters, like Jimmy Webb, who were capable of saying much more to us than what can be hinted in beneath the sewn-on glitz of a fancy coat, a pair of boots, or a cowboy hat. Every once in a while, such writers will pen a song that does what country music does at its best: get to the truth in two minutes flat, and make us remember it.
The song of which I speak is “Wichita Lineman,” a ballad in the old style, which places a man we all used to know–a working man–in his proper setting, yet shows us as clear as can be the life he lives under his skin:
“I am a lineman for the county / and I drive the main road
Searchin’ in the sun for another overload.
I hear you singin’ in the wire, / I can hear you through the whine
And the Wichita lineman is still on the line.
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.
And I need you more than want you / And I want you for all time
And the Wichita Lineman / is still on the line.”
A woman is the current that runs through every man’s life. She is in everything that he does, every gesture, every thought, every memory. Everything that animates him comes from her.
Some women will ask, “Then why doesn’t he say so?”
The answer is, he can’t. There are no words, really, to express our good fortune. No song lyric can capture it; no poem can reveal it–not in the way she deserves to hear.
What men are left with is an almost inexpressible idea. We carry it around with us like a weight, a kind of burden, as paradoxical as that sounds, but the thought of carrying it scares us to death. We can’t share it with the one we love because we don’t understand it ourselves. Our only recourse is to duck, to shy away emotionally from the very love we know we’ve been given. Instead, we throw ourselves into work, hoping that she will see, somehow, through that work, how much we love her. We flit frantically, from one task to the next, avoiding the thought, avoiding the longing, avoiding the person we need the most. You can hear the avoidance in Campbell’s voice, too. He speeds up as he sings the non sequiters “But it don’t look like rain / And if it snows that stretch down south / Won’t ever stand the strain,” inventing any reason to stay away.
These three lines express as well as any love song ever has the relentless tension we all feel between working and loving, the two most important things in life. We are, all of us, bound as if by rope to this tension, but the lineman breaks free from the strain for just a moment, and says what we all wish we could say:
“And I need you more than want you / And I want you for all time.”
Will she whom he loves see him as he is? Will she see the love he has for her? Who knows? He certainly doesn’t know. As puzzling as his choice may be to understand, because he doesn’t know, his only recourse is, not to go to her, but to keep working, still put himself on the line.
In today’s life you could, of course, pull up a YouTube video of Campbell’s song, complete with the lyrics and images of electric company linemen high above us in their catchers, going about their work. But you’d miss the point. Every man is out on that line, no matter where he is, no matter what work he’s doing. Women are watching us, too. They are in our lives, claiming a piece of us, and wanting to know that they have a piece, but many of them also know the meaning of the work we do. It’s not much, but it’s enough, for a woman who looks.