The Wichita Lineman: Searching In The Sun For The World’s Greatest Unfinished Song
Faber & Faber Social
It’s anyone’s guess what the “greatest” song of all time is – but a clever choice might be Wichita Lineman as recorded by Glen Campbell and written by Jimmy Webb. You could certainly do a lot worse.
You could do a lot worse than having Dylan Jones as your guide too – he loves Wichita Lineman and does his best to get to the bottom of it. The problem, I guess, is that he resolves, rather quickly, as many of us have – listening to it over the years and in many versions – is that the magic is really in the lines, “And I need her more than want her, and I want her for all time” – that couplet is the magic. He knows it. He knows that we know it; that Webb and Campbell know it too – and so that’s what allows him to take us on a bigger journey…
What a journey this song is.
Jones basically takes us through bits of Campbell’s biography – the Wrecking Crew, the Beach Boys and others – and then Webb’s early career, songwriter to Campbell and many more…
The problem with this book is that it answers the question almost straight away. It tells us that the song is mercurial, it touches on all the aspects – assessing writer and performer – and then it has to do that over and again.
We get lots of great info about Webb. Plenty about Campbell.
And then we get some good stuff about the setting of the song and the aim of the song.
It’s beautiful actually. It’s a masterful approach. Jones even touches on cover-versions, as well as touching on the work that Campbell and Webb had to do outside and away from this song. The problem, ultimately, is that it’s a hard-sell making this a 300-page book.
Other single volumes about songs that I love – and that anybody must know/love – include Greil Marcus on Dylan’s Like A Rolling Stone and David Maglick’s beautiful book about Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit and there are more, but these two show that you don’t need so many pages to say, and say again, that the song and the artist and the writer is magnificent.
And I think, ultimately, that Jones spends a bit much time re-hashing the biographies. A better use of time might have been getting the rights to the Webb/Campbell stories. But that’s maybe being a bit grumpy – because the writing here is lovely, the song is the best and the way he sells it, and shows it, is spectacular. Jones knows the history. And he sells it and shows it well – there’s a bit of repetition. But that’s ultimately collateral damage. If you love songs and music and music-history then you will find more than enough here that you’ll love. The way this story unfold is subtly magnificent; as is the way the song unfolds. You’ll love this book if you’re the right candidate for it – and you’ll listen to it over and again – and then find so many great cover versions including Dave Dobbyn singing it for an ad!
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