Though hardly unexpected, this week’s news of Glen Campbell’s passing was no less sad.
Campbell had fought a public battle with Alzheimer’s disease. Rather than self-pityingly succumbing to his fate, Campbell took on the disease on his own terms: following his diagnosis, he embarked upon an extended Farewell Tour. And though his overall mental condition was deteriorating, he maintained his formidable guitar and vocal skills throughout the duration of the tour. It served as a way for Campbell to thank his fans for their decades of support, and allowed the fans to let Campbell know how just much his music had meant to them.
His was truly an amazing musical career. He was a member of the Wrecking Crew, the team of crack studio musicians that played on not only all of Phil Spector’s recordings, but also on timeless works by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Sonny and Cher, and the Mamas and the Papas.
He played on the Beach Boys’ legendary “Pet Sounds” album. And when Brian Wilson was no longer able to tour with the Beach Boys in the mid-60s, Campbell filled in for a time on bass. He was invited to become a full-time member of the band, but turned down the offer in order to pursue a solo career.
It was, in retrospect, the right decision. Campbell’s chart success was extraordinary: “Gentle on My Mind,” “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “Galveston,” “Rhinestone Cowboy,” and “Southern Nights” were all massive commercial successes.
But arguably the work for which he will be most remembered was an American masterpiece composed by Jimmy Webb: “Wichita Lineman.” In Campbell, Webb found his perfect muse. And in “Wichita Lineman,” Campbell and Webb, in a scant three minutes and seven seconds, paint the ultimate portrait of a man dutifully serving his community, keeping the telephone network up and running, as all the while his thoughts drift elsewhere.
The idea for the song came to Webb has he was driving along a rural highway, passing pole after pole. Ahead in the distance, he saw a solitary figure high up in the sky, with a receiver in his hand—an image he would later describe as “the picture of loneliness.” As only the very best artists are able to do, Webb put himself in that lineman’s place, and described the struggles he was going through.
“I am a lineman for the county
And I drive the main road
Searchin’ in the sun for another overload…”
High atop his perch, he dutifully performs his work, all the while thinking of a loved one he’s missing. A sudden gust of wind kicks up, and his longing becomes even more real:
“I hear you singin’ in the wire
I can hear you through the whine…”
He realizes he won’t be seeing her any time soon:
“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…”
But despite it all, the loneliness and the longing, he remains committed to his job:
“And I need you more than want you
And I want you for all time
And the Wichita lineman, is still on the line…”
The song conjures up images of love and longing, dedication and commitment. It’s a tribute to all those linemen (and women)—in Wichita, and elsewhere—who built and maintained a network that stands as a legacy to their hard work and dedication.
So here’s to those who work and toil in the (sometimes thankless) task of keeping something we so often take for granted up and running.
And here’s to those who stand brave in the face of a horrible disease, and don’t blink.