Wednesday, November 26, 2003

IF IT SNOWS THAT STRETCH DOWN SOUTH WON'T EVER STAND THE STRAIN. I like Glen Campbell. Most news coverage of his recent arrest has focused on "Rhinestone Cowboy" (which Campbell is said to have sung in his cell), but I prefer to recall three other milestones: first, that he was a yeoman session guitarist who toured with the Champs ("Tequila") and the Beach Boys; second, that he was the star of "The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour," a perfectly entertaining summer replacement for the Smothers Brothers back in the day; and third, that he did one of the few absolutely perfect pop records of the 20th Century, "Wichita Lineman."

That Jimmy Webb song is basically a dramatic fragment: a lineman in a barren stretch of the Great Plains during wintertime talks about the burdens of his business and the burdens of his love in alternating passages, but with a similar attitude: it's hard work, and things might go wrong at any time. It's pretty sophisticated for mainstream 60s pop, but it's the arrangement on this record that lifts it into glory. The orchestral sweeps and twang guitar are perfectly normal -- a little C&W, a little Living Strings -- but because the song is so weird, they actually promote rather than assuage a feeling of unease, like a haggard-looking guy at the end of a bar methodically peeling the labels off each of his beers. The main riff supports the feeling: the telegraphic guitar part, thin and insistent, cushioned in distant, ethereal strings.

Campbell fills his part beautifully: sincere and manly, not a complainer, just telling you where he's at. On those final high notes ("...still on the liiiiiiiiine") his voice is plaintive and sublime, and I imagine a lot of people who might have been puzzled by the lyrics heard those notes and suddenly understood everything.

His image is gentle (gentle on our minds?) but anyone who's knocked around the business as long as he has -- anyone who has been a session man and then a star and then a guy who occasionally had a hit but basically looked after royalty payments and played dinner shows at Branson -- is going to develop some sort of a dark side.
I mean, look at the guy:

Maybe this is where it all ended up for the "Wichita Lineman" guy, too. The job got to him, the woman got to him, he may have gotten a little physical during an argument and the goldurned troopers ran him in. Hell of a note.

Or maybe this will be a breakthrough for him. Maybe now that the mask has slipped, we'll be getting the dark Glen Campbell, doing Trent Reznor songs and hanging out with David Allan Coe. Why not? Like most of us, his depths are not half plumbed, though thanks to this little fender-bender we've had an intriguing glimpse.

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