23 September 2005

hanging on the telephone

dennis brown, "wichita lineman" (from the tracks of life compilation, out of print.)
sammy davis jr., "wichita lineman" (from my name is sammy davis, available for purchase here.)
the dee felice trio, "wichita lineman" (from the in heat lp, out of print.)
electric concept orchestra, "wichita lineman" (from the electric love lp, out of print.)
jimmy webb, "wichita lineman" (from the ten easy pieces lp, available for purchase here.)

all five zipped together in this file.

"wichita lineman was a song i once heard," goes a song title by the klf. me, i've done them forty-odd better. yes, i've recently listened to forty-one or so different versions of jimmy webb's classic, the song most mentioned in capsule reviews when one wants to indicate that webb is a capital-g great songwriter. (when one wants to deride him, that role is filled by "macarthur park"; when one wants to sell out branson, mo, it's "by the time i get to phoenix.")

on more days than not, i think glen campbell's version of "wichita lineman" is my favorite song. it's a song, as i've written before, of crushing sadness, occasionally relieved by daydreams. the most moving part of the song for me, and almost unbearably so, is the closing, w/ its horns and strings. it's the moment the lineman stirs from his fantasy and comes to the stark realization that such reveries can only last for about three minutes, and a day is twenty-four hours long. "and i need you more than want you, and i want you for all time" is the most frequently mentioned aspect of the song, and a beauty it is, but what i find more striking is how the lines prior to it, about needing a vacation and professional duty, in no way act as a proper seque to such a heartfelt declaration. the intuitiveness of mr. webb's writing, his understanding that the human mind v. often lacks thought-to-thought coherence, is uncanny. (i can accept the fact that the song is somewhat stalkerish and creepy, but i don't put much stock in it. i think the lineman's comments don't say so much about an individual woman as they do about some more general lack in his own life.)

the above five aren't necessarily my favorites, though they're all very close to the top. basically, they're the five best that one might have a hard time hearing.

dennis brown's is incredibly languid and gorgeous; i don't know if he knows what a "wichita lineman" is, but he fooled me good.

sammy's is from, i believe, his first motown lp. i've never heard the candyman sing like this, but, damn, he testifies on his uptempo version of the song. check for the wilson pickett-like scream near the end!

dee felice's trio backed up james brown on the gettin' down to it lp; he returned the favor by producing their in heat album. i never thought i'd say this about a cover of "wichita lineman" cover, but it's a lot of fun--kinda vince guaraldi-ish. dig the art tatum-inspired technique near the track's end.

i'd never heard of the electronic concept orchestra before; indeed, if not for this track, it might be hard to prove they existed at all. recorded in 1969, their cover of "wichita lineman" is all moog. one tends to make fun of the way people from that era saw as "futuristic," but i certainly hope this is what the future will sound like: gorgeous and painless. they play the melody and backing track, but throw in other electronic sounds, making it sound as if one were travelling through the wire themselves. the pain is, to some degree, still real, but the song has a womblike capacity for succor and reassurance. this is an absolute must for electronic music fans.

finally, there is webb's version. he went out of his way to avoid covering his hits during his solo period, "galveston" the one notable exception. webb's version is hushed and painful, the emphasis is placed on the morse-code tapping, rendered by webb's piano, one hears between chorus and verse on campbell's version. it is not necessary for one to give pride of place to a songwriter's own interpretation, but, as i hear it, it is justified in webb's case, as this theme--the song as a desperate "s.o.s."--works its way through the v. best versions of the song.

the ten best :
1 glen campbell.
2 jimmy webb.
3 electronic concept orchestra.
4 dennis brown.
5 the meters.
6 ray charles.
7 tony joe white.
8 the dee felice trio.
9 sammy davis jr.
10 johnny cash.

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