Monday, November 28, 2011

"Wichita Lineman"

One of the questionable benefits of 24-hour mass media (of all kinds) is that we are never more than a keystroke or away from our heroes. We can watch them, *consume* them if you like, whenever the spirit moves us. Want to know where Rihanna left her clothes last night? Look! Here's a picture of her dressing room floor. Was that one of Dire Straits I walked past on Dulwich High Street last night? Oh here, yes it was, here he is on Facebook (some details have been changed to protect the innocent).

As this new age of connectivity spreads far and wide, it will absorb ever more details, it will log more "appearances" and "sightings", and it will store ever more photographic evidence. Hurried phone camera pictures, fragments of German supermarket tabloid reports, gossip website entries.

Face it, we're going to grow up right next to our heroes, online. We'll be able to check ourselves out in the mirror every morning as we grow up and older, and then check *them* out to compare. We'll be able to pick up anti-ageing tips, fashion ideas, all perfectly appropriate for our age group. We already follow blogs, tweets and Facebook updates: we're living their lives too! At some point we'll have to draw the line. Somewhere around Tommy Lee, I hope.

One of the sadder parts of being so well-connected is that we learn many things that we wish we hadn't. I read a feature about Glen Campbell not long ago, in which he talked about the onset of Alzheimer's Disease and how he has made one more album as his farewell to the business.

It made me think of Brian Wilson and Johnny Cash: the first because he's been a wounded songbird for so very long; the latter because he decided not to "go gently into that good night." These are, were, old men, old in precisely the way Paul McCartney or Mick Jagger aren't, or at least, don't appear to be. Does that make sense? We're not conditioned to think of Paul McCartney as "old". He still *looks* young, dammit. Mick Jagger may have a couple hundred more lines on his face now, but we still think of him as the prancing, preening live-wire.

The difference is, I think, that we haven't been treated to the sort of performances from Jagger and McCartney that suggest their age. We've seen Brian Wilson looking vaguely vacant at the keyboard while performing the "Smile" album, and we've squirmed in our seat, maybe. We've seen the video for Johnny Cash's electric version of "Hurt" and it's as plain as day that he was an old, ill man when he made that last clip.

Cash excepted, who grows old gracefully in musical terms? Bluesmen, maybe. B.B. King may be ancient, but he still looks as merry and full of life at 86 as he did thirty years ago. He may not move much, but he can still wring that guitar's neck. Jazz musicians can grow old gracefully too; look at Herbie Hancock.

But these artists choose to continue performing - they feel they can still hack it and often, they can. But does an artist really ever "retire"? Usually they're "retired" and when I say "retired" I mean Joplin/Hendrix/Morrison "retired". Or Buddy Holly/Stevie Ray Vaughan/Duane Allman "retired".

Maybe retirement from the music business is reserved for those that could walk away, for whom it wasn't enough, for whom it was too much, or who found it wasn't worth it any more. For every artist who's been performing in their 60s and later, there must be several hundred who left in their 30s.

None of this has anything to do with why "Wichita Lineman" is in my list of SongsWithoutWhich. It's here because of the ineffable romance of long straight roads that go nowhere for ever. It's here for the casual, absurdly conversational line "I know I need a small vacation/But it don't look like rain", and for the shattering, pained, utterly gorgeous line "And I need you more than want you/And I want you for all time."

But most of all, it's for the almost unnoticeable vocal trill that can just about be heard when Campbell sings "is still on the line" in the chorus. It's little things like that which make a sing perfect.

1 comment:

Russell 'C.J.' Duffy said...

Perfect pitch, perfect song and a really enjoyable read. Now I see why you are what makes a writer write.