Last week Glen Campbell’s six-year descent into Alzheimer’s came to its end. His survival time after diagnosis was roughly the average for that terrible disease. Everyone who enjoys country-flavored popular music or guitar playing will mourn him. But for me the greatest loss is that he was the quintessential musical interpreter of the wonderful poetical and musical work of Jimmy Webb, surely one of the 20th century’s greatest popular songwriters. I think the quality of their collaboration has still not been fully appreciated.
Campbell’s three greatest performances of Webb songs came in three consecutive golden years: “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” (1967), “Wichita Lineman” (1968), and “Galveston” (1969). Each features a place name, and each is unique in the depth of its interplay of poetry and music.
“Phoenix” is a first-person thinking-through of a planned drive from California to Oklahoma, at the end of a doomed relationship. Back in Los Angeles, the unsuspecting girlfriend will get up, go to work, wonder why her man is not answering the phone at lunchtime, head home, and finally realize that he really did leave.
Jimmy Webb came from Elk City, Okla. The song was inspired by his breakup with Susan Horton in Los Angeles. That drive back to Oklahoma (though he never undertook it) has been alleged to be impossible, but it isn’t. Leaving L.A. in the small hours of the morning, you could get to Phoenix by breakfast time, Albuquerque by lunch, and Elk City late that night. It could take less than 18 hours, according to Google Maps.
The song has just three verses, focused on Phoenix, Albuquerque, and Oklahoma. Unusually, there is no chorus. And the musical structure at the end underlines a key aspect of the story. As the third verse concludes, the key shifts, in just a couple of bars, from D major down to B major, and never comes back. He is really gone, forever. (He had tried to warn her: “She just didn’t know / I would really go.”) The final key change signals the irrevocable nature of the breakup.
This musical ingenuity is a Webb hallmark. In “Wichita” we glimpse the the mental life of a telephone-line maintenance man on a long Kansas road in winter (though Webb’s inspiration was actually from a road in Washita County, Okla., where he once spotted a solitary lineman working at the top of a pole in a line of hundreds). As long as the lineman concentrates on overload problems and the danger of snow on the lines, the song stays in F major; but as the wind sings in the wires his thoughts stray to the woman he loves, and the key does a strange shift into D major.
From F to D is three semitones, the same as the D to B in “Phoenix.” But the effect is very different, because we do come back: The lineman’s thoughts stray to thoughts of love for a while, but he gets back to his work, and we’re in F again. The emotional impact of the song’s melancholy lyrics and strange chord sequences is extraordinary.
So too with “Galveston.” The opening stanza tells of leaving a dark-eyed young woman in Galveston, Tex., without any indication of the reason. Only in the second verse do we learn that the protagonist can see cannon muzzles flashing.
“I clean my gun and dream of Galveston.” He’s in the Army, and it’s wartime.
In the middle eight section, we get one more taste of Webb’s three-semitone key shift, but upward this time. When we hear “I am so afraid of dying” in the third verse, we’re tempted to parse it as a sentence: Who wouldn’t be scared of being killed? But it’s not the full sentence, and that is not what scares him: “I am so afraid of dying / Before I dry the tears she’s crying.” It’s not a battlefield death that he dreads; it’s the thought of never being able to comfort the woman he left behind.
In the final, soaring lines (“sea birds flying in the sun”), Webb again pulls the his trick of shifting (on the penultimate occurrence of the word Galveston) to a new major key three semitones away, but only for a moment. The song pulls out of it to end in the home key, where it began. Maybe the soldier did eventually get home to Galveston. I hope so.
What Jimmy Webb found in the late Glen Campbell was the perfect vocal talent and style to unite his poetry and his music. Now Glen is gone. But the treasure of his superb voice singing Webb’s beautiful songs remains. Thanks to those fine Los Angeles studio recordings, the Wichita lineman is still on the line.Return to Top