Sometimes it’s rewarding to just go with the random.
I was driving my car to a thing the other morning. Three hours one way then three hours back. I was listening to 'Marty in the Morning' on Lyric FM as I was driving along. I like Marty Whelan. He is always trying to stay as positive as humanly possible. His interviews tend to wind me up a bit though. I’m never sure what he might say next. Anyway, I digress.
I was listening to Marty and, funnily enough, it was in his interview of the day, with Laoise Fitzgerald, that he mentioned about how a simplified voice and piano arrangement by the composer can bring new insights into a song of theirs. He cited as an example Jimmy Webb and how he had taken some of his ‘busier’ and most famous productions and recorded those songs with just him and his ivories. The person that Marty was interviewing agreed that this was, indeed, a good thing. This was, after all, most likely the way in which the songs had been written in the first place.
This must have sunk in because, on the drive home, after I’d finished with Kermode and Mayo, I put on the album ‘Ten Easy Pieces’ which features Webb singing his own songs with little more than his piano for company. If you click on the photo at the top, you can listen to a well known song from it..
Several things occurred while listening and driving. Firstly, it’s an interesting listen. Webb is very good at selling his own songs but he isn’t always as good as the people who did the most famous versions are. This shouldn’t be a massive surprise to me or anyone else. When I write one of my little plays, it won’t be at its best if I just stand up on a chair and do it myself. I need to get the best people I can to do it, to get it across in the best way possible. It’s a bit of a no-brainer.
But conversely, if I should happen to do it myself, albeit rather poorly, I may have a more intimate understanding of the subtext of what I have written. More than practically anybody else will.
So it is with Jimmy Webb.
Another of the several things I took away from my listen is that ‘McArthur Park’ is a far more personal and meaningful song than the whole ‘Cake out in the Rain’ business might lead you to believe. I reckon I could write a whole other blog post about that one but, for today, let’s just stick to the business in hand.
And the business in hand is ‘Wichita Lineman.’
What a song it is. Definitely in my top ten of all time. Whenever the late Glen Campbell comes on the radio to sing it, I stop what I’m doing and I listen. What a song.
It’s a combination of many things that fall together to make it great but, for one, it's the alternating naure of the verses. The first verse is mundane and businesslike. He is a lineman for the county. The second is aching and highly personal. He hears her singing in the wires. The third is, again, all everyday business. A vacation would be nice but if is snows there’ll be too much work to do. The final verse in the clincher. A spine tingling declaration of love. ‘And I need you more than want you and I want you for all time…” It’s a lyrical masterpiece. And that’s just one thing about it.
Here's two takeaways from my on-the-road listen to Jimmy Webb singing his own song ,Wichita Lineman. Both relate to writing and, specifically, to my own attempts at writing.
Firstly, it can be a valuable thing when someone offers you a direction to write in. Something to write for. Something they need. Apparently, Glen Campbell contacted Jimmy Webb and indicated that he would like another ‘place song’ to follow on from ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix.’ Would this masterful song even exist today if Campbell hadn’t communicated that requirement? Who can say for sure. Possibly not. That possibility is enough to make me sit up and listen when someone says they need a particular little something. I have previously found inspiration and, indeed, motivation in that way and I believe I will again.
Secondly, the inspiration for such a great song is so ordinary and everyday. Apparently, Jimmy Webb had been driving along a stretch of road, noting telephone pole after telephone pole along the way. Then, suddenly, there, in front of him, was a man on a tall ladder, doing his day’s work. Fixing the lines. It was enough to start a train of thought, a chain of connections. Something lasting and wonderful eventually emerged. A combination of a mundane request and a mundane encounter. I will continue to try to embrace the mundane in the things I write. I increasingly think that the larger truths and the more engaging challenges lie firmly in the realm of the mundane.
So I reckon I’ll just keep looking and listening out for the little things along the way. I’ll also try to keep paying attention to what you might tell me that you need from some written thing.
Castlebar Kenman… is still on the line.