Lessons from the Lineman

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 Fitzgeraldthat 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.

Knowing for Sure Who You Are But Being Wrong

I can meet you and not know who you are. 

It’s not an age thing, it’s a talent I’ve always possessed. It sometimes takes me a moment or two to connect your face and voice with who you actually are. Even if I know who you are, your name will almost certainly elude me for some period of time. 

The more I try to remember it, the less success I will have with it. If I could switch my mind to some other unrelated thought, your name would be there, in the corner of my mind’s eye and I would know it. But that’s not easy to do when we’re on the street or the bread aisle in Tesco and your middle child is clawing at my shin.

This is bad. Of course it’s bad. But it’s not the worst thing. Not by a long chalk.

The worst thing, in this particular wing of human experience, is when I know exactly who you are, I know exactly what your name is and I know all about you. Your hopes and concerns. Your highs and your lows. All of it. And I engage with you on this level, happy and comfortable in the knowledge that, for once, I’ve got you sussed.

The worst thing is when I do all this… and I’ve got it completely wrong.

You are not who I think you are. You are not even remotely related to that other person. You are Somebody Else Entirely. And, by the time I have finally realised this, I have dug a hole so deep that even Elon Musk and his little submarine couldn’t get me out of it.

This doesn’t happen too often and that in itself is a great blessing because, when it does, it requires a mental dexterity and a level of backtracking that is almost superhuman. Why couldn’t I just put a little of this massive energy into remembering who the person was in the first place? But life isn’t like that, is it? We are all flawed beasts and we muddle through as best we can.

Down town a few weeks ago, I met a woman who I believed had suffered a bereavement a few weeks before. “You suffered a bereavement,” I said, not without some confidence about this elderly parent factoid, “I was sorry to hear it.” She stared at me blankly for a moment and then a light dawned. “No,” she replied, “no bereavement for me. Perhaps you’re thinking of the woman up the road?” It turns out I was, indeed, thinking of the woman up the road. We went on to analyse the weather and the state of the economy but the damage had been done.

At a social function a few weeks ago, I was navigating a room full of in-law relatives, many of them quite distant and rarely seen. Late in the evening I found myself in a corner with two nice ladies and, after an initial enjoyable time, the conversation had started to lag. I studied the younger of the two ladies. Of course! This was the ‘book’ lady who goes to all the literary festivals and know loads about Irish writers. I seized the moment.

“So, are you reading anything good at the moment.?”

The look of panic in her eyes told me all I needed to know. I had, once again, gone off in the wrong direction. This lady was not the literary lady, she was over at the far wall, nursing an Espresso Martini and chatting easily to some pensioner. Okay. So who was I with?

I looked back at my lady. A thin sheen of perspiration had formed on her brow. She was clearly searching her memory for a book, any book, she might ever have read which would satisfy this leering loon and his stupid, stupid question.

Her friend looked on amazed. She’d been around the block a time or two and had doubtless heard all kinds of rubbish out of the mouths of middle-aged men at late night parties. But this book-crack was something new, something different. She watched with lively, glistening eyes and waited to see how her poor friend might get herself out of this one.

As for me, there was nothing I could do. I had cast my conversational line and there was no way I could reel it back in without having some little something on the hook. I waited and waited, mentally kicking myself for getting everything completely wrong yet again.

After a small eternity, she finally came up with something.

“I… I read this book about a local man who… composed Irish tunes and… and… visited all the households and played them.”

My gratitude to this woman knew know bounds. Against all odds she had returned the conversational ball and got us over the enormous hill I had made for us. I picked up on her musical literary friend and went off on a verbal ramble about music and houses and men and then we were okay again.

Her friend leaned back on her heels and relaxed her brow, clearly disappointed that the crisis had passed without some more entertaining form of breakdown. I got out as quick as I could and went outside and found a stray cat to talk to. No peril there. 

So do me a favour. If I’m prattling on to you and I clearly think you are somebody else, drop in a hint or something. If you can do it before I dig my hole too deep that would also be appreciated.

Thanks. You’re a mate… I’m just not sure which one.

A Very Good Year

I turned sixty this week. Go me.

It was a good time. Both the boys were down and the four of us had dinner in a favourite place down the town where they know me and they know not to take me too seriously. I also had the opportunity to see both sides of the family, Patricia’s and mine, in the days before the birthday and, although both meetings were for sad reasons, there was a moment for people I care about to wish me well on my upcoming milestone birthday.

So, it was all good.

I got a nice array of pressies. New glasses, (check the photo) and new prescription Ray ban sunnies, which are proving life changing. I’ve needed glasses for the last twenty years but have never had prescription sunglasses so it’s always been a toss up between reducing the glare and not seeing terrible well or seeing really well and squinting into the sun. Now I’m ready for action. I feel dreadfully cool too. I got my first pair of Ray bans when I was twenty-five (I think) and I’ve always loved the look. Now here I am again, on a street near you. I also got some of those cool air bud things for your ears, which I’m enjoying a lot, and Sam always brings me into his world of music with a CD for my lovely player and it’s something I treasure a lot. This time, the CD is ‘Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You’ by Big Thief, just in case you feel like listening along.

I got other things from other places too but you don’t need to hear it all and I don’t need to write it down. You get the picture. So far, it’s been a very good year.

The feeling I woke up with, on my birthday morning, was of having achieved something. I guess it may sound trite or insincere but this is honestly how I felt. I felt like I’d made it to sixty and, no matter what happened to me from this day forward, I’d had a great sixty years and nobody could ever take that away from me. I thought a little about two groups of people, those who don’t get as far as Sixty and those who don’t get there in the fullness of their health. Not in a gloating, ‘check me out, I win’ type of a way but more in a ‘if I’ve been randomly selected to stick around for another while then I’d better do the very best I can with it.

Since my birthday landed, I’ve had my first (and possibly only) Aperol Spritz and I’ve toddled off to see Indiana Jones in a matinee, just because I wanted to. I got my new glasses (see above) and I am working hard to finish a writing thing that I’ve been dawdling over for a long time.

The growing tendency, in the last decade, has been to keep my head down as far as humanly possible. To avoid trouble and danger and strife at all costs. To cruise and doze on into antiquity. It’s not who I used to be. It’s not who I reckon I should be.

Writing is my thing and always will be. But I’ve become passive about it. I still write but not with any expectation of it being seen or shared. Every time it happens it’s like some kind of a pleasant, unwarranted surprise. But, like it or not, I’m actually better than that. I can tell a story, I can bring you along with me, make you laugh, even make you cry. I’ve put in the hours and the hard yards. I should just be trying a little harder to get out there with what I do.

When it comes to resolutions, New Years Eve doesn’t work for me. I watch Jools Holland and greet the neighbours out on the street and go to bed. Perhaps sixtieth birthdays are where I should do my best resolving. I certainly feel more inclined to that. I think I should resolve to make it so that, when I look back at the ripe old age of Sixty One, I can say with some authority, “Hey, that was a very good year.”

As that man quoted at the end of that thing, “I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.” Me? I’d probably best throw a couple of ‘try to’ qualifications in there.

That’s all we can ever do… is try.