September 6, 2019


Why 'Wichita Lineman' Contains the Greatest Musical Couplet Ever Written (Dylan Jones, September 6, 2019, LitHub)

There is little ambiguity about the greatest couplet ever written. The punchline--the sucker punch--of "Wichita Lineman," the line in the song that resonates so much, the line that contains one of the most exquisite romantic couplets in the history of song--"And I need you more than want you / and I want you for all time"--could be many people's perfect summation of love, although some, including writer Michael Hann, think it's something sadder and perhaps more profound. "It is need, more than want, that defines the narrator's relationship; if they need their lover more than wanting them, then naturally they will want them for all time. The couplet encompasses the fear that those who have been in relationships do sometimes struggle with: good God, what happens to me if I am left alone?" Hann is certainly right when he says that it's a heart-stopping line, and no matter how many hundreds of times you hear it, no matter what it means to you, it never loses its ability to shock and confound.

There is also another more prosaic interpretation of the line, however, one that mirrors Brian Wilson's "God Only Knows," in which Wilson says that while he may not always love the object of his desire, as long as there are stars above her she never needs to doubt it. Meaning: my love could not be greater, and no matter how much I need you, my love for you is so immense that it matters not one jot. Bob Stanley, the musician and author, says that the line is the most beautiful in the pop canon, "one that makes me stop whatever I'm doing every single time I hear it."

"It came out without any effort whatsoever," Webb told me:

I don't remember putting any particular concentration behind it, which may be why it flows. When I started seriously performing in my later years, about twenty years ago, I moved east and I played all the big nightclubs in New York, and I think I was exposed to an audience that really appreciated the finer points of songwriting a little bit more than maybe the surfer guys that I grew up with. People would come up to me and say, "How did you write that line?" And I would say, "Excuse me?" And they would say, "How did you write that line, 'I need you more than want you / and I want you for all time'?" I'd say, "I don't know. It felt right, it seemed like a good idea at the time." Then--and I'm being very candid with you--I began to notice it more and more, and then I had guys coming up to me after the show and saying it was the greatest line ever written. I'd laugh. Then it got to a point where a guy would come running up to me and say, "The greatest line ever written!" And I'd say, "Let me guess." It became so pervasive it became like a meme. I have a black T-shirt I sell at my gigs that's kind of a silhouette, kind of an artsy, nice picture of a lineman, and on the back it says, "I need you more than want you and I want you for all time." And these T-shirts sell like hot cakes, they fly off the table.

I was trying to express the inexpressible, the yearning that goes beyond yearning, that goes into another dimension, when I wrote that line. It was a moment where the language failed me really; there was no way for me to pour this out, except to go into an abstract realm, and that was the line that popped out. I think the fascination comes from the fact that it just pushes the language a little bit beyond what it was really meant to express, because it could be deemed perfectly nonsensical--"I need you more than want you / and I want you for all time." I mean, those are all abstract concepts, all jammed up together there. But that's because it's trying to express the inexpressible.

Posted by at September 6, 2019 5:40 PM