Dylan Jones's Diary: The world’s greatest song, duplicitous journalists and why Boris begged for forgiveness

Contemplating the wistful magic of "Wichita Lineman", and the litany of mishaps that came with employing Boris Johnson as a motoring journalist.

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Back in 1977, guilty pleasures were as common as leather jackets, dyed hair and safety pins. When punk swept in, administered by Malcolm McLaren and John Lydon, it became the norm for people my age – I had just turned 17 – to suddenly pretend that they had never been fans of any music other than that made by the likes of Iggy Pop, David Bowie or the MC5. All of a sudden you had to deny that you had ever been to a concert by, say, Todd Rundgren, Elton John or the Jess Roden Band.

While I was certainly no stranger to the concept of amplifying one’s “cool” quotient, I was a lot less concerned with doing so. I spent much of 1977 going to see the Clash, the Jam, X-Ray Spex and dozens of other punk bands at the 100 Club, the Red Cow, the Roxy, and the Hope and Anchor – looking like a member of the Ramones with my plastic leather jacket, drainpipes and greasy hair. But when I got back to the Ralph West Hall of Residence in Battersea, west London, I would fire up Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Steely Dan. I loved music, most music, whether or not it was deemed cool. One of my favourite records, carried in a box from my home in High Wycombe when I had moved to London a few months earlier, was “Wichita Lineman” by Glen Campbell, a song you could be guaranteed to hear if you walked by my room in Ralph West.

Why did I like it so much? Because it didn’t sound like anything else. It was a wistful country song, and yet it had a lyrical backbone that was almost existential – “and I need you more than want you, and I want you for all time”; and although I wouldn’t have been able to articulate that as a boy, the song still had an extraordinary ability to move me. It took me to places I’d never been, both physically and emotionally. It still does to this day. Fundamentally, it was something I knew I could rely on to make me feel sad. Which is sometimes all you want from a song.

Underhand, gossipy and duplicitous

Michael Wolff has worked for me at GQ for over a decade, skewering figures such as David Cameron, Jeff Bezos and Rupert Murdoch with his wit and vim. Years ago, I was told not to have anything to do with him as he was, apparently, underhand, gossipy and duplicitous; I thought these were all laudable qualities in a journalist so hired him immediately.

The success of his 2018 book on the Trump presidency, Fire and Fury, proves that in this day and age journalists can still make an awful lot of money. And anyone who thought Michael was exaggerating in his descriptions of Trump has merely to read the Bob Woodward, James Comey or Michael Lewis books on the president  to realise that Wolff’s only crime was getting there first. His most recent book on Trump, Siege, is probably better than Fire and Fury and, while it isn’t as sensationalist, it is more probing, more nuanced, and will turn out to be more damning.

Tanks on the lunch hour

As I discussed the apparent inevitability of Boris Johnson becoming prime minister last week, with some friends down in their house in Èze in south-eastern France, a new word was coined: Broxit. This led to much discussion about Boris’s time as the car correspondent of GQ. In the retelling, his tenure has been condensed into a litany of mishaps – the supercars that sat outside his Islington home gathered parking tickets while he sat inside writing his reviews (at one point Boris was generating so many tickets that our accounts department refused to keep paying them). The reviews that arrived – often late, always funny – looked as though they could generate the suspicion that they had been written without the author actually turning on the ignition.

My favourite recollection is that of an unsuccessful week-long attempt to get a tank delivered to the Bloomsbury offices of the Spectator, so its editor could test drive it during his lunch hour. Every few months Boris would call me and beg forgiveness for something or other – he was often so vague that you couldn’t work out if this misdemeanour had already happened or was just around the corner. However, I soon realised that whenever he called, pretending to beg for his job, all he was looking for was another pay rise. He was rarely successful, although I always enjoyed him asking.

The art of thinking small

Unusually for me, my last book was a best-seller (David Bowie: A Life), something I hadn’t experienced since my second, back in 1991. Consequently, both my agents (dear departed Ed Victor, and my current storm trooper, Jonny Geller) advised me against writing my new book. They wanted to go big, whereas I wanted to go small – and write about “Wichita Lineman”, the greatest unfinished song ever written. I had been obsessed with it for decades, from childhood, through my professional life and beyond. Along the way I discovered that fellow travellers felt the same – everyone from Bruce Springsteen and Chris Difford to Amy Raphael and Paul Weller, from Stuart Maconie to the New Statesman’s own Kate Mossman.

And so I finally attempted what I’d been contemplating for years, investigating where the idea came from, what prompted Jimmy Webb (also the author of “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” and “MacArthur Park”) to write it, and how Glen Campbell helped turn it into a talismanic torch song.

When I eventually sat down to discuss all this with Webb last year, he said the same thing my wife had said when I told her what I was doing: “You’re writing a book about ‘Wichita Lineman’. That’s nice. Why?”

Hopefully, he now knows. 

Dylan Jones is the editor of GQ magazine. “Wichita Lineman: Searching in the Sun for the World’s Greatest Unfinished Song” is published by Faber & Faber

This article appears in the 12 July 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The state we’re in