FAREWELL TO THE LINEMAN Glen Campbell

With his final tour resuming this week, singing/guitar
legend Glen Campbell looks back on a long, brilliant career. Regrets? He’s got
a few – but not many.

 

BY A.D. AMOROSI

 

Memory fades. Sifting through
images and ideas is no easy process, not for the young or old, not where the
distant past and recent immediacy is concerned.

 

When Glen Campbell announced that
he has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, that his new album, Ghost on the Canvas, would be his last
and that his recent tour would put a cap on his long career, the desire to
mourn – to treat him differently – kicked in. This was, after all, the golden
boy of epically cosmopolitan country pop whose every ‘60s hit from Chris
Gantry’s “Dreams Of The Everyday Housewife,” John Hartford’s “Gentle on My
Mind” to the soaring subtlety of Jimmy Webb’s “Wichita Lineman” and
“Galveston,” the latter two reminiscent of Bogart’s phrase at the end of Maltese Falcon – “the stuff that dreams
are made of” – became the soundtrack to my youth.

 

These sonic gems were only made
bolder by knowing that Campbell – a masterful guitar picker – was a touring
Beach Boy that nearly replaced Brian Wilson and had played on hits by Dean
Martin, Bobby Darin, Frank Sinatra, the Monkees and Elvis Presley, the latter a
fellow country boy whom Campbell befriended. Campbell’s image, too, is burned into the
collective retina as he had starred in the original version of the revenge
western True Grit and his own network
TV show The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour.

 

Certainly he had his Rimbaud-esque
season in Hell – the post ‘60s comedown of boozing, drugging, carousing
(notoriously with firebrand country howler Tanya Tucker) and various arrests.
Yet, Campbell
had commercial hits into the ‘70s and ‘80s with “Rhinestone Cowboy,”
“Southern Nights,” “Sunflower” and “I Have You.”
He kept the live fires burning with gigs in Branson, found God, a good woman
Kimberly Woolen to whom he’s been married since 1982 with three kids who have
their own Arcade Fire-y band (Instant People) currently backing Campbell on
tour. This latter day joy – to say nothing of the potency of the deeply etched Ghost and its ruminatively ratcheting
lyrics and still expressively clarion vocals – made Alzheimer’s an even more
heinous verdict.

 

Look into Campbell’s eyes and despite the lines in his
face (he’s 75) and his occasionally forgetful demeanor and you see a man not so
much struggling with memory but more alive with the past then the present. This
author isn’t trying to soften the blow or demystify the disease but seriously,
I have a better grasp on what I did ten years ago then what I did ten minutes
ago. Yet here they are, Glen and Kimberly sitting before me, frankly discussing
the problem without letting it ruin their future.

 

Campbell, his producer Justin
Raymond (who worked with the singer on his previous recording Meet Glen Campbell) and a crew of
instrumentalists such as Dick Dale, Brian Setzer and Chris Isaak were already
at work on the riveting Ghost when
the diagnosis was announced. Suddenly the press made a big deal out of it,
something that doesn’t affect the Campbells
– as long as the disease doesn’t overshadow the work,

 

“No. it doesn’t bother me,” says Campbell with a slight
cough. “I’m used to it by now. I leave it in God’s hands that it’s gonna be the
way He wants.” His wife Kim follows that with an understanding of an audiences’
curiosity – how the disease works, how it affects her husband. “We understand,”
she smiles. “But the music is just so good we hope they get to that message as
well.”

 

Mention the contribution of songs
from Paul Westerberg, Jakob Dylan and Robert Pollard along with self-penned
tracks with Raymond (culled, interestingly enough, from the producer’s daily
diaries of what the singer/guitarist said), and you’ve got quite a set of
messages. As Campbell
starts singing the new album’s title track in a strong burst of melody, he
states. “I’m really not a songwriter so if I hear a song, I feel it and like
it, I’ll do it. But I’ll make it the way I want to hear it.”

 

Part of this comes down to asking
songwriters if he can turn negatives into positives (“but with their permission
of course,” says the gentlemanly Campbell) and
accommodating where Campbell’s
heart is now. “She’ll be running around the mountain” just doesn’t sound
right,” he laughs. “It ain’t the way the song goes. “She’ll be coming around
the mountain,” is more like it.”

 

Campbell slowly and deliberately
tells me how he takes songs one a at time and lets the good ones carry him
away, the songs of other writers as well as the tunes presented by Raymond, a
hands-on laid back producer who, during Meet
Glen Campbell
, started writing down what the singer said about life,
confusion and happiness. “Julian wrote down the meaningful things that Glen
would say about being baffled by what was going on in his head, as well as how
life was good to him,” says Kim who recognized that Campbell’s memory was slipping during those
2008 recording sessions. “We’re so glad Julian got those meditations down and
put those verses to music.”

 

 

“I need the ones I love more and more each day.”

 

“This is not the road I want for us.”

 

 

Mention Campbell’s famed sense of perfection and he
laughs. “Nah. I may sound like one,” he laughs. “But I want it be natural. If I
get a song – a GOOD song – I just sing it the way I hear it in my head. If
anybody else wanted to add whistles and bells and chains rattling that’s fine.
Just not too much. I actually just do things as straight ahead as possible. You
add the ifs, ands or buts.”

 

To that end, Ghost has the richly orchestrated jangle of Pet Sounds with a country twang.

 

Campbell knows he’s been blessed with great collaborators and
productions, a powerful clear voice that was forever gifted with dynamic songs
that suited his vocal range and challenged his playing skills.

 

“Things turned out pretty well,”
says Campbell.

 

***

 

Pretty well indeed.

 

Blame, in part, his having come
from a large all-singing all playing Arkansas family who took Glen to church
regularly to express him self in song. Other than getting his first guitar at
age four, a seminal moment for Campbell
came when he nearly drowned at age three: his Army-bound brothers dragged him
out of the water, pumped the water and did CPR on the young Glen. “That night
back at the house while keeping time to the radio, I didn’t say anything. I
just sang. Something had changed me.”

 

His distinct guitar playing,
inspired by the likes of Barney Kessel and Django Reinhardt (“Django was my
main influence”) gave him the confidence to form western swing bands and, by
age twenty-one, head to Los Angeles
where he quickly became a sought-after session musician. “I think I mainly got
all that work because I was the only guy who could use a capo,” he laughs.

 

As he was just starting to make
his session-man bones, he recorded a single for the Crest label. When I mention
that 1961 track to him, “Turn Around Look at Me,” Campbell flashes a big smile. “Well I thought
that was ‘it’ you know,” smiles Campbell who starts singing the lines “there is
someone/walking behind me” so mellifluously, it’s as if he’s a kid in 1960
again. “Even then I did songs that I liked, never tunes that I didn’t care for.
Otherwise it wouldn’t be satisfying.”

Campbell stops,
leans into me and turns to his wife. “Excuse me, honey,” says Campbell who then
turns from his wife and conspiratorially pulls me forward. His long fingers
become a circle with another finger on his other hand barely peeking through
the top. He’s made a tiny cock of it all.

 

“It’s like a guy going into a
whorehouse with THIS little thing and the woman says, ‘Well who you going to
satisfy with THAT?’ And he says, ‘ME.’ That old joke, that stupid analogy –
that’s the best way of describing what I want to do: satisfy me.”

 

Campbell fast-forwards and says he did things he didn’t want to do:
lousy albums, hell-raising backstage antics of cocaine, booze and sex. “I spent
some time in Hell,” he smiles. “I got so high I could fart in a Martin box,” he
starts slapping his knee. “I’m glad that’s over with – it was a stupid place. I
drowned,” he starts to say, realizing that he told me that story before. Then
again, perhaps he meant the psychic drowning that led to the rejuvenation of finding
God and his wife. (He teases about meeting her on a blind date. “I thought she
was blind,” he yuks, then quacks like Daffy Duck.)

 

Dipping backwards to his session
career and “Turn Around,” he mentions how he stayed in the studio and played
for the greats so that he stick close to home and make more money doing session
work than he could promoting a struggling single on the road. The wrongs of the
road remind him of Elvis Presley, an old friend whose “Viva Las Vegas” he
played on. “He was a good man but I understood the peril his career had taken
on. I didn’t have the luggage he had, that entourage he had to take care of. I
should’ve kicked his ass from here to Japan to get some sense in him. His
old friends from Memphis
were just bringing young girls backstage and crap like that – distracting him.”

 

Campbell went on to work and play with the Beach Boys and was
nearly the front man when Brian Wilson broke down and left in 1965 yet Campbell was more into doing his own music than joining a
band (Capitol wound up signing Campbell
on the basis of his strong showing with the Beach Boys). “Plus, you know, Mike
Love was there. He’s talented, but,” Campbell
scrunches his face.

 

The young Campbell continued to play on records by
Frank (“Strangers in the Night”) and Dean (“Everybody Loves Somebody
Sometimes”) guys a generation before him – the establishment – before the
counter cultural hippie-dippie movement took hold. He was no hippie but he was
a young cat. What was he thinking?

“They were the tops. If you heard
their stuff up close and saw them on stage – they were incredible actually,”
says Campbell
of the Rat Pack titans. “There was no mistaking their voices or their
presence.” Campbell
was hanging on the musician side of everything, playing guitar by their side.
.But he got wise watching those men that singing would get him farther.

 

Enter guys like Jimmy Webb and
John Hartford, songwriters whose best work came through the conduit of Campbell’s rich voice. It
was a blast according to Campbell,
wonderful those melodies at his ready and those sorts of storytellers in his
corner. “If you have guys like this in your corner, you better have your chute
together or you won’t get down,” he laughs. In particular, Campbell has a warm long smile reserved for
Webb’s longing literate lyrics and winnowing melodies. “My wife will tell you.
I pray to the Lord and thank Him for letting me do those songs. When my dad
heard those tunes he said “it’s a good thing we didn’t throw you back in the
water.” (Kim reminds me how, famously that Webb used to pray, after hearing
“Turn around Look at Me,” that Campbell
would sing his songs)

 

Though the Ghostly songs of Westerberg and Pollard aren’t quite the stuff of “Galveston” and “Wichita
Lineman” they are crucial, rare and deeply ruminative. They feel like the
contemplative stuff of a finale. At 75 – anybody at 75 – the level of winding
down that the Campbell’s
plan on doing would seem essential and right. While Kim confides to me that she
wishes they did more recording during the Branson days, she also mentions more
tracks featuring Campbell and their kids, might be recorded at tour’s end. “We
still have a few special tricks up our sleeves. Other than that, we’re happy to
go to Hawaii,
watch Glen golf and sit by the side as the kids start their career,” says Kim
Campbell…

 

As for Glen Campbell, a singer and
guitarist whose recent tour finds him in strong voice and ticklish guitar
skills, he’s content to go out with an album as rich as Ghost on the Canvas. “I want to slow down – you know, it’s really
about whatever she wants to do – but the record? You throw them out to the
world and hope it comes back positive. I’m glad it turned out as well as it
did. I have to listen to it, you know.”

[An edited version of this story
originally appeared in BLURT #11, featuring exclusive photos by Scott Weiner,
who shot the image, above.]

 

Glen Campbell’s farewell tour resumes this week, starting
Jan. 19 in Bloomington, IL. It is slated to run via selected dates into May,
and then a pair of final ones at the end of June. Go to his official website for the full itinerary.

 

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