I Know I Need A Small Vacation – Glen Campbell, 1936-2017
Imagine being Glen Campbell. Forging an early and brilliant career as a musician which means that all your life you’ll be a guitarist’s guitarist. Recording prolifically as part of the global A-Team of session musicians which was Nashville’s Wrecking Crew. Being so freakishly musical that you’re asked to join The Beach Boys when Brian Wilson has a personal crisis and quits. And then – after all that – a solo career suddenly blossoms and you’re GLEN CAMPBELL.
Non-musically speaking, at various points he took far too many drugs, had too many tempestuous marriages, famously got off with Tanya Tucker who was twenty-one to his forty-four, wore a leather suit, made incendiary statements condemning anti-war protesters and pacifists in general and was an all-round flat-out Republican. Yet you never seem to hear anyone who knew him say a word against him.
Some within country music didn’t much like the way Campbell pitched some of his songs. He was one of those goddam crossover artists; you might even sometimes hear him classed with John Denver or (shudder) Olivia Newton-John. But Campbell’s origins were country through and through – he was born in Arkansas, one of the twelve children of a sharecropper – there’s no doubt he paid his musical dues, and although many of his songs were monster hits across the genres, the emotional rawness he gave them was country as can be.
Many of us, even in Britain where we’re a bunch of musical cynics and country music has only ever licked around the edges of the charts, have fond memories set to Glen Campbell songs. Most of us who know anything about music will nod seriously as the enthusiast who’s had a few drinks breaks down for us why ‘Rhinestone Cowboy’ is such a great song – because it is. But most of us think of Glen Campbell as largely a mega cheeseball. His TV show, his crazy clothes, his sideburns – his exceptionally comic performance as La Boeuf in True Grit, which Matt Damon copied more or less twitch for twitch in the 2010 version – and above all his gloriously weepy discography – well, it’s not very British, is it? And his songs – many would consider that he lacked the edge of, say, Bobbie Gentry, also a country artist with considerable crossover success who actually made an album of duets with Campbell, but who had brilliant social commentary like ‘Fancy’ and ‘Ode to Billie Joe’ in her back pocket as well.
The thing is, when you listen to Campbell’s songs, really listen (and I’m talking about the ones we all know), they’re not just cheese. He spoke about his tendency to make the songs of other songwriters his own, even changing lyrics here and there; but I think his vocal signature is unique anyway. There is a delicacy to the way he sings which lifts a song from your standard cracking pop tune, straight into your emotions.
These songs aren’t universal, after all, not in their set up. Who the hell knows what ‘Wichita Lineman’ is really about? What a strange premise: the tragic love of a telephone repairman – and why is it tragic anyway? I don’t care, because it is; and I never, ever want to hear anyone but Glen Campbell sing it. God forbid they have a Glen Campbell week on X-Factor.
‘By The Time I Get To Phoenix’ was one of the earliest of Campbell’s huge hits, and fascinates me because of what I consider to be its two possibilities. For years I assumed that the protagonist was running off to save himself, from some parasitic hussy who’d been hanging off him for years. I loved it in that incarnation. It’s only recently that I started wondering whether maybe it’s him who’s the bad guy, with just enough decency left to feel a bit regretful for the length of a drive over finally abandoning his faithful loving girlfriend. Either way, and especially both ways, it’s a brilliant song.
He will always be wrapped up in the public mind with Jimmy Webb, who wrote almost all his most famous songs – ‘By The Time I Get To Phoenix’, ‘Galveston’, ‘Wichita Lineman’ and sundry others. Webb was sort of a cool guy, much more representative of the spirit of the 1960s (outside country music) than Campbell, and though he liked him he sometimes resented what Campbell did to his songs. Webb had written ‘Galveston’ as an anti-war song, a protest song about a young soldier trapped in Vietnam and wanting only to return to Texas, to a place and time when he had a normal young man’s life. Campbell turned it into an expression of complete patriotism, a sing-along number to remind America of the great and noble sacrifices made by its troops.
And yet. There is a line – half a line – in ‘Galveston’, the way Glen Campbell sings it, that has always seemed to me to be one of the purest expressions possible of the pain and fear of your average conscripted soldier. When he sings ‘I am so afraid of dying’ – and I know the next line is ‘before I dry those tears she’s crying’ and I don’t care, because the way Campbell holds the pause in between the two clauses means that the first stands alone as far as I’m concerned, and that’s the way it gets into my gut – never mind a conscripted soldier, actually. To be afraid when faced with death is a fundamental part of the human condition, and to be able to express that is therefore surely one of the fundamental aims of art. Campbell expresses it.
Despite his personal demons and scandals, beyond his political stance, notwithstanding and because of the crossover nature of his success: Glen Campbell should and will be remembered as a very great and truthful American singer. God bless him.