In the Wire, through the Whine: Glen Campbell (Oct. 6, 2011)
The secret to happiness lies in the extent to which one can manage expectations. It’s a delicate trick. Expect too much, and you will surely be disappointed. Trudge through life expecting nothing, and that is what you will find. The man who runs across the railroad tracks without looking may get flattened by a passing locomotive. The man too afraid to ever cross will never experience what is on the other side.
Any appearance by an ageing artist is always an exercise in managing expectations. Glen Campbell’s appearance at Club Nokia – the LA stop on his “Goodbye Tour” – was no exception. In fact, the guessing game was heightened. Campbell suffers from Alzheimer’s and this farewell tour is literally his last chance to perform for the world before the disease takes him over fully and renders him unable to exercise his craft and his art.
The effects of the disease have already begun to settle in and many questions arose as to what his performance would be like. Would he forget the songs? Would he – one of the most recorded and accomplished guitar players on the planet – be able to play much lead guitar? Would the set list consist mostly of his many pop and country chart toppers, or would he offer a sort of retrospective, including perhaps some of the Beach Boys or Phil Spector or Nat “King” Cole sides his guitar work helped define? I feared the former, I hoped for the latter but knew it would not happen (and was therefore not disappointed when it didn’t), and I prayed for the guitar, but did not assume it. Managing expectations.
There is no easy way to categorize Glen Campbell without missing some piece of the whole. He is most often characterized as a country singer, which isn’t altogether inaccurate, but is far from absolute. His country music was never of the shuffle and tears variety but, rather, vast and complex mini-portraits of mostly loners in lonely settings, best when interpreting the often illusive pen of the great Jimmy Webb. His country records were smooth, produced, different, but soulful and poignant. He succeeded in doing the virtually impossible: he gave cross-over a good name.
He was also a film and television star, hosting the Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour on CBS from 1969-1972 and appearing opposite John Wayne in the 1969 western True Grit.
But before any of this, Glen Campbell’s contributions to American popular music were innumerable and profound. Campbell spent most of the 1960’s as one of the most in demand session guitar players in Los Angeles, playing on countless hit records as part of the famed Wrecking Crew group of session musicians. When you hear the Chuck Berry-inspired guitar intro to the Beach Boys’ “Fun, Fun, Fun” or the easy breeze swing of Frank Sinatra’s “Strangers in the Night” or the dense wall of sound found in any number of the records Phil Spector made with The Ronettes or The Crystals, you are hearing Glen Campbell.
The opening number pretty much set the tone for the evening. The band began to vamp the unmistakable chord progression to John Hartford’s “Gentle on My Mind” as Campbell took the stage, blue G&L Comanche in hand, stepped up to the mic, and delivered the famed first line, “It’s knowin’ that your door is always open and your path is free to walk…”
A tingle shot through me. His delivery was perfect, if too low in the mix, and the electric around his neck was an encouraging sign. But then, in the middle of the first song, it happened. He forgot a phrase, then looked hopelessly at the teleprompter trying desperately to recover, to find his place. He shook it off, spoke into the mic, “let me play one now” and proceeded to deliver a blistering, tasty, technically proficient and inventive guitar solo. All would be ok, but the realities of the reason for the farewell tour were evident. And they would stay in the room for the night. And we would only love him more for it.
Alzheimer’s is a disease I have come to be far too intimately familiar with in recent years, and I live in fear of its coming for me eventually. It is worse than death because the person you know and love is gone, but their physical being remains, and often there is just enough flicker of familiarity inside their eyes to keep you from fully letting go. It is a lengthy, drawn out process and, while that allows for some acceptance to settle in before the inevitable, it is like watching someone you love die in slow motion. Or worse, it is like watching someone you love die twice.
Watching Glen Campbell forget the words to his most famous song right out of the gate was a harsh reminder that this disease is all too real and that this truly is farewell. Soon he won’t remember the words to any of his songs, then he won’t even recognize his songs, and then he will be gone.
That’s not to say the evening was somber. In fact, it was more celebratory than mournful. Campbell was his delightful, charming self as best he could be. When introducing his band, which consisted mostly of his children, there was cornball humor (“He got scared on the way over,” he joked when introducing his son on guitar, a reference to his emo hairdo) and poignant moments (continually sharing how delighted he was that his children played music and could be there to play with him). His stage banter was reduced mostly to a few phrases he repeated throughout the evening, either channeling Minnie Pearl, or introducing each number with, “I like this song,” as if unveiling some of pop music’s most well known compositions publicly for the first time. This was exactly the way conversations went with my grandfather shortly before Alzheimer’s took his life last year. We would sit and talk and he would repeat the same few phrases, and ask the same few questions – word for word – over and over for hours.
It was fairly early in the set when Campbell lost full control; losing his place and coming to a complete standstill in the middle of the very forgetful and implausible 1968 hit “Dreams of the Everyday Housewife.” I’ve never liked this song, and to me it is no surprise this was the number in which he reached his low. He stared again into the teleprompter in vain trying to find some spot he recognized where he could come back in, as the band continued to vamp.
Then he simply stopped trying and stood there helpless. This was the turning point, the moment when the audience was going to fall one way or the other. We were teetering on the edge of a blade with which you could cut the tension in the room. I waited with baited breath for the first boos, the first walk out. Instead, a clap, and then another and then the audience rushed to its feet – a standing ovation – as Campbell stood in the spotlight, his shame fading, his confidence building, the love palpable. Throughout the rest of the night he missed a few lines, forgot his place in many songs, but never again did he freeze, never again did we wonder if he would make it. We were on his side and he knew it.
It was when he forgot to depend on the teleprompter, when he trusted himself to tap into something bigger than the disease where he shined. “By the Time I Get To Phoenix” was tender, soft, genuine. This is a man whose sometimes tumultuous lifestyle has rendered him able to sing about leaving a lover in the middle of the night with so much conviction you forget he didn’t write it. “Southern Nights” was rambunctious, the band falling into that New Orleans groove and holding it. “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress,” accompanied only by solo piano, was a standout moment. This was the only time when Campbell was at ease without his guitar, and he channeled “Wee Small Hours” era Sinatra as he leaned on the mic stand and delivered without aid or misstep a stunning vocal.
The true highlight of the night was the Jimmy Webb-penned 1968 smash “Wichita Lineman.” Here again, Campbell ignored the teleprompter and just went for it, completely trusting himself. And it paid off. He didn’t miss a single word, and it was obvious he was connecting with the song on a deeply instinctive level. Once I realized that he was too inside this song to come out of it, I began to feel a great rush. One of my favorite moments in recorded pop music is when Campbell plucks out the first phrase of the guitar solo. It seems incongruous at first – low, heavily reverbed, single note plucking that sounds like a Duane Eddy riff or a Pet Sounds motive more than anything else, slapped smack dab in the middle of a heavily orchestrated and produced country-folk-pop record that already defies characterization.
In many ways it is the quintessential Glen Campbell moment; an encapsulation of his entire career in a few short notes. Glen Campbell the LA-based, surf rock session guitarist accompanying Glen Campbell the cross-over, easy listening singing star. When the guitar solo to Wichita Lineman comes in, that Pet Sounds sound seems out of place until you are reminded Glen Campbell played guitar on Pet Sounds. By the time the solo winds down and we come out of the Capitol Records building in Hollywood and back into the amorphous story of the man on a wire in the middle of a cold Kansas winter, it all makes sense.
It was the anticipation of witnessing this live that gave me this great rush, and I leaned closer in my seat waiting and hoping that he would make it through this moment on the effortless high he seemed to be riding since the song began. The end of the second verse approached and he took his guitar into position and began to mimic on the highest frets the high-pitched phrase that on the record, I believe, is the organ. Would he make the transition from the highest fret on the highest string to the low rumble of the solo’s first phrase in time? Or was he overextending himself, destined to get lost?
I held my breath and then…it was delivered. His tone was rich, deep, perfect. It was Duane Eddy, it was Pet Sounds, it was Glen Campbell sliding perfectly into a perfect solo in the middle of a flawless Wichita Lineman. As he did with each guitar solo of the evening he played it straight the first time through, mimicking the record, and then went a second or third time around elaborating with more complex, showy patterns. The crowd responded, yet again, with a standing ovation. It was everything we needed to hear.
It is an odd thing, this disease, which robs you of your identity. My own experiences with it have left me baffled as to why those who suffer from it remember the things they remember, forget the things they forget, and focus on the things they focus on. I never heard my grandfather sing until he became sick. For him, Alzheimer’s brought back songs that he had most likely forgotten. He sang old Italian songs over and over, remembering every lyric as his hands shook, unable to build or create. For Glen Campbell, the words are falling away, but his guitar playing is effortless and unaffected. For whatever reason, the disease has affected one type of memory, but not the other.
After the standards and hits, the second half of the show featured mostly new material from the current Ghost on the Canvas album, released in August of this year.
The final song of the evening was the opening track to Ghost, the reflective “A Better Place.” It was, like so many of the lasting songs performed in the evening, executed with a heartfelt and flawless vocal. It was one of those moments when an audience instinctively knows it is the last encore, and the weight of the words was lost on no one.
I’ve tried and I have failed, Lord
I’ve won and I have lost
I’ve lived and I have loved, Lord
Sometimes at such a cost
One thing I know, the world’s been good to me
A better place, awaits you’ll see
It is one thing to see a legend perform, by chance, for the last time. If an artist dies or retires right after a show you happened to be at, you have a kind of bragging right, and a special connection between you and that artist’s work is forever formed. It is another thing entirely when you know it is the final performance, and another thing even more when that certainty is dictated not by marketing but by the inevitable cruelty of fate and a tragic but perfectly predictable future.
I have walked out of bedrooms and hospital rooms knowing it was the last time I would see people I loved alive. That is a profoundly heavy knowledge to have. And I have watched performers for their last, or near last, time in blissful unawareness. I think perhaps this is the only time I have ever watched an artist perform for the last time with an awareness of the absolute certainty of its finality, and then watch that artist walk off the stage, behind the curtain, and through a door into a cavernous hallway far darker and longer than any backstage corridor.
An earlier version of this article was posted on November 18, 2011.