Glen Campbell: Memory Maker

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It’s an essential part of the late 1960s time capsule. That well-scrubbed, apple-cheeked, All-American boy on Sunday night TV. The golden brown, blow-dried hair carefully parted on the right. The turtleneck.  And especially that glorious voice, all full-throated sincerity and cowboy-virtuous.

He made his first inroads into the national psyche with his record of John Hartford’s gorgeous piece of Americana, “Gentle On My Mind,” his first major hit. Then the Jimmy Webb masterpiece, “By The Time I Get To Phoenix.” Later, he made perhaps his biggest impression singing one of the greatest lines in all of pop music – “… and I need you more than want you / And I want you for all time” – and America wanted him right back.

“Gentle On My Mind,” “Wichita Lineman,” “By The Time I Get To Phoenix,” “Galveston.”  Any one of them a career song. Glen Campbell had four.

* * * * * *

The door to the posh midtown Manhattan hotel suite swings open, and there, incongruously, is tall, lanky, craggy-faced Glen Campbell at 75. He grins and offers his hand.

I was told he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease six months earlier and was beginning to show symptoms. In fact, friends agree he had experienced memory lapses for years. I wasn’t sure what to expect but was reassured that Kim, his wife of 28 years and constant companion, would be there to help jog his memory and smooth out the rough edges.

As we’re getting settled in the comfortable living room, his road manager, Bill Maclay, stops in to say hello. Kim introduces me.  Bill has traveled the world with Glen for the last 33 years. Glen seems a bit confused – “He’s your road manager,” she gently tells him.  “He is?” Glen asks.

Okay, maybe this is going to be a little tougher than I thought.

This is not his first interview of the day. He and Kim are in town for 24 hours before heading to the U.K. to promote what is described as Glen’s final album, Ghost On The Canvas, and his “farewell tour.” He’s jet-lagged. Maybe fatigue is contributing to his symptoms.

I show him the cover of American Songwriter’s 2010 “Legends” issue, with Neil Young on the cover. “Oh,” he practically squeals to Kim, “look at Neil! I haven’t seen him in a hundred years,” he exclaims with evident affection. Okay – this is good, he still remembers people. “Old Neil – he does a good job.”

Kim tells me that since the Alzheimer’s diagnosis and final tour was announced, James Keach, producer of the film Walk The Line, has begun to document Glen’s daily life, including medical appointments, for a forthcoming biopic.

You’re letting it all hang out, I say.

“Yeah!” Glen says, with enthusiasm. Then he tries to remember the name of the disease. “Alzheimer’s,” Kim gently prompts him.  “Alz-heimer’s,” he repeats softly, musing. Then to me: “I’m getting forgetful, you know that?”

* * * * * *

Glen has always meant one thing to his millions of fans, but another thing, different and special, to musicians. His adoring fan base may have responded to his soaring tenor, his personal warmth, and the way he projected a combination of masculinity with sensitivity and country innocence. But, from his earliest TV appearances, musicians immediately recognized he was one of them.

“He’s this extraordinary American treasure, gifted like Achilles was gifted,” says his friend Jimmy Webb, who wrote what are generally considered to be Glen’s greatest records. “He could have probably played any instrument he chose to play. It was our good fortune that he became our troubadour. And it was my personal good fortune that he became the interpreter of my music.”

Ghost On The Canvas has gotten mostly positive reviews and is selling (it reached Number 6 on the Billboard Country Albums chart). It combines contemporary songs by Paul Westerberg (of The Replacements), Jakob Dylan, Teddy Thompson, Robert Pollard (Guided By Voices) and other contemporary writers, with Glen’s own compositions, written with producer Julian Raymond.

The album, like the previous Campbell/Raymond collaboration, 2008’s somewhat ironically titled Meet Glen Campbell, is a deliberate attempt to take contemporary songs and “make them sound like classic Glen Campbell tracks” from Glen’s golden era, approximately 1967-1977, Raymond says.

Raymond jumped at the chance to work with Glen in 2008, when he was a staff producer at Capitol Records. “In 2008,” he says, “someone in what they used to call the ‘heritage’ department, which is responsible for legacy artists, asked me if there was anybody on the label that I’d like to work with. I said, Glen Campbell – that would be a dream.”

“He was always on in my house,” says Raymond. “My parents had every album, on vinyl, 8-track, or cassettes. I rediscovered Glen as a teenager, especially the Jimmy Webb/Al DeLory era productions – they’re among the greatest stuff ever done.”

The songs on Ghost seem personal, almost autobiographical. Glen was more involved in creating the album than one might suppose, given his declining condition. To collaborate on the five tracks they wrote together, Raymond followed Glen around with a notebook, jotting down his thoughts and casual utterances. Some of them became song lyrics, which Raymond turned into first-draft songs.

“I’d basically come to him with a song that was fairly well-realized in my mind, and we’d work on it together. Then he’d start doing that famous Glen Campbell thing: he’d start changing chords, and the tempo and key, and singing it a little differently, and it became an amazing partnership.”

Raymond also selected several dozen outside songs, often preparing and singing demos himself to show Glen how the song might be done ‘Glen Campbell-style.’ “Glen listened to everything, and was very involved in making the final cut. We were trying to stay focused on songs that were loosely based on his life and what he’s going through now.”

“Ghost On The Canvas,” and “Any Trouble,” both by Paul Westerberg and both addressing the issue of mortality, sound as if they were written to order for Glen in the twilight of his life. They weren’t. Westerberg  put out his own versions of those songs: “Ghost” in 2009, and “Any Trouble” back in 1999.  It felt good to have someone as legendary as Glen Campbell record his songs, Westerberg has said – “and (someone) who has the pitch to sing them correctly.”


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