By Daniel G. Moir
Glen Campbell is dead. While his passing may not have carried the unexpected shock that accompanied the deaths of Chris Cornell, Chester Bennington, or George Michael, it is still jarring.
We knew this day would come from the moment Campbell bravely revealed his Alzheimer’s Disease diagnosis in June 2011 with the release of Ghost on the Canvas. His condition became apparent on his subsequent farewell tour. Those four words were always out there, waiting. Such is the cruelty of the disease. It is a horrific vanishing in plain sight. Sharing his and his family’s struggles publically through the 2014 documentary Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me was his last and greatest gift. He humanized the disease, showing unflinching honesty and drew awareness that hopefully may lead to a cure. At the very least, it helps everyone to better understand—and assist—those affected by Alzheimer’s. Now, everyone can say they “knew” someone with the disease.
For me, Campbell was one of the first musicians whose music I really loved. He was the complete package: a tremendously smooth and supple tenor voice that emotionally inhabited the lyrics, a jaw droppingly innovative guitarist of the highest order, and an actor who more than held his own against John Wayne and Dennis Hopper in True Grit.
I couldn’t have been more than about four years old when I discovered the song “Galveston” while living in the suburbs of
Seattle, Wash. I was blessed to grow up in a household filled with a state-of-the-art (for its time) stereo system with LP record albums and reel-to-reel tapes containing magic. As long as I treated them with care and respect, I was encouraged to explore. Once exposed, I was quick to realize that these were indeed the most valuable objects in the house.
Campbell’s low sweeping electric guitar that echoed the song’s melody in the outro first got to me. It sounded otherworldly. It was strange, it was exciting, and it told me something that conventional language never would. It was a complete world all at once. It would be many years later that I would come to learn that his low guitar tone on “Galveston” was part of a style that he developed years before when he, along with guitarist Dick Dale, originated the “surf guitar” sound so prevalent among the early Californian groups.
Before ever cutting his first album, Big Bluegrass Special in 1962, Glen Campbell was already a legend. He, along with drummer Hal Blaine, bassists Joe Osborn and Carol Kaye, and keyboardists Leon Russell and Larry Knechtel were the first call session musicians known as “The Wrecking Crew.” They were the go-to studio guys used by Phil Spector and others to get first-take magic on their hit tracks. Brian Wilson used them nearly exclusively on the mightiest Beach Boys hits including the tracks on the Pet Sounds album. That’s Glen’s guitar you hear in “Help Me Rhonda” and “I Get Around.” Campbell even toured with the Beach Boys in 1965 covering the parts of Brian Wilson during his early struggles with mental illness.
Long before Taylor Swift, Campbell was one of the true crossover artists who captured and dominated both the landscapes of Country and Pop. He was equally comfortable with a banjo or bagpipe—whatever served the song. His songs and sound may have been rooted in country, but his Top 40 appearances were frequent and memorable. He was a musician first and last. He played with an impeccable guitar technique that was never indulgent, but had a point and made a statement. Shortly after Campbell’s death, longtime friend and golfing buddy Alice Cooper once revealed that Eddie Van Halen had approached him to see if he could get him a guitar lesson with Campbell. Such was the level of respect that he had in the eyes of his fellow musicians.
In one of my conversations with my father about the Vietnam War, I asked him about the music he heard during his time as the sole American adviser on a South Vietnamese gunboat. Considering the time period and what might have been commonly played on USO radio, I expected something from The Beatles, The Doors, or perhaps Jimi Hendrix. His answer was “Wichita Lineman.” Campbell’s version of the great Jimmy Webb composition is soaked in aching loneliness. You feel the sense of longing in his voice. There is a sadness, but mixed with resigned determination to see a job through. The arrangement is expansive and wind swept, like hearing a song in widescreen. Strings occupy the left channel while the horn section responds in the right with a sweetness that surrenders to Campbell’s low guitar entrance as a simple echo of the verses before drawing out for the final coda. Clocking in at three minutes and eight seconds, this explained his Vietnam experience more than any volumes of historical analysis would ever do. This is what Vietnam sounded like to him, and now to me.
In his most memorable recordings, the arrangements are vast and sweeping. They have a simple bigness. He sang with an expressive and richly sweet voice that was common, yet elegant. Where some artists seem “larger than life,” Campbell seemed to occupy a relatable persona. He was not perfect; he had struggles with drugs and alcohol and messy romantic relationships, much like many in his vast audience. It’s called life. It can be chaotic and problematic. He journeyed with his troubles and carried on, much like his audience must do as well. He reflected his audience’s simple bigness, and we loved him for it.
Glen Campbell is dead. Yes, those words have a stark finality to them, but they are not the full story. The important part is in the four words that proceed them: Glen Campbell was alive. He shared both his triumphs and tragedies. From “Rhinestone Cowboy” to the last recording he made with his fellow members of the Wrecking Crew, “I Won’t Miss You.” For me, the song “Today” from 1969’s Galveston album is how I will best remember the 81-year-old musician. Written by Randy Sparks, these lyrics best capture the message that runs throughout the course of his work. The world is a better place for having had his presence in it.
Today, while the blossoms still cling to the vine
I’ll taste your strawberries and I’ll drink your sweet wine
A million tomorrows shall all pass away
Ere I forget all the joy that is mine, today
I can’t be contented with yesterday’s glory
I can’t live on promises winter to spring
Today is my moment and right now is my story
I’ll laugh and I’ll cry and I’ll sing
Glen Campbell-The NTW Playlist
Galveston (Galveston 1969)
Gentle on My Mind (Gentle on My Mind 1967)
Southern Nights (Southern Nights 1977)
These Days (Meet Glen Campbell 2008)
Classical Gas (Live) (Live at The Royal Festival Hall 1977)
If Not for You (I Knew Jesus (Before He Was a Star) 1973)
12-String Special (The Astounding 12-String Guitar of Glen Campbell 1964)
Wichita Lineman (Wichita Lineman 1968)
Good Riddance (Time of Your Life) (Meet Glen Campbell 2008)
Dreams of the Everyday Housewife (Wichita Lineman 1968)
By the Time I Get to Phoenix (By The Time I Get To Phoenix 1967)
I’m Not Gonna Miss You (Single 2014)
Friends (Galveston 1969)
Rhinestone Cowboy (Rhinestone Cowboy 1975)
King of The Road (Instrumental) (The Big Bad Rock Guitar of Glen Campbell 1965)
Today (Galveston 1969)
Any Trouble (Ghost in The Canvas 2011)
This article was edited by Rachel Wohrlin
Daniel G. Moir is a freelance writer, musician, part-time DJ and baseball enthusiast. Mostly, though, he is among the most passionate music fans and aficionados of our times. He can be contacted at @DMoir5150.
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