Saturday, September 10, 2011

Gentle On My Mind: Glen Campbell's Ghost on the Canvas

It's not very often when a musician decides to announce a final tour and a last recording. Usually it's a quiet retirement from performing accompanied by a final tour, as was the case with Vladimir Horowitz and Canadian jazz pianist Oliver Jones. There have also been "farewell tours" that never ended like the ones by Cher, David Bowie and The Who, to name just three.

For Glen Campbell, who revealed in June that he has Alzheimer's disease, a last album and a final tour take on new meaning. At a packed concert at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto on August 31st, portions of which you can see on youtube, Campbell didn't look like the debilitated artist one might expect. He was in great form performing some the biggest songs in pop music history, principally written by Jimmy Webb. "Galveston," "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" etc were included in the set with "Gentle on My Mind," "True Grit" and "Southern Nights." But rather than hide behind his illness, Campbell has simply called it the "Goodbye Tour" that takes him across the continent, the U.K. and back again until next February. I can only admire his tenacity and bravery in what are his final days. I don't know much about Alzheimer's but it is commonly known as a degenerative form of dementia or senility. Once the mind starts to fail the bodily functions follow and the only destination after that is death.

Now 75, Campbell uses tele-prompters located in the front of the stage to help him remember the lyrics to his biggest hits. But while he performed very well at the concert, one couldn't help but feel a certain pathos for him. His string of hits is legendary as his music crossed over into pop without losing the Nashville sound. His television show The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, which was regular viewing in my household growing up, was broadcast for four years on CBS television. He was cast in the first version of True Grit (1969) with John Wayne and made occasional appearances on variety shows.

His music was the mainstay of commercial radio and growing up I always heard his recordings on either Top 40 or MOR stations in Toronto.Campbell often broke the format-mold by creating accessible, well produced music. His private life was an entirely different story, which I won't get into here. But I think he was able to distinguish his music from his personal life. Campbell was first a "performer," a great singer with a talent to play guitar and tell jokes on stage. He understood that a paying audience was there to be "entertained" and as a professional, he did his job very well.

So with the release of Ghost on the Canvas (Surfdog, 2011), Campbell's last album, I can't help but hear it in the context of his illness and his goodbye tour. This is not just another album. It's the final recorded statement from a singer I admired as a kid. Consequently, the songs take on new meaning and not necessarily the way Campbell intended. That said, Ghost on the Canvas does have its merits.

The album opens with a hymn: "I've tried and I failed Lord, I've won and I've past gets in my way." It's an honest confessional if you will, an admission of his faults, but sung with a quiet resignation. That short introduction is followed by the first of two Paul Westerberg covers including "Ghost on the Canvas." (Campbell has recorded "Sadly Beautiful" by Westerberg in 2008.) It's a fine version with a familiar string arrangement similar to Campbell's recordings in the past, such as "Galveston" or "True Grit." But as Keith Richards once mused that there’s a little "Satisfaction" in every Stones song, there's a little "Galveston" in every Glen Campbell song, especially "A Thousand Lifetimes." It's a very positive song about the price of taking "things for granted."

Ghost On The Canvas is remarkably fresh to my ears. It's not just a rehash of the past or a sentimental recreation of Campbell's more familiar hits. Clearly, his producers Julian Raymond and Howard Willing are interested in making a new record that captures Campbell as he sounds today at age 75. So this record would stand up against anything by Keith Urban, Tim McGraw or Lady Antebellum. In fact, some the tracks really kick such as "In My Arms" written by Teddy Thompson and "Strong" which blends a heavy back beat with strings, distorted guitar and electronic tones in the background.

Campbell does an excellent version of Jakob Dylan's "Nothing But the Whole Wide World," which was on his album of last year,Women + Country. It's a strong performance with a simple arrangement giving Campbell the chance to show off his full vocal range.The single, if I were to choose one, would be Westerberg's "Any Trouble." It seduces you like the opening licks to "Gentle On My Mind", with the banjo front and center. But again, rather than recreate the past, the producers offer us a familiar musical sound with Campbell's voice down the middle. What I always remember about Campbell's records when I first heard them on my RCA transistor radio was his voice: the brightest sound emanating from the 2-inch speaker.
Ghost On The Canvas is Campbell's last musical statement and instead of going out with a sentimental journey, he's recorded a fresh, dignified epitaph to his life and his music.

- John Corcelli is a musician, writer and broadcaster.

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