Thursday, August 10, 2017

Like A Midnight Cowboy: Glen Campbell, 1936-2017

Glen Campbell performing on the BBC in 1970. (Photo: Michael Putland/Getty/Hulton Archive)

It wasn’t shocking to hear, two days ago, that Glen Campbell had died: for nearly a decade, he had been making highly public acknowledgements of his affliction with Alzheimer’s disease. Rather than lachrymose interviews or TV appearances, these mostly took the form of actual work. A worldwide concert tour spanned August 2011 to November 2012; referred to variously as “Good Times – The Final Farewell Tour” and “The Goodbye Tour,” it couldn’t have been more upfront about its theme and raison d'être. I’ll Be Me, a documentary about the tour and about the disease, premiered on CNN in 2014. Campbell’s last three studio albums – 2011’s Ghost on the Canvas, 2013’s See You There, and this year’s Adiós – were concerned entirely or partially with the singer’s contemplation of his own looming mortality. These years and works amount to a concerted resistance against dissolution and death, and they comprise, whatever their artistic results, an exemplary final act.

What did we lose when Glen Campbell died? Every fan would give the same broad answer – a great musician – but behind that would lie, for each person, nuances of loss. In his long and episodic career, Campbell was a guitar ace with the legendary L.A. session cadre known as The Wrecking Crew; a crossover superstar with a hit TV show (The Glen Campbell Good Time Hour, 1969-72) who briefly outsold The Beatles; a genre titan with a run of seventies hits; a nostalgia act with a theater in Branson; and finally, an elder statesman praised by the indie rockers whose songs he covered. That’s a lot of Glen Campbell to take in, and surely many other fans love him, as I do, for his totality while personally treasuring only selected portions of his output. I most love the Glen Campbell that existed roughly between 1967 and 1970; in my listening life, few performers have meant so much on the basis of so few years’ work.

His first several albums for Capitol Records – encompassing bluegrass, folk, country, rock, and pop – marked him as a natural talent constrained by a producer, Nick Venet, who didn’t know how to focus him. His heartfelt country singing was wasted on dishrag standards (1963’s Too Late to Worry – Too Blue to Cry); his hot, precise guitar lines sounded better propelling other people’s records – The Beach Boys’ “Dance, Dance, Dance,” Elvis Presley’s “Viva Las Vegas” – than they did on his own stiff, overproduced instrumental showcase (1965’s The Big Bad Rock Guitar of Glen Campbell). Then, in 1967, Venet passed him off to Al De Lory, a Wrecking Crew keyboardist who wanted to be a producer. Their first LP together, Burning Bridges, was only a half-step up from its predecessors: pure countrypolitan, it featured saccharine strings, antiseptic choirs, and a couple of tracks recycled from Too Late to Worry. But it was consistent, and it cleared ground for the Gentle on My Mind album, released just two months later – 50 years ago this month, in fact.

This time the chemicals bonded, the cogs meshed, the combination clicked. Choose your simile. Gentle on My Mind is a perfect album. Material, talent, technique, and approach come together to form a unity. Rolling off the title track, which its composer, John Hartford, once credibly claimed to have written in 15 minutes – it’s that easy to hear, that unforced a flow of image and memory – the 11 songs lay claim to a wide range of emotional and musical tones. There are baroque lamentations (Jimmie Rodgers’s “It’s Over,” Donovan’s “Catch the Wind,” Nilsson’s “Without Her”), humorous asides (“Bowling Green”), and melodramatic peaks that rival the classic keens of Roy Orbison (“You’re My World,” Orbison’s own “Crying”). The players are mostly Wrecking Crew veterans: guitarist James Burton, bassist Joe Osborne, drummer Jim Gordon, and banjoist Doug Dillard, with arrangements by Leon Russell. Campbell’s own playing is limited to a few terse, tasteful solos, a few rich acoustic flourishes; De Lory, following through on the previous album, instead places his voice at the center of things.

Which is to say he places a uniquely open-hearted, unusually sensitive and self-revealing man at the center of things. Musically, Gentle on My Mind is as fine and subtle as all but a few pop albums released in 1967, while conceptually it may be the equal of any of them. Each song is in some direct or indirect way about manhood – as existential condition, and emotional limitation. Campbell’s vocals express a man’s pleasure in strength and his fear of dependence, and vice versa. On the genial “Just Another Man,” he accepts, and warns of, his own duplicity; elsewhere, when he is the one in need, his voice holds fast to a melody as if to a lifeline. On the remarkably unguarded “Love Me as Though There Were No Tomorrow,” he takes what is in conventional terms a female role, imploring his lover to “kiss me,” “take me,” “teach me”: few pop songs being sung by men in 1967 offer such a complete abrogation of masculine power and prerogative. “The World I Used to Know,” a piece of tuneful claptrap written by the once-fashionable poet Rod McKuen, is about the falsity inherent in the classic male image; Campbell’s vocal, free of pomposity or presumption, transforms it into something like real regret, real wisdom. And his version of “Mary in the Morning,” a contemporary love song much recorded at the time, is tender and guileless in its rapture over a lover’s closeness in the moments of waking. The themes of manhood are implicit in the lyrics of the songs, but by singing them in a certain way – eschewing swagger or superiority, surrendering to each song’s demand – Campbell creates them as emotional experiences. Gentle on My Mind is loving, moving, and finally breathtaking.

Then came the hits that made him a superstar: “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “Wichita Lineman,” “Galveston.” Written by a longhaired peacenik named Jimmy Webb, they noted the hidden emotions of Middle Americans, shorthairs caught in personal, political, or existential traps: a rural phone technician in love with a voice heard through a wire atop a pole over an empty county road; dutiful men, disappointed in love and frightened in war, who yearn for the safety of their Southwestern homes. Campbell sang with utter seriousness, no distance between himself and the man (or the woman) of the song; he sounded the depth of the lineman’s quiet yearning, boldly leapt an octave to signal the frustration of the Texas boy cleaning his gun in Vietnam. Even as an adolescent in thrall to the rockist ethos of gutty guitars and sweaty sex, glamour and the pursuit of hipness, I could feel life and blood moving in these deceptively square songs; I loved hearing Glen Campbell sing of, and for, the Silent Majority. (And still do: the appearance of “Galveston” as credit music for an episode of the 2015 HBO true-crime miniseries The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst was a shock, for both its aptness to the subject matter and its open, exhilarating sound – a dream of freedom against a narrative of entrapment and terror.)

There were other amazements in this short era: Campbell’s uncredited vocal on “My World Fell Down,” a 1968 masterpiece of sunshine pop by the fabricated Hollywood studio group Sagittarius (so good that anthologist Lenny Kaye violated his own garage-band, proto-punk criteria to include it on the first Nuggets compilation); his staggering 1970 version of Conway Twitty’s “It’s Only Make Believe”; a beautiful Good Time Hour duet with Stevie Wonder on “Blowin’ in the Wind.” But the balance achieved by Campbell and his studio cohort between moment and material, pop sound and pop sense was terribly delicate, and it couldn’t last. All the pieces that matched so beautifully in 1967 began to separate and take on ungainly shapes. Circa 1971, the incipient dangers of Campbell’s genre-straddling popularity – the glitz of the studio, the cornpone of TV, the creeping cholesterol of pop-fried country – converged, and alchemy dissolved. What replaced it was a bombastic, Vegas-revue country-and-western cartoon resulting in several inescapable mid- to late-seventies radio hits: “Southern Nights,” “Country Boy (You Got Your Feet in L.A.),” and of course “Rhinestone Cowboy” – a song undeniably brilliant in its imagery, though unceasing radio play rendered it as runny and rancid as the rain-soaked cake of “MacArthur Park.”

Beyond that lay many years, many albums, and very little of musical interest – until a late-career resurgence that began with 2008’s Meet Glen Campbell. This full-throated blast of an album did for its maker approximately what Johnny Cash’s American III: Solitary Man (2000) and Neil Diamond’s 12 Songs (2005) had done for those wizened sundowners – redefined him for a new audience by foregrounding his age, with clear, close production and good song choices (Travis’s “Sing,” Jackson Browne’s “These Days,” John Lennon’s “Grow Old with Me”) warmed by the cracks in his voice. The post-Alzheimer’s albums, especially the uncannily Pet Sounds-like Ghost on the Canvas, were seldom less than interesting; but perhaps they were too ghostly, too drifting and wanly contemplative, to stick to a listener as more than what they undoubtedly were – defiant and graceful gestures, reckonings of a sort that the Campbell of 1967-70, and his fans, had never seen coming.

Adiós, his final album, released just a few months ago, contained a nice version of “Everybody’s Talkin’,” from 1969’s Midnight Cowboy. Certainly the lyrics about hearing no voices, “only the echoes of my mind,” took on new, morbid meaning in light of Campbell’s disease; but my question was why it had taken so long for him to officially record the song. Although I knew it was Harry Nilsson’s voice on the film soundtrack, I’d always felt it was Campbell singing – just as I felt that it was he, not Jon Voight, who was playing Joe Buck in the film. Though it was Voight’s face and body on the screen, for me he was channeling the exact persona of Campbell’s late-sixties music: a disarming blend of bravado and terror, humor and trembling desire, contained in the complex, unlikely vessel of a simple man adrift in a strange world. Ironically, Voight lost the Best Actor Oscar in 1969 to John Wayne for True Grit – a film in which Glen Campbell made his acting debut, playing La Boeuf, a handsome, rather dim, law-abidingly square Texas Ranger. If La Boeuf represented Glen Campbell the country stud who became a rhinestone cowboy, Joe Buck represented the Campbell who confronted fear, loneliness, and his own desperate need for love.

That may be the only way I can explain what Glen Campbell has meant to me, describe what he is to me: less rhinestone cowboy than midnight cowboy, someone pulled toward a darker terrain, who imparted nobility to the ordinary, who – in Pauline Kael’s phrase, describing Jon Voight as Joe Buck – gave his music the “underpinnings of a simple man’s suffering.”

– Devin McKinney is the author of Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History (2003), The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda (2012), and Jesusmania! The Bootleg Superstar of Gettysburg College (2016). Formerly a music columnist (The American Prospect), blogger (Hey Dullblog), and TV writer (The Food Network), he has appeared in numerous publications and contributes regularly to Critics At Large and the pop culture site HiLobrow. He is employed as an archivist at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where he lives with his wife and their three cats. His website is

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