Friday 25 May 2018

Glen Campbell: a voice for the ages

Neil McCormick traces the rise of a music legend who transcended genres

Glen Campbell
Glen Campbell
Glen Campbell with his wife Kim (L) and daughter Ashley arrive at the 54th annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles, California February 12, 2012
Glen Campbell, left, and Tanya Tucker, engaged to one another, are shown at the Grammy Awards in Los Angeles in 1979

Glen Campbell was one of the sweetest singers anyone could ever hope to hear. He had the pure flowing tone of a crooner but with something smoky in there, a whiskey catch at the back of his throat that tugged at the heart of a melody and left listeners feeling every shift in the lyric. He had an impossible range that could pluck notes out of the ether but somehow made every song he ever sang sound easy.

Campbell died on Tuesday at the age of 81 after living with Alzheimer's disease for six years. For people of a certain age, he is part of the fabric of popular music, immortalised by a handful of perfect singles. His liquid, melancholy readings of Jimmy Webb's country gothic classics surely stand amongst the greatest records ever made.

There are infinities of wonder to be heard in 'By The Time I Get To Phoenix', 'Galveston' and particularly 'Wichita Lineman', a song whose dreamy longing still reaches across time and sings to us down the wires. Has there ever been a more romantic couplet than "I need you more than want you / And I want you for all time"? Webb once told me it was easy to write his vastly ambitious, deeply romantic songs knowing he had Campbell to sing them.

And there are plenty of other songs, too, that Campbell took and made his own. He could sing anything, but when he felt a song, look out. A lot of other singers (including his friend Elvis Presley) have sung 'Gentle On My Mind', but no one will ever touch Campbell's version, so free flowing, yet stoically romantic.

Maybe it was because he always seemed a little bit out of time himself. He occupied a fascinating place in that cultural never-never land between the swing era and rock 'n' roll, making music that had old fashioned melodic and harmonic values, but new fashioned attitudes.

When I think of Campbell, I think of my late father, who would sing along with his records, and who took me to see True Grit in our local cinema, where Campbell played the chunky, awkward cowboy who saves John Wayne with his sharp shooting.

For a while, he was a fixture of Saturday night light entertainment TV, handsome and wholesome, yet with an edge that came, perhaps, from his country roots. There were subtle dimensions of doubt and pain that resonated in his rich chord changes and lush orchestrations, the inescapable sense there was more going on than met the eye.

The truth is, he grew up hard, in straightened circumstances in rural Arkansas, where his considerable gifts as an untutored musical prodigy showed him a path out of the dirt and into the American dream. He was one of the figures who helped move America's home-grown folk form to the pop mainstream in the 60s and he stayed with it as it embraced outlaw counter culture values in the 70s.

His signature tune, 'Rhinestone Cowboy' from 1975, balanced gritty reality and heady dreams, with gleaming strings and a steady beat that hinted at Philly soul and disco. It is a timeless song because every element of it sounds just right. And there is Glen Campbell riding across the top of it, completely lost in the dream, heading for his horizon.

Later, as I really became obsessed with music, I was entranced to learn that when Campbell first arrived as a young guitar-slinger in LA, he had been recruited to the legendary Wrecking Crew. This hot session band featured Leon Russell, Dr John and Jack Nitzsche and has probably played on more classic pop recordings than any other musicians.

Even if you had never heard Campbell sing, you would have heard him on record. He was in the studio, laying it down for Phil Spector, the Beach Boys, Simon and Garfunkel, Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra. He plays on 'Strangers In The Night', recorded live in two takes. And he plays on Pet Sounds and was even briefly hired to replace Brian Wilson in the Beach Boys. Campbell had a lot of music in him.

I got the chance to interview Campbell in 2011. It is one of the privileges of this job to get opportunities to meet musical heroes, for brief but intimate one-on-one exchanges, to ask the questions you've always wanted to ask. He was suffering the debilitations of Alzheimer's and, sadly, I got him on a bad day or in a bad moment. He stumbled in conversation, lost his thread, repeated himself and looked to his wife of 35 years, Kim, for constant affirmation and reassurance. She started telling his well-honed anecdotes for him. "Well, I've heard them so many times before," she joked.

But later that week, I went to see him play at the Royal Festival Hall, and even though he clearly didn't know where he was, he absolutely understood what he was doing there, performing every song with a joy and commitment that was absolutely infectious. Between songs, he would become confused and make the same jokes over and over as he tried to get his bearings. But then the band would start up and he reconnected. He was alive in the music and he is alive in the music still.

Although he had been (mostly) sober for decades, Campbell struggled with alcohol and cocaine addiction throughout his life, and certainly got through his fair share of tempestuous relationships (country singer Tanya Tucker once claimed he had knocked her teeth out). He was married four times.

In his later years, four of Campbell's eight adult children (three with Kim) played in his backing band, helping their father to keep doing the thing he loved more than anything else, for as long as he possibly could.

Earlier this year, at 81 years of age, knowing the end was nigh, Campbell released a farewell album, Adios, singing new versions of some of his most beloved songs. And sounding just as sure, as heartfelt, as connected to the music as he ever did.

"I just tell you, the Lord's been good to me," Campbell announced during our brief encounter. "Even if I was a rounder, he's been really, really nice to me."

Music has lost another great. But the great music remains.

Irish Independent

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