August 11, 2017
Adieu, Glen Campbell
The country singer Glen Campbell passed away on Tuesday afternoon (August 8), following a difficult six-year bout with Alzheimer’s disease. He was eighty-one, and is survived by his wife and eight children. Campbell is probably best known for “Rhinestone Cowboy,” a song he recorded in 1975, though he released sixty full-length studio albums over the course of a fifty-year career, sending some eighty-two singles up the Billboard charts, which makes it feel foolish to reduce his discography now, to divine some quintessential text. He sang in a clear, slightly pinched voice that was particularly well-suited to songs of compromise—anything that betrayed all the strange negotiations we allow in order to move deeper into the lives we want: “There’s been a load of compromisin’ on the road to my horizon, but I’m gonna be where the lights are shinin’ on me.”
Campbell was born in 1936, near Billstown, Arkansas, the seventh son of a sharecropper. He moved to Los Angeles in 1958, when he was twenty-two, and found work as a session guitarist—that’s Campbell doing those soft little strums on Frank Sinatra’s “Strangers in the Night,” and playing the charged, galloping riff that opens the Monkees’ “Mary, Mary.” He briefly joined the instrumental rock group the Champs, who’d had some success, in 1958, with “Tequila,” still one of the best encapsulations of the portentous elation brought on by ice-cold margaritas. But Campbell wanted to lead his own band. In the early nineteen-sixties, he fell in step with the drummer Hal Blaine and the keyboardist Leon Russell; they assumed some outlaw bluster and called themselves the Wrecking Crew. Campbell signed a deal with Capitol Records in 1962, though it wasn’t until 1967, when he, Blaine, and Russell recorded a cover of John Hartford’s “Gentle on My Mind,” that he had his first hit single. It’s a wistful song about freedom, memory, and the (perhaps dubious) idea that if you truly love something, you shouldn’t ask anything of it—especially not monogamy. (In 1980, after Campbell’s third divorce, he told an interviewer, “Perhaps I’ve found the secret for an unhappy private life. Every three years I go and marry a girl who doesn’t love me, and then she proceeds to take all my money.”)
Campbell had an easy air about him, though. He appeared courteous in an old-fashioned way, yet still vaguely mischievous, as if he might call you ma’am but would wink at you as you left the room. At the end of the sixties, Campbell starred in two films based on novels by Charles Portis: “True Grit,” in 1969, and “Norwood,” in 1970. He’s a sweet, beguiling presence onscreen—demure and Southern, even when he’s casually plonking his spurs down on the dinner table or calling one of his companions “a squirrel-headed bastard.” More musical hits followed: “Wichita Lineman,” in 1968, “Galveston,” in 1969, “Southern Nights,” in 1977. He hosted his own variety show, “The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour,” which débuted on CBS in January, 1969. Surveying his successes, one gets the sense that careers like this don’t happen anymore, or at least not in the same way. To trust a singer to carry you through several decades—stretches as musically and politically diverse as the sixties into the seventies into the eighties and nineties—requires a particular kind of allegiance. Campbell may not have demanded it, but he received it.
Campbell continued recording even after his diagnosis. There is a dark humor to the later work—he titled his final album, released this past June, “Adios” (it was preceded by a so-called “Goodbye Tour”). His dexterity with a guitar—he is an agile, artful picker—never seemed to wane. Nor did his voice. His cover of Harry Nilsson’s “Everybody’s Talkin,” which he recorded in late 2012, is remarkably nimble.
I met Campbell once, at the Nashville airport. All of my belongings (including my laptop, which contained an early and otherwise unsaved draft of a magazine feature I’d spent months reporting) had recently been stolen from my rental car. It was parked in a garage downtown; one of its rear windows had been smashed in with a rock. During the ensuing hubbub—phoning the cops, explaining the compromised state of my Kia Sephia to the rental-car agency—my flight back to New York City had departed without me. I was consoling myself by drinking a great deal of beer at an outpost of Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, the famed Broadway honky-tonk. This must have been in 2009. I looked up and saw Campbell wandering around with his wife, Kim Woolen. (They’d met on a blind date—he took her to dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria, with his parents, and then to a James Taylor concert.) Campbell hadn’t been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s yet, not in any official capacity, but it was clear, even then, that he wasn’t quite himself—that certain ideas or bits of language were receding, drifting out of reach, like paper boats fluttering across a pond.
I approached and brazenly asked for a photograph—I suppose I felt like I had little left to lose in Nashville that afternoon. They were so gracious. You know, it wasn’t that bad, losing my stuff and missing my flight. There would be more stuff, more flights. He threw a big arm around me and we grinned.