Moving on to a better place
By Peter Gerstenzang
published: August 31, 2011
You don't know the meaning of "poignant" until Glen Campbell, sitting two feet from you, starts to sing "Ghost on the Canvas," the title track of his new—and final—album. The country great, who's going through the early stages of Alzheimer's, sometimes forgets which family member once saved him from drowning, the last city he played, which guitar he used on "Good Vibrations." But when he sails into the magical realism of this heartbreaking Paul Westerberg ballad, he's the old Glen.
"I know a place between/Life and death/For you and me," he croons in his familiar, boyish tenor. He sings on about the end, about eternity, and you have to turn your head away, to brush back tears.
Campbell, still spry and blond at 75, his wife, Kim, sitting beside him, is in Manhattan to promote Ghost, maybe the finest album he's ever made. And even though some familiar names elude him, and at one point he gets me an Evian, then proceeds to drink it himself, Campbell hasn't lost a step musically. He's still the untutored guitar genius of L.A.'s famous Wrecking Crew, still the man who skyrocketed to stardom singing "Galveston" and "Wichita Lineman" in the late '60s. His new songs—some of which he co-wrote, others penned by the likes of Westerberg, Jakob Dylan, and Teddy Thompson—are virtually their equal. Bringing to mind what Campbell's friend John Wayne said in Rio Bravo: "I'd hate to have to live on the difference."
Has Campbell's increasing memory loss impeded him from playing and singing these new songs? "Not really," he says, the faintest trace of his Arkansas accent still sharpening his vowels. "My producer, Julian Raymond, and I went through about 50 submissions and picked a bunch. Co-wrote some others. Recording is still easy for me. Like when I played with the Beach Boys. I just put the capo up to the proper key and go! We had a saying in the '60s: 'Make the feel, feel good.' It was no different this time."
Many of the songs on Ghost are about getting old and letting go, with frightening emotions lurking just beneath their elegant surfaces. "When you got the diagnosis of Alzheimer's," I ask, "were you scared?"
Campbell smiles serenely. "No," he says, firmly. "Because l love the Lord. He's been so good to me, man." As if to underline this, Campbell tenderly fingers a small blue cross tattooed on his left arm. "When I look back on things—the hit records, the good fortune I've had—I can't complain. Mostly, there's my kids and my lovely wife. We been married 29 years. She ain't even that old!"
Campbell absentmindedly starts to hum John Hartford's "Gentle On My Mind," the tune that kickstarted his career some forty-odd years ago. I ask if he remembers when he first heard it. "You know, John sang that song so slowly when he first brought it to me. It took six minutes. I thought he'd never get through it." He laughs and stares off into space for a minute.
"Glen did my tune 'Sadly Beautiful' on his last record, but I'm still surprised when anyone wants to do something of mine," Westerberg says. "Even if I tailor a song, it rarely works out how I planned it. Like, I'd love to tell you that 'Dyslexic Heart' was written for the movie Singles, but it was just a nice accident. Like this."
Still, Westerberg is pleased that Raymond kept Campbell's legacy in mind when arranging his two contributions to the record.
"They're not slavish imitations of his trademark '60s sound," he says. "But they're not far afield either. You'll notice on 'Ghost,' there's a musical nod to 'Wichita Lineman.' It makes sense. If Chuck Berry was making a final album, you'd want it to sound like classic Chuck, right?"
When I tell Campbell about the indirect way the Westerberg tunes got to him, he makes the connection with an old country joke.
"You know the one about the baby who swallowed the bullet?" he says. "His mama calls the doctor, very upset and asks what to do. The doctor says, 'Give him some castor oil and just don't aim him at anything!' Paul didn't aim those songs at me; that's why they worked."
Jakob Dylan's contribution to Ghost on the Canvas came about differently.
"I was stuck writing my last record," Dylan says. "And Julian asked if I'd try and write something for Glen. I came up with 'Nothing but the Whole Wide World.' It unlocked something, and encouraged me to write my whole album. The thing I love about Ghost is, it's not like those final Johnny Cash records. They're good, but not classic Cash. Glen's album sounds like vintage Glen, just updated."
Campbell, never a prolific writer, co-wrote five of the album's songs. "Julian would start them. And I'd personalize them, with 'I' and 'Me.' I have people I want to say goodbye to, so that made me want to contribute lyrics. Songs like 'A Better Place,' which is hopefully where I'm headed. I sang most of them in one take, with some punch-ins. Of course, occasionally, I'd learn a song one day and forget it the next. So, we'd start over."
The mood of the songs is so haunting, the feeling of mortality in the room so strong, Campbell has a sudden reminiscence about his first brush with death.
"When I was about three, I was on my way to buy some candy, when I fell into the creek. My uncle fished me out, but I'd turned blue. Momma was screaming, 'Lord, please don't take him!' My brothers happened to be coming along and they'd just taken lifesaving at a 3-C Camp. They worked on me, passed me back and forth, and got a half-gallon of water outta me. Somehow, I survived."
"So, Glen, you've been on Golden Time these past 70 years or so," I say.
"I had a destiny to play guitar, is all. No way I was supposed to die then."
I ask if he believes he's going to heaven when he dies.
"Yeah, I think so," he says. "I was pretty wild there for a while, but I got straightened out. Especially with my marriage. So, I'm pretty sure I'll make it to heaven." His eyes glint.
"Of course," Campbell adds, "that's on one condition. That, between now and then, I don't mess things up. Barring that? I'll be fine, man."