By Michael Hann
August 8, 2017
Glen Campbell may have died after 60 years of making music, recording until well after the onset of Alzheimer’s, but for many people his career boils down to a handful of singles, recorded in a scant few years at the tail end of the 1960s and the start of the 1970s – particularly the three Jimmy Webb songs he had huge hits with: By the Time I Get to Phoenix, Wichita Lineman and Galveston.
But what songs. They are the anchor of his canon, but you would certainly addRhinestone Cowboy, written by Larry Weiss, John Hartford’s Gentle on My Mind, plus a couple of lesser Webb songs, Honey Come Back and Where’s the Playground Susie. After that it’s down to personal taste. He was, really, the perfect artist for the greatest hits album, for the collection that allowed you to cut through the schmaltz and sentiment to the artistry.
Campbell was canny enough to know that the “town cycle” was his ticket to greatness. He reunited with Webb repeatedly down the years – in 1974 he released Reunion: The Songs of Jimmy Webb, with Webb himself playing piano; Webb was the orchestra conductor on the 1977 Royal Festival Hall show that was released as a live album, and whose tracklisting provides a telling insight into Campbell’s musical mind, with showtunes, rock’n’roll standards, Jacques Brel numbers and Beach Boys songs alongside the pop country hits. In 1988 Webb supplied eight songs to the Light Years album, and that year the pair recorded a live duo performance that was finally released on CD in 2012.
But let’s go back to the “town cycle”, because those are the three songs most people will be returning to when they hear the news he has died, not least because they’re songs that ache with loss. Webb’s writing is peerless, of course – he never bettered these three songs – but they wouldn’t be half so good without Campbell’s delivery. Because he wasn’t yet an established part of the MOR firmament, he could still convince as an everyman, and these were very much the songs of an everyman – filled with wistfulness, regret and the truest of all emotions, but the one least frequently expressed in love songs, ambivalence.
By the Time I Get to Phoenix is a staggering achievement for both Webb and Campbell: Webb had written a song about a man whose actions are, in any accounting, poor to the point of awfulness. He has left his partner in the worst possible way – he’s pinned up a note and walked out, and then driven, east along the freeways, to Phoenix, Albuquerque, Oklahoma. He knows she be calling until the phone rings off the wall; he knows she’ll be crying herself to sleep. He just doesn’t care, or not enough – as far as he’s concerned he tried to tell her he didn’t love her, she just never listened. It’s the kind of story you hear in a pub and think, “What a tosser.” Campbell manages to make you empathise with the jilter.
Wichita Lineman might be an even greater achievement, 16 lines that capture an entire existence, without drama or fuss – just a man alone on the vast, empty plains, fixing the overheard telephone wires and letting the passage of his life drift through his mind. The line that gets picked up on is the couplet near the end – “And I need you more than want you / And I want you for all time” – which I hear people hail as the perfect summation of love, but which to me seems something sadder and more profound. It is need, more than want, that defines the narrator’s relationship; if they need their lover more than wanting them, then naturally they will want them for all time. The couplet encompasses the fear that those who have been in relationships do sometimes struggle with: good God, what happens to me if I am left alone? It’s a heartstopping line, and no matter how many thousands of times you hear the song, no matter what it means to you, it does not lose its impact.
The final town song, Galveston, was intended by Webb as a Vietnam protest song. But Campbell didn’t see it that way. In 1965 he had recorded Buffy Saint-Marie’s pacifist song Universal Soldier, and somehow managed to convince himself that he wasn’t singing pacifist lyrics while doing so, insisting at the time that “if you don’t have enough guts to fight for your country, you’re not a man”. Webb had written a song about a man dreaming of escape from war, of a return to a place where no one is shooting; Campbell, by contrast, sang of a man who was at war for the sake of the town he loved, a change subtly made by a minor lyric change. Where Webb wrote “I put down my gun / And dream of Galveston”, Campbell sang “I clean my gun / And dream of Galveston.”That doesn’t diminish him, or make him less of an everyman. The world does not see the world through the eyes of Hollywood liberals, and Campbell was as true to one half of America – his half – as Webb had been. In those three recordings, Campbell did as much as anyone to capture American manhood at a time of change: insecure, uncertain, committed to nothing, but searching for something more. You’ll be hearing those three songs a lot in the next few days; I doubt you’ll get tired of them. That’s how great they are.