I was seven years old when Glen Campbell’s ‘Try A Little Kindness’ hit the New Zealand airwaves. It peaked at Number Four on the local charts and later featured on the second volume of what would become an iconic compilation series called 20 Solid Gold Hits. We had that record, and I remember playing the song over and over, liking the melody and the words but mostly liking Glen’s voice. I think my favourite Campbell song was and still is ‘Galveston’, and the album it came off was the first record I ever bought. I also loved ‘Wichita Lineman’, ‘By The Time I Get To Phoenix’, ‘Gentle On My Mind’, ‘Rhinestone Cowboy’ and ‘Southern Nights’. Actually, there was very little I didn’t like.
I loved those deft guitar lines, the ones that for a long time made him the king of LA session guitarists, but mostly I loved that voice. It was steady and pure and he knew how to express complex emotions in a simple and straightforward manner, but of all his vocal qualities it was his phrasing that affected me the most. He knew exactly how to pitch a word and where to sit it in the melody, a gift that separates the good singers from the truly great ones.
Beyond all that, the man was a natural performer. There were no affectations, just a simple country boy onstage entertaining the folks with easy self-deprecating humour and amusing one liners and of course those sublime instrumental skills. Watch him play ‘Classical Gas’ in his 2001 In Concert With The South Dakota Symphony In Sioux Falls and marvel. What a show that was, the man was on fire but there was something odd about his voice, and the less generous suggested that he had fallen off the wagon.
Alcohol had been a problem for a time, but it turned out not to be the problem here. What we were seeing were the first indications that all was not right with his brain. Sometime later he and his family announced to the world that Glen was dealing with Alzheimer’s, a diagnosis that marked the beginning of a merciless descent into living oblivion.
The documentary film I’ll Be Me chronicles his last tour, the ‘Glen Campbell Goodbye Tour’, which started out to promote the 2011 album Ghost On The Canvas and ended up as a crusade highlighting a disorder which is causing ever more grief to ever more people with each passing year, and is predicted to reach epidemic proportions in coming decades.
This film was a painful experience and part of me wishes I hadn’t seen it. Who wants to see their heroes so badly blighted, a consideration the Campbell family examined deeply and carefully before they agreed to the process. But there he was, and for the first round of the 107 odd shows he was pretty good, but by the time the family pulled the plug it was getting messy.
Glen was becoming a waking caricature of himself, his behaviour erratic and disturbing. The truth is never easy, but there it was in full-blown colour. There were tributes from the glitterati (everyone from Springsteen to well, everyone) but mostly there was Campbell’s family – who were also his tour band – doing the best they could in a thankless situation. This was no celebration of a man’s life, it was an unapologetic chronicle of tarnished reality, though everyone was trying their best to grin and bear it, for the cameras at least. I can only imagine the tears, grief, despair and frustration behind the scenes.
As for Campbell, well I couldn’t feel too bad for him. He was pretty unaware of it most of the time, living from moment to moment as he was, a dwindling figure of half-formed partialities. He has had an extraordinary life and career and the end had come, as it comes to us one and all. He is not dead yet, but he may as well be, sitting out his remaining time in a specialised care facility as he is. An ignominious end in some regards, but I choose not to see it that way. I choose to remember the man as he was. That man was brilliant, extraordinary and brim full of life.