August 9, 2017
Posted in View from the table
I heard on the radio late last night that Glen Campbell has passed away at the age of 81. I am in no way qualified to write about Glen Campbell, I’m not a country music expert, nor was I an uber fan, but Campbell’s music, his incredible guitar playing and pure, clear voice, like many people my age I imagine, was part of mine and my sister’s childhood, and I still hold that very dear today.
If you know me you’ll know that I love a well-written lyric, the first time I properly listened to the words of a song was Campbell’s Tales of the Everyday Housewife for the simple reason that it made me feel so so sad; a woman’s life defined by her marital and domestic status, a life un-lived, I didn’t understand that of course, I just saw my mum ironing and singing it in the living room – oh the irony. By the Time I Get to Phoenix – the story of a man leaving a woman, the day ticking by as he hits the road, that story painted itself into my imagination so vividly. And then of course Wichita Lineman, which it’s fair to say blew me away, “and I need you more than want you, and I want you for all time” that line’s stayed with me my whole life. You have to hand it to Jimmy Webb, who wrote the song in 1968, can you imagine him trying to persuade the industry big wigs to buy it? “So… it’s about a telephone pole repair guy who travels around the country, he’s incredibly lonely… Guys, bear with me on this one…” It’s clever and beautiful and coupled with those strings it’s still packs an emotional punch to the stomach. Unrequited love and absolute longing, if it doesn’t move you then you might need to have a word with yourself. I didn’t know all this when I was 8/9 years old of course but it undoubtedly triggered my obsession with the alchemy of music and words. There’s no doubt in my mind that it was the foundation of a love and general persuasion towards the melancholy too.
Campbell, the seventh son of a family of twelve, from farming roots in Arkansas had a career that spanned his whole life – from dropping out of school at 14 to play gigs in rural bars – a healthy obsession with Django Reinhardt setting him on his path to guitar supremacy, to becoming one of the most respected session guitarists on the circuit – Rolling Stone this morning cites that he moved to LA in 1962 and by 1963 had, “586 cuts including The Byrd’s Mr, Tambourine Man, Elvis Presley’s Viva Las Vegas, Merle Haggard’s Mama Tried and the Righteous Brother’s You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling”. The following year he toured with the Beach Boys, standing in for Brian Wilson post-nervous breakdown – he could hit the high notes and play guitar. By 1967 he’d paired up with songwriter Webb and by 1968 the Grammys were flooding in.
His career never really halted, though his success and popularity waxed and waned. Rhinestone Cowboy’s release in 1975 brought him back to the public eye and a stream of hits followed. Drug and alcohol abuse plagued him in later years and in 2011 he revealed that he was suffering with Alzheimer’s. He announced a 151-date farewell tour and released his final album of original music.
I was lucky enough to see his London date on that tour – with my mum and sister at the Royal Festival Hall on the Southbank. To say it was emotional would be an understatement, there was a whole lot of love in the room. Not a dry eye in the house for Wichita Lineman, that’s for sure. One of my most treasured memories will always be us standing on either side of our mum, arms around one another, singing our hearts out (terribly). Three of Campbell’s children backed him on the tour so despite the venues being large it had an intimate, personal feel. He wanted to end his career on a considered, in-control fashion. He didn’t want people to think he was drunk, or high, that he’d lost his ability to perform, so the tour was his swan song, and everyone in the room knew so. A few key prompts from his daughter was the only evidence of his memory decline, all those lyrics were still there, his guitar playing was still breathtaking, and I don’t use that lightly. And he had a lot of stories too, of Elvis, Haggard, the life he led in the 60s and 70s, funny anecdotes, some he censored quickly. I’d read that book.
“I’m sad” read my mum’s text last night as my sister, her and I exchanged the news. I am a little bit too, but I’m happier for those memories and that talent being part of my own fabric of life.
And I know that there are more critically acclaimed songs but these are the ones that floored pre-teen me and still do today.