Top

music

Stories

 

Glen Campbell Says Goodbye on Ghost on the Canvas

Moving on to a better place

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.

I find myself time-traveling a bit, too, remembering my conversation with Westerberg two days earlier. Normally, the ex-Replacement would rather star in a reality show than talk to the press; his eagerness to discuss Ghost on the Canvas suggests that he's unusually proud of his involvement with it.

"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."

1
 
2
 
All
 
Next Page »
 
My Voice Nation Help
8 comments
James A. Cooley
James A. Cooley

I am seeing Glen Campbell on March 18 in Austin. The term legend is overused. In his case, it may be an understatement.

Guest
Guest

I heard his Galveston album as a kid in my aunt's Malibu and the songs and arrangements are so memorable and brilliant. A true classic. I remember seeing him on tv with Johnny Cash, too. He never acts like he thinks he is a big deal but the more you learn about him the more impressive his position in pop music history becomes.

Epac
Epac

Excellent piece...thank you!

Dachowes
Dachowes

Poignant and sensitive piece. This fate awits many of us 'baby boomers.' The reseach was began thanks to the forthrightness and dignity of President Reagan, his wife Nancy and son Ron. The genome theory and stem cell techniques will probabably resolve this horible disease --but,long after we get it and/or die. That is, if the new extreme right doesn't sabotage it for political motivations.

voxpop
voxpop

KEVIN SCHWARTZ hit the nail on the head. He gets it. GREAT article.

Kevin Schwartz
Kevin Schwartz

Really brilliant. Thanks for this. What makes me alternately sad and mad is that this youth-worhisping culture only remembers the great and substantial ones either (1) when they're dying or (2) after they're dead. In between, all those years they're still here, they're invariably forgotten, lost in a sea of Ga Gas and Katy Perrys and Justins and...the rest...and here was Glen Campbell right in our midst and nobody particularly caring - until now. We remember his classic songs, we remember that he participated in the wondrous when it comes to the very, very tricky art form called music - much harder to pull off than you'd think in a world of 10 million bands - but where was the interest when he was healthy? Why do these experienced artists, who've spent years spent honing their craft, gather dust and rot while utterly inferior creatures prance about? Why Twinkies over prime rib? Sad commentary on the culture at large, which is really damned small, and the small file where you'll find the real artisans who were always larger than life...

DMVawter
DMVawter

Well said. Now put your money where your mouth is and dive into Glen's back catalogue. Starting with the superb Basic from 1978.

 
New York Concert Tickets

Concert Calendar

  • July
  • Wed
    23
  • Thu
    24
  • Fri
    25
  • Sat
    26
  • Sun
    27
  • Mon
    28
  • Tue
    29
Loading...