At first it seemed strange that the death of Glen Campbell from Alzheimer’s disease, an insidious illness that first robbed him of his memory and then his life, should inspire my mind to flood with memories. But then, music seems to have magical properties.
As his disease progressed, he couldn’t recognize longtime friends and loved ones and could hardly recall why he came into the room, but he could still remember old songs and guitar riffs. And music made him feel better, as local music scene stalwart Joe Cody has discovered over his many years of playing music for people with Alzheimer’s disease.
I’ve never been what you’d call a Glen Campbell super fan, but he has been a cultural touchstone for me, especially from my younger days. When I heard about his death this week, I had a clear picture of riding with my father in his old white-panel van, the smell of leaked engine oil smoking on the exhaust manifold mixing with the aroma of cigarette smoke, sawdust and wood scraps.
We were driving around south Minneapolis on a wintry day, and I hear this song come on the radio. It starts with a stately string section that felt like it could have come from a Western movie, maybe a scene of a lone rider dwarfed by the landscape (or maybe a macho cigarette commercial). In short order, the singer’s pure, yearning tenor falls in: “I am a lineman for the county, and I drive the main road.”
I know I heard plenty of other songs coming out of that van’s AM radio, but I have particularly evocative memories of Campbell’s classic, “Wichita Lineman.” You could argue that much of the credit for the indelible mark it made on me should go to songwriter Jimmy Webb, who also wrote “Galveston,” another early Campbell song that left a huge impression on me. But Campbell’s interpretation of those songs was perfection.
I had no idea back then that Campbell was already a music industry veteran, an ace studio guitarist with the famed Wrecking Crew that played on countless rock and pop hits recorded in Los Angeles, and that he had filled in for Brian Wilson with the Beach Boys when Wilson retreated to the recording studio.
When I first saw Glen Campbell’s face, after he got his own TV variety show, I recall being struck by how he almost looked like a kid. I remember first seeing his show around the time I was in the midst of an ill-fated campaign for president of my fourth-grade class — I made posters proclaiming “Good things come in small packages,” a dubious campaign slogan at best, as if I needed to draw more attention to my inadequate stature. That memory association is a little more painful than the one for “Wichita Lineman,” but I can’t blame Campbell for that.
Campbell’s baby face also loomed large in the first Western I remember seeing on a big screen, “True Grit.” I thought he was great in it, funny, courageous, a guy who could hold his own against John Wayne’s formidable Roster Cogburn.
I didn’t want to see Campbell’s last movie, “I’ll Be Me,” which documents his struggles with Alzheimer’s disease. I put off watching it until last fall, partly because I was afraid I would have to confront my own morbid fears of losing my ability to remember. But after watching the documentary about Campbell’s early days with the Wrecking Crew, I figured I had to see “I’ll Be Me.”
The movie was a painfully honest and poignant look at Campbell’s life as he started to show more and more signs of decline, even as he undertook a farewell concert tour. I ached for what happened to him — and how there was a pretty good chance it could happen to someone I love. And I was sad that he felt compelled to keep performing as his Alzheimer’s symptoms mounted, with all the difficulties that entailed — the disorientation of being on tour must have been overwhelming at times.
After seeing that, I found myself searching out videos on YouTube of Campbell in his prime, and the more I see, the more I realize how amazing he was.
I feel kind of bad now that I pretty much dismissed him from his place among my musical favorites for so long — “Rhinestone Cowboy” did that and it might even be partly because I have a lot of painful teenage memories that get dredged up whenever I hear that song, or maybe it’s because it’s kind of a dumb song complaining about what a drag it is to be a famous singer.
You will not be forgotten, Glen Campbell.
Rock on …