Monday, 29 August 2011
Glen Campbell: still on the line
In June, Glen Campbell announced that he had Alzheimer's. As he releases his final album, he talks about memory loss, drug addiction and telling Elvis he was too fat
Friday 26 August 2011 23.01
When you first listen to Glen Campbell's new album, Ghost On The Canvas, nothing seems amiss. His voice is rich and clear, the songs intimate reflections on his 75 years. There is plenty to reflect on – the drink and drugs, the four wives and eight children, the fame and fortune, 50-odd years as one of the world's great singers and guitarists. It's only when you listen closely that a recurrent theme emerges – of confusion. In A Better Place, he sings:
Some days I'm so confused, Lord,
My past gets in my way.
I need the ones I love, Lord,
More and more each day.
On the sleeve notes he writes: "Ghost On The Canvas is the last studio record of new songs that I plan to make. I've been saying it to friends and family, but now that it's in writing it really seems final." In June, Campbell revealed he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease six months earlier and that he was going to do a farewell tour before retiring. The announcement was shocking in its bluntness. Many of us still remember Glen Campbell as the eternally youthful hunk with huge shoulders or the naive boy-man who stars alongside John Wayne in True Grit. Glen Campbell wasn't made for growing old.
Malibu, California. The road winds round the hills until I reach a private estate. I am buzzed through the intercom and welcomed in warmly by a huddle of people and a couple of large dogs. After a few minutes a big, strong elderly man in shorts and T-shirt enters the room, doing a brilliant Donald Duck impression. He smiles, grabs my hand, says, "Well howdyado?" and makes good eye contact. "Well howdyalikeitoverhere?"
It's strange talking a man who is drifting in and out of the present. I'm waiting for his wife Kim to arrive – it feels wrong to start the interview before she does. We try to talk about the new album, which really is rather wonderful. "Well, thank you," he says. "Now, what album are we talking about?" I tell him it's called Ghost On The Canvas, and that he has said it's going to be his final record. "Well, I dunno about that," he says. "If I ran into five or six good songs, I would make another. Yeah, I'm sure I will. I dunno. Let me see how old I am now? I'm 75. Yeah, yeah, 75."
Before his successful solo career he was a member of the Wrecking Crew, a group of musicians that worked on numerous classic songs including You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin', Strangers In the Night and Viva Las Vegas. It was in the 1960s and 1970s that Campbell enjoyed his greatest success with songs such as Galveston, Gentle On My Mind, Wichita Lineman and Rhinestone Cowboy. And he did look like an all-American cowboy – blond as the sun, solid as a bale of hay, simple values. Classic beefcake. (In True Grit his character is called La Boeuf). Yet he was a supremely subtle, and surprisingly mournful, interpreter of songs, especially those by Jimmy Webb. In Wichita Lineman, which contains my favourite ever lyric ("And I need you more than want you/ And I want you for all time"), Campbell brings an incredible melancholy to the story of the lineman hearing the ghost of his absent girlfriend in the wires he's working on.
Campbell was one of 12 children born to a sharecropper father in Pike County, Arkansas. His Uncle Boo taught him guitar and at 16, he left for Albuquerque, New Mexico. Five years later he moved to Los Angeles as a session musician. He worked hard, lived hard, loved hard. By the time he married Kim in 1981 he'd been through three wives. They met on a blind date. She was a young dancer with the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes, he was a wreck. He had just come out of a tempestuous relationship with country singer Tanya Tucker, who claimed he had knocked her teeth out, an allegation he denied.
"JJ get outta here," says Kim, who has just joined us. She shoos the alsatian away. "Dog get outside. He's just a big old baby. Get outtahere dog."
She hands her husband the lyrics to A Better Place as a reminder. He looks at them and starts singing, falteringly at first, as he searches for the tune. "I've tried and I have failed, Lord." He slurps his cranberry juice through a straw with relish. "Yeah, that's a good one…" He's more relaxed with Kim by his side, but is still trying to make sense of why I'm here. Where did the album title come from? "I dunno. They just said that's OK." His voice is slurred, drunk-sounding, though he's been off the booze for an age. "They just said, 'Are you gonna put something on an album or'… what d'you call this thing here?" He looks at the CD cover and then to Kim for guidance.
Kim: "A CD."
"A CD, yes. It's cool."
Kim calls over to their daughter Ashley, who's in the kitchen. "Ash, do we have coffee over there for Daddy?" She talks about the personal nature of the album. "The songs reflect what he's been going through the last few years and the way he's felt."
Campbell mumbles incoherently as she talks. "I've always been very blessed. Well, not at first… I'm not going to do another song I don't like."
Kim gestures urgently to Ashley. "Coffee!"
Campbell sees this scene playing out in front of him.
"What what what?" he says in his Donald Duck voice.
Kim, by now frustrated and amused, shouts. "Ashley, get Dad a cup of coffee! Gosh. He's been playing golf and had a sleep, and he woke up right before you got here, and I feel like he needs a cup of coffee."
Campbell loves his golf. I mention Irishman Rory McIlroy recently winning the US Open, and he smiles. "Isn't that great?" he says. "That knocks me out, man. I'm Irish, too, you know. They really can play some golf."
I ask him what his handicap is. "I'm a white protestant – That's my handicap. I'm an eight handicap, it's OK…" The coffee is working. There are flashes of the old Campbell – jokes, anecdotes, rightwing one-liners, still there as reflex responses.
In their heyday, Campbell, Ronald Reagan and Charlton Heston – three proud Republicans – were close friends. Like Campbell, the other two were also diagnosed with Alzheimer's, but by the time the world knew about it they had quietly disappeared from public life. Kim says this is one reason why the family felt it was important to make the announcement – so he can live as normally as possible without having to feel shame.
We talk about the past, and soon it starts rushing back. The times he played with Elvis and Sinatra, and stood in for Brian Wilson in the Beach Boys. "I was a studio player in a group called…" He looks at Kim. "What were they called?
Kim: "The Wrecking Crew"
Campbell smiles affectionately. "Ah, the Wrecking Crew! They played on everything that came out of LA. Oh that was a good band. You really enjoyed going to work. You played for everyone, it didn't matter what it was. Pop, rock, crock…" Crock? "Country rock! What was his name? With the Beach Boys." Brian Wilson? "Brian went off and put his feet in the sand and wrote the Pet Sounds album, and what was I going to say? Ah! Forgot it. Oh, yes. I played the bass. Oh, that was hard. I had to do the high parts, too. Like patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time."
If there was one person from the old days who could join him on this tour, who would it be? "Oh Elvis. Course," he says instantly. "When we played at the Hilton hotel in Vegas, he would go in for a month, and I'd go in for a month. Then we'd switch. Elvis had more charisma in his little finger than everybody else put together. What d'you call it? Electricity. And he was a handsome guy." Didn't you used to do Elvis impressions on stage? "Yeah. Hehehehe!"
Kim: "Elvis came to see him one night, and he said something like, 'You better stop doing me, Campbell, otherwise I'm going to come and read the newspaper in the front row.' And you said, 'If I'm gonna keep doin' you I'm gonna have to gain some weight.'"
Campbell looks mortified at the memory. "I got booed. I wanted to bite my tongue after I said that."
We are sitting in a large sunlit villa looking over the Malibu hills and surrounded by memorabilia from Campbell's career. There are trophy cabinets and rooms full of photographs of Campbell with Elvis, Dean Martin, Ray Charles and Sammy Davis Jr and everybody who was everybody – permanent reminders of who he was. Huge leather-bound Bibles, far too heavy to pick up, lie on tables. Kim was brought up in the Methodist Presbyterian church, he in the Church of Christ, Baptist, but early into their marriage they joined a Messianic synagogue that follows the Old Testament but believes Jesus is the Messiah. The Campbells eat kosher and celebrate Jewish festivals. On Friday nights, Campbell blesses the bread and wine.
Kim: "Glen sings the prayers. Go on, sing a prayer. Barukh attah adonai…"
Campbell starts to sing quietly. "Barukh attah adonai eloheynu melekh haolom hammotsi lechem min haarets."
Has religion changed him? "Well, his relationship with God, whether it was going to the Baptist church or Messianic synagogue has definitely straightened him up," Kim says.
How important has God been in his life? "God saved me. I drowned once," Campbell says. I think he means metaphorically. But he tells me he was two years old, walked into a river and was saved by his brother who had just learned CPR.
Ashley, at 24, the youngest of his children, says he's great with ancient memories, it's the short-term stuff that's the problem. I find her in a side room, lined with acoustic guitars like a rifle range. "Wondering where the bathroom is in your own house, for example. He was aware he couldn't remember things and it was very frustrating for him. But he seems to be doing a lot better since getting a new treatment. He was having a lot of anxiety. We have to be around him more. Sometimes he'll go look for the grocery store, and that's very scary for us because that's a dangerous road."
When did she realise he had problems? "It started very subtly back when I was in high school, like he'd ask the same question twice, and it got worse and worse. When the diagnosis came it hit me hard – it's not just he's getting older."
Has it changed her relationship with him? "It's made me appreciate him a lot more, and the time I have left with him. It's made me want to spend more time with him and ask him about his life. Get to know him as a person as opposed to him as my dad. My favourite question is, 'How are you doing right now, are you happy?' And that usually gets him going. 'Ah, I've been a little tired lately'…" Then I'll ask him about the Wrecking Crew. He loves talking about the Wrecking Crew."
Ashley graduated in drama and has played banjo with her father's band for the past two years. She says she's been watching his old TV show, The Good Time Hour. "Seeing that side, when he was completely on top of things, and the best guitar player there was, it makes me so proud to be playing with him now."
What's his guitar playing like now? "It's interesting because with the disease he'll sometimes mess it up, but he never forgets how to solo. His old colleagues used to call it Campbelling. Sometimes he does long solos on Wichita Lineman or Galveston. And when he does something different now, it makes me excited; it makes me so happy when he's on stage and just kills it."
The biggest change in their relationship is probably professionally, she says. (All three children from his marriage to Kim are in the band). While he's still obviously the star, she finds herself caring for him, even mothering him. "When I'm on stage I don't just play out to the audience and smile, I'm watching him all the time. If he decides to go somewhere else with a song we have to be right there to go with him. And if he doesn't know the song I'll be like, 'Hey, Dad, this is Galveston."
Does she worry that people might feel the family is exploiting him – a concern Kim has expressed. She looks shocked. "No. He still brings joy to people's hearts. Sure it would be exploitation if he was really far on. Dance, monkey, dance, that's not right. But it's not like that at all."
Back in the main room, Kim tells me about when she and Campbell got together. "On our first date he took me to a restaurant at the Waldorf and before we ate he bowed his head and said a prayer and I thought, 'Oh good, he believes in God. Of course, as the night went on I also found out he had an alcohol problem. But he's always been such a great person; so generous, so sweet and loving and kind. It was just the alcohol that turned him into a monster."
A monster? "Yes. He was obnoxious."
Kim: "He was. He was mean. It wasn't the Glen I knew him to be. So we got involved in the church and started studying the Bible together and got some godly friends around who encouraged you. We started surrounding ourselves with family. His brother came to live with us and Shorty said, 'Glen, I don't want you to end up like Elvis, you really need to stop drinking.' Gene Autry called him and said, 'The booze is no good, Glen.' So a lot of people who loved him encouraged him."
She pauses. "He would fall down drunk five nights a week. Just pass out. I would never advise anybody to do what I did; go into a relationship knowing that someone is so messed up."
He was also addicted to cocaine at the time. "It's the devil, he wants you man!" Campbell says. But he ain't having you? "No! Campbell will go out there and kick him."
Did Kim ever think he was too big a challenge? "Yes, I thought, 'I can't take it any more.' We had tiny children, and I thought, 'I'm not going to expose my children to some drunkard coming home and being mean to me, you know, I'm not going to do it,' so I put my foot down." She slaps her hand on the table.
Did she give him an ultimatum?
Campbell: "Oh, yes."
Kim: "I gave him an ultimatum on the drugs, coz right after we got married he stayed out all night with a very famous rock group." Which one? "My favourite band of all time, Fleetwood Mac." Wasn't he given a special pass because it was Fleetwood Mac? She laughs. "I know. How could I be angry with him when they were my favourite band? But he came back and I said, 'I'm not going to be married to someone who does that.' He got teary-eyed and said, 'I make one mistake and you're going to leave me?' And that was it; that was the last time."
Well, not quite the last time. At least, not as far as the drink was concerned. "We've had a relapse or two," Kim says. In 2003 he was stopped for drink-driving after a hit-and-run incident. He told the officer who arrested him he wasn't drunk, he'd simply been over-served, before kneeing him in the thigh. "God allowed him to get caught and to get caught good," Kim says.
Does he remember that relapse?
Kim reminds him: "Hit and run. You got arrested. Kicked the police officer."
Campbell: "Oh, did I?"
Kim: "And they put you in jail."
Campbell: "That's right! They did."
Kim: "Then you had to serve 10 days in jail. I have the pink underwear upstairs to prove it. Sheriff Joe Arpaeo from Phoenix, Arizona is famous for making all the inmates wear pink underwear and I have a pair signed by the sheriff. Glen straightened up after that."
Campbell: "Yep. I finally got broke from sucking eggs, as they say."
Does Ashley remember her father's drunken years? "Mmm… yeah I remember him a couple of times. When he had that incident. He's not a very pleasant person when he's drinking." What's he like? "Just angry and annoys people and lies to make himself look good. 'Are you drinking?' 'No, course not.' 'What's in the Coke can?' 'Coke.' But he's totally past that now." Was he violent? "Never violent towards anyone. Just maybe furniture. "
Julian Raymond, the producer of Ghost On The Canvas, arrives. He and Campbell share song-writing credits on five songs on the album. How did the collaboration work? "We'd talk about stuff; things that were going on in his life, things that happened, and I'd nurse them into stories he could feel good about," Raymond says. "The classic one to me was we were hanging out in the kitchen, Kim was there, and he was talking about some of the more traumatic times in his life and he said, 'Look, there's no me without her.' So we changed it to 'There's no me without you'. It's about their relationship – he really wasn't expecting her to come along in his life. I'd keep a journal and we'd talk about the struggles of him being confused."
Although Campbell had not been diagnosed when they made the album, there were symptoms. But Raymond says once they were working it was almost like the old Campbell. That guy's never in the studio for more than 60 minutes. Never. On the way into the studio, he'd learn the song and have it by the time he got there. He might forget who he met five minutes ago, but he remembers lyrics and melodies really well."
As we chat, Campbell sits contentedly singing to himself, half listening. I ask him if he is worried about touring because of the Alzheimer's.
"Where did that come up? That Alzheimer," he says.
"You were diagnosed with Alzheimer's," Kim says gently.
Campbell: "Oh, I was? Well. No, no I don't worry."
What does Kim think touring does for him? "It inspires him and fills his life full of meaning, and it's who he is, it's what he's always done, and it keeps his mind fresh and it keeps him levelled out. It makes him happy."
Campbell: "What is Alzheimer? Forgetful."
Campbell: "Well, I definitely got that…"
Kim: "I noticed the difference at the last show since we announced it. They just gave him so much love after each song. It made all of us feel so good."
Was it a big decision to go public about the Alzheimer's? "Well, it was becoming obvious on stage," Kim says. "He always delivered flawless performances, and now he will flub a lyric here and there. He's always been totally open and honest about his life, and it felt like the natural thing for us to do; let everybody know."
Ashley found it distressing when they were gigging and nobody knew what was wrong. "When he messed up, people were coming up to me after shows and saying, 'Is your dad drunk or is he using again?' It upset me. Now this is out they're just going to be supporting and loving him rather than being angry that they paid to see him."
Is it important to help people understand the illness? "I think so. It's important because he's not just going into hiding. He's out there, and saying, 'I'm still going to try to do what I do, and I'm not going to let this disease beat me just yet.' "
Kim is convinced there is a change in his brain when he performs. "It's like a light switches on. When he walks out on stage, it's just BING! Wow!"
Campbell has been singing along as we've been talking, but it turns out he's been listening more closely than it seems. "You love music," he says. "You feel good. I get a kick out of it. Like the old Floyd Tillman song goes, 'I love you so much it hurts me, darling, that's why I'm so blue.' It's all I ever wanted – to play and sing." •
• Ghost On The Canvas is out on Monday on Surfdog Records. A UK tour starts in Salford, on 21 October; for tickets, go to flyingmusic.com