The Rhinestone Cowboy has gone on to greener pastures after a brave battle with Alzheimer's.
Any tribute to Glen Campbell must admiringly observe — as a celebration of his life, not a mourning for his death — that the country music superstar spent many of his final days embodying the words of poet Dylan Thomas: “Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
Of course, it might seem a bit odd to think of Campbell — who passed away Tuesday in Nashville at age 81 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s — as excessively angry or even less than exuberant. So many of his recordings, including “Southern Nights,” “Gentle on My Mind” and “Rhinestone Cowboy,” are uncommonly spirit-lifting. Indeed, when he hosted his own CBS variety show in the late 1960s and early ’70s, it was called, appropriately enough, The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour.
(Campbell had already more or less “auditioned” for the role of variety show emcee in 1968, when he hosted a summer replacement for the then-popular Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. When CBS canceled the latter program, largely because of its increasing emphasis on pointed political satire, Campbell was brought back to attract audiences with a decidedly less controversial entertainment package.)
But when Campbell was given the medical equivalent of a death sentence seven years ago, he clearly took to heart Thomas’ admonition to defy mortality. As we noted in our coverage of Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me, James Keach’s extraordinary 2014 documentary about the country star’s final opportunity to shine: “Many celebrities — maybe most celebrities — would reflexively draw away from the public eye, to avoid public scrutiny and personal embarrassment, after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Not Glen Campbell.”
In June 2011, two months after his 75th birthday, Campbell revealed to the world that he had the terrible and terrifying disease that gradually, relentlessly, decimates the memory. At the same time, however, he announced plans for a series of farewell concerts. Later that fall, Campbell began what was originally scheduled to be a five-week tour — a tour that eventually extended to 151 shows over 15 months. Kimberly Campbell, the singer’s wife, accompanied her husband on the tour, and three of his children — Ashley, Shannon, and Cal — performed in his backup band. Some performances went surprisingly smoothly. Others didn’t. “It was almost like a game of roulette,” Ashley Campbell told The New York Times. “You’d have a great show and then a difficult show, and you’d start to wonder, ‘Oh no, is this getting towards the end?’”
Still, Campbell, and his family, pressed on. He gave his last performance on November 30, 2012, in Napa, California. After completion of the tour, he recorded Adiós, his 64th and final studio album (which was released earlier this year.) By spring 2014, however, he had moved into a longterm care and treatment center near Nashville. But not before he managed to transcend his affliction, for a longer stretch than anyone had any right to expect, while continuing to do what he did best and loved most.
“Glen Campbell was among the greats in country music” veteran CBS newsman and country music aficionado Bob Schieffer told Cowboys & Indians Tuesday, “but I’ll remember him as well for the courage he showed in fighting Alzheimer's disease. He fought it to the very end and still managed to make the music we loved him for.”
As news circulated Tuesday about Campbell’s death, longtime friends, fellow country artists, and notables from other fields offered tributes in tweets and prepared statements.
Bluegrass great Ricky Skaggs spoke for many fans and admirers: “One of the greatest musicians, singers, entertainers, and beautiful human beings has left this life for the next life where no disease is allowed to enter, thank God! It takes a prepared person to go to a prepared place, and Glen was prepared. I knew him and loved him so much. My condolences to precious Kim and the family. Much love and prayers for you all.”
Charlie Daniels tweeted: “Thank you Glen Campbell for sharing your talent with us for so many years. May you rest in peace my friend. You will never be forgotten.” Actor Peter Fonda added: “RIP Glen Campbell ... still love the G C edition of the 12 string Ovation you gave me in ’73 ... I’ll play it tonight with love.”
"Glen was a good friend with a great sense of humor,” Ray Stevens recalled. “I remember once being backstage putting on a camel costume to go on and sing ‘Ahab the Arab’' and he showed up and said ‘Well, it's come to this has it?’ It’s been a long goodbye since his diagnosis with Alzheimer's disease. Glen Campbell will be greatly missed and long remembered.”
Lee Greenwood summed it up succinctly and sincerely: “There’s never been a better musician or a greater artist than Glen Campbell. I admired him and respected his talent.”
The son of an Arkansas sharecropper, Glen Campbell was part of many chart-topping hits long before he scored with “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “Galveston,” “Wichita Lineman” — arguably the greatest and certainly most affecting song he ever recorded — and “Sunflower.” He earned an enviable reputation early in his decades-long career as a guitar virtuoso, enabling him to join the ranks of The Wrecking Crew, a loose-knit group of largely unknown (except by industry insiders) session musicians, many of whom supplied the defining licks and backbeats — and, in some cases, actually played instruments for band members — on countless pop, rock and country recordings of the 1960s.
As he revealed during interviews for The Wrecking Crew, Denny Tedesco’s well-received 2015 documentary, Campbell played for everyone from Frank Sinatra to The Mamas and The Papas to The Beach Boys. Indeed, during a seven-month period between 1964 and ’65, Campbell was hired to replace Brian Wilson when The Beach Boys were touring. “It’s the hardest thing that I ever did live,” Campbell said while describing the double-barrel challenge of singing Wilson’s falsetto vocals and playing the basslines at the same time. “I thought was going to go nuts. It was fun, but boy, was it scary.”
(Tedesco conducted interviews for The Wrecking Crew over several years, and the film’s theatrical release was further delayed as he negotiated the rights for songs on the soundtrack. The footage of Campbell was shot long before his Alzheimer’s diagnosis. But there is a fleeting moment in the documentary when he pauses, visibly strains to remember a detail, and then casually admits: “I forgot what it was.” It’s now impossible to observe that brief hesitation without experiencing a momentary frisson.)
After establishing himself as a solo recording artist and TV personality, Campbell added more credits to his résumé by dabbling in acting. He appeared in only a handful of feature films and TV-movies, but earned at least a footnote in Hollywood history by playing cocksure Texas Ranger La Boeuf opposite John Wayne’s grizzled lawman Rooster Cogburn and Kim Darby’s resolute Mattie Ross in True Grit, the classic 1969 western based on the novel by Charles Portis. (One year later, Campbell reteamed with Darby — and costarred with another part-time actor, NFL great Joe Namath, in a somewhat less successful movie adaption of another Charles Portis novel, Norwood.)
“My involvement in True Grit aroused my curiosity more than any other aspect of my career,” Campbell related in Rhinestone Cowboy, his exceptionally candid 1994 memoir, “and most of it had to do with John Wayne. Duke had a mystique that intrigued me. He was the same offscreen as he was on. I’ve heard people say that Wayne didn’t act, but just got in front of the camera and played himself. It was hard to separate reality from fantasy when you were around him. Being in his presence was no different than being in a movie with him. After True Grit, I used to visit Duke in his home in Newport Beach, California. We’d sit in the living room having a drink, and it was as if cameras were rolling. I kept catching myself waiting for the director to holler, ‘Cut.’”
Near the end of his memoir — in which he frankly discussed his failures as a father and husband, detailed his struggles with drug and alcohol abuse, and credited his fourth wife, the former Kimberly Woolen, with more or less saving his life — Campbell sounded very much like a man who knew he had much for which to be grateful. And he was.
“I’ve been in the music business for so long that I can remember when it was more music than business. I’ve been prosperous for so long that the memories of poverty are less than vivid. I’ve been around the world as many times as most people have been out of state. I’ve been a lot of things to a lot of people — even when I was too little to myself.
“But I’ve never been happier than I am now. I feel and internal glow that glistens. It’s brighter than the glow of a rising — and recovering — rhinestone cowboy.”
And really: Isn’t that how you want to remember the unforgettable Glen Campbell?