Thursday 10 August 2017

RIP Glen Campbell, 22 April 1936 - 8 August 2017

Allen Ashley
Gone Glen by Allen Ashley   

 Why is it that the death of musicians – generally those not personally known to us – seems to hit us harder than, say, the death of novelists or painters or dancers? Maybe what Walter Pater said is correct: “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.” And perhaps this is because it remains true that music touches us on more levels than most other art forms; with perhaps the exception of its cousin poetry. Even the sad songs written in A minor or E minor that really ought to depress our lives instead stir us to feel a deep, individual connection with both the song and the singer.

Glen Campbell was, initially, a self-taught guitarist of astonishing virtuosity. As a member of the Los Angeles session band The Wrecking Crew, he played on loads of successful and significant records from the Phil Spector Wall of Sound – including “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” – as well as hits by Elvis, Sinatra, The Monkees and others. Possessed of a bell-clear voice, a mop of sandy hair and all-American boy good looks, as well as the ability to wear a brightly decorated rhinestone cowboy shirt like nobody else bar Gram Parsons, it was perhaps inevitable that he would eventually have a glittering solo career. He recorded all his great work for Capitol Records in the late sixties to mid-seventies and hit big with several songs including “Gentle on my Mind”, the semi-spoken “Honey Come Back” and the narrative paean “By The Time I Get To Phoenix”. This latter song, including cover versions, was named the third most performed song from the period between 1940 and 1990, by Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI). That’s a lot of leaving! 

For me growing up in the sixties and seventies, Glen Campbell was mum and dad music. I suppose I thought of him as a good old country boy who crossed over to the pop charts with easy listening ballads or story songs. I had much the same view of his predecessor in terms of bridging the country-pop gap, Johnny Cash. I was young, keen on music, but still with so much to learn. Campbell was the poor son of a sharecropper (British equivalent – tenant farmer in hock to the landlord); Cash and his family picked cotton. They both maintained the sheen of a uniquely American, almost mythic country background. Cash left us many years ago; although his and wife June’s song “Ring of Fire” gets played by the supporters’ band at every England football match. He’s got male appeal. Campbell, at least during his peak years, seemed softer. Until he hit the buffers with drink and drugs and divorce around the end of the seventies.
Campbell was old school, likely to politely address an interviewer as “Sir”. Sure, he was mates with John Wayne, a confirmed “born again” Christian and a lifelong Republican. Maybe he seems to be some distance from my beliefs and lifestyle. But the key factor in Campbell’s history is his association with songwriter Jimmy Webb. Webb gave him many of his biggest hits, including “Phoenix” and “Galveston”. This latter had an accompanying film promo (proto video) of an American serviceman doing what it says in the lyric, cleaning his gun and thinking of home. Campbell interpreted it as supportive of the troops in Vietnam; Webb was clear that it was an anti-war piece because the soldier is afraid of dying and should be back at home on the beach with his girlfriend. Ah, the gap betwixt cup and lip.
Jimmy Webb is the songwriters’ songwriter. In a catalogue that contains “MacArthur Park”, “Highwayman” and “P F Sloan”, one song – and one performance – stands head and shoulders above everything else. If Glen Campbell had never recorded anything else, he would be immortal for his reading of “Wichita Lineman”. This has to be firmly in the ten best pop songs of all-time. Legendary bassist Carol Kaye brings the song in and we are treated to lush strings that speak of the wide open prairie or semi-desert landscape, its arid featurelessness broken only by the telegraph poles bordering the highway. Glen Campbell inhabits our narrator, a lineman (which sounds much more romantic than Telecom engineer!) climbing these fake but vital trees and repairing any faults as part of his solitary existence. In the first verse we hear of his work, with intimations of the mystical (“I hear you singing in the wires”); in the second verse we enter his soul as he shares his loneliness and longing, conjuring his own thoughts or, in modern terms, spin upon the conversations passed along the wires. Is it his voice alone that speaks of love and loss or is he the vessel for all the heartache carried by the telegraph? The song contains some of the most achingly beautiful lyrics ever put to music, lines that make all of us say heck, I wish I’d written that:
“And I need you more than want you,
And I want you for all time.
And the Wichita lineman
Is still on the line.”

This song creates its own 3 minute universe, its own timeless infinity. It’s an epic performance that can never die.
In passing, one might note that when the Foo Fighters released their anthemic single “Everlong”, the heart of which deals with similar themes of love and longing, the picture sleeve was of a row of telegraph poles on the highway.
If Glen Campbell gets to his Christian heaven, I hope the angels serenade him with “Wichita Lineman”. Despite the Alzheimer’s that blighted his final years, overall one would have to say that he had a good and fulfilled life in many ways. But it is what he gave to our lives that is significant and for which we both celebrate and mourn him.

- Allen Ashley, London, 10 August 2017
Allen Ashley is a writer, poet, teacher and the lead singer of The False Dots. Guest blogs are always welcome at The Barnet Eye. Many thanks to Allen for writing this blog.

1 comment: