Chang­ing the con­ver­sa­tion

Glen Camp­bell’s bat­tle with Alzheimer’s added heroic coda to a pop-coun­try star’s life.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Music - By RANDY LEWIS

I WIT­NESSED up close the rav­aging ef­fect that Alzheimer’s dis­ease was hav­ing on Glen Camp­bell in the later years of his life. This was in 2011, when I in­ter­viewed him at his Mal­ibu home shortly af­ter he’d gone pub­lic with his di­ag­no­sis.

At that point, although his short­term mem­ory was fail­ing rapidly, he was in fairly good spir­its, and his sense of hu­mour was fully in­tact.

But even lit­tle points he wanted to make turned into a strug­gle. His brain was no longer re­spond­ing with the kind of dex­ter­ity that his fin­gers and voice had done in mak­ing him a bona fide pop-coun­try star in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.

Camp­bell, whose death at 81 was an­nounced Tues­day, rode a long string of pop hits that be­gan in 1967 with Jimmy Webb’s By The Time I Get To Phoenix and con­tin­ued with John Hart­ford’s Gen­tle On My Mind, as well as more Webb songs (Wi­chita Line­man, Galve­ston), all of which led to his break­out suc­cess as the host of The Glen Camp­bell Good­time Hour.

Yet that day, when I asked how he per­ceived the ef­fect of this per­ni­cious dis­ease, his re­sponse shifted from as­tutely an­a­lyt­i­cal to frus­trat­ingly for­get­ful.

“I’m fine,” he said at first, as we sat at the counter in his kitchen, his wife, Kim, seated near him. “It’s just some days are bet­ter than other ones.”

A mo­ment later, he added, “It hasn’t af­fected me in any way. In fact, I don’t even know what it is. Who came up with that?”

When Kim re­minded him – “Your doc­tor,” she said – he shot back, “Well, he’s prob­a­bly wrong.”

In other sit­u­a­tions he liked to quip, “I don’t have Alzheimer’s. I have part-timer’s.”

In fact, Camp­bell had been ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the on­set of de­men­tia or Alzheimer’s for years be­fore he and Kim chose to let the world in on the news.

At that time, they said they wanted fans to know what he was up against, be­cause he wished to con­tinue per­form­ing as long as he could, but didn’t want peo­ple think­ing he’d re­lapsed on his so­bri­ety if he for­got lyrics or re­peated a joke he’d told a few min­utes ear­lier.

That revelation made me re­think another in­ter­view I’d done with him a few years ear­lier. This one I cited for years as one of the most dis­ap­point­ing of my ca­reer.

Then, Camp­bell had re­leased 2008’s Meet Glen Camp­bell ,an ex­cel­lent al­bum in which he ap­plied his en­dear­ing boy-nextdoor tenor and phe­nom­e­nal gui­tar tech­nique to a batch of re­cent-vin­tage songs by artistes such as Tom Petty, Green Day, Vel­vet Un­der­ground, U2, the Re­place­ments and other left-field (for him) sources.

I’d got­ten lit­tle other than “yes,” “no” and “I don’t re­mem­ber/I’m not sure” re­sponses from him. I left the in­ter­view won­der­ing why he’d even both­ered, since he seemed more fo­cused on get­ting to the round of golf he said was await­ing him.

In ret­ro­spect, I could un­der­stand that he was al­ready im­paired to an ex­tent. But no one knew that yet – not even him.

In the 2014 doc­u­men­tary Glen Camp­bell: I’ll Be Me, di­rected by ac­tor-film­maker James Keach, there’s a scene where Camp­bell and his wife travel to Wash­ing­ton, DC, to lobby on be­half of greater fed­eral sup­port for in­creased Alzheimer’s re­search fund­ing. The dis­ease fig­ures to af­fect mil­lions more as the baby boomers move into what are sup­posed to be “the golden years.”

In an in­ter­view with former Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton – one of Camp­bell’s fel­low Arkansans – he sug­gested that de­spite the mil­lions of records Camp­bell had sold and all the fans he’d en­ter­tained over half a cen­tury, his great­est legacy might turn out to be his ad­vo­cacy for those with Alzheimer’s. Clin­ton praised the singer and gui­tarist for us­ing his own dif­fi­cult ex­pe­ri­ence to put a pub­lic face on the cru­elly de­gen­er­a­tive dis­ease.

A big part of what made Camp­bell’s jour­ney so un­usu­ally com­pelling is the way that mu­sic al­lowed him to stave off some of the worst ef­fects of Alzheimer’s much longer than many.

That’s be­cause it’s said that mu­sic re­sides in a part of the brain that the dis­ease doesn’t fully in­vade un­til its fi­nal stages. Thus, even when he was for­get­ting the names of his chil­dren, or lit­tle de­tails like what he ate for break­fast, he could still sum­mon lyrics to songs he’d sung hun­dreds of times over the decades.

Even more im­pres­sively, with ap­par­ent ef­fort­less­ness he could still spin out mag­nif­i­cently com­plex gui­tar so­los re­quir­ing highly in­tri­cate brain-muscle-nerve com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

That el­e­ment of his 2012-13 Good­bye Tour was re­as­sur­ing to fans who re­mem­ber the sig­na­ture gui­tar style that he honed to per­fec­tion as a stu­dio pro­fes­sional work­ing in Los An­ge­les in the 1960s with other ses­sion pros who came to be known as the Wreck­ing Crew.

His chis­elled good looks and down-home Arkansas hu­mour al­lowed him to emerge from the rel­a­tive anonymity of stu­dio work to be­come a TV and record­ing star through his CBS mu­si­cal va­ri­ety show The Glen Camp­bell Good­time Hour, and a long string of pop-coun­try hits such as Gen­tle On My Mind, ByTheTimeIGetTo Phoenix, Wi­chita Line­man, Rhine­stone Cow­boy and South­ern Nights.

Through­out his ca­reer, like so many celebri­ties, he also bat­tled sub­stance abuse and found him­self more fre­quently on the cover of su­per­mar­ket tabloids than Bill­board or Rolling Stone in the 1980s and 1990s.

But fol­low­ing a hu­mil­i­at­ing ar­rest for “ex­treme drunken driv­ing” in Ari­zona in 2004, he got sober and re­turned to record­ing, de­liv­er­ing some of his best work since the 1960s and 1970s, be­gin­ning with Meet Glen Camp­bell with pro­ducer Ju­lian Ray­mond, who also shep­herded Ghost On The Can­vas and col­lab­o­rated on writ­ing songs that ad­dressed what Camp­bell was go­ing through phys­i­cally, men­tally and emo­tion­ally.

The poignancy of his slide into Alzheimer’s cer­tainly fig­ured into sev­eral in­dus­try nom­i­na­tions and awards he re­ceived for his 2011 al­bum Ghost On The Can­vas and for Keach’s doc­u­men­tary, which gen­er­ated an Academy Award nom­i­na­tion for the song I’m Not Gonna Miss You.

In that num­ber, he sang, “I’m never gonna hold you like I did/Or say ‘I love you’ to the kids/You’re never gonna see it in my eyes/It’s not gonna hurt me when you cry.” El­ton John called it “not only the best song nom­i­nated; it’s one of the most beau­ti­ful songs of all time.”

When I spoke to Keach about work­ing with Camp­bell on the project, a work that didn’t flinch from shar­ing what he was like on some of his bad days, he spoke in ad­mi­ra­tion of the singer’s brav­ery in let­ting oth­ers in on what he and his fam­ily were go­ing through.

“Here’s a guy, an iconic mu­si­cian, who was faced with hav­ing to hang up his gui­tar, his ca­reer is over,” Keach told me. “But in­stead, he says, ‘I ain’t done yet. I’m go­ing out to show what this dis­ease is’ be­cause he wants to change the con­ver­sa­tion. He writes the song with Ju­lian, records it, some­times a line at a time, some­times a word at a time, and he wins a Grammy and gets nom­i­nated for an Os­car.

“If that ain’t a hero,” Keach said. “I don’t know what is.”

Glen Camp­bell, we’re all gonna miss you. – Los An­ge­les Times/ Tri­bune News Ser­vice

Glen Camp­bell (1936-2017)

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