During my interview with Glen Campbell at his family home in Malibu back in 2012, he couldn’t remember his wife’s birthday. That might be fairly normal for some but minutes later, he couldn’t remember his wife’s name. That was when I knew that this legend of music really was in the grips of Alzheimer’s disease.
Former US President Ronald Reagan chose to keep his Alzheimer’s a secret but Glen Campbell bravely didn’t and when I asked him why he’d gone public about his debilitating disease he simply said ‘I’m sick of lying, why not tell the truth? The truth never lies’.
Glen Campbell was a lovely bloke. Warm, funny, charming, and busting an absolute gut to appear normal in front of the cameras. But his wife of 30 years, the beautiful Kimberley knew otherwise. I interviewed them both together and she sat and prompted him when he struggled for the words that he was so used to using and simply weren’t there anymore.
We talked openly about his addiction to alcohol and cocaine during the dizzying heights of his career. We talked about playing the same club as Elvis in Las Vegas all those years ago. “Elvis had more charm in his little finger than anyone I know”. We talked about what makes a great song and he told me the songs written in the first person worked best. Words like ‘I’ and ‘me’ worked because they were sung from the heart in deeply personal songs that were about the singer, the story teller, and not about someone else.
Glen Campbell grew up in outback Arkansas on a share farm as the 7th of 12 children. They were dirt poor but as soon as Glen could talk, he was singing. The family would invite friends over for Sunday singalongs and Uncle Boo taught his young nephew to play the guitar. Pretty soon he was off to Los Angeles where he’d become a session musician for the likes of Bobby Darin, Nancy Sinatra, Elvis Presley, The Monkees and Frank Sinatra. He wasn’t just an incredible singer, he was an incredible musician with so many songs in his catalogue after playing with those giants of the music business who demanded excellence and with Glen Travis Campbell they got it and then some.
Next was a solo career and those incredible songs like ‘Witchita Lineman’, ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and ‘Galveston’. Even today I’ll listen to them and marvel at his voice that was so near to perfect. We of course know that Glen wasn’t perfect. Kimberley was his fourth wife and when they met on a blind date way back in 1981 she gave him an ultimatum. Me or the booze and luckily for us he chose Kimberley whose devotion and love for him was a joy to watch during those precious moments during our interview when Glen would struggle and fight and will his brain to remember.
If Glen couldn’t remember the words to songs, he could definitely remember the chords and notes on his guitar. We were lucky enough to witness one of his very last concerts in the northern Californian town of Stockton. With him on stage were three of his talented children including Ashley who helped her Dad with the lyrics every now and then. He also had a teleprompter which he often referred to but the raw talent of this man was expressed through that guitar. He didn’t miss a beat as his fingers raced up and down the neck, his bottom lip jutting out in deep concentration as though he was playing along with the Beach Boys all those years ago. His guitar playing was perfection and it was a joy to watch but to see Glen in his element on stage playing for his fans, well, his face said it all. Content, happy and for the moment, remembering.
After my time with Glen, he had to cancel his Australian tour. It was devastating news for his Australian fans who’d never see Glen Campbell again. I really hoped I’d see him again when he came out because I genuinely liked him. Glen was so honest and giving of his time in what must’ve been such a difficult time for him and his family. Walking through the pool room at his home in Malibu he pointed to those famous faces lining the walls sometimes with clarity, sometimes not. He knew who Elvis Presley was but didn’t know that thing in the middle of the room was called a pool table. Such is the tragedy of this disease that chooses anyone it wants to, regardless of their talents or their wealth or their goodness.
So, farewell Glen Campbell. It’s hard to believe so much talent existed in one man but he harnessed it and used it and gave us songs like ‘Rhinestone Cowboy’ that has been in my head almost every minute since I heard of his passing. He might no longer be with us, but luckily his music is and just like I have done so many times before, I’ll have ‘Witchita Lineman’ on loop for the next week at least. Music was everything to Glen Campbell and it kept him going during those last painful years we had him and I’m just so incredibly lucky to have met him, talked to him and listened to him before the end. We’ve lost a legend and the mourning is just beginning but the next time you hear one of those raw grammy-award winning songs, turn it up, loud, so he can hear it.