The musical world is used to tragic loss associated with the inherent instability associated with creative artistic life. The early deaths of John Lennon, Buddy Holly, Otis Redding, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, George Harrison, and Jim Croce among many others came suddenly and offered little time to absorb the effects of such loss on the musical universe. There is, however, another kind of tragic loss that is upon us, and this time we will have a significant amount of time to experience the dying of the light. Glen Campbell, a musical force for nearly 50 years, has announced that he has progressive Alzheimer’s disease. A we have come to experience with other public figures such as former President Reagan and actor Charlton Heston, Glen Campbell will slowly be taken from us, and we from him, until neither is recognizable, and the greatness of this most musical of talents will be just a ghostly shadow long before he leaves this “mortal coil”.
Glen Campbell’s greatness may be somewhat under appreciated by the general musical public, but certainly not by music lovers or playing professionals. Glen has such talent that no single venue has ever seemed to fully represent his abilities, and the breadth of his creative expressions truly awesome. Glen Campbell was the ultimate session musician when performers often relied on such musicians to maximize their sound. His guitar prowess was legendary from the moment this Arkansan came to Los Angeles to make his mark. He brought virtuoso performance to instrumental albums, and was a critical part of the special sound that was Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound and the the Beach Boys at the height of their popularity. Then a sideline talent was identified, Glen’s ability to sing, and suddenly the studio artist became a mega star in the late 1960’s with such songs as Gentle on My Mind, Wichita Lineman, and By The Time I Get To Phoenix. Suddenly, Glen was an extremely hot entertainment act, and nothing seemed beyond his reach. He brought country music to prominence as a leading TV star on the Glen Campbell Goodtime Show, and a movie star with his role opposite John Wayne in True Grit. He showed himself to be the best musical interpreter of America’s best songwriter of the time, Jimmy Webb, and a recording star fully versatile in country music, pop, and gospel. Everybody wanted to sing duets with Glen, and everybody lived in awe of his guitar virtuosity. Through 1980, there was no entertainment venue that Glen Campbell was not a dominant contributor.
Like all supernovas, the brilliant light that had shone on Glen Campbell’s career for 20 years, was dimmed by personal demons. In the case of Campbell, the demon was the old standby alcohol, which warped the family life and relationships of this religious man, skewered his choice of songs and musical opportunities, and brought his run of number #1 hits to an end. Through all the dark years and personal struggles, his spectacular musical talent remained recognizable whenever he was asked to pick up his guitar and play. Cleaned up and sober, Glen Campbell over the last 15 years experienced a reunion with his audience and a renaissance with his performing career.
Now he faces the most difficult of times when the skills and talent he has taken for granted will slowly crumble like the monuments to greatness of past civilizations. He will likely leave us with a few more gems, but the body of work he has already created is vast and available for all to see on the Internet. The sadness we will feel as he drifts away from us towards the setting sun, will be balanced by the remarkable bright light of every musical moment he has given us to savor. Whether it is the young baby faced version, or the later chastened more introspective one, Glen Campbell is a unique reflection of how deep talent goes, and how wonderful it glows, in those who truly have The Gift.