Glen Campbell was an icon, at one point in my life. The singer/musician, who recently passed away at 81, after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease, was a memorable presence to many in the late ‘60’s through the early ‘70’s, with television, and movie appearances, and his popular “Good Time Hour” variety show on CBS. It was through his television show that I got hip to Glen’s musicianship. No, actually, I saw him appear on the Smothers Brothers variety show a couple of times (that show was extremely controversial for it’s topical humor at the time – I had to sneak some viewings around my aunt’s protestations, big stuff for a 10 year old). But witnessing Glen sing and play guitar was like going to church – music church for me. At the apex of his career, Glen was a pretty big deal.
As I’ve stated before in this column, I was living at the time with my aunt, and her brothers, on the family farm north of Des Moines. Watching Glen’s variety show became a ritual for my aunt and I. Looking back, we were like refugees, from the strains and pressures of our life at the time – she, a divorced mother of three, whose daughters were already married, or preparing to get married, and myself, dealing with the death of my mother a few years earlier, and just working out issues of being with being a kid. So we were buddies, huddled together against the pangs of life at the time, and watching Glen Campbell’s television show was our little escape. Aunt Boots had a crush on Glen, always called him ‘Gleny’. “Hey Mick, Gleny’s on in five minutes. Come sit down,” Aunt Boots would say to me, and thus one of our shields against the world’s ills would appear, Wednesday nights at 7 p.m. or 8 p.m., I believe. Compared to the Smothers Brothers show, the sketch humor was toned down quite a bit, but it didn’t matter to me – just seeing Glen rip cascades of notes on the guitar really started to reinforce that I needed to take up playing the guitar again.
It was also through Glen that I found out about the amazing songwriter Jimmy Webb. Jimmy was a kid from Elk City, Oklahoma, just trying to pitch his songs to whomever would listen back in the 1960’s. Jimmy had a big hit when the Fifth Dimension recorded, and released his song “Up, Up, And Away”. But in my mind, Glen was the guy who took Jimmy’s song’s into the stratosphere. “By The Time I Get To Phoenix”, “Galveston”, and “Wichita Lineman” were the home run kings, huge hits for Glen and Jimmy. To me, “Wichita Lineman” was the most fully realized of those songs. Unconventional in chord structure, with a handful of lyrics, and a classic melody, “Wichita Lineman” tells a story of longing, heartbreak, devotion, and dedication to purpose, all within three minutes. Glen’s interpretation of the song, his delivery, was spot-on. Plus, the arrangement was brilliant – strings in the background, baritone guitar solo tag at the end. Every time I heard the tune, I could see that the lineman, sitting with a cup of coffee, thinking about being tied to his job but longing for a love, someone to take him away from the daily struggles in life, but he can’t go there because he is committed to his sense of purpose. Pop music, at the time, wasn’t like this stuff – comparatively, the Archies were about as deep as a Filet O’ Fish sandwich.
You boomers, unknowingly, probably heard Glen on countless hits in the 1960’s – Glen was part of the infamous “Wrecking Crew” in Los Angeles, the group of studio musicians that were the guns-for-hire, to assure that every song on the radio had a groove, and made money for all parties involved. Carole King, Tommy Tedesco, Hal Blaine, just a few of the brilliant musicians that made the multitude of hits we used to enjoy back in the day, hit it on the one, and deliver the goods. The Beach Boys Brian Wilson loved Glen’s musicianship and singing so much, that he hired him to tour with the Beach Boys. But Glen was destined for bigger things, such as Grammy awards, a hit television show, and hit records.
Stars that burn brightly, also burn the shortest, and by the time the late 1970’s hit, Glen’s demons got the best of him. Alcoholism, cocaine addiction, marriages and divorces all took their toll in Glen’s life, and he became somewhat of a parody, leading up to that sad image of him in a photo taken after a drunk driving arrest back in the mid-2000’s. The announcement that he had Alzheimer’s disease back in 2011 drove everything home, but Glen was determined to go out swinging. Aided by his musical family working in his backup band, Glen had a farewell tour that lasted for years, and when the times would come up when he would forget lyrics or songs, his family, and the audience, was there to help him. Admitted, I had moved on to other music by 1972, when Glen’s show went off the air – rock, punk, blues, jazz, and soul had already creep into my cassette and record collection, and Glen was kind of like my dad’s music at that point. I still loved it, but not really a meaningful thing. Hindsight is a funny thing, isn’t it? Now, I’ll occasionally sing, and play “Wichita Lineman” on our band gigs, but I think I’ve got a strong hankering to pull that song out more. I know I can’t perform it as well as my old idol, but it will be the least I can do. Farewell Glen, and thanks for the inspiration.