(Above: The picture sleeve for “Galveston” overseas)
When word of Glen Campbell’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis was made public in 2011, I knew that this day was coming. We’ve dealt with Alzheimer’s and a variety of forms of dementia in my family, and there’s no other way to put it: it’s a long, slow goodbye. Glen made the best of it, touring as long as he could, taking the opportunity to say the long, slow goodbye to as many of his fans as he could. Glen lost the fight today, passing away at the age of 81.
It’s easy to overlook Glen’s music today, but for much of the 1960s and the 1970s it was a mistake to do so. Glen started out as a studio musician, providing sounds (and receiving little if any credit) with bands like the Champs (after “Tequila” fame, but while the band was still active), the Hondells (“Little Honda“) , and Sagittarius (“My World Fell Down,” which is still a damned cool record. The Chicago Sun-Times used the sound effects break in commercials to sell papers in 1967). Most famously, Glen was a sometimes-member of the Beach Boys, playing on sessions and filling in on tour when Brian Wilson was famously unable to do so.
By 1967 Campbell began charting his own hits. The soft-country “Countrypolitan” style suited him well, and his pairing with songwriter Jimmy Webb yielded some memorable records as well – most notably “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” his first Top 40 effort’; “Wichita Lineman,” which made it to #3 in early 1969; and “Where’s the Playground, Susie?“, a heart-wrenching tale of lost love that like “Phoenix” stalled at #26. Songs like “Gentle On My Mind,” which should have been a much bigger hit than a #39 record, were being covered by Elvis. Ironically, his biggest hits – #1 crossover smashes “Rhinestone Cowboy” and “Southern Nights” – almost feel as if they were a bit of novelty when compared to the singing style of his 60s pop hits.
And then there’s “Galveston.” I mentioned in my post about my last day on the radio that this was one of the songs I made sure to play in that shift. It’s one of those songs that induces chills every time I hear it, and not just from that awesomely-performed bass line that producer Al DeLory made the signature of the piece. If you’ve never paid close attention to it, do so: it’s a tale about a young man who has been sent to war and is afraid that he will never see his love again. In 1969 the country audience wasn’t necessarily going to embrace an anti-war record, as earlier efforts by Loretta Lynn (“Dear Uncle Sam”) and others fell flat. But songwriter Jimmy Webb picked a past war, setting it in a Civil War backdrop instead of far-off Southeast Asia. There’s no mistaking this song for what it is: a tale of a man who is doing his duty while at the same time being a scared kid. It worked, as the song topped the Country charts and registered at #4 on the pop charts. As Campbell plaintively sings “I am so afraid of dying,” I can’t help but wonder what sort of significance this song held for him over the last six years.
In all, Glen Campbell put seventy-five records on the Country charts between 1962 and 1993. Today’s country, which leans more towards groomed bros and hat bands doing the “talk shit/get hit” style of lyric, doesn’t sound like this record at all, nor does it resemble what Campbell represented. Hopefully, Country programmers won’t forget their history and give Glen Campbell his due.
See if you get the same chills. You can hear “Galveston” by clicking here.