How to die slowly - and just keep going
Some performers get on stage and die. Glen Campbell is in the process of dying, beautifully, on stage.
A half-full crowd at New York’s Carnegie Hall saw something special on Saturday night. Campbell, who has Alzheimer’s, and suffers noticeably from it, gave a performance that was sometimes muddled but was also a resoundingly affirmative declaration about the reasons to keep on going with a debilitating impairment.
It helped that no one came to see Campbell, 75, fail. His children, three of whom back him up on stage, would not allow it.
At one point Campbell finished a song and for a moment appeared not to know where he was, or what he was supposed to do next. His daughter Ashley, a talented multi-instrumentalist who mostly sits on the banjo, led him back to the centre microphone.
When he tried to do Try A Little Kindness for a second time, she stepped in and said words to the effect of: “Dad, we already did that one.”
Campbell touched his temple and said: “Sometimes I get a little confused.” Before adding, to huge applause: “We all do!”
This could have descended into an exploitative farce if it was not so clear that Campbell wanted to be there; and that his kids, who play their father’s music with understatement and understanding, are clearly not dragging him around on some hideous last-ditch, money-grabbing carnival.
The concerts seem to be as much for them as the fans, spending time with their dad doing what he does best, ensuring they get to keep their own memories as he loses his.
Stepping out in a bright white suit, holding a bright blue Fender Stratocaster, Campbell, performing in what is billed as The Goodbye Tour—as it surely will be – kicked off with three of his classics, Gentle On My Mind, Galveston and By The Time I Get to Phoenix.
Phoenix was the first song where you noticed something was wrong. It’s a Jimmy Webb song (as is Galveston) about a man cutting and running from his woman.
Campbell put the line about the phone ringing “off the wall” in the wrong place. But this was not an artist holding himself up with a teleprompter, which would be easy. He has chosen not to hide from his condition.
Nor is he wasting the public’s time with these final shows. His disorientation seemed most obvious between songs. Once he found his place inside a song, he was all there.
Alzheimer’s must debilitate in compartments. Because Campbell, who is known as a country singer but started out as a session guitarist, playing with the likes of Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra and the Beach Boys, was faultless – and sometimes wickedly fast—all the way up and down the fretboard.
Perhaps Campbell’s riskiest move of the evening was to put down his guitar and sing The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress (another Webb song), just accompanied by T.J. Kuenster, his longtime pianist, bandmaster and friend.
Remembering words must be difficult for him and this was where he could really falter, and die, alone, on stage. You could almost feel the anxiousness of his kids, standing off the side of the stage, but Kuenster and Campbell made it clear: we’ve got this one.
At the start of Wichita Lineman (yet another Webb song), Campbell started off the deep twanging Stratocaster in the wrong key, throwing the band into disarray and bringing the song to a halt. He looked to his daughter, who told him they were doing it in F.
Campbell adjusted and got it right. For the crowd, Wichita, a sophisticated, orchestrated song which in the day took country music from the roadhouses and bars into the sunken, mood—lit shagpile loungerooms, was the biggest song of the night, bigger than his popular country—rock hits, Southern Nights and Rhinestone Cowboy.
He did A Better Place, off his final album, 2011’s Ghost on The Canvas, which was recorded after he announced his illness. The words of this song, written by Campbell, told the story of the evening: “Some days I’m so confused, Lord/ My past gets in my way/ I need the ones I love, Lord/ More and more each day.”
Talking to my neighbours after the show was intriguing. Three elderly people to my right shook their heads, commenting that it was “very sad”. They seemed find the performance painful, or disturbing. For them, they could no doubt see themselves.
But people aged in their 40s and 50s, seated to my left, did not see it that way at all.
Like me, they loved his sullen guitar notes, where he stands you at the edge of the desert so you can hear the surf, and his withering licks, and his ability to find the heart of a song, even if some parts of those songs went missing.
For them, perhaps thinking about their own parents, it was more about admiring how much Campbell has left, not what he has lost.
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