Glen Campbell's Long Goodbye

As Alzheimer's slowly destroys his memory, the Rhinestone Cowboy rides into the sunset – with a powerful final album

Glen Campbell
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Glen Campbell
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On a recent sunny afternoon in Malibu, California, Glen Campbell is sitting on a couch in the living room of his Tuscan-style home overlooking a mass of hills, palm trees and the sparkling Pacific Ocean below. He's discussing "Rhinestone Cowboy," his 1975 Number One hit, which he calls "maybe the best song I've ever sung." He launches into the hook, howling, "Like a rhinestone cowboy!/Riding out on a horse in a star-spangled radio!" He stops to correct himself. "Radio?" he says. "I mean rodeo." When he tries to continue, the words slip away entirely.

This has been happening a lot lately. In June, the 75-year-old singer and guitarist announced he is retiring from music because he is suffering from Alzheimer's disease. It's a slow farewell: On August 30th, he will release his final album, Ghost on the Canvas, featuring contributions from fans like Billy Corgan, Paul Westerberg and Jakob Dylan, and has already begun the Glen Campbell Goodbye Tour, which will take him around the globe indefinitely.

It's the last chapter of one of the most remarkable and Zelig-like careers in rock history – 21 Top 40 hits, 45 million solo albums sold, session guitar on hundreds of classic songs from "Be My Baby" to "Good Vibrations," a hit TV show. "He had that beautiful tenor with a crystal-clear guitar sound, playing lines that were so inventive," says Tom Petty, who calls Campbell a key influence. "It moved me."

Ghost on the Canvas is a return to that sound, all soaring vocals, big, orchestra-laced production and killer guitar. The album's producer, Julian Raymond, co-wrote the bulk of the disc with the singer on this same couch, cutting demos at Campbell's studio next door. Raymond, who has produced the Wallflowers, Rosanne Cash and Cheap Trick, assembled the material and recruited Corgan, Cheap Trick's Rick Nielsen, Westerberg and Jakob Dylan. ("That's Bob's kid?" Campbell asks during the interview. "Well, I'll be dag-gonned.") "It was so easy," Campbell says. "All I had to do was go in and sing."

The songs touch on every part of his epic life, from battles with personal demons – three failed marriages, years of cocaine and alcohol abuse – to the peace he has finally found with his wife of 28 years. "Everything on this record emulates what Glen has gone through," says Raymond.

On the opening hymn, "A Better Place," Campbell sings, "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." He has trouble remembering making the record, but he knows why he sang those lines. "I do get confused," he says. "I don't even look at anything anymore, except what's going on right now. I just thank God he's given me a second chance."

From the beginning, Campbell had it rough. He was born in 1936 in the Depression-reeling town of Billstown, Arkansas, the seventh son in a sharecropping family of 12 kids. "We used to watch TV by candlelight," Campbell jokes in his cracked, husky drawl. A guitar prodigy, he dropped out of school when he was 14 and moved to Wyoming with an uncle, where the duo played rowdy bars in rural towns. Eventually he made his way to L.A., and by 1962, Campbell had solidified a spot in the Wrecking Crew, the loose group of session pros who played on the hottest records of the 1960s.

"I played rhythm on basically everything," Campbell says. He's not kidding; in 1963 alone, he appeared on 586 cuts, and countless more that decade, from the Byrds' "Mr. Tambourine Man" and Elvis Presley's "Viva Las Vegas" to Merle Haggard's "Mama Tried" and the Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling." He was able to adapt to whatever sound was in style, becoming a surf-guitar whiz on tunes by Jan and Dean, Dick Dale and the Beach Boys. "I learned it was crucial to play right on the edge of the beat," he says. "It makes you drive the song more. You're ahead of the beat, but you're not."

"He was the best guitar player I'd heard before or since," says fellow session great Leon Russell. "Occasionally we'd play with 50- or 60-piece orchestras. His deal was he didn't read [music], so they would play it one time for him, and he had it."

Campbell wasn't above getting star-struck. During the session for Frank Sinatra's "Strangers in the Night," Campbell remembers he stared at Sinatra so long the singer pulled the producer aside to complain. "He said, 'Who's the fag down there looking at me?'" Campbell cackles. "I'll never forget that. I didn't take it for granted.

"I worked my butt off," he adds. "And I had to hustle, because there were a lot of people out there that could play."

In late 1964, Brian Wilson had a nervous breakdown on tour with the Beach Boys, and the band called on Campbell to replace him on bass and high harmonies – a gig that lasted six months. "He fit right in," says Wilson. "His main forte is he's a great guitar player, but he's even a better singer than all the rest. He could sing higher than I could!" Wilson used his time off the road to write Pet Sounds – and Campbell plays on five cuts. Wilson also wrote and produced Campbell's early girl-crazy pop single "Guess I'm Dumb." It flopped, but it's a gem of a song. Says Wilson, "I really wanted him to have a hit record."

He finally had one in 1967, with "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," written by Jimmy Webb, an L.A. kid with a knack for winding, intricate ballads. "He was a perfect vehicle for my very sentimental songs," says Webb. "We made some records that were nearly perfect together." The tune kicked off a working relationship that ranged from the haunting Vietnam War ballad "Galveston" to "Wichita Lineman," about the isolation of a telephone-pole worker, Campbell's first Top 10 hit. "I own all his records, and that's the crown jewel of his work," says Corgan, who plays guitar on Ghost on the Canvas. "It's dark, creepy, repressed, but so beautiful."

"Those songs just rang out on the AM radio – I was, you know, nine years old in '69," adds Westerberg, who wrote the new album's title track. "He had a great breath control, and he had a great range. His pitches also were right on. I don't know if he was ever trained, or if he was just naturally blessed with that kind of voice, but he certainly is a great pop singer."

With swelling orchestral arrangements and slick production, the songs weren't exactly the hippest sounds of the Sixties. "They felt packaged for a middle-of-the-road, older crowd," says Petty. "At first, you go, 'Oh, I don't know about that.' But it was such pure, good stuff that you had to put off your prejudices and learn to love it. It taught me not to have those prejudices."

At lunchtime, Campbell moves to the island in his ocean-themed kitchen, where his wife, Kim, a blond beauty he married in 1982, is preparing vegetables, while his old buddy Steve Ozark grills up some "Goodtime Burgers," topped with lettuce, tomato, mayo and lots of onions. "Whenever he does an interview," Ozark says, "I make him a burger."

The burger was a backstage staple on The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, his hit CBS show from 1969 to 1971. With a young writing crew that included Rob Reiner and Steve Martin, Campbell acted in often hokey skits and performed stellar duets with everyone from Cher to Ray Charles. The show also gave a national platform to rising country stars like Willie Nelson. "He exposed us to a big part of the world that would have never had the chance to see us," says Nelson. "He's always been a big help to me. During one of my down years, he signed me to his publishing company and paid me a lot of money. I only wrote one song, and it was 'Bloody Mary Morning.' I hope he got his money back!"

Campbell's boyish charisma led John Wayne to cast him in a co-starring role in 1969's True Grit. He says now that his acting was so amateurish that he "gave John Wayne that push to win the Academy Award." But the good times didn't last: The show was canceled; his first feature film, Norwood, flopped; and the hits dried up.

He channeled it all into "Rhinestone Cowboy" – Larry Weiss' stomping tale of a road veteran who vowed to continue his career with ringing optimism. The 1975 smash was the first song since 1961 to top both the country and pop charts. But at the same time Campbell was descending into a devastating addiction to cocaine and alcohol. "The first time I took it, cocaine, it was like your eye was coming out of your head," he says. "Oh, God, it was like a dog that gets into your henhouse and steals your eggs."

It's a fuzzy period for Campbell. He doesn't recall his 16-year marriage to second wife Billie Jean Nunley, whom he divorced in 1976, or his 15-month drug-fueled fling with country singer Tanya Tucker, during which the couple sang the national anthem at the Republican National Convention in 1980 and appeared on the cover of People. "I may have dated her," Campbell says.

He does remember meeting Kim, a dancer at Radio City Music Hall, on a disastrous blind date that ended with Campbell telling her he wanted to "jump her bones." But he kept calling, and within a year they were married. At their wedding, Campbell got so drunk he surprised his new mother-in-law with the news that Kim was three months pregnant. By 1987, with Kim's help, Campbell finally managed to get sober. "I give her all the credit for that," Campbell says. "If you pray from your heart, there will be return mail. I've seen that happen to me."

As he devours his burger, he feels a chill and asks if the air conditioner is on. It's not, but Campbell climbs the winding staircase and spends the next 20 minutes searching the bedrooms, producing loud crashing noises. "Kim!" he shouts repeatedly, adding, "We don't need any air conditioner here, that's for damn sure!" and "It's cold in here – are you all crazy?"

The kids are used to it. "That's one thing with Alzheimer's," says Ashley, his pretty 24-year-old daughter, who plays banjo in his band. "They get fixated on one thing. Air conditioning is his thing. There's also a hand towel we usually keep in that bathroom, and if you don't fold it exactly and put it on top of the spigots, he'll say, 'Who did this?' Glen Campbell P.I. is on it."

Though Campbell was diagnosed in May, his friends and family have suspected he's been ill for years. One friend believes it goes as far back as 2003, and suggests that the disease was partially responsible for Campbell's arrest that year for hit-and-run, an incident that ended with him allegedly kneeing a police officer in the thigh right before he was released. Campbell pleaded guilty to extreme drunken driving and leaving the scene of an accident, and spent 10 days in jail.

Despite his condition, Campbell is tanned and energetic, spending most days on the golf course. A tour behind the record will hit the U.S. early next year, with Campbell backed by his four kids, three of whom play in an Arcade Fire-inspired band called Instant People. Campbell can't wait. "I think this has been really good for him," says Ashley. "Before the announcement, people were thinking, 'He's drunk. He's using again.' Now it's more of a supportive thing as opposed to an angry, critical thing."

Campbell reappears in the kitchen wearing a purple bathrobe over his black T-shirt and jeans, holding a glass of juice. There's time for one last question. How does he feel about his illness?

He stares blankly, even when reminded of a recent appointment with his doctor.

"I don't even know that I went to the doctor," he says with a nervous laugh. "I don't feel any different at all. I haven't been to the doctors where they said, 'You got Alzheimer's' – I don't even know where that came from. I haven't been to a doctor in years."

He turns to Ashley. "What is this Alzheimer's garbage, hon? Do you know?"

"Yeah," she says. "It's something you're in the early stages of. It's short-term-memory loss."

"Short-term-memory lane?" he asks.

"Yeah," she says. "Sometimes you'll have trouble remembering stuff."

"Well," he says, "I was trying to forget all that garbage years ago."

He takes a long sip of juice, but still can't shake the thought. "Who said that?" he asks.

"Your doctor."

"Oh." Campbell laughs for a moment. "Well, I guess I'll wait till it hits me, then."

This story is from the September 1st, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 1138: September 1, 2011