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Glen Campbell's Long Goodbye

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

September 1, 2011
 Glen Campbell
Glen Campbell
Amanda Edwards/Getty Images

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."

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