By Terry Barr | Contributor Published: 08/21/2013 8:00 am EST
Raise your hand if you know who Glen Campbell is. I saw him on a Grammy Awards show two years ago singing one of his biggest hits, “Rhinestone Cowboy,” a song I never really cared for. In 2011 he released an album of new material, the first in maybe a decade, called ‘Ghost on the Canvas.’ Last week, he released ‘See You There,’ in which he revisits all his big hits and a few minor ones: songs like “Galveston,” “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” and my all-time favorite, “Wichita Lineman.” There are a couple of gospel/spiritual tunes on this latest record, too, most strikingly, “Waiting on the Coming of My Lord.”
Why should you or I or anyone else care about all of this? I’m not certain you will even after I tell you that Campbell was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease over two years ago. For Campbell, the disease must still be in its earlier stages, though regarding this horrible affliction, I really don’t have much insight. So with my relative dearth of knowledge, I wonder if Campbell has to be managed through days of recording. Does he have to be reminded of what he’s singing, what he’s even doing here in this amplified place? When he sings, very beautifully I’ll add, his greatest songs—for instance, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” which was one of the songs of the year back in 1967 on both the Pop and Country charts and which BMI (Broadcast Music Industry) named the third most performed song from 1940 to 1990, and which Frank Sinatra called “the greatest torch song ever written” (according to Wikipedia)—does he remember singing them so long ago on virtually every variety show TV had to offer? Does he know anymore how his songs affected American Pop life? Affected people like me?
I was twelve when I first heard “Wichita Lineman” on Birmingham radio. I suppose I was a romantically nerdy kid. Sure, I loved The Beatles and thought Steppenwolf was eerily cool. But I also loved and bought every record by Paul Revere and the Raiders back then. And since I had very meager funds, deciding to spend my “fortune” on records by an act that still dressed in Revolutionary War outfits because I was loyal and because they sang convincingly of angst and heartache and longing (if you don’t believe me, listen to ‘Revolution’s’ “Tighter”), even I would have had to categorize myself as hopeless. And when my allowance was raised to $1.00 a week and I started buying 45’s in earnest, it was always the Pop hits: “Young Girl” by The Union Gap; “This Guy’s In Love With You” by Herb Alpert; “Kentucky Rain” by Elvis.
And “Wichita Lineman.”
Maybe I wasn’t so different than other twelve year-old guys. Still, what would you do with a boy who played these lush, string-infected tunes on his parents’ enormous Magnavox console in the darkening hours of late fall afternoons, singing with them on pitch but never being able to make it to the high notes, what with changing voices and adolescent hormones and all that romantic longing? I’d stand by our multi-paned den window as I sang, staring out at our pecan trees which were only shadows by that time of day, seeing the outline of South Highland Baptist Church a couple of blocks away, and following the line of lighted traffic flowing down Dartmouth Avenue. And I’d be dreaming of love.
“I am a lineman for the county, and I drive the main road.
Searchin’ in the sun for another overload.
I hear you singing in the wire.
I can hear you thru the whine.
And the Wichita Lineman,
is still on the line.”
At the end of each chorus, sounds of telephone wire signals bled you into the next verse, creating those images of distance and loneliness. A cowboy guitar solo flavored the solitude and the singer’s pride in his work, while also confessing his desire to be done, to leave for home, to be reunited with the woman back there waiting for him.
I don’t care how that sounds to contemporary listeners. When I was twelve, it’s what I longed for, more than anything, to be wanted: “Yes I need you more than want you, and I want you for all time….”
I never confessed to anyone that I liked Glen Campbell; that I listened to “Wichita Lineman” over and over. That I watched Campbell’s TV show each week: The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, featuring his longtime collaborator, John Hartford. I know Glen had plastic hair; I know he probably had a massive ego. I know I shouldn’t think songs like “Galveston” are cool. But I do.
I’d give every kind of music a chance when I was a kid: Sunday morning gospel as I’d hear it on The Wally Fowler Show; country/western on Saturday afternoon varieties from The Grand Ole’ Opry to The Wilburn Brothers to Porter Waggoner, when everyone sang “On the Wings of a Dove” at least once per show. And of course, rock and roll on Shindig and Where The Action Is.
I won’t enumerate all the genres now, but I’ll even confess to watching Lawrence Welk on occasion with my parents. So when I began listing to AM radio, I just expanded my internal playlists to include the tastes and choices of the DJ’s and those others “in the know,” bringing me The Chairmen of the Board, Steam, and Marvin Gaye. I remember hearing and loving Ray Price’s “For the Good Times,” for instance, and I can’t tell you how weepily nostalgic I felt last weekend when I heard it played on Sirius-XM’s “Outlaw Country” station. Ray Price isn’t an outlaw. For God’s sake, my mother loved him. I wish OC’s set had followed “For the Good Times” with “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” but it didn’t. Weirdly, it played The Black Angels next, followed by an acoustic song from Black Sabbath whom I didn’t know played acoustic, ever. But then, I always hated Sabbath. I’ll still take Glen over Sabbath though I’m sure that makes me just another maudlin man over fifty-five.
I don’t know if I’m going to purchase Campbell’s newest and probably last record. I’ve listened on I-Tunes and still love his voice. How often would I listen if I bought it though? Would I stand by my window now and sing with him?
Or is it enough for me to hear the lineman in my head and see back to all those years ago with a clarity that hasn’t been compromised yet by a ravaging disease?