MALIBU, Calif. — At Glen Campbell’s house in Malibu, a large framed painting of the great Gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt hangs over a baby grand piano in the living room.
Campbell is proud of the portrait of the musician who quite possibly is Campbell’s biggest hero on the instrument with which both men came to fame, happily showing it off to a visitor on an overcast morning recently.
“I was walking down the street — not this one ...,” he says, prompting his wife, Kim, to remind him: “Rodeo Drive.”
“Rodeo Drive,” he confirms, “and here’s Django! I bought it for $225.”
Kim, sitting next to him around the island amid their kitchen, calmly interjects, “Not on Rodeo you didn’t!”
Campbell pauses, looks at her, reconsidering his remark. “How much was it?”
“I think it was more like $2,000.”
He pauses again for a split second, then jokes, “Well, shoot, sell it back. I’ve seen it enough now.”
Some of the facts of his 75 years may be getting a bit hazy as the five-time Grammy-winning singer of hits including “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “Galveston,” and “Rhinestone Cowboy” contends with the Alzheimer’s disease he recently made public.
But the quick country-boy wit, long a staple of his concerts and a big part of what made him a TV star four decades ago on “The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour,” is intact, ever-ready to pounce on a good setup line.
To upend the adage, at Campbell’s house lights may be starting to flicker, but he’s still home and happy to be there.
Campbell decided to share his condition because he wants to continue performing as long as he can, and he wants audiences to know the truth.
“Ghost on the Canvas,” which he is describing as his final album, is out this week, and next year he plans to go full bore into his Goodbye Tour, envisioned as a string of performances in various countries that may stretch as long as two years, if Campbell’s health holds out. He’s starting it with a few shows in the U.S. before fall dates in England, Ireland and Scotland.
He speaks of the new album with great zeal, but on this day as he struggles with some of the symptoms most commonly associated with Alzheimer’s — failing memory, occasional disorientation, difficulty completing conversations — he often looks for help from Kim and from Julian Raymond, his cowriter and producer.
“It’s your amazing grace,” Campbell sings, delivering the title and key hook from one of the five new songs he and Raymond wrote for the collection. “That melody is so great. I’ve got that song in my head all the time.” Indeed, he returns to it repeatedly throughout the hourlong interview. He’s dressed in a comfortable T-shirt and jeans, his once perfectly coiffed ash blond hair short and unkempt for a midmorning visit.
That and the other Campbell-Raymond originals are interwoven with songs written for him by Jakob Dylan, Paul Westerberg and Guided by Voices’ Robert Pollard, as well as half a dozen instrumental interludes representing periods across Campbell’s life.
Describing the experience of working on a new album at 75, Campbell says: “I was surprised. It was so neat, everything just came together. The one that keeps going through my head is ‘It’s Your Amazing Grace,’” and he sings the phrase again. “I had to do that about 20 times. I finally got it.”
Raymond shakes his head and smiles. “He did it twice.” Turning to Campbell, he adds: “You’ve never done anything 20 times.”
“Ghost on the Canvas” may be the most movingly autobiographical work he’s recorded, beyond even “Meet Glen Campbell,” the 2008 set, also produced by Raymond, that revivified his career with covers of songs by Green Day, U2 and the Velvet Underground.
“A Better Place” opens the album with Campbell confessing, “I’ve tried and I have failed, Lord. I’ve won and I have lost.” In “Any Trouble,” one of two songs by Westerberg, Campbell seems to be addressing fans, his family or both as he sings, “Don’t go to any trouble / You know I won’t be here long.”
“We all just wanted to make a modern version of what he did back in the day,” says Raymond, who has produced records for the Dandy Warhols, Cheap Trick and Rosanne Cash, among others, and is now a staff producer at Warner Bros. Records.
“It’s your ama-a-zing grace,” Campbell sings again, this time jumping to a perfectly rendered falsetto note as he stretches the word “amazing” into three syllables. It’s a play, of course, on the gospel standard “Amazing Grace,” which Campbell identifies as the first song he learned to sing. It also is an allusion to the many ways grace has touched his life, from making his way from Arkansas to Los Angeles and quickly finding work as a guitarist to Tommy Smothers spotting him on Joey Bishop’s TV show and offering Campbell the chance to host his own show.
Raymond says Campbell’s music was omnipresent in his own family’s house when he was growing up. When asked by some record company executives a few years ago which artist he’d most like to work with, he didn’t hesitate naming Campbell.
And Campbell, he says, didn’t hesitate delving into emotionally and personally revealing territory, spanning the hardscrabble early life as the seventh of 10 children born to sharecropper parents in Delight, Ark., and his escape from a dirt-poor existence when he came to California in the 1950s and quickly became one of the busiest session guitarists in Hollywood.
Campbell was a key member of the fabled group of L.A. studio musicians known as the Wrecking Crew for their ability to knock out hit after hit for artists including Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Dean Martin, Merle Haggard and the Beach Boys.
“The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour” ran from 1968 to 1972 on CBS and cemented his place as an exceptionally talented guitarist and singer with boy-next-door good looks, a genial Southern sense of humor and impeccable manners.
Tough times came with the success, however, and Campbell spent years wrestling with drug and alcohol abuse and found himself on the covers of tabloids during a tempestuous affair with Tanya Tucker. His marriage to Kim in 1982 put a staunch protector in his corner full time, but he didn’t quit drinking until after a much-publicized 2003 arrest in Phoenix for drunk driving. Gene Autry, another early idol of Campbell’s who later became a friend, “was really helpful in our marriage,” said Kim. “One time Gene called him and said, ‘Glen, drinking is no good. Take it from me: Stop doing that stuff.’”
After he did, Kim recalls, “He used to say, ‘It’s a lot better waking up than coming to,’” eliciting a laugh from everyone in the room.
Laughter helps a lot in the Campbell household, which at various times includes one or more of the four children who both play in their father’s backup band and get their own gigs as Instant People.
The plan to tour despite his Alzheimer’s is something of a gamble. He and Kim chose to go public so that in case he flubs a lyric — as happened this year, prompting harsh comments from fans — people won’t think he’s drinking again.
“There is a true desire on their part to perform a public service,” Campbell’s doctor, Cedars-Sinai neurologist Hart Cohen, says. “They want to make this condition something people are not embarrassed to talk about ... by letting people know that even people of prominence are vulnerable to this disease, so people who have it can get medical attention and get the medical support they need. It’s not necessarily going to be of benefit to him, but it will benefit others.”
Although Alzheimer’s can severely affect memory and speech as it progresses, there are factors working in Campbell’s favor to keep his career going a while longer. He’s charting a path not unlike that of Johnny Cash, who stayed busy in the recording studio and made occasional concert appearances as his health was declining before his death in 2003.
“There are data, and we also see it from clinical experience, that patients who recoil and withdraw and cease to be intellectually active ... tend to decline more rapidly, more steeply,” Cohen says. “Our experience would suggest he will remain at a better level of functioning, hopefully decline less rapidly because he’s remaining active.”
Additionally, the capacity for music tends to be affected by Alzheimer’s disease differently than other brain functions. “It appears that words to a song get encoded in a different place in the brain than the words we use in speech, and it appears that people with Alzheimer’s actually preserve the music, and the words that go to music, long after much of the rest of the brain is not functioning well,” says Elaine Bearer, a professor of neuroscience at the University of New Mexico, who also does research at Caltech.
Bearer’s focus in recent years has been the connection between the biomechanics of herpes virus and Alzheimer’s. She’s also a composer who studied with the great French composer and teacher Nadia Boulanger.
“She was very, very focused on the musician’s mind,” Bearer says.
“To study with Boulanger meant that you learned to use those unconscious parts of your mind that respond to music, that dream of music, and you learn to bring them to the conscious state where you could take a pencil and write them down.
“From going through that training,” Bearer says, “I can say through personal experience that music does not live in the same part of my brain as my science. So I can be doing a scientific experiment and composing a piece of music at the same time. ...
“It’s like you can cook dinner while you’re listening to the music on the radio,” she says. “You might make mistakes if you were listening to a newscast and trying to read a recipe. But you can read a recipe while listening to music and you can be humming along with the music and read the recipe, right? We’ve all had that experience.”
Campbell asks Raymond: “Who wrote, ‘You’re always in my heart/ You’re always in my mind’?” a line from one of the new songs.
“That’s you and me. It came to us on that couch over there,” Raymond says, pointing to a sofa. The lyric is from “It’s Your Amazing Grace.”
Campbell calls himself “a song doctor,” and Raymond said that skill emerged often in their sessions working on the album, for which Raymond typically sketched out new songs, then Campbell would weigh in on what worked for him and what didn’t. “I don’t like a song with a lot of ifs, ands and buts,” Campbell says.
Raymond cites “A Better Place,” the afterlife-minded opening track that was the first new song they wrote together, one that helped establish the album’s autobiographical direction.
“Right off the bat, again, he made a major lyric change,” Raymond says. “The original lyric in the chorus was, ‘This world’s not long for me.’ Being the positive guy that he is, he changed it to ‘This world’s been good to me.’ Things like that were a big part of the collaboration.”
Campbell latches onto that phrase and runs with it, singing “been good to me.” Then he speaks: “Boy, I tell you, this world has been good to me. It didn’t start out that way — looking up the north end of a southbound mule.”
He goes back to the song, searching for the right couplets: “I’ve failed and I have ... I’ve won and I have lost, Lord.” He switches to syllables to continue the melody — “dah da-da dah dah” and then returns to the hook that’s never far away: “It’s your amazing grace.”
Raymond notes that Campbell has his good days and not-so good days. Touring works better for him with three or four shows in a row rather than isolated performances.
Mostly Raymond seems to admire Campbell’s willingness to put himself in the public eye. “He’s not hiding anything, and he’s not afraid to say where he’s been. It’s why a lot of those lyrics meant so much,” he says. “Look, in certain ways we’ve all tried and we’ve all failed, we’ve all won and lost. At this point in his life, he’s been through a lot, he’s proud of where he’s been, there’s no regrets, really, I guess ...”
Campbell jumps right in: “Well, a couple of regrets. ...” He laughs. “But what can you do? I look at that this way: The past is gone. You’ve got to get yesterday’s trash out ... and start over.
“It’s your amazing grace,” he sings, and says: “That’s my favorite song.”