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Rhinestone Cowboy: a tribute to Glen Campbell

#RIPGlenCampbell. Another musical great has gone to join the celestial band. No shock and disbelief this time: the deaths of many musical icons, however predictable they were with the benefit of hindsight, often take us by surprise. Elvis, John Lennon, Michael Jackson, David Bowie, Amy Winehouse, Prince and George Michael, to name but a few, all provoked just such a reaction. But Glen Campbell's demise, at the relatively young age of 81, was well trailed, not least by the man himself. He announced that he was suffering from Alzheimer's in 2011 and even joked about it in a farewell tour. His most recent single and album were entitled Adios – so nobody could claim to be as startled as they were by, for example, the news of George Michael’s sudden passing late on Christmas Day last year.

Yet as always, the death of a musical icon leads to a familiar routine of RIP hashtags, a spike in downloads and on-air and printed tributes. And I plead guilty to indulging in all of the above.

And once again, I find myself asking the same question: is he suddenly brilliant because he's dead, or are the tributes justified? For me, it's another no-brainer: Glen Campbell was very good indeed, and I've spent today trying to pin down just what was so special about him.

Well first of all, he was a very talented session instrumentalist. I learned today that he played guitar for, among others, the Righteous Brothers, the Beach Boys, Frank Sinatra and the Monkees. Anyone who played on Strangers in the Night and Daydream Believer already deserves a place in any hall of fame from 60s music. Timeless classics both. Try listening to Daydream Believer and not feeling better.

But Glen Campbell will be remembered above all as a vocalist, and in that he has few peers. The sheer range of his voice is awesome, but above all it is the emotion that he put into a song that marked him out. Story songs like By the Time I get to Phoenix, Wichita Lineman, and Dreams of the Everyday Housewife are utterly convincing in their expressiveness, much like a great actor has us believe that s/he is actually going through what happens in the play or film. By the Time I get to Phoenix is about a man sneakily leaving his lover in a cowardly manner, yet we feel sorry for him as much as her. The Wichita Lineman evokes our sympathy too, not only for his dedication to a tough and lonely job, but also for his sense of loneliness, whilst the eponymous unliberated everyday housewife is at the same time pathetic and heroic, yet so believable, not least in its 1960s context.

But for real emotion, try Honey Come Back. This came out in early summer of 1970, the carefree summer of songs like Mungo Jerry's anthem to drink-driving, In the Summertime, one--hit-wonder Mr Bloe's Groovin’ with Mr Bloe, and the 1970 World Cup in Mexico with its No 1 hit for Bobby Moore, the Charlton Brothers, Gordon Banks Martin Peters & co singing Back Home. I was 12 years old that summer, in my first year at secondary school, and had no experience of a relationship, let alone a failed one, yet Honey Come Back broke my heart, as this rejected nice guy pleaded with his lover not to fall for the charms of a city slicker smoothie. The spoken verses could easily be dismissed as unbearably cheesy, but it works. Glen Campbell could act as well as sing, as proved by his role alongside John Wayne in True Grit. Also desperately sad is Reason to Believe, another tale of rejection and undeserved forgiveness, and many other songs, including those recorded just recently, reveal great depth of emotion.

Yet perhaps what as a child and teenager appealed to me most about Campbell was the way he brought America into our lives, particularly with the help of master songsmith Jimmy Webb. By the Time I get to Phoenix taught me US geography. Wichita Lineman taught me about a job I'd never heard of. Galveston, the most subtle of anti-war songs, taught me more about the Vietnam War, whilst his best-known legacy, Rhinestone Cowboy, just oozes Americana: sidewalks, hustles, subway tokens, dollars, star-spangled rodeos, Broadway, rhinestones and cowboys, sung about by a square-jawed clean-cut nice guy in jeans and a check shirt.

A sad reminder of a time when the USA was a place whose culture and values we looked up to and secretly aspired to. Nowadays that is not quite so easy to do.

The fact that Campbell died of Alzheimer's disease adds to the poignancy for me, having seen my own mother physically and mentally whither away at a similar age. We have good reason to be grateful to him for leaving such an enduring musical legacy. 

If you’re too young to know his work, click on some of the links. Or access a Greatest Hits playlist here.

PS: my wife has just read this post, and points out, rightly, that another significant thing about Glen Campbell is that even she likes his music. And my wife is, by her own admission, famously ignorant of and immune to the charms of nearly all popular music.


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