“I CAN,” says Glen Campbell, “wriggle my right breast.”
He demonstrates. It's true. He can.
“The only time I ever got booed by an audience, I was watching Elvis Presley. At the time, I used to do Elvis in my show. I'd wriggle about like this and sing, ‘Oh let me be. . .’” - a note-perfect impression, this - “'. . . your teddy bear.' So Elvis was gigging me from the stage. He said, ‘Campbell, I understand you're doin' me, right. If'n you don't stop doin' me, me an' the boys are gonna come in here in the front row and read newspapers durin' your show.’ I said from the audience, I said, ‘Well, if I'm gonna do you any more, I'm gonna have to gain some weight.’ This was in March of 1977, and he died in August. And the audience went, ‘Boooo!’ I felt like, ‘Can't ya take a joke?’ You could not say in front of those people that Elvis had gained any weight.”
Campbell, always on the rangy side, could have used a few extra pounds back then. He was beginning to look as gaunt as Presley was obese, and when it came to self-delusion, he was match for any Elvis nut. Fans would write to him: “Glen, we saw you and the Lord told us to pray for you.” Campbell was praying a fair bit himself. No matter how much liquor he drank, and how much cocaine he snorted - and he drank and snorted plenty, “enough to sink a battleship” - he never stopped talking to the Lord. During his nightly Bible readings, he alternated lines from the Gospels with lines chopped out on the bedside table. That he didn't go the same way as Elvis Presley is suggestive - depending on your viewpoint - of the guiding hand of God, the work of benign Providence, or a hearty constitution and sheer good luck.
More even than Presley, Campbell was an American contradiction. The youngest son of a sharecropping family, God-fearing and homely as plain folks could be, he became first the epitome of Vegas showbiz, all lacquered hair, chiselled jaw and processed cheesy bonhomie, and then the embodiment of Seventies dissipation. He was a dirt-poor country boy who turned out too LA for LA. All of which serves to obscure the most important fact of all; that he is a true musical original whose name is attached to a clutch of ageless and masterful recordings, and who anonymously lent his talents to a great many more.
Campbell is 63 now, and has spent five decades in the music business. He was 14 when he left home to join his uncle's band, and 23 when he arrived in Los Angeles as a session man. He is a versatile performer, a skill born of necessity. As a working musician on the Western club circuit, you played whatever the crowd required. These were not people in any kind of mood to experiment.
“Oh yeah, they should have had ‘Fightin' And Dancin' Nightly’ advertised outside some of those clubs. I was playing at a place called the Hitching Post, and some of the guys I worked with in the daytime, they would come out and dance. Some cowboy would smart off to them, and they would jump right in. I would take my guitar and hide it. Protect it. If a flying bottle hit it, man, you couldn't replace it. I never thought of shielding myself, the first thing I thought of was, get the guitar out of the way.”
Campbell had learned to cherish his guitars ever since his first instrument had arrived by mail order when he was four years old. “I think it was seven dollars, which was quite a sacrifice.” His repertoire at first consisted of songs his family knew. Only rarely did other music enter his orbit via the radio. “We didn't have electricity. We had a battery radio, but the batteries didn't last that long, and dad couldn't afford to buy 'em. Big type batteries. Dad would put 'em in the oven and heat 'em up and they would last another week or two. It's a wonder they never exploded and blew up the whole house. But we sang and played. It was a great lesson in harmonies.”
In his uncle's band, the teenage Campbell learned new songs every day. “We played everything from Sons Of The Pioneers to Glen Miller, Frank Sinatra, whatever was hot in the fifties. Ray Charles came along, we got to do What I'd Say, and then Chuck Berry. And that really paid off, that Chuck Berry lick, because every time I played with [surf duo] Jan and Dean, that was all they wanted.”
By 17, Campbell was married to his pregnant, 15-year-old girlfriend, Diane Kirk. Six years later he was divorced, remarried and living in California, working as a hired guitar and harmony singer. He stared awestruck at Frank Sinatra throughout the entire session for Strangers In The Night, unable to believe he was in the presence of his hero. His worshipful gaze did not go unremarked. “Who,” his idol hissed, “is the fag guitar player?”
“All I ever did ever since I can remember,” says Campbell, “was eat, live and breathe singing and playing guitar. I worked at a service station for a week, almost took my hand off changing a flat tire. Well, I quit that, because I wanted to play my guitar, and I couldn't do that with smashed fingers.” But LA changed the farmboy, all right. “I thought ‘manual labour’ was Spanish, after I got into the music business.”
GLEN Campbell's session work reads like a roll call of early Sixties American pop: he was a cornerstone in Phil Spector's Wall of Sound; he backed Sinatra, Presley, Dean Martin and The Righteous Brothers; he played on Good Vibrations and Pet Sounds for The Beach Boys, whom he joined as a touring member in 1965, giving him a glimpse of the hysterical adulation that successful musicians now commanded. Frantic teenage girls would send
the rest of the band flying like oddly-shaped ninepins in their eagerness to reach lupine drummer Dennis Wilson
“In Canada I saw one girl faint and I pulled her up. Then I must have pulled seven or eight people up, they were all girls, screaming for Dennis. ‘Dennis, oh Dennis!’ We had to stop the show ‘cause the girls were pressing up so hard against the stage.”
On that tour, Campbell almost shared Dennis Wilson's eventual fate, when he came within a whisker of drowning off the coast of Hawaii. But chance, or God's ever-mysterious ways, brought him back to shore, although neither could keep him in the band after that. He resumed the less than meteoric solo career he had pursued since 1962. A minor chart entry with the fashionably folksy antiwar song, Universal Soldier, persuaded his record label, Capitol, to permit him his own pick of material and producers. One of his first choices was a pretty John Hartford tune, a country number titled Gentle On My Mind. Campbell turned it into one of the most sublime pieces of recorded music of that or any era. Come 1967, it was a huge hit. Glen Campbell suddenly ranked among the biggest stars in America.
There was better yet to come. Jimmy Webb, a preacher's son just into his twenties, was drawing attention in the industry with his complex, melancholy and curiously specific compositions. Campbell selected Webb's By The Time I Get To Phoenix for his follow-up. Soon afterwards, he ranked among the biggest stars in the world.
Pat Boone asked him why Campbell's version of the song was a hit when Boone's wasn't. “I told him, because you sang, ‘She'll probably stop at lunch and give me a call.’ And I sang, ‘She'll prob'ly.’” But there was much more to it than a knack for bending Webb's ornate lyrics. Campbell's instinct for interpretation flowered with Webb's best songs. “I tried to sing 'em as straight as I could sing 'em, and put as much emotion into them as I could. And it really worked. I didn't really care what I sounded like. I didn't like the sound of my voice then,” he maintains. “But I kind of do now. I've gotten used to it.”
Wichita Lineman and Galveston completed his classic Webb trilogy, matching the success of Phoenix. By now he was hosting his own national TV show, The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, affording him a level of all-round stardom rarely attained by pop singers since. The show came about after he filled in for the popular and innovative Smothers Brothers' variety show over their summer break. CBS put him on air full-time, while cancelling the Smothers' show over its satirical content.
“I had a clean, wholesome show with no politics and no eee-eee eee” – a creaking noise presumably representing smut. “Steve Martin and Rob Reiner were writing some of the most hilarious stuff you ever heard in your life that we couldn't use.” The show ran for four seasons. “They took me off the air and put on Sonny and Cher,” Campbell says, sadly.” We were number one in our time slot, but they didn't want so much country on.”
Campbell's career was on the wane and his drug consumption on the up and up. The huge comeback triumph of 1975's Rhinestone Cowboy, his hammiest moment to date, only spurred him to further excesses. “I have no excuse for it, I just got suckered into it. I was over 21. I was in a house where they were freebasing cocaine. So I thought I'd try some. The rush, can you imagine – I thought I was going to die. I laid face down on a couch and prayed for six hours, just laying there. I never did that again. It's like taking a gun and shooting it through your hand. You don't do that twice.”
THE Bible Codes are a perceived pattern of letters in the Scriptures which, with enthusiasm and the right computer program, can be made to predict almost anything you please. Campbell, who subscribes to many of the odder doctrines lurking in America's religious hinterland, believes that these codes prophesied the Turkish earthquake and the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. He is also convinced that calamity is due to befall Los Angeles in the next two years, and you get the idea that he won't be altogether sorry.
“There was no truth,” he says, “in anything that was happening in Los Angeles. Everybody was a liar. Everybody was doing cocaine. Everybody was denying it. Everybody was schtupping everybody's little sister. It was crazy. That's why I moved out.”
But not before a third marriage, which he summarises as “jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire,” followed by a stormy relationship with country singer Tanya Tucker – “out of the frying pan and straight into hell.” The pair occupied their time with sex, cocaine and fighting, sometimes all at once. She accused him of knocking her front teeth out in a barney, while admitting that more often than not she initiated the punch-ups. He retorted that the drugs made her do absent-minded things, like walking through plate glass windows. They parted, snarling, in 1981. Campbell remarried, cleaned up – his wife Kim would help out by regularly checking he hadn't drowned in the bathtub – and moved to Phoenix, Arizona. He has since devoted himself to making religious country music and playing golf with his buddy and fellow Christian, Alice Cooper.
“One of my favourite albums,” he says, with evident pleasure, “is called Jesus And Me: The Collection.” But when it comes to most of us, Jimmy Webb And Me is the kind of collection we want from Glen Campbell.
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