It was sad but not altogether surprising to hear today that singer Glen Campbell has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
I saw Campbell perform in Wellington about three years ago and it occurred to me then that something wasn’t quite right. He occasionally repeated himself in his on-stage patter and though his singing and playing couldn't be faulted, he gave signs, in between songs, that his brain wasn’t 100 percent engaged. I’m no neurologist but I said to my daughter, who was with me, that he looked like a man in the very early stages of Alzheimer’s.
That impression was reinforced the next morning when I met him at his hotel for an interview kindly arranged for me by his tour promoter, Stewart Macpherson. Campbell was courteous and obliging, especially considering that Simon Sweetman’s review of his concert in that morning’s Dom Post was uncharacteristically (and I thought unfairly) savage, but he seemed a tad vague and distracted. Several times he invited me to help myself to a grape from a bowl on the table in his room, clearly not remembering that I’d turned down the offer only moments before.
Some might suggest that Campbell’s vagueness had something to do with his years of drug and alcohol abuse, but Alzheimer’s seems a more likely explanation. After all, he’s reportedly been clean for years; and in any case, countless other country and rock stars have consumed prodigious quantities of mind-altering substances without any obvious long-term consequences.
Campbell’s wife Kim told the American magazine People: “Glen is still an awesome guitar player and singer, but if he flubs a lyric or gets confused on stage, I wouldn’t want people to think, ‘What’s the matter with him? Is he drunk?’ ” She said he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s six months ago, although his short-term memory had been poor for some time.
Campbell, 75, plans to release one more album before a final tour. That will signal the end to a remarkable career that began when he joined his uncle’s Western Swing band in Alberquerque, New Mexico, and gained momentum when he moved to LA in 1958 to became part of the “Wrecking Crew” – a fabled group of session musicians that included Hal Blaine, Leon Russell, Larry Knechtel, Jim Horn and Carol Kaye. Campbell played guitar on countless 1960s hits and even joined the Beach Boys (filling in for the mentally fragile Brian Wilson) before becoming a singing star in his own right with songs such as By the Time I Get to Phoenix, Wichita Lineman and Galveston (all written by the great Jimmy Webb).
Campbell was never given his due by highbrows and purists, probably because his repertoire was aimed squarely at middle America. But even in his 70s he was outstanding both as a singer and guitar player, as anyone who saw him in concert can attest.