October 2008

Essays

The return of the Wichita Lineman

By Robert Forster
The return of the Wichita Lineman
Glen Campbell’s ‘Meet Glen Campbell’

Put yourself in Glen Campbell's shoes. You're 72. You've sold 45 million records. You've been married four times, most recently back in 1982. You have eight children. Your time is spent primarily on the golf course - there was the Glen Campbell Los Angeles Open on the pro-golf circuit through the '70s. You smoke cigars, and you belong to the Messianic Judaism movement. You haven't made a charting pop record for 30 years, though you play the odd gig or tour and occasionally a live record or a selection of Christian songs comes out under your name. And of course you live in Malibu. Then this long-haired guy comes to one of your shows and tells you he's a record producer, and he not only wants to make a record with you of songs written mostly by young people you've never heard of, but he's also approached your old record label, Capitol - the one you had your big hits with back in the '60s, like ‘Galveston', ‘Gentle on My Mind', ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix' - and they're enthusiastic about the idea. They want you back. As you stand in your dressing room, guitar around your neck, stage sweat on your brow, you'd have to ask yourself: Do I really want to go through this one more time?

The old performer approached by the young producer raised and forever seared by the old performer's peak early work has become something of a show-business staple. The White Stripes' Jack White produced a great album, Van Lear Rose (2004), for Loretta Lynn. Karma County's Brendan Gallagher, with a bunch of fresh songs by artists ranging from The Reels to Ed Kuepper, made Messenger (1999) a hit album for Jimmy Little. The granddaddy of all these stories is the Rick Rubin and Johnny Cash hook-up, in the mid '90s. It began in a similar fashion to Glen Campbell and his producer, Julian Raymond - with a backstage meeting - and resulted in a multi-album twilight-of-life renaissance for Cash. Since then, the term ‘Rick Rubinise' has entered the rock-music lexicon. And on first glance, this seems to be the case with Meet Glen Campbell. There are the bizarre cover-song choices - Cash did Nine Inch Nails and Soundgarden; Campbell does Foo Fighters and Green Day - and there is the producer's mission to remind the artist of the qualities that made him great in the first place. But Glen Campbell is no Johnny Cash, and Raymond, though obviously acknowledging the Rubin blueprint, is moving Campbell in a different direction. The resulting album is less an older man squinting at death and time, and more a 72-year-old in rude health effortlessly making a great pop record.

It's easy to forget just how good Glen Campbell once was. Because he wasn't a singer-songwriter in a golden age of singer-songwriters, and his best work was done in a relatively short time and long ago, he has tended to be pushed to the back of the mind. Before he was a pop star he was one of the best session guitarists in LA, playing on everything from ‘You've Lost that Lovin' Feelin'' to ‘I'm a Believer', via Sinatra's ‘Strangers in the Night'. He was also in the Beach Boys for a year, as Brian Wilson's tour replacement, and he played on their masterpiece, Pet Sounds (1966). This would all be enough to garner him a place (albeit a footnote) in rock history, without the string of extraordinary songs he took to the charts at the tail end of the '60s. ‘Wichita Lineman', ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix' and ‘Galveston' had something that immediately lifted them out of the cheesy pop pack. These moody, mostly chorusless songs, with their weird narratives, searing strings and twangy guitar, went beyond ‘teen' and hit another level. It was drama-laden pop music. The songs of maverick songwriter Jimmy Webb in the hands of a thirty-something singer-guitarist - this wasn't a sure-fire pop formula. But that's what made it great and has held the songs to the heart of golden-oldies radio, and to the pop ear, ever since.

Raymond has created a sound that blends Campbell old with Campbell new. It is difficult to bridge contemporary West Coast production and the sensitivity and oddball elements of vintage Campbell. But it works. The strings and the ringing guitar lines are melded into a thicker, rockier sound. Raymond is helped in this transition by the sheer strength and beauty of Campbell's voice. Rubin had to tread carefully around an obviously older and at times failing Cash. Neil Diamond, who has also had Rubin at the helm on his latest albums, had his frailties exposed. Campbell roars. His singing is amazing, and Raymond confidently places him slap-bang in the centre of every mix. It's a 72-year-old sounding like a 40-year-old, and there isn't a glitch or a hint of fatigue. Besides the shock of the song selection - and there is a Velvet Underground song covered here - the force and quality of the singing is what marks this album.

The record starts with a hit, and if there was any justice in the world, Glen Campbell belting out Travis's ‘Sing' would be coming from every radio right now. And by hit, I don't mean it's good and melodic and wouldn't it be nice. I mean, this has got muscle and hooks and fairy dust all over it, and it deserves to sit beside Madonna and The Veronicas and be programmed by the big FM-radio conglomerates. As the first track, it also sends the message that Campbell will fulfil the album's brief: a wide-ranging and interesting song cycle made with absolute conviction and craft. Song selection is where this album could have fallen down, but none of the choices - be it The Replacements' ‘Sadly Beautiful', or Jackson Browne's ‘These Days', or Green Days' ‘Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)' - sounds kooky or gimmicky. Campbell and Raymond ‘get' every one. There is the tingle that comes with the realisation that Glen Campbell is actually singing ‘Jesus', by The Velvet Underground, or ‘Times Like These', by Foo Fighters, but that soon yields to relief and at times wonder that Campbell can so comfortably get under the skin of these songs.

Some of the numbers set up interesting juxtapositions. ‘These Days', by Jackson Browne, is the quintessential mid-to-late-'60s finger-picked folk song ("I've been out walking / I don't do too much talking these days"), written by Browne when he was still in his teens. The lyric has a weariness and noble resignation well beyond the writer's tender years. It was first recorded by Nico, whom Browne was accompanying on guitar in Greenwich Village when she was collecting songs for her first solo album, Chelsea Girl (1967). Nico wrings every piece of Weltschmerz she can out of it, and her dark, low voice and bleak Teutonic world view emphasise the song's existential stoicism. In the hands of Campbell, 40 years later, it gains another meaning. Here is a man looking back at life, reading the wrong turns and decisions with a resigned, almost wistful tone. The lyric neatly passes through three generations - the teenage songwriter, the 30-year-old Bohemian princess, the aged Californian legend - and each takes something of their own from this lovely song.

And that's the surprise: for an artist regarded as lightweight and a singer of other people's songs, there is a biography in this album. Admittedly, it may help to know a little of Campbell's life, but the sequencing of the ten songs and the correlation between their stories and even a rough outline of the singer's story seems to confirm it, and gives the album a cohesion and depth that perhaps no other Glen Campbell album has had. There are love songs: hard-fought-for and treasured love - "I can only thank God it was not too late" - on Tom Petty's ‘Angel Dream'. There are children left behind, achingly articulated on ‘Sadly Beautiful'. And then there is ‘Jesus'. Any irony Lou Reed may have packed into this song back in the dark days of The Velvet Underground, in late-'60s New York, is blown away by Campbell's straight and needy reading. The album closes on Lennon and Ono's ‘Grow Old with Me'; with its chiming chorus, "God bless our love," its appeal to Campbell is obvious. It is the one shaky choice on the album, but given the quality of what has come before it is hard to deny Campbell his walk off into the sunset.

We are in the sixth decade of rock 'n' roll, so the unexpected, and the fact that it is being done by rock's senior citizens, should come as no revelation. What is interesting is that Glen Campbell joins another middle-of-the-roader, Neil Diamond, in the search for new horizons, while the old rebels - the Stones, The Who - are bogged and scared. Perhaps Campbell was meant to last. Two lines from ‘These Days', falling at the halfway point of the album, ring in the mind. Campbell sings them slowly, and with great care and beauty. "Please don't confront me with my failures / I had not forgotten them." It's as if he did the whole thing just to get that out.

Robert Forster

Robert Forster is a singer-songwriter and co-founder of The Go-Betweens. His collection of music criticism, The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll, was published in 2009.

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