The Last Ride
Surrounded by family, friends, love and song, the country and pop
music star releases his final studio album, Ghost On the Canvas,
and embarks on his ‘Goodbye Tour’ as he battles Alzheimer’s.
By Allan Richter
It is a hazy late August day in Toronto, nine months since Glen Campbell was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and two since he launched his bluntly named “Goodbye Tour.” The chart-topping musician is relaxing in his hotel suite before an evening concert at Canada’s biggest outdoor summer festival. His face weathered and hair thinning, Campbell, 75, is wearing blue jeans, running shoes, low-cut socks and a grey T-shirt. A bicycle with a horse-saddle seat is emblazoned across his chest.
This is Glen Campbell, cowboy sans rhinestones.
“Hi, I’m Glen Campbell,” he greets a visitor. The cheery salutation and soft country drawl echo his nightly greeting to millions of viewers of The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour in the early 70s and countless concerts since. Campbell’s family and friends, as well as his crew, who have been with the singer for decades, are hoping he can hold onto those and other memories from his personal life and a career that spans more than 50 years.
To help ensure that he does, they have rallied around him in a tight and comforting circle of familiar faces. And because music is what Campbell knows and does best—his musical chops are still very much intact—he and his family have ritualized his twilight years with the release of what is being billed as Campbell’s last studio album, Ghost On the Canvas (Surfdog), and final concert tour. The tour has bookings in the US and Europe through February 2012 with additional dates expected.
Campbell’s wife, Kim, 53, is a fixture by his side, and four of Campbell’s eight children are in his band—Debby Campbell-Cloyd, 59, on vocals, Ashley, 24, on keyboards and banjo, and sons Shannon, 26, and Cal, 28, on guitar and drums, respectively.
Campbell’s neurologist believes the musician’s artistic pursuits are his medicine. “I suspect his talent and passion for what he does kept him active intellectually for longer than most,” Hart Cohen, MD, of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, says of his patient. “Patients who withdraw from life, stay at home and stop interacting with others in a meaningful way often tend to clinically deteriorate much more rapidly. We encourage people to do what he did on his own.”
Campbell’s affliction is unfolding much the same as in many people in the early stages of the disease: He remembers much from his distant past but his short-term memory suffers.
At his weakest moment during a press visit, Campbell offers a glass of water three times within the space of a few minutes. At his best, he descriptively recalls a July Arizona sandstorm, tosses off very funny one-liners and drops the names of some of the dozens of singers and musicians on whose iconic songs and albums he contributed guitar work or vocals, from Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin to Simon & Garfunkel and the Righteous Brothers. He was in the Champs, the band known for the song “Tequila,” and he stepped in with the Beach Boys while Brian Wilson took a songwriting hiatus, during which Wilson was said to have built a sandbox in his living room for inspiration.
Campbell can hold a conversation, but some of his recollections emerge as snapshots limited to a few sentences. He occasionally stammers and his language is clipped. He frequently turns to Kim for prompting.
“I took Brian’s place for a while on the road,” Campbell says of his run with the Beach Boys. He is seated cross-legged on a sofa beneath a window with an expansive view of Lake Ontario. “Oh my God, to sing that high part and play guitar, I was glad when that one stopped.” “The little old lady…,” he begins singing in a falsetto from the Beach Boys version of “The Little Old Lady from Pasadena.” “Of course Brian had his feet in the sandbox and was writing songs. Well naturally they put me in Brian’s place.”
He shifts gears. “I don’t know if it was Brian’s place, but…” He looks to Kim. “Who was it?”
“That’s right, Brian Wilson,” Kim assures him.
“Brian. That’s right, I took his place. And I had to play bass and sing the high part. Boy it was like…” Laughing, Campbell rubs his head and stomach simultaneously. “But I had never made that kind of money so I buckled down on that.”
When the conversation turns to Campbell’s musical influences, Kim must similarly remind her husband of the name of his guitar hero—the virtuoso jazz player Django Reinhardt. Once Campbell is equipped with Reinhardt’s name, however, he quickly recalls songs and the name of Reinhardt’s violinist bandmate, Stéphane Grappelli. Campbell mimics Reinhardt’s feverish style, singing out notes while running his fingers up and down an imaginary guitar neck; he taps out a chaotic beat on his leg that is true to Reinhardt’s style.
“Best player in the world,” Campbell says of Reinhardt. “He was just a mad player. I’d listen to his albums and laugh, then I’d slow it down to see what the hell he played,” he says laughing. “I couldn’t even get by it, man.”
Images Out of Time
Some of the snapshots are clear but concepts of time elude him. When Campbell steps out of the hotel to his waiting SUV and driver for the ride to the Canadian National Exhibition festival grounds where he is to perform, he recognizes me from our interview a few hours earlier but wonders how long ago it was. As the SUV winds down Toronto’s roads for the 20-minute ride, Campbell marvels at the city’s robust growth since he last appeared here several years ago.
At the festival grounds, Campbell and his family and crew settle in for a dinner of grilled chicken, vegetables and salad. The dining room has a cozy retro feel. A wall-mounted flat screen television plays grainy 1950s black-and-white cartoons with no sound. Kim Campbell says grace, and the dinner conversation turns to Justin Bieber, Hurricane Irene and the recent collapse of an Indiana concert stage. The scene could very well be a dinner table in any one of millions of North American homes, except that the ordinary, low-key nature of this meal is precisely the point. To keep it that way, Kim Campbell admonishes the other end of the table to change the subject when the conversation turns to Dick Cheney’s new memoir and the potentially turbulent topic of politics.
“That’s the key thing—just keeping everybody happy and positive and surrounding yourself with loving friends and family,” she says of her strategy for keeping her husband’s mood up.
“It is in the end a terrible thing,” she says of the disease. “People used to say about their loved ones, ‘Grandpa’s getting senile,’ but you just accept them for who they are and love them, and everyone in the family learns to compensate for them. There’s just lots of love that surrounds it. You’re still who you are. You don’t stop being Glen Campbell. You don’t stop being grandma or grandpa. You just have some memory issues.”
At the dinner table, Campbell shows me his left pinky, which is locked in a curve and which he uses to hold down the low E string on his guitar when he plays. It is the kind of adaptability that his band have become astute students of as they try to navigate the trappings of Alzheimer’s and watch Campbell’s every cue—planned or not—onstage. Will the audience distract him? As he works the stage, will he be able to stay focused on the song lyrics on monitors?
“Our whole philosophy is if he jumps, we jump—even if it’s not right,” says Campbell’s son Cal, the band’s drummer, who keeps his eyes glued to his father’s tapping foot onstage.
“The job is very much about doing the right thing at the moment rather than finding some industry standard about how to handle an artist,” says Brad Conyers, Campbell’s guitar technician for 18 years. “Every day is a new show. It’s a new show for him so it’s a new show for us. There are nights when it’s still quite magical.”
Memories in the Making
Tonight, it turns out, is one of those nights. The haze clears before Campbell and his band take the stage. It is a cloudless, warm and breezy night. Before an audience 10,000 strong, Campbell and his clan roll through a joyful, rollicking 22-song set that includes many of his biggest crowd pleasers.
Campbell’s voice is rich and strong as he croons and yodels on Hank Williams’ “Lovesick Blues” and deftly pulls out the high notes on “Wichita Lineman.” His guitar leads are fluid and fast, as if Django himself is on his shoulder. “I put a guitar on him, and I get 90 minutes of the guy I met in ’94,” guitar tech Conyers says later.
Campbell tosses off dead-on imitations of Johnny Cash and Conway Twitty, and his witty banter comes as easily as the speed with which his fingers run up and down the guitar neck. When someone tosses a cowboy hat onstage, Campbell puts it on. “I was wondering when I was going to get that back,” the singer says without skipping a beat.
The concert stage seems to provide Campbell with a cocoon that keeps his deficits at bay for the night. This is familiar territory for Campbell’s doctor; Cohen has seen music draw reserves from areas of the brain other than the traditional language centers in stroke patients who can barely string several words together yet can sing flawlessly and fluently. “He’s lucky that he has that special talent,” Cohen says of Campbell. “His musical abilities have remained out of proportion to other cognitive skills.”
It may be why, during the show, Campbell appears to give only a glimpse or two to the safety net of lyrics rolling across the flat-screens sitting on stage in front of him. The most noticeable hiccup comes when Campbell drinks bottled water and misses a cue at the start of “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” leaving daughter Debby Campbell-Cloyd to sing the first line alone.
“That’s never happened—ever,” she says in the hotel lobby lounge after the show. “I didn’t know he was taking a drink. I wasn’t paying attention because I’m feeling the music for when we’re coming in. I think my eyes were closed. I wasn’t paying attention to what dad was doing, and believe me from now on you know I will be.
“You used to depend on dad coming in when it was time to come in. Now you can’t,” continues Campbell-Cloyd, who has been singing onstage with her father for 25 years. “I’m not in denial that my father has Alzheimer’s, but that’s where the denial comes in, because you think it’s just another show. You’re not in the Alzheimer’s mode. You’re thinking that dad’s going to be the same every show and it’s going to be okay. It’s not. So I have to get into that way of thinking and I’m just not there yet. I’m not there with his diagnosis.”
She pulls out her smartphone and shows a photo of her father with her when she was 17. The two are beaming. No cowboy. No rhinestones. Just dad. “It’s hard,” Campbell-Cloyd says. “It’s hard to think that my dad might not remember me one day. My daddy.”
For now, Campbell-Cloyd and the rest of the clan are living in the moment because that is what Campbell is doing. And because today that is what they have, and at this moment it is more sweet than bitter. “I thought he did pretty good,” Campbell-Cloyd, finding a smile, says of her dad’s performance earlier. “Sometimes I think, ‘Dad, where are you going with this song?’ He cracks me up. It’s fun at the same time. It’s total improvisation. We’re still making memories. They’re memories in progress.”
Campbell’s neurologist says the singer’s good nature and acceptance of his Alzheimer’s are also pillars of support against the dementia. “That’s been his attitude consistently,” Cohen says of his patient’s jovial outlook. “He’s never presented himself in my office in a depressed way, tearful or despondent. I’ve never seen that from him. He’s always smiling and happy. I think some of that is inborn, and it certainly has helped him deal with this problem.”
Like other doctors with dementia patients, Cohen used to cautiously couch in vague language an Alzheimer’s diagnosis when dealing with a patient but open up fully with the family. Over the past decade, however, Cohen says he has learned from his patients’ responses and from emerging research that people with Alzheimer’s benefit from knowing the diagnosis.
“They’re relieved to know that it has a label and that their concerns are legitimate. What was found was that patients didn’t become demoralized but for the most part they accept the diagnosis and are able to carry on much better. It’s certainly true of him,” Cohen says of Campbell.
Campbell is even tongue-in-cheek about his affliction, calling it a “blessing” when it comes to some of his darker memories: public bouts with drugs and alcohol and three divorces.
In 1981, Kimberly Woolen was a 22-year-old dancer at Radio City Music Hall when she went on a blind date with Campbell, then 45. Impressed that he had bowed his head in prayer before dinner, she overlooked his heavy drinking that night. They married a year later. Campbell’s drinking continued unabated.
“When I first started dating him, he would get really drunk and I would take care of him,” Kim Campbell recounts. “Then I read this book called The Booze Battle, and it said if your husband comes home in the middle of the night and drives your car up on the neighbor’s front lawn, don’t get the car keys to move their car. Let him deal with the neighbor knocking on the door the next morning. Let him deal with the consequences of his actions.
“So that’s what I started doing,” she continues. “If he got up in the middle of the night and passed out naked on the floor, I’d just let him wake up freezing and shivering, wondering where
he is. I stopped rescuing him, and he started realizing, ‘What am I doing?’
One night she recorded his angry rants. After he sobered up, she told him, “I think you really need to listen to this.” She put the tape player on their bed and left the room. “He never mentioned it to me, but I noticed a big change then,” she says. “And I didn’t find the tape recorder smashed across the floor.”
Does Campbell remember those episodes? “Oh yeah,” he says with certainty. “I’d get to drinking, and I’d get nasty. I’d get mad but I never got violent. I couldn’t start a fight with anybody because I’d hurt my hand, then I couldn’t play guitar. That saved me a lot: ‘You can’t mess your hand up; you won’t be able to play.’ That seems like eons ago, and I wonder why people want to do that. I look back on it and I think, ‘How stupid can you get?’ I quit doing that. No drinking and no nothing.”
That was around 1986, when daughter Ashley was born. Campbell reaffirmed his faith and didn’t have another drink for almost two decades. “God has been merciful to me even when I’ve been mean to myself,” Campbell wrote in his 1994 autobiography, Rhinestone Cowboy (Villard Books).
“But of all He’s given me, there is nothing for which I’m more thankful than Kim.”
Then, in November 2003, Campbell relapsed—Phoenix police arrested him for driving drunk.
After Campbell got out of jail, he voluntarily sought treatment at the Betty Ford Center, where doctors noticed cognitive lapses, Kim Campbell says. They referred the singer to the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona, where a neurologist identified a type of dementia. “MCI was what they kept calling it,” Kim Campbell says—mild cognitive impairment.
Their children used to travel on tour with them when they were small but back in 2003 the kids were in high school or college and couldn’t go out on the road with their dad. On the road without Kim and their children, Kim says, Campbell had anxiety attacks that she suspects may have led to his drinking relapse and maybe even his dementia.
Research is mixed on the link between alcohol abuse and Alzheimer’s, and more study is needed, says Heather Snyder, PhD, a senior associate director at the Alzheimer’s Association. Some studies show alcohol is harmful, Snyder says, while other research shows moderate use can help cognitive health. Cohen, Campbell’s doctor, doesn’t believe the singer’s alcohol abuse led to his Alzheimer’s. He says Campbell had been sober for too long before the initial signs of mild cognitive impairment to connect the dots.
Though it is unclear what role alcohol played, Campbell’s friends believe his cognitive deficits were behind the 2003 DUI arrest.
Songwriter Jimmy Webb, who performs with five-time Grammy winner Campbell and wrote some of his biggest hits, including “Wichita Lineman,” “Galveston” and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” recalls unusual gaps in Campbell’s thinking around the time of the DUI. “He was having episodes,” says Webb. “I know he was because I was there. There were just moments when an air of unreality would settle over things. When Glen would forget lyrics on stage I knew there was something. Glen does not forget the lyrics to “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.” That’s all I needed.”
Now that doctors were using phrases like “cognitive impairment,” some of Campbell’s previously inexplicable behavior started making sense to Kim. “There were a couple of isolated incidents that I thought were odd,” she says, “but they were so isolated that all I could think was, ‘How odd.’ I remember back in 2003 he’d say, ‘Where’s the cereal?’ and I’d say, ‘In the pantry.’ He’d say,
‘Where’s the pantry?’ and ‘What’s a pantry?’
“‘The pantry, where we keep the food.’ Obvious things. Or ‘Where’s the garage?’ ‘Glen, you know where the garage is. It doesn’t make any sense. Think about it.’”
After Campbell’s diagnosis in January, the family had already decided to disclose news of the disease in a People magazine interview when a reviewer for the Indianapolis Star panned Campbell’s June show at Indiana’s Carmel Palladium. Campbell, the reviewer wrote, seemed “unprepared” and “disoriented.” When the review was posted on the newspaper’s site, some readers pointed to Campbell’s substance abuse. The review ran before the family disclosed
That was enough for Kim Campbell. “It just seemed like that was a confirmation that it would be a good idea to let people know so there would never be a misunderstanding,” she says. (In a blog, the writer later said the review would have been different had he known about Campbell’s Alzheimer’s.)
Webb performed with Campbell at the Indiana concert. He said Campbell “was fine. He forgot a couple of things, but in the scope of an hour and 30 minute show for him to forget a couple of minor details I don’t think is a big deal. Sometimes he has a little trouble with running order, but I have trouble with the running order. It’s a heady experience and your mind tends to fly in other directions when you’re onstage.”
For Webb, Campbell’s musical intelligence—marked by his versatility, spare and efficient vocal phrasing, and complex lead guitar playing and finger picking—make the Alzheimer’s diagnosis all the more heartrending.
“He’s one of the most musical people I’ve ever known, and I don’t exclude the worlds of classical or jazz. I don’t put any boundaries on that. He’s an infinitely gifted man. It makes it all the more difficult for me because I’ve loved him so much and appreciated him on a professional level far more than I could articulate. It makes this issue of health that he’s dealing with now very painful for me,” Webb says, choking up. “In spite of that I look at the way he’s handled it and once again he doesn’t disappoint because he’s been absolutely heroic in dealing with his disease.”
A Life of Gratitude
Campbell’s self-acceptance is a theme of his autobiographical Ghost On the Canvas. On the opening track, “A Better Place,” he sings: “Some days I’m so confused, Lord/My past gets in my way/I need the ones I love most/To hold me more each day.”
The album, Campbell’s most personal work, reflects the arc of his life, from his impoverished childhood in Arkansas, where he grew up one of eight boys and four girls, to the love songs for Kim, to his mortality. He sings about an artist’s work as soul and about all that he relishes and all that has haunted him. The album reflects his optimism. On “A Better Place,” he sings: “I’ve tried and I have failed Lord/I’ve won and I have lost/I’ve lived and I have loved Lord/Sometimes
at such a cost/One thing I know/The world’s been good to me/A better place awaits/You’ll see.”
“What do I have to complain about?” Campbell says. “I got to play with the best singers, the best players, just the best musicians. Wow.” The thought he repeats most during our interview, however, is not about the superstar musicians with whom he has rubbed shoulders but the presence of his kids on the road with him now. It is why he looks ahead to the show tonight and the one tomorrow.
“I deliberately put my kids on the road with me. I love to have my kids with me,” he says with a hallmark smile. Does he fear losing that memory? He drops the smile to emphasize the resolve in his answer. “I think I can hold onto it, I really do.”