Wednesday 4 July 2012

Glen CAMPBELL: Glen Campbell's Twenty Golden Greats

(#177: 27 November 1976, 6 weeks)

Track listing: Rhinestone Cowboy/Both Sides Now/By The Time I Get To Phoenix/Gentle On My Mind/Too Many Mornings/Wichita Lineman/One Last Time/Don’t Pull Your Love-Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye/Reason To Believe/It’s Only Make Believe/Honey Come Back/Give Me Back That Old Familiar Feeling/Galveston/Dreams Of The Everyday Housewife/The Last Thing On My Mind/Where’s The Playground, Susie/Try A Little Kindness/Country Boy (You Got Your Feet In L.A.)/All I Have To Do Is Dream/Amazing Grace

“I really don’t know life at all.”
“Is this what I really am?”

After too long, the Worried Man found that he was satisfied. He had made it. Yes, he had made it, up to a point, before then, but he hadn’t found it very enjoyable. He knew his guitar like the back and front of his hands, he felt what songs we wanted to sing, but the people who had invested their interest in him were happy for him to go along as a sort of post-hippie Gene Autry, being a cartoon country and western avatar. He wasn’t happy with this, and then sometime in the mid-seventies, when even his friend Jimmy had become forgotten, he found a song which outlined and encapsulated what he felt about the whole, stinking scene. He was in L.A., but, like Neil Diamond, it wasn’t home to him. This song spelled out everything he couldn’t stand about the way his life had gone, complete with swipes at “On Broadway” and “The Hustle,” and his means of standing up for himself and shouting “No more!”

He thought he’d done a pretty good job on the song. Good, controlled but very heartfelt vocals; in places he sounded not very far away from Neil Young. “A Man Needs A Maid.” He thought: there’s a song I could have done.

Paradoxically – because that is the way things happen – the song made him more popular than ever, brought him back. Number one on the Hot 100; that hadn’t happened to him before. And so the song about getting out of this rat race made him even more susceptible to rats, the people he didn’t even know, calling him with offers – what offers? Hollywood Squares next Tuesday? – which meant that, when he thought about putting it all together, he looked back on the life that had brought him to this point. “Rhinestone Cowboy” as a framing device for an extended dream – for in his songs there had been so many dreams, so many “believe”s, too many contradictions.

He thought about Joni. She was all right. She’d been on his Goodtime Hour, those weird guitar tunings which produced piano jazz chords, that laughing openness. And he sang the song of hers many had sung before – hey, another song about rain and snow! – but stretched the melody so far over the bar lines that he sang it virtually out of tempo. Nobody was going to hurry him. But what, the song asks, has he learned of life? His regretful answer is: not very much at all, nothing of worth or value.

Back to Johnny Rivers. That was who the song was written for originally, and he got a copy of his album, heard the song and recognised something of himself in it. Somebody called Webb, from Elk City, Oklahoma, was the composer, and so he tried to get in touch with him. Oh yeah; good old Jim, his songs and singing always showed a marked difference, a heightening of intensity and commitment, when he sang and played them.

The record only did fair business on Billboard - peaking at #26 – but it got his name noticed, and he still chuckled at the thought of Jimmy, and of “Phoenix.” Man, the variations that guy got out of an F major seventh – that key, which you don’t come across every day, was the basis for most of his famous songs. He grinned remembering that Jamaican guy with his “No Woman, No Cry” that came out around the same time as “Rhinestone Cowboy” – that was in F major too. Should keep an eye on him.

But “Phoenix.” Why the chuckle? He thought of how many people had covered it, or rearranged it, or resculpted it, at how often the original got played on oldies radio (thereby giving the impression that it was a far bigger hit than in reality it was). He still warmed with inner admiration at the song’s economy, a story told in just three verses, terse, concise. He goes travelling, rather numbed, but breaks out into tearful emotionalism when the signifiers are flagged up – “So many times before,” “But time and time again,” that latter line sung as though yanking the goodbye letter out of his throat – and when he sings “Off the wall – that’s all,” it’s a bit like the Big O. He doesn’t erupt into sadness, though; just Webb’s genius as the song finally modulates down before unexpectedly settling (“I would really go”) on a reproachful D major. He travels on, and away from the listener. When were places like Albuquerque and Oklahoma referenced in pop songs anyway, outside of Chuck Berry or Rodgers and Hammerstein?

Yes, he ruminated, his was quite the performance. And that Isaac Hayes one – giving the whole thing a backstory, building it up and up until the drummer’s hand is on the verge of falling off, then bringing in full orchestra and chorus as though his “Phoenix” were the end, or summation, or something? Eighteen minutes to do it. Wow.

And still he chuckled, because he wondered how many people had noticed the simple trick “Phoenix” pulls off. Not Isaac Hayes, that’s for sure, not the legions of writers who seized on the song’s finite sadness, the slow glide of regretful departure, the shaking off of an old and unsatisfactory life. Because, well…”She’ll,” “the ‘phone will…,” “She’ll” over and over, all in the same conditional future tense. Has he actually left her?. The answer has to be no – “Phoenix” is a dissatisfied man fantasising about leaving his lover; he doesn’t go to Albuquerque or Oklahoma, except in his mind.

Mind? “Gentle On My Mind,” the John Hartford song with its “columbines” pun, its piling up of fuck you detritus, a song all about a man who doesn’t think twice about walking out on his lover(s); if he gets bored, why, he just makes for the nearest railroad, or junkyard, or highway, carries on unfettered. But it’s not even as simple as that, because this one woman, she keeps invading his head every time he pauses to think, on the back road by the river, and he in truth is tormenting himself because he knows deep down she might have been The One, and, furthermore, there might still be a chance that he can get back to her. But bear in mind; this is the truth behind the façade of “Phoenix” – the man really has no regrets about worrying others.

And it digs deeper into his mind, and heart; in “Too Many Mornings” he faces up to the emptiness of his transient existence – no more lonely nights, indeed – and wants to break out of it. To head back home – so many songs of this time, he felt, were about going home, or trying to find home.

Instead of which, he washes up in the vast middle of Kansas.

Imagine that he kept on through Oklahoma – yes, you have to do many unnecessary twists and turns to get from there to Wichita, but geography here is really a state of mind – and finds his loneness. He is surrounded by nobody and nothing, and simultaneously by the world. He is working high up on the telephone lines, fixing them, fiddling with them, changing them around, and he is as alone as any hapless Brontë heroine on the moors of West Yorkshire. He himself doesn’t change; from his story alone we could be in the twenties or thirties. In his mind he mingles workaday details of the pitfalls of his job and a piercingly sore yearning for the person he left behind. “I can hear you through the wires” – he is engulfed in quiet modernism, in a near-silent nowness, because he feels, he knows, that the world around him has changed, although he himself has not.

And then we get to the greatest lyric couplet in this tale. “What tale?” he asked. “This is my story.”

A couplet that has no need for the word “love” yet couldn’t exist without it.

A couplet in which “need” is given priority over “want” – the Carter Family marooned in a world full of Jetsons?

A couplet where that “for all time” could have been the corniest and laziest rhyme in all pop, but here, because of its emotional placement and delivery, stands for “eternity.”

The balance of old and new – the low-strung lead guitar paying tribute to Duane Eddy (“Because We Were Young”?), the RKO bleeps of Webb’s own organ, loaded onto a truck and taken to Western Recorders at the singer’s expressed wish.

High up, he knows the old world, and therefore his world, is fading, being superseded by a modernity he can’t quite understand. The camera of Al de Lory’s orchestration pulls away, to reveal an unending stream of green, of cars and trucks, of a dot in the middle horizon which if you look closely might still resemble a man.

Yes, he reflected, no matter what songs he sung, Jimmy always went above those.

That one where he did his Orbison thing, “One Last Time,” and you can tell, not just from the deliberately melodramatic drums and piano, that when he’s not dreaming about leaving her, when he is actually in a position to do it, he can’t quite do it. He begins solemn, reasonable, but the agony slowly builds up around him until he breaks down and confesses that he doesn’t want this to end. “Baby I WANT you!” he keeps screaming into the fade as though about to rip the song into pieces.

These Lambert and Potter guys, they brought him back by producing “Rhinestone Cowboy” and they suggested a little old-new medley. They’d already had a hit with “Don’t Pull Your Love” for Hamilton, Joe Frank and Reynolds – yes, he remembered them too, nice, clean kids from L.A., and weren’t they back on the charts now? – but slowed it down so he could marry it up with the old Casinos ballad. In one song he asks not to be left to cry for a hundred years, in the other he pleas to be loved for a million years. A bravura performance, always goes down well in concert. But a plea for permanence nonetheless. “Reason To Believe,” well, he doesn’t turn it into a Rod Stewart train wreck, he does it with good reason, even though the lover here is laughing at the tears he cried in “Don’t Pull Your Love.” And then he reaches out for love, for someone, for anything. “It’s Only Make Believe,” an old hit for his buddy Conway Twitty, and he does it, again, like Orbison, vaulting through two chord changes, daring the listener to guess how high he’s prepared to go, how much self-inflicted pain he’s prepared to suffer; he loves her, he’d do anything for her, but – perhaps like Barry Ryan’s “Eloise” – she doesn’t actually exist, except in his dreams.

What was that line from Barrie again about how Peter Pan wants to fly out the window but finds it closed and barred?

“Honey Come Back,” Jimmy again – and if this is not the sequence in which he recorded these songs (so their underlying, unifying story is slightly opaque), then this is the song where he drops all the pretending. “Seems like a hundred years ago,” he muses, but he may have already lost her; she’s off with someone else, off to the bright lights and big time. Half the song he talks, or at any rate mutters, before suddenly breaking back into song. Who is this, leaving him for a better future – could he even be singing to himself, his old self, about to become a huge star with the biggest of lives? The thought is examined more deeply in “That Old Familiar Feeling” with its arching, echoing pedal steel.

Was he really singing about himself, he wondered? And what, if anything, had he left behind?

“Galveston” – from Kansas to Texas, and yet to a Vietnam pretending to be the Civil War (hence the splashing cannons); he is prepared to go and fight, and risk his life, all in favour of forgetting what he’s running away from, but he can’t; the girl on the beach (did somebody say “The Girls On The Beach”?) is the same one loitering in the vagabond’s back roads of memory in “Gentle On My Mind,” but now with the added dynamic of the question “and is she waiting there for me?” – if indeed she is waiting at all. “I’m so scared of dying” – how often do you hear a line like that in pop, even now? But the girl, the beach, the sea, the memory, the war – “Galveston” is pop’s equivalent to Chris Marker’s La Jetée, a series of stills all about memory, and love, and a horror barely touched upon.

But “Dreams Of The Everyday Housewife,” now that is a disturbing song. Written by one Chris Gantry, and a bigger hit for the singer in 1968 (in the USA) than “Gentle On My Mind” was, it is a delirious waltz which is more than a little reminiscent of Scott Walker’s very similar work, and lyrically just as double-edged; the housewife looks at her old photo albums, her old prom gown, wonders what the hell went wrong, from the time everybody wanted her. But – and here’s the mystifying rub – the housewife is clearly an Everywoman figure, but she “gave up the good life for me.” Every one of them. Musically the song looks forward to John Denver (especially “Calypso”) but this is worrisome. Again, that chuckle of his – all of these women giving up their lives for him? Or is he portraying himself as a kind of Everyman; is it a comment on the kind of people who buy and listen to his records – they think of the lives they used to have and the lives they live now, and his music is something of a succour, a balm, a form of pain relief?

“The Last Thing On My Mind,” Tom Paxton’s greatest song, and he thought he did it more than justice. Again his voice wanders down the corridors of Roy Orbison (though he wasn’t sure whether his 1971 version of “Dream Baby,” the missing link, would make the final cut; it didn’t, despite being Top 40 in both Britain and the States) but settles somewhere in the neighbourhood of Johnny Mathis. He is lying in his bed, like his friend Brian, consumed by fear and worry, and maybe the key point of his performance is when he exclaims “Lord, without you!,” putting an emphasis on the “Lord” as symbol of the thing which actually might be missing in his life…

…and did you catch, in that “Lord, without you!,” and the harmonic setting, the embryo of “Joan Of Arc” by Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark?

“Where’s The Playground, Susie” – Jimmy again, the most heartfelt thing of his he ever sung (though he wondered how many remembered his 1970 “Just Another Piece Of Paper” or “The Moon’s A Harsh Mistress” from ’74). “And here we stand/In a box of sand.” He thought again of his friend Brian, another sandbox dweller who never quite managed not to be a child. “And still you’re not content with something in me” – is this what we hoped for, grew up for, he asks, as he aims for the most absurd of high notes? Now he is in explicit pain.

And then there was “Try A Little Kindness,” a strange song for him to sing since it demanded the allowance of there being other people in the world. And yet “if you try a little kindness, you’ll overlook the blindness of narrow-minded people”…walking those streets of Broadway?

He snaps out of the reverie, or thinks he does. He’s in L.A., and it doesn’t matter that he was from Delight, Arkansas, rather than anywhere in Tennessee (America is his emotional shorthand); he takes another hard look at where he is, what he’s done with his life, and asks himself: “Is this who I really am?” and reminisces: “I can remember the time when I sang my songs for free.” Or the time a decade or so before, when he’d get up, do a round of golf, drive to the studios, read and play flyshit for a couple of hours, get paid, go back to the golf course, and then hang out with his family and friends drinking beer. Why couldn’t he have been satisfied with being L.A.’s best session guitarist? But Brian didn’t want to tour, so he went out on his behalf, and Brian even wrote and produced a song for him called “Guess I’m Dumb” which probably won’t be on this record and he guesses not too many people know about it; less than knew about “Turn Around, Look At Me” back in 1961.

The loneliness of the long-distance telephone repairman and that of the ageing surfer; move “Surf’s Up” inland, personalise it and you get “Wichita Lineman.”

And, finally, after a lifetime of walking out on girls or begging to be with girls, there is the voice of a girl, there in the studio with him. It is the voice of Bobbie Gentry, someone with a story of her own to tell, although there’ll be no real opportunity to tell it here, and they are remembering the Everlys (one side of a double-sided chart-topper, the other side of which was written by Roy Orbison). But it’s the same old story (that “gee whiz!” could stand for the sigh of Tantalus) of dreaming, imagining that love exists – and would you know Bobbie Gentry was on the record if you didn’t know it was her? Her voice is mixed so closely with his that you cannot clearly hear her; it could almost be him duetting with his overdubbed self. She is a ghost in his life’s camera.

No, this is not what he wants, or needs.

“Amazing Grace,” the last and most important song in this particular story

do you hear “Joan Of Arc” again? Same key and tempo and everything

and a song which keeps turning up when pop is in crisis – think “Never Ever,” think Calvin Harris’ “I’m Not Alone,” think even unto Kip Moore’s “Somethin’ ‘Bout A Truck”

Hey, I told you once, butt on out of MY story!

but “Amazing Grace,” a song he has known all his life, its dominant A major as reassuring a presence as the Statue of Liberty – and through performing this song he gains release, finds what he has been searching for. All of a sudden he leaves the world of heartaches and compromise behind, exceeds himself. His version pays tribute to both the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards – his own bagpipes – and Aretha Franklin (the gospel choir). He steadily and carefully ascends from sonorous baritone to Presley-like highness; it is a song of deliverance from the everyday, it is the song in which the singer finds his real self.

And he sings the song, the song he sang in church, when there was still hope, when possibilities still lay open for him, and realises that, like the song before it, he has wasted much too time dreaming his life away, travelling only in his head, for this Worried Man finds that he is not Glen Campbell, but living in the same house in Bedford Falls, Nebraska, while the world waited for him, and in part died for lack of him.

Is this record a map of the quietly tormented mind of George Bailey?

Where does he get these notions from? Alas, I know only too well; he gets them from me. I instilled them in him. He watches a film on television on Christmas Eve and he has all these crazy ideas.

I never say it to him, but I’m more than a little worried about what’s going to happen to him.

It is Christmas, 1976, and he has his presents; we give them to him straight now, rather than pretending that there is a Santa Claus. All because when he was seven, there was a stupid advertisement in a magazine he saw where the boy’s parents were laying out his presents beneath the tree. He stopped believing, and I believe something small but important died in him at that point.

But there is no question that he is racing ahead now; he’s only a month off thirteen, but he’s catching me out on stuff now, I who taught him half of everything he knows. But I can only lay the ground; he has to cultivate it. He has his music – so much music in here, even for a twelve-year-old, even for
him - and his books and he knows exactly what’s happening, and why. He makes me feel a little ashamed of myself a lot of the time, which is why I get so angry sometimes. At least that’s one of the reasons.

In truth, though, I can only do so much. I am forty-five, I have diagnosed hypertension, my heart isn’t in the best state, I have the overpowering feeling that I ought to have made more of my life, and the lives of those around me, than I perhaps did. I am well aware that in life expectancy terms I am now on stoppage time. If I make fifty that will be a real achievement. But if
he can make it to fifty I will feel, even beyond this life, that I have achieved something.

I have a feeling that he will end up too much like me. I can see it in his eyes. Heart problems are a given. But he will also have things that I never had, or never allowed myself to have. It will not be easy for him – I know this from looking at him now, even asleep. There is going to be trouble and the world will at times be astonishingly cruel towards him. But he still has that safety valve inside him – he’s made of stronger stuff than me, it’s beyond question.

All these records, though. 1976. He keeps his charts and I have to say I stopped keeping up a good while ago. Can’t abide
Top of the Pops. Nor, I suspect, can he. But he listens to these records, says things about them, writes about them and I don’t know anyone else who does, certainly no one of his age.

I frequently worry about what’s going to happen to him after he leaves school, when he’ll have to deal directly with The World, when he doesn’t have journalists and teachers to protect him. But I have no doubt he’ll find a way. He’s persistent and a survivor, like his mother.

I’m hard on you sometimes because the world’s going to be much harder.

But go on you must. After all, you’re my only son.

(The above is based on remembered talk and genuine writing by my father, who would have been eighty-one years old today.)