Glen Campbell died last week at the age of 81, which prompted me to watch the documentary Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me, a 2014 film I’d been meaning to see for a while.
Depending on your age or affinity for the kind of music he recorded (country, or what he humorously called “crock,” a cross between country, pop & rock) you might not realize what a legend he was in the music industry, or how beloved he was by so many musicians–the superstars and the not-as-famous–or the COURAGE he displayed in the final chapter of his remarkable life, when he went on a lengthy Goodbye Tour, knowing he had Alzheimer’s.
You might be wondering, did he even know he had Alzheimer’s when he agreed to the tour? It’s a fair question given how debilitating the disease is, how it robs people of their memory and an ability to think clearly. When he first visited the Mayo Clinic in 2011 with his wife Kim, the cameras were rolling. And it’s downright painful watching him try to remember the 4 simple words the doctor asks him to repeat. Nor can he recall the year he was born, the first President of the U.S., or what year it is now. “No. I have no use for it now,” Glen says, but quips, “I can play guitar.” It’s a relief to see his sense of humor hasn’t disappeared into the fog of his brain, but it’s also heart-wrenching to watch his face react to the news he has Alzheimer’s. But heck, the man has just finished recording a new album, Ghost on the Canvas. What’s a country boy to do?
- 1 in 10 Americans over age 65 have Alzheimer’s
- 5.5 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s
- 15 million Americans provide unpaid care for people with Alzheimer’s — the Alzheimer’s Association
With the support of his family and friends, which included wife Kim and their 3 very musical grown kids, Glen decided to go on one last tour beginning in 2012 and do it for as long as he could. And, they all decided to make a movie about it. Sounds like a train wreck waiting around the first bend, right? At the end of a performance in Napa, CA, they decided the shows couldn’t continue–but by then, Glen and his touring band had played 151 different gigs. And not just any gigs. Carnegie Hall, outdoor amphitheaters, the Library of Congress. When Glen stumbled or forgot his words, guess what the audience did? They stood up and sang the words. They lifted him up at his most vulnerable, said his friend & the film’s director James Keach.
When I was a girl, I had a bit of a crush on Glen Campbell. He had a fun show Glen Campbell’s Goodtime Hour, plus he was handsome and I liked the way he sang. I lived in the northeast then, not Texas as I do now, and my crush went the way of most crushes. I fell for other “cooler” artists. My college tastes drifted towards rock and jazz and the blues.
SINGING HIS PRAISES
Bruce Springsteen: “He had a beautiful singing voice. Pure tone. It was simple on the surface, but there was a world of emotion underneath.”
Tom Petty: “He had that beautiful tenor with a crystal-clear guitar sound, playing lines that were so inventive. It moved me.”
Willie Nelson: “He’s always been a big help to me. During one of my down years, he signed me to his publishing company and paid me a lot of money. I only wrote one song, and it was ‘Bloody Mary Morning.’ I hope he got his money back!”
Lately America-the-Beautiful doesn’t seem so beautiful (last weekend’s White Supremacist gathering in Charlottesville?), which is one reason why, today, I wanted to write about Glen Campbell. He lived the American Dream until the end of his life, when he lived an American nightmare, but even then he found the grace to do something beautiful.
How does a kid with 11 brothers and sisters, born to sharecropper parents during the Depression in a town nobody ever heard of (Billstown, Arkansas), grow up to sell more than 45 million records, fill in for Brian Wilson during part of a Beach Boys tour, star opposite John Wayne in the first True Grit movie, win multiple Grammy and other awards, and land in the Country Music Hall of Fame? When he was four, an uncle bought him a Sears & Roebuck guitar. The film will tell you everything else and then some: his four marriages, his eight children, his bout with alcohol and cocaine, his deep religious faith. It will also show you Alzheimer’s at work. And tell you why early diagnosis is important: there are a few drugs that can slow the onset of the worst symptoms.
What Glen Campbell has done to shine a light on Alzheimer’s and the need for research money to find a cure may be his greatest achievement. This, in a lifetime that was full of glittering achievements. That’s what a number of politicians have said. In the film, there’s a segment called Mr. Campbell Goes to Washington. Glen does go and sit beside daughter Ashley as she testifies before Congress about what it’s like to perform with a father who can’t remember her name–and eventually won’t remember her at all.
As the Baby Boomers continue to age and get Alzheimer’s, staggering amounts of money will be needed to pay for their treatment–much of it from Medicare. Government funding for research towards a cure is very limited compared to the size of the problem. The pharmaceutical companies don’t have the money to tackle the problem on their own. This is something explained in the film, but where there’s a will, there’s a way.
None of us want to grow old with Alzheimer’s, nor do we want to burden our children or society. Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me will make you cry, but it will also give you hope.