december 2011

Glen Campbell on his Goodbye Tour, in concert at the Ryman Auditorium, Nashville, Nov. 30, 2011.

Has Time Rewritten Every Line?

By David McGee

Glen Campbell
Real Gone Music

For reasons still unexplained, Capitol Records decided against a stateside release of Glen Campbell’s 1975 Live in Japan album. It had been a hit in Japan, and hearing it now, finally in its domestic version, it’s fair to say the Japanese must have known something the Capitol executives did not. In Capitol’s defense, though, 1975 was a big revival year for Campbell, with his chart topping success of the “Rhinestone Cowboy” single and album, which began a string of hit singles, five out of the next six being Top 5, with “Southern Nights” (1977) giving Glen another #1. Maybe Live in Japan was seen as impeding the momentum; we really don’t know. That this is such a fine performance only deepens the puzzlement as to it being relegated to import obscurity.

Vintage Glen Campbell, performing Jimmy Webb’s ‘Galveston’ on The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour

But wondering why Live in Japan did not merit a U.S. release is not what anyone is going to think about when they experience the vitality and spirit of the artist’s performance at Kosei Nenkin Hall in Tokyo, as recorded on May 29, 1975. With Campbell now on his Goodbye Tour after being diagnosed with early stage Alzheimer’s Disease, with presumably his final studio album (the intensely moving Ghost On the Canvas) gathering rave reviews, Live in Japan serves as kind of a reality check: those who grew up with Campbell and remember the hits when they were fresh; who reveled in the amazing delights he would spring on us on The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour (1969-1972; it began the same year as Johnny Cash’s TV show, ran one year longer than Cash’s show, and was a bit more mainstream in its guest stars but rarely dull--for gosh sake’s, many shows began with John Hartford standing up in the audience and playing banjo like nobody’s business) will be reminded, if it’s necessary, that Glen Campbell in his prime was a dauntingly gifted artist. It wasn’t enough that he came to TV having already compiled a breathtaking resume of session and stage work with Elvis, the Beach Boys, Phil Spector and others; when he broke out in ’67 with his magnificent version of Hartford’s “Gentle On My Mind” he became more than an awesome picker--Glen Campbell was also a powerful, affecting singer, with enough polish in his clear tenor to be convincing singing “If You Go Away” (Jacques Brel-Rod McKeuen), enough soul to pull off a credible “Dock of the Bay,” enough country to practically make Ernest Tubb’s “Tomorrow Never Comes” his own, enough folkish sensitivity to burrow inside and put the chill on Paul Simon’s “Homeward Bound.” And of course, all of these vocal attributes made him the foremost interpreter of Jimmy Webb songs, which seemed to occupy multiple genres simultaneously, so rich were their dynamics and so fluid was Campbell’s delivery. To those generations that grew up never knowing Glen Campbell as a hitmaking artist (or far worse, as tabloid fodder), this live album is an introduction to an indisputably great artist, on stage and on record.

Ricky Skaggs, Glen Campbell and John Hartford get together to perform Hartford’s ‘Gentle On My Mind’

All his artistry is on display here. He opens by making Mac Davis’s cheesy “I Believe in Music” a rousing moment simply on the strength of his rhythmic phrasing and jubilant attitude; as if to make a point, he follows this with a moving rendition of his greatest record, Webb’s “Galveston,” his bluesy, gripping vocal beautifully modulated to heighten the lyrics’ odd balance of violent imagery and romantic despair (Webb has confirmed that the song is set during the Spanish-American War). Over the next 45-plus minutes we get a big, operatic take on Conway Twitty’s “It’s Only Make Believe”; a tender, understated (as much as it can be with an orchestra) “I Honestly Love You” that illustrates the depth of feeling he could bring to a love ballad without ever overdoing it and crossing the line into schmaltz, a balancing act he executes perfectly once more in the show with a pairing of the pensive “Try to Remember” with “The Way We Were” (in introducing the latter he not only tips his hat to Barbra Streisand’s mammoth hit but also to Gladys Knight’s version--nice); unloads a sizzling acoustic guitar solo to supplement Carl Jackson’s sprinting Scruggs-style banjo and fiery fiddling on Jackson’s bluegrass instrumental, “Song For Y’all” and gallops through a white-hot electric solo on the penultimate “William Tell Overture”; reels off a staggering medley of his own hits on the seven-and-a-half minute “Hits Medley”; and makes us hear “My Way,” in 2012, from a whole other perspective. The only weird part of the show is when he introduces “Coming Home,” a triumphant ballad about brothers reuniting after having grown apart, as having been written by Billy Wood, “one of the original Four Tops.” It’s a good song, but it was not written by anyone named Billy Wood (on the album it’s credited as a co-write between Bill Backer, Rod McBrian and Billy Davis) and there was no Billy Wood in the Four Tops.

A banjo pickin’ Glen in 1965 cutting loose on Red Simpson’s ‘Truck Driving Man,’ with Leon Russell on piano

In introducing his “Try To Remember/The Way We Were” medley, a somber Campbell says: “Everybody’s always talking about the good old days, the good old days, the good old days, so let’s talk about the good old days. As bad as they are, these will be the good old days for our children, so why don’t we just…try to remember, the kind of September, when life was slow, and oh so mellow…I wonder why it seems the past was always better--the winters were warmer, the grass was greener, the skies were bluer, the smiles were so much brighter. Could it be it was all so simple then…”

In the current context, exactly what do you say to that?

Glen Campbell’s Live in Japan is available at

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