Glen Campbell died yesterday, (Tuesday, August 8, 2017) in a Nashville nursing home. He was 81.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, one in eight older Americans will develop Alzheimer’s disease, and yet we still have no cure. Glen Campbell’s legacy may well be his confirmation of the notion that music can penetrate any mind, regardless of the state. Oliver Sacks wrote in his book, Musicophilia—Tales of Music and the Brain, that “the response to music is preserved, even when dementia is very advanced….Someone with Alzheimer’s may undergo a regression to ‘second childhood,’ but aspects of one’s essential character, of personality and personhood, of self, survive—along with certain almost indestructible forms of memory—even in very advanced dementia.” Sacks suggests that our individuality is so deeply ingrained in every cell of the central nervous system—which links the brain to every part of the body via the spinal cord—that the essence of personality persists even as the memory disappears.
With musicians of Campbell’s caliber, it is possible to see how his lifetime experience with music—going all the way back to his first guitar at age seven—would etch itself literally on every cell of his being. And so, when the conscious body cannot remember the words or the key of the song, his voice can still find the notes, and his fingers can still run the frets. Guitar playing in particular, requires that the musician practice until he no longer thinks about the notes, but plays them automatically. Guitar riffs often run so fast that the brain could not possibly instruct the fingers of both hands to strike each single note in time to play it, and so the brain develops a map that allows for the notes to be managed as one single, uninterrupted thought, much like a breath.
Early in his career, Glen Campbell was already a top studio musician. In fact, he was one of the elite Wrecking Crew of the 1960s who literally played 600 studio sessions in a year, for major albums by artists such as Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Nat King Cole, Sonny & Cher, Nancy Sinatra, The Monkeys, The Mamas and Papas, and the Beach Boys, to name just a few.
His musical map is one of the most detailed in history and there are many well-worn paths for his brain to follow home. As his wife of 30 years, Kim, explains, “Music is a natural memory aid, and it really works for him ’cause that’s what he does: music. So he’s able, most of the time, to remember and even learn new things because they’re set to music.” It’s no mean feat to do a concert under the best of circumstances, and to step on stage when you’re not sure of where you are or what time it is presents a challenge that takes a whole family to overcome. Campbell’s presence on stage is supported by his three youngest children, all in the their 20s, who play in his band and help keep him on track each evening, despite the wanderings of his mind.
Glen Travis Campbell was born April 22, 1936 in Delight, Arkansas, and raised in Billstown, Arkansas, one of 12 children and son of a sharecropper. During a musical career spanning more than 50 years, he has released 70 albums and sold more than 45 million units, (12 Gold, 4 Platinum and 1 Double-Platinum). He has won Grammys in both County and cross-over pop categories and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2005.
Now at 75, Campbell is touring for the final time before Alzheimer’s disease claims his talent for good. His personal life has also been colorful, and sometimes the stuff of tabloid fodder, including three previous marriages, as well as the infamously tempestuous and overwrought relationship with the much younger Tanya Tucker in 1980 that involved booze, drugs, and plenty of headlines. Campbell was an admitted and committed cocaine and alcohol abuser until he woke up in a hotel in Vegas unable to recall who he was—that amnesia may have been one of those really early warning signs of Alzheimer’s, like a road sign warning of falling rocks ahead. In retrospect, Kim views his DUI in 2003 as another, since he had been sober for 15 years at the time.
The signs of Alzheimer’s, his family members say, have been around for more than a decade. The Goodbye Tour is a brave and brilliant move at the same time, because the more he plays, the longer he seems to be able to hold on—and the proof is that they keep booking new dates, so the tour is currently extended through the fall of 2012. It’s hard for anyone to know just how far he will go, but I for one, am rooting him on. It’s bittersweet to watch him play. He forgets words and needs multiple teleprompters. He forgets what song they’re doing next, or the key of the song, or where he put his guitar, and his very talented kids are on stage to help him as he laughs through the rough spots. He shares his flubs with the audience who are so grateful to have this last chance with him. In the many interviews he has been giving with his wife at his side, it is clear that the man he was has already receded. He seems absent from the conversation, not really concerned about the things he gets wrong. But he gets one thing, that “he just plays guitar,” and when he does that, he’s still himself. And for Glen Campbell music may be the last thing to go….
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