3:15 pm Oct. 15, 20121
By the time Glen Campbell made a lewd joke Saturday night, in the midst of his performance at Carnegie Hall, it was clear that the famed country singer had decided to go for a lighter sort of show.
Of course, with Campbell 'lewd' is a relative term: the deeply religious country singer has never had any of the bite that his contemporaries like Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson did. Sure, there was plenty of alcohol and cocaine and hanging out with Fleetwood Mac at times in his career, but those edges of his life never made it into his songs, always well-mannered and only ever secretly subversive. So when, after his cover of Jimmy Buffet's "Where's the Playground, Suzie?" he joked about his age, saying, "I can still jump as high, just can't stay up as long!" the subtlety of the entendre was fitting, and the joy he took in delivering it made it clear that there wasn't a place in the world that he'd rather be than on stage.
Campbell’s current tour is called “The Goodbye Tour,” and this really is the last time he’s going out on the road (the tour wraps up, after nearly a year, next month). Campbell was diagnosed with Alzheimer's over a year ago, and has said he would prefer to wrap things up while he’s still 100 percent, and at the same time get out there to raise awareness about the disease. His last two albums, including 2011's stark vision, Ghost on The Canvas, stand as proudly defiant works. Full of songs written by younger acts like Guided by Voices and Jakob Dylan, Ghost was made entirely post-diagnosis, with a promise in the liner notes that it would be Campbell’s final studio work. It alternates between moments of defiance and moments of acceptance. His show was the same way.
Despite the brilliance of the recent album, Campbell unsurprisingly made the show more a greatest-hits celebration than anything else. For aficionados, there a few life stages that had to be touched upon, and he didn’t disappoint: his introspective collaborations with songwriter Jimmy Webb ("Galveston", the famed "Wichita Lineman"), the upbeat duets with Bobbie Gentry ("Try a Little Kindness"), that time he co-starred in True Grit with John Wayne (no song, but delightful bit of stage banter: "I couldn't act worth a patoot, but I saved that movie!").
With any celebrity who gets to this age, there are certain segments that get forgotten, left off. Campbell made no reference to his time as part of the Beach Boys (where he stood in for Brian Wilson for a time), working on Pet Sounds, or his cover of the vicious anti-war song "The Universal Song" (Campbell's a lifelong conservative). Presumably, its because these were side projects. With limited chances, Campbell took a night a Carnegie Hall to sing both the favorites and the ones that have stayed with him.
"Galveston", as Jimmy Webb once noted, has slowed down over the years. A song about the Spanish-American War, it started its life as an uptempo ballad. In the iteration Campbell produced Saturday night, he let his voice swell in a way that seemed as steady as the tides. On "Try a Little Kindness" he took a break to pick guitar and show that he's still every bit the session man he was in the ‘60s. Between most songs he was laughing, seemingly still amazed that he would be playing Carnegie Hall.
"Wow, New York City! … You're wonderful!!" Campbell was in full showman mode, befitting a man wearing a white suit with a sparkling electric-blue shirt.
Having his family on hand surely added to his comfort (three Campbell children play in the backing band), as did the presence of his dearly devoted fans. Carnegie Hall wasn’t close to sold out, but those who showed up were hardcore fans. Like clockwork, every few songs someone would work up enough courage to run up to the stage and ask Campbell to touch their hand, a favor he was kind enough to oblige. The level of comfort was evident on Campbell’s face, even in moments of confusion: a song would start and he’d stop the band, wondering if they had played it earlier that night. It happened a couple times, and after each one he’d joke, “Anybody in this room, did any of y’all ever forget anything?”
What song to end with? “Wichita Lineman” would have been a fine pick, as would “Rhinestone Cowboy”, especially given Campbell’s glimmering outfit. A section of the crowd was rooting for his cover of Allen Toussaint’s “Southern Nights” to end the night, there was a cheer when it appeared to be the last song. But to finalize the proceedings, he interestingly chose a new song.
“A Better Place” is one of the shorter songs on Ghost, an acoustic solo track that leads off the album. It’s brutally autobiographical, a break with anything else in Campbell’s oeuvre: “Some days I’m so confused, Lord, the past gets in my way/ I need the ones I love, Lord/ More and more each day”. But like the best goodbye songs, the “We’ll Meet Again”s and “I’m Free From the Chain Gang Now”, “A Better Place” sees through the struggle, and finally, it seemed Campbell wanted to finish looking ahead.
One thing I know, the world’s been good to me
A better place awaits, you’ll see.
If a cloud hangs over Glen Campbell’s life, it’s clear that the stage must seem like the last sunny place in the world.