In case you are someone who has been criminally deprived of the cultural gift of knowing who Glen Campbell is, let me briefly tell you why you need to immediately change that. First of all, Glen Campbell is an amazing musician. He was a session musician in California in the early 1960’s, playing guitar with the renowned “Wrecking Crew” of musicians who provided studio session work for artists like The Mamas and The Papas, Dean Martin, The 5th Dimension, Phil Spector and Elvis. He toured with The Beach Boys and played on Pet Sounds. That right there should be enough to secure him a place on Wikipedia.
Secondly, Glen Campbell is an unbelievably tender singer. He’s best known for his solo career as a country star in the late 1960’s and 1970’s, with songs like “Wichita Lineman,” “By the Time I Get To Phoenix,” and “Hey Little One.” His music was lushly orchestrated, but the rich string arrangements never overshadowed the depth and pathos in his voice. You can hear it most clearly in “Rhinestone Cowboy,” a song that on the surface seems to glorify glamour and fame but is really about the emptiness of longing for those things. Campbell’s voice subverts the flashy production, a timbre of desperation resonating within the seemingly triumphant tone. Campbell’s voice is one of the saddest, most poignant musical instruments I’ve ever heard.
Last of all, Glen Campbell is a badass. Not because he can shred a guitar. Not because he played opposite John Wayne in True Grit. Not because he survived decades of hard drinkin’ and hard livin’ that would be the requisite existence of a country star. No, Glen Campbell is a badass because of how he’s staring down Alzheimer’s.
In 2011, Glen Campbell announced that his increasing difficulties with memory loss were due to Alzheimer’s. His response was to release a farewell album and embark on a final tour. The album, Ghost On the Canvas, was a beautiful meditation on mortality, longing, sentimentality, and reflection. It features contributions from musicians as diverse as Paul Westerberg, Brian Setzer, Billy Corgan, and Dick Dale. He made his final concert appearance in November 2012. Faced with the prospect of a slow and steady mental deterioration, Campbell went all in to secure his legacy as an artist of depth, melancholy, and rich emotional nuance. (So f--- you, Alzheimer’s.)
So last night I dreamed about Glen Campbell. I dreamed that he had taken up a performance residence at a small dinner theater nearby. Word had gotten out that Glen Campbell had come to town, but that his performance had dramatically suffered due to his advancing Alzheimer’s. But I was determined to go, and so I arrived at the theater in between sets, settling into my seat as people left after the first set.
When he came on to play, I understood why. He had no band with him; instead, he was singing to backing tracks piped in over the PA system. I was very disappointed; he’d had a great band support him on his tour. And even without a band, I knew he could accompany himself on guitar. But I also knew his disease may have made it impossible to play anymore, and I was determined to hear what this artist still had to offer.
As he began to sing, his voice was shaky and uncertain. People began to leave only a few bars into the first song. Then he began to forget words, and his tempo slowed so that he was out of sync with the backing music. No one booed, but a sense of embarrassment began to fall over the room.
Just then, a young man walked on to the stage behind Campbell. At first, I thought he might be there to usher Campbell off the stage, to save him from humiliation and put an end to the sad spectacle we were witnessing. And for a moment, I hoped that was what would happen; I felt Glen Campbell deserved better than for that to be the way he ended his career. But the young man leaned forward into Campbell’s ear and began singing the song. He was so quiet that we couldn’t hear him in the audience, but it was clear that it was what Campbell needed to sing the song. Singing along with the young man, his voice regained tempo and confidence, and he began to sing the lyrics fully and clearly. The mood in the room immediately shifted: with the help of this man’s voice in his ear, Campbell inhabited his instrument with all of the delicate command of his youth. He began to sing “Gentle On My Mind,” and he owned it so beautifully that I started to cry. I forgot about the backing track in the PA, I forgot about his faltering beginning, I forgot about the people who’d left, and I felt so held in the gravity of Campbell’s voice that I just wept. I wept so hard that it woke me up, and I was lying in bed still crying.
I don’t believe dreams are magical messages, or mysteries to be decoded, or mystical predictions of the future. I believe they are simply random concoctions our brain produces when it’s free from the preoccupations of waking consciousness. I also believe that they can connect to something powerfully present to our emotional state that they linger with us and have something to teach us about what we’re feeling and experiencing. So I’ve been feeling this powerful dream all day.
What does this dream have to do with being a parent? Why would I put it on my blog? What does Glen Campbell have to do with “reflecting, processing, and learning about myself and my family”? I wasn’t sure at first, but I couldn’t shake the powerful emotions I felt even as I showered and dressed this morning. Recalling that vivid moment in my dream of watching that young man sing to Glen Campbell so that he reclaimed his voice, I still found myself tearing up hours after the dream had dissipated into the night.
Psalm 27:10 says, “If my mother and father forsake me, the Lord will take me up.” This is a psalm that praises the ever-present support of YHWH in the face of human enemies. Even if we had good parents, there are times when they aren’t with us or when we feel so alone that even the love of our parents is absent or meaningless. Like the old blues song says, “Nobody loves me but my mother, and she could be jivin’ too.” I had parents who loved me, but this verse always comforted me by assuring in a hyperbolic way that if no one loved me, God still would.
I find comfort in this now with a different interpretation: I no longer identify as the forsaken child, but as the parent. I don’t intend to forsake my child, but I know I’m far from perfect and I fail her in little ways every day. And when I do, God will be there for her. Not just her, but both of us. When I can inhabit myself with confidence and assurance and grace, I have a beautiful voice to offer her. But I falter; I lose the tempo, I forget the words, I embarrass myself when I struggle to get it right, to live up to the legacy I strive to achieve. In those moments, someone steps up behind me and gently in my ear sings in a still, small voice so that I can find the song again. I’ve reflected lately about the stress of moving, and the guilt I’ve carried for being the one responsible for the upheaval in my family life. I’ve faltered a lot lately. But I trust that there is a presence greater than me waiting in the wings that will take up the song for me until I can recover so that the embarrassment of stumbling doesn’t become a failure, but a healing. I experience grace in every moment I am joined by the spirits of my better nature, by my friends and family, by the divine hand of tenderness, to find my place.
So thank you, Glen Campbell, for reminding me of that presence whose door is always open, whose path is free to walk, whose always waving to me from the backroads by the rivers of my memory, to help me fully sing the song that is my little one.