You don't know the meaning of "poignant" until Glen Campbell, sitting two feet from you, starts to sing "Ghost on the Canvas," the title track of his new — and final — album. The country great, who's going through the early stages of Alzheimer's, sometimes forgets which family member once saved him from drowning, the last city he played, which guitar he used on "Good Vibrations." But when he sails into the magical realism of this heartbreaking Paul Westerberg ballad, he's the old Glen.
"I know a place between / Life and death / For you and me," he croons in his familiar, boyish tenor. He sings about the end, about eternity, and you have to turn your head away, to brush back tears.
Valley resident Campbell, still spry and blond at 75, his wife, Kim, sitting beside him, is in Manhattan to promote Ghost, maybe the finest album he's ever made. And even though some familiar names elude him, and at one point he gets me an Evian, then proceeds to drink it himself, Campbell hasn't lost a step musically. He's still the untutored guitar genius of L.A.'s famous Wrecking Crew, still the man who skyrocketed to stardom singing "Galveston" and "Wichita Lineman" in the late '60s. His new songs — some of which he co-wrote, others penned by the likes of Westerberg, Jakob Dylan, and Teddy Thompson — are virtually their equal, bringing to mind what Campbell's friend John Wayne said in Rio Bravo: "I'd hate to have to live on the difference."
Has Campbell's increasing memory loss impeded him from playing and singing these new songs? "Not really," he says, the faintest trace of his Arkansas accent still sharpening his vowels. "My producer, Julian Raymond, and I went through about 50 submissions and picked a bunch. Co-wrote some others. Recording is still easy for me. Like when I played with the Beach Boys. I just put the capo up to the proper key and go! We had a saying in the '60s: 'Make the feel feel good.' It was no different this time."
Many of the songs on Ghost are about getting old and letting go, with frightening emotions lurking just beneath their elegant surfaces. "When you got the diagnosis of Alzheimer's," I ask, "were you scared?"
Campbell smiles serenely. "No," he says, firmly. "Because I love the Lord. He's been so good to me, man." As if to underline this, Campbell tenderly fingers a small blue cross tattooed on his left arm.
"They're not slavish imitations of his trademark '60s sound," says Paul Westerberg of the record's songs. "But they're not far afield, either. You'll notice on 'Ghost,' there's a musical nod to 'Wichita Lineman.' It makes sense. If Chuck Berry was making a final album, you'd want it to sound like classic Chuck, right?"
When I tell Campbell about the indirect way the Westerberg tunes got to him, he makes the connection with an old country joke.
"You know the one about the baby who swallowed the bullet?" he says. "His mama calls the doctor, very upset, and asks what to do. The doctor says, 'Give him some castor oil and just don't aim him at anything!' Paul didn't aim those songs at me; that's why they worked."
"So, Glen, you've been on Golden Time these past 70 years or so," I say.
"I had a destiny to play guitar, is all. No way I was supposed to die then."
The mood of the songs is so haunting, the feeling of mortality in the room so strong, that Campbell has a sudden reminiscence about his first brush with death, when he was a young boy.
"When I was about 3, I was on my way to buy some candy, when I fell into the creek. My uncle fished me out, but I'd turned blue . . . They worked on me, passed me back and forth, and got a half-gallon of water outta me. Somehow, I survived."
I ask whether he believes he's going to Heaven when he dies.
"Yeah, I think so," he says. "I was pretty wild there for a while, but I got straightened out. Especially with my marriage. So, I'm pretty sure I'll make it to Heaven." His eyes glint.
"Of course," Campbell adds, "that's on one condition. That, between now and then, I don't mess things up. Barring that? I'll be fine, man."