David Carroll: Glen Campbell And The Power Of Music

Wednesday, July 1, 2015 - by David Carroll
Glen Campbell
Glen Campbell

I've just watched an amazing film, and I hope you will too, if you haven't already.  It's called "I'll Be Me" and it documents Glen Campbell's descent into the twilight: Alzheimer's Disease. 

Glen's life was movie-worthy long before this.  One of 12 children, growing up in Delight, Arkansas (he's always pronounced it "Dee-Light").  Mastered the guitar, bass, banjo and bagpipes at an early age.  By his 20s, one of the music industry's busiest session players.  He played on hits by Sinatra and Elvis.  In addition to playing on Beach Boys records, he even became one, replacing Brian Wilson on tour. 

His own fame arrived in the late 60s, with "Gentle On My Mind," "By The Time I Get To Phoenix," and his own CBS variety show.  More hit songs followed, intertwined with a tabloid-ready personal life.  Four marriages, eight kids, a messy fling with singer Tanya Tucker, another affair with the wife of singer Mac Davis, substance abuse, born-again Christianity, and a late-career comeback.  Yes, that would be quite a movie. 

The events of the past four years are captured in "I'll Be Me."  Early in 2011, it became apparent something was wrong with Glen, then 75.  He was still performing, but he was forgetting the words to his songs, and making odd comments. His wife Kim announced that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's.  "People were saying he was drinking again," she said.  "It was time to tell the truth." 

There were concert dates already lined up.  Amazingly, for the next two years Glen toured the USA playing more than a hundred shows.  Filmmaker James Keach was granted full access to the tour, the Campbells' home life and medical visits: the brain scans, MRI's, and X-rays. 

The resulting movie isn't always easy to watch, especially if you've experienced Alzheimer's with a family member.  In many ways, Glen reminds me of my mother, who gradually slipped away over a period of several years before her death in 2011. 

Eyes once filled with life suddenly seem glazed and distant.  "Who is that?" is a common question, when looking at photos of a spouse, a child, or even one's self.  "That's your grandson," is often followed by "Oh really?" "You used to go to church there."  "Did I?"  These questions and answers are repeated many times daily. 

The mood changes: confusion, anger, paranoia.  We were lucky.  My mother in her last years was a small, frail woman who was pleasant, and incapable of reaching household items that could endanger her.  Glen is a big, strong man who could still swing a golf club in the house.  Imagine the challenge of getting him to wake up and shower for a show at Carnegie Hall.  Easier said than done. He would obsess for hours about something stuck between his teeth, while putting sharp objects in his mouth. 

Thank God for music.  In my mother's case, when almost every other memory had been erased, the music remained.  "Music is the last thing to go," commented one doctor about Glen.  That was true about my mother too.  She could sing hymns and popular songs from the 1940s, but she couldn't tell you what she had for breakfast. 

As soon as Glen took the stage, the spark returned to his eyes.  He had to read a TelePrompter to sing the words, but he still had perfect pitch and could play incredible guitar solos.  He had trouble introducing his children (now his band mates), but the audiences didn't mind. 

They were seeing a music legend, one last time.  "I can play guitar," he would say. "I just can't remember anything." Watching a duet of "Dueling Banjos" with Glen and his daughter Ashley is inspiring.  You would think there's nothing wrong with him. 

Then you see Ashley testifying before Congress on medical research, with her dad by her side.  Tearfully, she tells them in the very near future, he will not recognize her.  You see Brad Paisley cite his family tree of Alzheimer's.  He'll be next, he fears.  "Can't we do something about this before it comes to get me?" he says. 

By the end of 2012, Glen's condition had deteriorated to the point that the shows could not go on.  During the past year, he has been in an assisted-living facility in Nashville, amid tabloid reports of family members feuding over his care. 

Hopefully this film will start many a conversation on a topic that many families sweep under the rug.  You may experience many emotions while watching.  I'm glad I got to see a superstar basking in the applause of his fans.  I like to think music gave him a few extra years of joy, as it has for so many. 

You can watch "I'll Be Me," the Glen Campbell story, this Friday July 3 at 9:00 p.m. EDT on HLN (CNN Headline News).  In Chattanooga, it's on Comcast channels 38 and 397 (HD) and on EPB channels 41 and 341 (HD).   The following night, Sat. July 4, you can see it on CNN at 9:00 p.m.  (Comcast channels 14 and 423, EPB channels 40 and 340).   HLN & CNN are also available on other cable and satellite services.  Check your local listings.  It will be available on DVD and On Demand on September 1st. 

(From David Carroll’s ChattanoogaRadioTV.com)

Glen and his daughter Ashley Campbell
Glen and his daughter Ashley Campbell

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