”I told my mom I was going to see Glen Campbell, and she laughed for about five minutes,” my friend Dan tells me while we wait for the Rhinestone Cowboy himself to appear on the Troubadour stage. “She kept saying, ‘That’s not right.’ I think he might have been her last schoolgirl crush or something.” Indeed, many of the folks in this sold-out crowd no doubt watched The Glen Campbell Good Time Hour when it was a first-run variety show in the late ’60s.
But there are also some young ’uns in the crowd who might have caught early spins of the singer-guitarist’s stunning new record, Meet Glen Campbell, on Indie 103.1. So we’re all waiting to either be wowed or perhaps bear witness to a train wreck. After all, the man was popped for a DUI near his old Phoenix home about five years ago, and then suffered the indignity of having his scowling mug splashed all over the Web. Would he be clean, or mean?
Campbell appears, and we breathe easy. Tan and fit, dressed in a crisp white cowboy shirt, his hair slicked back, Campbell, 72, has let the ravages of time and hard living add some crags and creases to his Golden Boy features. Still, he looks amazing. Commandeering the mike, Campbell lets the crowd’s love wash over him, then launches into Meet Glen Campbell’s opener, his cover of Travis’ “Sing.” Sure enough, Campbell’s singing voice is still as smooth as his golf swing, gliding into that mellifluous upper register with the ease of a young American Idol aspirant.
The inevitable chestnuts are aired out — “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “Wichita Lineman” — but the bigger reaction comes from the new record’s covers, a list that includes Paul Westerberg’s “Sadly Beautiful” and Lou Reed’s “Jesus.” Campbell doesn’t know these songs too well — he needs a teleprompter to get through them — but he owns them nonetheless. About halfway through the set, my friend Larry nudges me: “This is both the most clueless and the greatest show I’ve ever seen.”
Let’s get this straight: Glen Campbell is not looking for your approval. Sure, Meet Glen Campbell is the best record he’s made at least since his 1974 Reunion record with Jimmy Webb. Produced by Julian Raymond, who also picked and arranged the songs, Meet Glen Campbell uses the template of those great Capitol Records hits of his heyday — the swelling strings, the gliding, tremolo-drunk guitar runs — and retrofits them onto material by Tom Petty, U2, Foo Fighters and others.
What results is a glorious reminder of Campbell’s skills as an interpreter; he can still caress a melody like no one else. “Glen’s ear is ridiculous,” says Raymond, a former staff producer at Capitol. “He recorded all of the vocal tracks in four days.”
But Campbell won’t be booking an Echoplex residency or suddenly recording duets with Conor Oberst anytime soon. He’s comfortable with his legacy and has no grand plan to reclaim his old fame. It’s simple, really: He just made the record because it sounded like fun.
“Julian called me up and asked me if I wanted to make a record.” Campbell is sitting in the spacious living room of his Malibu home. He’s got an Ovation ukulele by his side, and a cheat-sheet track listing for Meet Glen Campbell. Close up, he looks much as he did on the Troub stage, but with considerably less perspiration. “So we did it!”
Campbell doesn’t really miss the record business much. His old tenure with Capitol ended on a sour note when a bunch of new execs breezed in and tried to muscle him around. “I had ‘The Highwayman,’ this great Jimmy Webb song, and they didn’t want to release it,” he says. “So what happens? Waylon, Willie and those guys did it and it was a smash. I could have done that!”
Raymond approached Campbell with a bunch of songs. Campbell then waded through them and approved the 12 that appear on the record. “Mostly, this sounds like a Glen Campbell record,” he said. He readily admits that he isn’t familiar with many of the songwriters. Of Jackson Browne’s “These Days,” Campbell says ,“Those hippies turned out to know what they were doing, didn’t they?” He’s clearly most fond of “Grow Old With Me,” an obscure John Lennon song that Yoko Ono personally approved for Campbell. “That’s just a beauty. Yoko loved it, too. She sent us a note.”
The recording process was casual and unhurried, with most of the sessions taking place in Raymond’s home studio in the Valley. “We would just order in food and play. Julian hired some really amazing musicians. You could go out in the bushes and pee if you had to!” A sharp contrast, indeed, to Campbell’s countless hours punching the clock in L.A. recording studios, both as a solo artist and a session player supreme for Phil Spector, Brian Wilson and Ken Nelson, among others.
“Spector could be a little cheap,” Campbell says. “You might go in there for three days and he would only pay you for one. But Brian was fair. He might have you sitting there for days doing nothing while he figured out an arrangement. But he always paid you for your time!”
Asked what music he likes to listen to nowadays, Campbell points to a painting of the great Gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt that hangs above his piano. “There was no one better than him,” he says. “Man, that band with [Stephane] Grappelli? I wish I could play that well.”
Well, he’s not Django, but he’s not bad. With a little prompting, Campbell picks up the Ovation uke and starts ripping some glissandos up and down the little fretboard. “I tuned this thing like a guitar,” he says. “Do you know Ovation made a deal with me when I first started the Good Time Hour? If I played their guitar on the show, they would pay me a royalty for every guitar sold. That worked out for all of us.”
Raymond has visions of Campbell perhaps getting off the casino-and-civic-theater grid, and perhaps playing theaters like the El Rey. But Campbell always goes his own way, and no one is quite sure where that might lead. “Glen doesn’t care about being a star, not now or when he actually was a big star,” Raymond says. “He’s happy being with his family. So who knows?”
GLEN CAMPBELL | Meet Glen Campbell | Capitol