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GLEN CAMPBELL, AND HOLDING ON HOPE

by Simon Glickman

I have known “Rhinestone Cowboy” by heart since it was first on the radio.

It’s a great fuckin’ song, delivered with as much assurance and joy and bittersweetness and nuance as anybody ever sang anything.

It’s long been de rigueur, when regarding Glen Campbell, to salute his hipper material, particularly the Jimmy Webb songs, while “Rhinestone” tends to get less attention than his session work with Brian Wilson.

This is unjust.

Do I love “Rhinestone” more than “Wichita Lineman?” No. But I love them both dearly and for the same reason: They are sublimely specific human stories adorned with transcendent melodies. But it’s Glen’s singing that makes them perfect, such that if the song were served on a plate, every time the song ended you would lick the plate.

“Rhinestone” has at its core the cruelty of fame and its pursuit, but thinking of that song now and the rugged crossing of Glen’s final years, it also speaks to me about something considerably more real. The same illness that afflicted this glorious superstar and ravaged his memory is now working its ravenous way across the once-keen mental terrain of someone very close to me. Watching that person—the smartest guy in the room for most of my life—succumb to it is to mourn him incrementally.

But I’m supposed to be writing about Glen Campbell.

I was beyond fortunate to see Glen perform material from his penultimate album, after his family had gone public with the diagnosis. That set, Ghost on the Canvas, was textbook A&R, pairing a great voice with unexpected material that was nonetheless inspired. Who would ever think of having Glen Campbell sing a Guided By Voices song? Yet here was Glen wrapping those still-radiant pipes around Bob Pollard’s “Hold on Hope,” wringing from its baroque melodic twists the same celestial melancholy he’d located in the Lineman. I knew the song before he sang it, but I never really felt it until it was Glen delivering the lines:

Every street is
dark And folding
out mysteriously
Where lies the chance we take to be
Always working
Reaching out for
a hand that we can't see
Everybody's got a hold on hope
It's the last thing that's holding me

Between songs, Glen was jocular but repeated the same stories he’d told twice before that evening, like his thoughts were a stuck record. When his hands touched six strings and his voice vaulted into the lyrics, though, he was again the golden star who made the line between country and pop melt like a pat of butter on a hotcake.

He struggled on for a few more years, through more joyous songs and, I’d wager, agonizing confusion. And now he’s gone.

But he’s not.

Because the song starts again, singing in the wires, its melody diffracting in a million directions like a spotlight off a rhinestone. I will have these memories of the one I am losing, and the songs of one I have lost.

It’s the last thing that’s holding me.

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