Glen Campbell: Still on the line

By Nicholas Smythe

One of the great rock'n' roll concerts of the 20th century took place at San Quentin prison in 1969, where Johnny Cash famously raised a stiff middle finger to the camera at the conclusion of his concert.

Glenn Campbell remembers it well. At that point he was a star with hits like Galveston, Wichita Lineman and By the Time I Get to Phoenix, and was rated the number one American guitarist after working earlier as a session musician with the likes of Phil Spector, Elvis, the Beach Boys and Frank Sinatra.

"Johnny Cash - he was a dude, wasn't he?" Campbell comments over the phone from his Florida home ahead of his New Zealand tour.

Campbell had been thinking of Cash, who rated Wichita Lineman as one of his all-time favourites, because of his recent brush with rock'n'roll prison.

Last year, Campbell was busted for drink-driving and - somewhat astonishingly - was sentenced to 10 days in a Phoenix jail. It was the 70-year-old former hellraiser's first spell inside.

"I guess they don't want you to get drunk any more," he explains of the harsh sentence. "It was in the papers, on the radio - everybody knew about it. I guess they just wanted to show that there wasn't any favouritism, you know, with me being a celebrity and all that jazz."

Still, it did allow him the opportunity to reprise Cash's San Quentin performance, in this instance at an outdoor remand centre at Phoenix for detainees who could not post bail.

"They let the band come down, and myself, and we did a show for them - it was a wild show, I tell you that." By the time he gets to Phoenix, indeed.

Campbell admits Cash's gigs at the Californian prisons San Quentin and earlier at Folsom were front of his mind when he took to the stage.

The comparison is irresistible - and it is worth pointing out that Campbell served 10 days in prison, whereas Cash did only one. The talk turns from prison to politics.

Says Campbell, "I vote for the person rather than the straight party guy." That means, for instance, that he admires African-American Democrat presidential hopeful Barack Obama. "He's got some smarts," Campbell observes, "But I don't know if it will take him anywhere."

This leads to an anecdote about a friend, who remarked (and Campbell struggles to deliver this story, such is the effort to suppress his laughter) that there are two kinds of people he can't stand - "prejudiced people and negroes".

Campbell was raised in rural Arkansas, one of 12 children, the seventh of eight sons. He doesn't want to talk about politics, inferring perhaps he's said too much.

Normally he tries to avoid the topic but his point seems to be that the attitudes that shaped the people of rural Arkansas are still prevalent today and these people are unlikely to vote for Obama.

Instead, he talks about cars. He drives a BMW 5, which, when pointed out is a feat of German engineering, he insists he's going to ditch it in favour of a truck. "You can sit a bit higher in a truck or a pickup, you see. The damn BMW feels like it sits too low to the ground."

What about New Zealand? As far as he can recall, this is only his second visit, the last a solitary concert in Hamilton in the mid-90s.

Nobody goes to a Campbell gig to hear him talk about his conservatism, whether illustrated by his taste in cars or politics. They pay money to hear the old bugger sing. Preferably Jimmy Webb tunes.

At Hamilton, the theatre was plunged into darkness, the only sound the rustle of musicians taking their chairs. And out of the void soared that inimitable voice uttering that gorgeous opening phrase: "I am a lineman for the county."

Campbell's voice is still an extraordinary instrument, particularly when sketching a melody over chord progressions penned by Jimmy Webb, the author of Wichita Lineman and many of Campbell's most loved songs.

Webb's secret is to somehow create songs that speak of people's "longing, the haunting, the wanting to be held".

This is all true, but through Campbell's voice, Webb's songs found their apogee. Plenty of artists have covered Wichita Lineman, which Webb wrote specifically wrote for the Rhinestone Cowboy, but it is Campbell who is able to find the transcendent ordinariness of a blue-collar worker in love.

It is the glory of an ordinary life that Campbell offers in that tune, or Galveston or Country Boy that elevates him from mere interpreter.

The good news from the good ol' boy is he's heading back into the studio with Webb to work on an album of originals.

Maybe Webb will even get Campbell to sing about politics and the state of modern America.

Performance

* Who: Glenn Campbell

* When & where: Energy Events Centre Rotorua, March 24; Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, March 25; Stadium Southland, Invercargill, March 27

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