Old age, and in particular the decay of the body and mind, is something that can sometimes feel like something that only happens to other people. The images of our years of dotage that we are fed by the media are of contentment and resolution, of tying up all of our loose ends before making that unavoidable shift into the great unknown, but life often doesn’t quite work out like that. To face up to the realities of our physical and psychological deterioration, as well as the obvious and natural fear that comes with this, isn’t something that many would seek to remind us, but occasionally a piece of work appears which tells us something profound about the fragility of the human condition in our twilight years.
For now, the battle against Alzheimer’s disease remains one that we are unable win, in the short time medium term, at least. From the late 1960s on, Glen Campbell was the voice of the tender side of alpha male America, a cowboy in possession of an emotional literacy not often found in a world of stetson hats and guns thanks to the brilliant song-writing skills of his collaborator of the time, Jimmy Webb. Slowly but surely, though, Campbell has come to succumb to Alzheimer’s disease, just as millions of others have around the entire globe, but the last volume of his work is the story of an artist packing his bags and saying his goodbyes in perhaps the bravest manner possible.
Last year, Campbell released See You There, one final, valedictory collection of stripped-down reworkings of some of his best known songs. It might have been easy for such an album to be considered exploitative, for the inner cynic in the listener to interpret as one final tug at the cash cow’s teats before sliding away into retirement, but this felt a long way from the truth in this particular case. By paring the sound of the album back to focus on the quivering fragility of his voice, however, See You There ended up as something of an understated masterpiece. To hear, for example, the line, “I am so afraid of dying” – from the song Galveston, of course – sung by a man in his late seventies was a terribly affecting experience which altered the the focus – I might even suggest the meaning – of an already wonderful, emotional song.
This week, Campbell has released his final song before retiring permanently to a nursing home, and it’s as haunting and personal piece of music as you are likely to hear this year. I’m Not Gonna Miss You is the story of the heartbreaking truth at the centre of Campbell’s condition, that his mental deterioration will render him unable to miss – or be incapable of missing – his wife as Alzheimer’s leads him to a mental netherworld some way between life and a cruel form of living death. It is, in equal parts, beautiful, haunting, honest, brave, and infused with a rich seam of pure love, all accompanied by a touching video showing Campbell then and now, from the height of his fame to having his brain scanned in an attempt to understand his current plight.
In the case of I’m Not Gonna Miss You, comparisons will naturally be made with Johnny Cash’s version of Trent Reznor’s heart-breaking ballad Hurt, a song of which the original meaning – possibly suicide, possibly depression, possibly heroin addiction, quite likely some form of combination of all three – is disputed, but which Cash reworked to the subject of his rapidly deteriorating health shortly before his death in 2003. Cash’s reimagining of the song, which was adjusted to include reference to the singer’s spritual beliefs, was so powerful that Reznor subsequently commented on the subject of the song that, “I just lost my girlfriend, because that song isn’t mine anymore,” but there is one fundamental difference between that song and this.
Whereas Johnny Cash was reinventing somebody else’s work, I’m Not Gonna Miss You has written for Campbell’s current condition, as it stands today. It’s a song of stark home truths, and in some ways it serves frightening reminder of his current world, of a future that may, if sufficient medical advancements in treating it are not made, come to to affect at least some of the people reading this in years to come, and of a condition about which, perhaps, we all know too little. These are uncomfortable truths, but they are truths nevertheless.
Perhaps, it might be argued, we should remember Glen Campbell in his prime, as the chisel-jawed country pop star of Wichita Lineman, Galveston, By The Time I Get To Reno, and a host of other magnificent songs. We might just as easily suggest, however, that we should be able to remember the younger man as well as what we see today, and we should also add that if Glen Campbell’s lasting legacy was to turn out to be a significant impact upon the understanding of this most dreadful of conditions, then he might be considered to have left a far more valuable legacy than the overwhelming majority of artists of any description. For all the sadness at his irrevocable affliction, Glen Campbell and those around him can at least hold their heads high, secure in the knowledge that he has exited the stage of public life for the final time with consummate dignity and bravery.
You can see the video to I’m Not Gonna Miss You by clicking here.
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