My family did not travel much when I was a boy in the 1960s. We lived in the Bronx and spent summers at a bungalow colony in the Catskills. That was about as far as I got until the day I left for college in Montana.
But I still saw a lot of America during those childhood summers in upstate New York. Not on television; we had no TV in the bungalow. I got to know the country through my radio and through the jukebox next to the bungalow colony’s soda fountain, both of which played a lot of Glen Campbell’s music.
It seems a little odd, looking back on it. We were just two hours’ drive from New York City, which could not then (and cannot now) sustain a single country music radio station for very long. The Catskills were still known as the Borscht Belt, for the Jewish comedians who came up every weekend to play the hotels and the bungalow colonies’ gambling-free “casinos” while our parents dined (they would have said “noshed”) on smoked salmon and whitefish. These were the summers of love, and then Chicago, and then Woodstock and Apollo 11. Vietnam tore the country apart. Even the music of the day often had an angry tone.
Yet a soft-voiced, boyishly good-looking country singer who favoured mod jackets, turtlenecks and longish but safely above-the-shoulder hair bridged the gap and found a niche amid all the rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm and blues that everyone said they wanted to hear. New Yorkers, it seemed, had a soft spot for Glen Campbell. Or at least the mothers at the bungalow colony, who stayed with us kids all week while our fathers were at work back in the city, did.
His songs showed me parts of the country I had never seen through the eyes of people I had never met. There was the Wichita Lineman, toiling under the blazing sun of a prairie summer as he pined for a lost love and a few days off. There was the man who shared his California life with someone who no longer noticed he was there, until he comforted himself with the thought that she would miss him “By The Time I Get To Phoenix.” There was the soldier, “so afraid of dyin'” before he could return to Galveston, where the sea would wait for him even if his true love did not.
You probably heard that Glen Campbell and his wife recently announced, in an interview with People, that he is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. The 75-year-old singer plans a farewell tour before retiring.
He joins a lengthening list of prominent people who, with simple dignity, shared the awful news that this disease would inexorably remove them from their own lives. Ronald Reagan told us in 1994, followed by Charlton Heston and R. Sargent Shriver. Being human, they must all have gone through the familiar stages of grief, beginning with denial, followed by anger, bargaining and depression. Yet they had the dignity and compassion to take us directly to the final stage, acceptance.
I left for college when I was 16. Two years later, an older cousin gave me my first car, a high-mileage 1972 Buick Electra 225 that a friend helped me drive from New York to Montana in two days. I’ve done a lot of long-distance driving since then, across the country several times, down the Pacific Coast Highway from the Golden Gate to Mexico, the length and width of the Great Basin, along the Gulf shoreline, and up and down the East Coast more times than I can count.
I met a lot of new people and saw a lot of new places in all those miles, but I felt at home wherever I went, and the people I met hardly ever seemed like strangers. Glen Campbell introduced me to America back when I had seen only the tiniest piece of it. He introduced me to Americans at the same time.
We talk and vote and sometimes seem to think differently, but that’s just on the surface. I learned early that we are more alike than we realise. When we were divided over everything else, we all listened to Glen Campbell’s music.
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