“And then the darkness fell”

Since this past fall Glen Campbell has been on a self-declared farewell tour following on the announcement of his struggle against Alzheimer’s disease. Aaron Goldstein caught Campbell’s show in Boston last week and filed this report (including a link to tour dates).

We customarily salute Campbell in conjunction with our annual celebration of the birthday of songwriter Jimmy Webb. “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” (number 2, 1967) and “Wichita Lineman” (number 3, 1968) were of course the songs that launched Campbell’s partnership with Webb. The songs announced the arrival of a major new writer with a voice of his own.

Campbell’s partnership with Webb remained fruitful in the ’70s and ’80s as Campbell and Webb continued to work together (work documented on the bountiful Raven compilation Reunited with Jimmy Webb: 1974-1988), although without the chart success of their earlier hits. Among the peaks of their later work is Webb’s haunting “The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress,” also covered by Joe Cocker, Judy Collins, Linda Ronstadt, Nanci Griffith and others.

No performance of this moving song surpasses Campbell’s emotional reading of it (audio above, in concert with the South Dakota Symphony in 2001). Although female performers have gravitated to it, the song is preeminently a man’s lament over a fickle lover. Webb’s old flame Susan Ronstadt inspired much of his most intriguing work — see, for example, this Los Angeles Times article on “MacArthur Park” — and my guess is that she was the inspiration for Webb’s lyrical exploration of the metaphor in the song’s title. She must have been the inspiration for the song in the video below, in which you can watch Campbell and Webb working together to great effect.

Stephen Holden profiled Webb for the New York Times in 2010. The occasion of Holden’s profile was the release of Webb’s Just Across the River, a wonderful recording in which Webb revisited some of the highlights of his catalogue together with Vince Gill (“Oklahoma Nights”), Billy Joel (“Wichita Lineman”), Willie Nelson (“If You See Me Getting Smaller”), Lucinda Williams (“Galveston”), Jackson Browne (“P. F. Sloan”), Michael McDonald (“Where Words End”), Mark Knopfler {“Highwayman”) and Linda Ronstadt (“All I Know”).

Webb also teamed up one more time with Campbell (“By the Time I Get to Phoenix”). In the liner notes Webb writes that he has been a fan of Campbell since he first heard “Turn Around and Look At Me” when he was 14. He says that he considers Campbell “the greatest natural entertainer and performer that America has ever produced.”

“I used to literally pray that God would let me grow up and be a songwriter and be lucky enough to have Glen Campbell record one of my songs,” Webb writes. “I rest my case for the existence of God.” I wanted to recall Webb’s striking testimony in the context of Campbell’s farewell tour.


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