I was a passing fan of Glen Campbell’s, nothing more. When he was big in the ’70s, my young musical tastes were too simple and closed off to appreciate country music. As I grew older, and said tastes grew more refined, I developed an affection for his songs, as I have for a lot of talented artists I didn’t previously understand.
I’ve also been insanely lucky in that no members of my family have been hit with the vicious death sentence that is Alzheimer’s Disease, though I’ve got friends who have. I don’t even think vicious is the right word for it, because it’s not strong enough. Perhaps insidious is better, simply because it strips away everything a person was, is, and has, before it finally takes their life.
Due to my familial luck, the best firsthand glance I’ve had at the disease was at Campbell himself, when I watched the 2014 documentary about his struggles, Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me. It’s one thing to watch a fictional story about someone’s fight against the disease, like Julianne Moore’s Oscar-winning performance in Still Alice, but it’s another to see its real effects. Everything on screen in I’ll Be Me was real, raw, and exceedingly troubling.
Not long after he was first diagnosed with the disease in 2011, Campbell agreed to let his old friend, actor-director James Keach, follow him and his family as the singer embarked on a grand, final, 151-date farewell tour. The result was a movie that won almost universally good reviews, made over $360,000 at the box office. Not so bad for a doc feature that only was ever in limited release, with a peak of 18 screens. While it didn’t earn a Best Documentary Feature nod at the 2015 Academy Awards, it did earn one for Best Original song.
The final tune the legend ever wrote (with Julian Raymond), “I’m Not Gonna Miss You,” earned him an Oscar nomination, and while he didn’t win (he lost to Common and John Legend’s “Glory,” from Selma), it did earn him his 10th and final Grammy Award, for Best Country Song. Listen to it. It’s even more heartbreaking than you might think. He sings about how he won’t miss his loved ones, simply because he won’t remember them. He won’t be able to. “I’m never gonna hold you like I did,” he sings, “Or say I love you to the kids. You’re never gonna see it in my eyes. It’s not gonna hurt me when you cry. I’m never gonna know what you go through, all the things I say or do, all the hurt and all the pain, one thing selfishly remains: I’m not gonna miss you.”
I thought of that this week when the news came that he passed away at the age of 81. He’d been put in a facility a couple years earlier because he could no longer be cared for by his wife of over three decades, Kim, or his family. I was sad, of course, but relieved that he was no longer suffering. In just three years, I had grown to love his work and listened to it often. All because of the courage he’d shown, allowing so many people to witness his decline.
The word “courageous” is thrown about a lot these days, used in situations that don’t necessarily deserve it. This isn’t one of those times. This was a man and his family laying themselves bare because they knew that, by doing so, they would draw attention to the struggle of so many unfortunate and anonymous souls who are hit with Alzheimer’s every year. And they did, raising awareness and millions of dollars for the cause. If there was ever a grand way to go out while fighting a losing battle like this one, Glen Campbell found it.
There was another aspect to this that hit me, initially three years ago when I first saw the movie, then again this week when that sad news came down. It was a reminder about the power of film, and the incredible things it can accomplish under the right circumstances. It’s not that I didn’t understand the impact of Alzheimer’s before seeing I’ll Be Me, but to see it in action, to actually see someone decline before your eyes, it’s not something you’re going to soon forget. Something like that leaves an impact, and how many times can you really say that about a movie?
I’ll Be Me serves a very specific purpose to raise awareness. It also did something else, and that can’t be lost on people as we celebrate the life and work of someone as revered as Campbell was.
“Glen was a courageous advocate on behalf of Alzheimer’s, not only bravely sharing his diagnosis with the world, but continuing to bring joy to his fans through his music while facing the disease so publicly,” Harry Johns, president and CEO of the Alzheimer’s Association, wrote in a statement this week. “Glen and his family helped to bring Alzheimer’s out of the shadows and into the spotlight with openness and honesty that has rallied people to take action on behalf of the cause.”
Alzheimer’s gave Campbell a new legacy. It’s not that kind of legacy anyone ever sets out to have, but he’s no longer just one of country music’s great stars. That doesn’t nearly cover it. He became the face of something bigger. Something more important, that extends far beyond the reaches of pop culture. It’s a special kind of legacy, and in the end, that’s what Glen Campbell will truly be remembered for, at least ’round these parts.