When all that's left is the music, 'I'll be me'

When I was a young girl in the 1970s, Glen Campbell was the artist of the day. His playing mesmerized me. I was captivated by his ease with the guitar, his warmth with fellow artists and his musical sensitivities and sensibilities. He was versatile, making music with stars as diverse as Johnny Cash, Neil Diamond, Willie Nelson and Stevie Wonder. This 1969 TV segment featuring Glen and Stevie is my favorite.

Even after he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in June 2011, Glen kept performing for a time. The film I’ll Be Me follows his final tour. I saw the film in 2014 at a screening for the Berklee College of Music faculty. Among the speakers at the screening, hosted by Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey, were Glen’s wife and children and researchers from the Boston area who are investigating the causes of and possible treatments for Alzheimer’s. Sen. Markey, who lost his mother to Alzheimer’s disease, has become a champion for this cause in Congress. He has authored legislation to create a national strategy to address an Alzheimer’s epidemic that researchers believe is coming.

I was delighted to see and hear Glen again in I’ll Be Me. After all those years, my musical tastes had changed but my respect for and admiration of his musicianship hadn’t. In fact, they grew as the movie went on. It was an engaging evening that still has me thinking. In the film, Glen appears vulnerable and confused when offstage. He is very resistive to taking showers, and he wanders out of a hotel room when his wife is taking her shower. Onstage, he is very different. He banters congenially with the audience, improvising, reading song lyrics from the teleprompter, playing sensitively with his grown children in the band and being that remarkable musician I remember from so long ago.

I have developed a theory about Glen’s dementia, having reflected on I’ll Be Me as well as his long-running CBS-TV show, “The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour” (many episodes can be viewed online), and his 1994 autobiography, Rhinestone Cowboy. Glen had been exhibiting signs of Alzheimer’s disease for 10 years before his 2011 diagnosis. Most people move through early-stage Alzheimer’s faster than that. I believe that his extraordinary capacity as a musician built dense neural circuitry that offered resistance and resilience to the cell death that dementia causes. With extensive networks built over years of music learning and performance, Glen was able to continue playing and improvising, even with early- to mid-stage Alzheimer’s, throughout his final tour – 151 shows over 425 days. As Bruce Springsteen said, “it’s a rough, rough disease. To be out there rolling the dice was pretty brave.” It was that indeed.

Research on dementia and occupation has shown that it is most prevalent among people whose careers have been in “realistic” work, such as skilled trades, technical and some service occupations (see this 1998 article by Anthony F. Jorm, Bryan Rodgers and others in the British journal Age and Ageing). These occupations tend to emphasize manual skills. Jobs that place more emphasis on literary or intellectual work – the kind done by professors, writers and researchers, for example – have lower incidences of dementia, it would seem, because of the dense neural networks that are developed to accommodate those pursuits. In Glen, I see the possibility that his tremendous capacity as a musical prodigy may have given him the same advantage. Music training and experiences shielded him from the rapid rate of decline that one would expect with Alzheimer’s. Well into the mid-stages of the disease, he was musically functional. But he needed lots of support to be functional offstage.

I have recently read that Glen is no longer verbal and no longer able to sing or play music. Although his ability to produce music is no longer available, his ability to perceive music may be. His daughter, Ashley, says Glen will walk away at the sound of an out-of-tune guitar. I would wager that if we could image Glen's brain activity (with an EEG cap), we would see his music perception skills online when his production skills are clearly offline. 

I am most grateful to the Campbell family for allowing us to see Glen at this time in his life. The film is a wonderful advocacy tool for the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease and a testament to the power of music in the face of it. It has also helped me see the possibility that being a musician is an advantage to aging well.