Country Weekly recently ran a cover story about my old employer Glen Campbell and his ongoing battle with Alzheimer’s. It sounds like the disease is really starting to take an emotional toll. As some of you know, I was Glen’s video director when he had his own music theater in Branson, Missouri in the 1990s. I was around him and sometimes his wife Kim (who occasionally came to the theater) almost every day for three years. So I find it quite sad to read things like this: “Kim shares that Glen suffers side effects such as anxiety, agitation and depression. ‘One time, he couldn’t use the television remote,’ Kim says. ‘He knew what it was but couldn’t figure out how to use it. And he got so agitated that he threw the remote at the television.'”
If you’re among the large portion of this blog’s audience that’s interested in apocalyptic matters, you might be interested to learn that in 1991 Glen recorded a really fine song about the biblical Four Horsemen. Titled, appropriately, “The Four Horsemen,” and appearing as the final track on his Dove Award-winning album Show Me Your Way, it was written by legendary songwriter Jimmy Webb, whom I’ve talked about here previously, and who wrote many of Glen’s most popular songs from his 1960s-70s musical heyday, including “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “Wichita Lineman,” and “Galveston” (the last of which, interestingly, is a song whose interpretation by Glen as a patriotic anthem Webb strongly disputes).
At his Branson theater “The Four Horsemen” was always presented as the finale of the show, complete with a pretty stupendous live performance by the Matthew Dickens Dancers in full costume portraying the end of the world at the hands of the horsemen, who were portrayed by the dancers as a cosmic warrior figure, a Grim Reaper-type figure, and more. The performance also included animations that were created by artists from Don Bluth Productions — you know, the big Disney rival that produced The Land Before Time, All Dogs Go to Heaven, and more — and projected onto the big I-MAG screens to show scary-looking horsemen galloping down from a starry night sky.
These days, I’m gripped by a kind of existential vertigo whenever I think back to my mid-twenties and remember that I used to be immersed in that apocalyptic extravaganza ten times per week as I directed its live video portion. That was also during a period of my life when I was independently studying comparative religious philosophy, Greek tragedy, existentialism, Zen Buddhism, H. P. Lovecraft, weird supernatural horror fiction, ancient Middle Eastern and European history, and evangelical Christian theology with a truly obsessive fervor. It was also the same period when my sleep paralysis assaults began to occur, and when I was foraging through the first few years of marriage and post-college life in search of a direction. In retrospect, the fact that my job required me to witness and help produce a musical-theatrical interpretation of the biblical apocalypse from the Book of Revelation multiple times per week seems almost impossibly perfect. You don’t have to be Carl Jung to pick up on the synchronistic symbolism there.
A few times in the past I’ve looked to see if anybody has posted Glen’s “Four Horsemen” to YouTube so that I could share it here at The Teeming Brain, but the answer was always no. Today, however, I’ve happily discovered that this has changed. Somebody uploaded the song three years ago, set to a nice (if thematically divergent) montage of images of Glen himself from throughout his career. So here it is for your listening pleasure. I urge you to turn up your speakers and enjoy the experience, which may not be as personally meaningful to you as it is, for obvious reasons, to me, but which I think you’ll probably dig anyway. Somewhere I still have a few VHS tapes of those Glen Campbell Goodtime Theater performances. Maybe some day I’ll get around to digitizing one of them so that I can show you what that Four Horsemen stage show looked like.
In any case, here’s wishing the best to Glen as he lives through his own personal apocalypse. I don’t say that flippantly. In the Christian and Jewish traditions, an apocalypse is not all about destruction but about revelation, about the unveiling of the divine cosmic and extra-cosmic truth. It’s ultimately a wonderful thing, no matter how horrifying its seems during its unfolding, because it means the clearing away of falsehood and the emergence of God’s unobscured, unhindered reign. (Of course, in the Lovecraftian and Ligottian vein of the supernatural horror fiction that I have read and written for so long, the unveiling of reality as it really is turns out to be quite problematic. But that’s an issue for another time.) May something like that be true for Glen and Kim and their family as they all navigate through the painful unpleasantness of their current circumstance.
Postscript: This has turned into a day for me to learn sad news from my show business past on more than one front. After typing the above paragraphs and mentioning the Matthew Dickens Dancers, I decided to do a Web search for current news about Matthew himself. I only had the pleasure of meeting him a handful of times at Glen’s theater in Branson, and I, like everybody else, found him to be was a very nice and approachable guy. As his Wikipedia entry makes clear, he was also an amazingly talented guy who did great work on Broadway, television, and elsewhere (doing extensive work, for example, with Debbie Allen). And it turns out that he died six months ago, on January 8 of this year, after a battle with cancer. Suddenly, I’m starting to feel sort of old.
Here’s a demo reel that I just discovered on YouTube. It showcases some of his choreography work, some of which was quite high-profile. Also note that that the man himself appears onscreen at the 15-second mark. Rest in peace, Matthew.
Down, down, I sank, till immersed in that mighty ocean where conflicting elements were swallowed by a mountain wave of darkness, which grasped me within its mighty folds and I sank to the lowest depths of forgetfulness.
— Andrew Jackson Davis, quoted by James Webb in The Occult Underground
It is not possible for anyone to see anything of the things that actually exist unless he becomes like them. This is not the way with man in the world: he sees the sun without being a sun; and he sees the heaven and the earth and all other things, but he is not these things. This is quite in keeping with the truth. But you saw something of that place, and you became those things. You saw the Spirit, you became spirit. You saw Christ, you became Christ. You saw the Father, you shall become Father. So in this place you see everything and do not see yourself, but in that place you do see yourself – and what you see you shall become.
— From The Gospel of Philip, Trans. Wesley W. Isenberg
A cold fire calling from beyond time or space, its light refracted in the prism of apparent materiality, who can stand the sight of themselves stripped of skin and bone, who can listen with ease to that haunting song sung without a mouth or breath? Who can kiss Diana’s lips and still stand in the material realm unchanged?
We live in a world between mirrors, beneath us the ground, above us the sky, and beyond each an infinite space filled with potential. Immersed in our own being, everywhere we look we see reflections of our nature. Perhaps, as the Gospel of Philip states, we see the sun without becoming it, but its fiery nature awakens in us a recognition of our own being, and we are able to make some symbolic connection that goes beyond mere allusion. This tendency regulates our daily lives, allowing day-to-day experiences to anchor themselves in previous expectations. Mirrored wherever we look, our future emerges from the shadows of past evidence. From this security we can drop a line into the depths of our senses, fishing out insights and answers. Sometimes, however, what we catch pulls us under, leaving us lost in the swirling currents of our self, and if our identity fractures on the hidden rocks reaching up from beneath the surface, we run the risk of drowning.
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How very unexpected, and how absolutely fascinating: songwriter Jimmy Webb, who’s responsible for a boatload of modern pop classics (and much more; he hates being branded as a “middle-of-the-road pop-music writer”), is a deep-thinking science fiction fan who says he learned a lot of his lyric-writing panache from Ray Bradbury.
I’ve long felt like I almost know Webb personally, since I worked for Glen Campbell in the 1990s, and of course Webb wrote several of Glen’s signature songs: “Wichita Lineman,” “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “Galveston,” and — one known more to fans of contemporary Christian music — “The Four Horsemen.” I spent three years of my life directing the video crew at Glen’s Branson theater for two daily performances, six days a week, during which all of those songs were sung. Glen also performed Webb’s “MacArthur Park” sometimes (a song I truly love, cynical critics be damned; see the interview’s intro for an account of how it harmed Webb’s career). So I had Jimmy Webb on the brain all the time, and it was most pleasant, because the music is simply brilliant.
And now in an interview for A.V. Club from 10 days ago, I see Webb explaining that our mutual sensibilities cross over in literary ways as well. And he also works in a critique of the modern American education system. Wonderful!
Check out the following excerpt, and then go and read the whole interview, since he’s a fascinating guy.
AVC: Speaking of unexpected influences, your song “The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress” takes its title from a novel by science-fiction writer Robert Heinlein. Was he a big influence on you?
JIMMY WEBB: All science-fiction writers were. They were kind of my substitute for a truly broad-based humanitarian curriculum, because, as you know or as you do not know, there is a textbook problem, a kind of deliberately slowed-down and de-sophisticated content issue with textbooks. All the textbooks are printed in Texas. Texas. Textbook. Is there anything to that? I don’t know. But a lot of people aren’t happy with these textbooks. The kind of textbooks I grew up with would, to put it mildly, shade the truth on some issues like why the Civil War was fought, and things like that.
AVC: You mean the War Of Northern Aggression, of course.
JW: Yeah, exactly. I was innately suspicious of the education I was receiving right up to my last year of school in Colton, California. I thought the whole thing was kind of a joke. I know why kids just go nuts and say “Screw this. I ain’t going to do this anymore. I can never use this information in my life. It’s just not telling me anything.” I think there are people who would be more entertained and interested in a more complex curriculum. They would be more comfortable on a college level, on a freshman college level, than where they are, particularly in the intellectual subjects—philosophy, religion, and those areas, where in textbooks today, you have a smudgy line between creationism and science. These are important issues, because this is the groundwork for your whole life. This is the way you’re going to look at your world and at the people who live in your world. This man that’s riding next to me on the train: Is he descended from chimpanzees or not? There’s a devaluation of our educational system, because we dodge some of the important issues instead of meeting them head-on. That will not make big fans for me out there, certainly. But again, that’s me. I don’t brand. I just call it like I see it.
AVC: So science fiction was a way of broadening your horizons?
JW: It was a way of really stepping into a new curriculum, and it was full of imagination and truth and science, and science as religion, and in the work of Heinlein, the truth about politics. Probably the prettiest writer of all those guys was Ray Bradbury, who I really learned a lot from about writing beautiful prose, choosing words. I would sometimes find words and go, “Oh, that’s a lovely word. I just don’t have a clue what it means,” and I’d get out my dictionary. So really, science fiction provided an impetus and an inspiration to get into the thesaurus and look at all these different meanings and similarities between words, and then to fall in love with the word game, as my friend Artie Garfunkel might put it, which is the greatest game of all. To me, that’s what school should be about. So science fiction was really my way of circumventing that.
— Interview: Jimmy Webb, A.V. Club, September 3, 2010