Glen Campbell's Galveston: politics of nostalgia echo amid faded grandeur

Guardian Web |

Glen Campbell scored a huge hit with the song Galveston in 1969, yet he did not play a gig in the Texas town that inspired the song until 2004. Or so it was thought.

Maureen Patton arranged for the country-pop great to perform at the Grand 1894 Opera House 13 years ago and picked him up from his hotel.

Related: Glen Campbell: a universal voice who defined American manhood

“I said, ‘You know something, it’s a shame we’ve waited this long and you’ve never played Galveston. It’s about time’,” said Patton, the theatre’s executive director. “He said, ‘Oh, but I have.’

“I said, ‘Where did you play?’ He kind of chuckled, and he said, ‘Well, I played in a house of prostitution on Postoffice Street for tips.’ He was just a teenager, making his way across the country, getting gigs wherever he could.”

Five decades and more than 45m record sales later, the rhinestone cowboy returned to Postoffice Street, at the city’s finest arts venue. He returned again in 2012 for a stop on his “Goodbye Tour” after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, the disease that caused his death last Tuesday at the age of 81.

Signs of mental deterioration were obvious but family members in his band kept the show on course. “He’d start to wander off on a story that maybe he’d just told, but they would just sort of intercede. It was a beautiful thing to see because you knew that this was something very special and very connected that they were doing for him. He could still play guitar, it was just a marvel to watch,” Patton said.

The following year, the city’s tourist board commissioned a cover version of the song for a promotional video, even though the bittersweet lyrics hardly scream “fun in the sun”. Released during the Vietnam war, it’s an elegy from a soldier recalling the young love he left behind:

I still see her standing by the water, Standing there looking out to sea. And is she waiting there for me, On the beach where we used to run?

With an upbeat tempo, the song packs emotional force from the simple but powerful lyrics by Jimmy Webb and from Campbell’s delivery, tremulous with melancholy and yearning: “Galveston, I am so afraid of dying / Before I dry the tears she’s crying.”

Galveston is one of a trio of “town songs” written by Webb and performed by Campbell, along with By the Time I Get To Phoenix and Wichita Lineman. The songs are the acme of Americana: sung by a handsome sharecropper’s son from near rural Delight, Arkansas, who spins tales of journeys, love and longing, evoking lives that are banal yet exotic and themes that are everyday but transcendent.

Wichita is today the headquarters of Koch Industries, the vast industrial corporation run by conservative billionaire brothers who symbolise the outsize influence of money in American politics. Phoenix is a suburban sprawl of golf courses and master-planned developments.

And nostalgic hankering feels like a political act in a country whose president moulded imagined wistfulness for simpler times into a policy cornerstone, with nativist calls to “make America great again”.

But the entwining of death, destruction and the seaside is a dissonance that still fits perfectly amid the forced gaiety and faded grandeur of this fragile Texas island.

Galveston was a thriving port levelled by a hurricane that killed more than 6,000 people in 1900. It remains the most lethal natural disaster in US history. It was rebuilt with a seawall that did a fine job of protecting the city when another big hurricane hit in 1915, but much of the action moved inland to Houston, which is now the nation’s fourth-largest city.

Galveston’s population of about 50,000 is only about 12,000 greater than it was before the storm. It did, though, welcome 6.5 million tourists last year, many embarking on cruises – a sign of the city’s latest post-hurricane recovery after Ike ravaged Texas and neighbouring states in 2008, killing 112 people and causing $34bn in damage.

A stroll along the heart of the sea front today hardly evinces the romance of Webb’s song. What Galveston offers is closer to hedonism; it’s not surprising it hosts America’s third-largest festival.

Most of the fast-food joints, bars and hotels look hurriedly thrown up by people suspecting it’s not worth taking much care because they’ll have to do it all over again soon. The water is turbid and oil rigs and container ships pockmark the horizon.

But head to the fine homes and commercial buildings in the restored historic district near the port and it’s easy to imagine how Galveston must have looked in its Victorian heyday.

Scott Hanson runs an antiques store. Originally from Minnesota, he found his way to Galveston via California and Kansas City. “There was a tumbleweed about 3ft tall,” he recalled, thinking: “Wow, I must really be in Texas.”

The 57-year-old moved to Galveston around 1980. “I was playing pool one night, somebody fell asleep at the table. They said they’d pay me $100 to drive them from Houston to Galveston.” That ride led to a permanent job offer as a driver. Houston was too busy; here, he said, there is “just a rush minute – no rush hour”.

He spoke in his workshop, piled high with hundreds of planks of reclaimed wood that he will refashion into something new. How did Hurricane Ike affect his business? He gestured to the top of a shabby old door frame leaning against a wall, indicating the height of the floodwaters. About 7ft. Yet he stayed, cleaned up and carried on.

Jim Yarbrough is 61 and was born and raised here, but still sleeps a little less soundly at this time of year. He is Galveston’s mayor and mid-August to mid-September is historically when Texas’ share of the Gulf coast is most at risk.

“We get riding high like we are right now then we get another hurricane that knocks the socks right off of us, then we’re down in the depths of ‘how are we gonna recover, will we recover, is it time to close the door’, conversations,” he said.

Lack of action on climate change further imperils already vulnerable coastal areas such as Galveston: rising sea levels make flooding more common, while hurricanes may grow in frequency and intensity.

Yarbrough is from a Democratic background and no fan of Donald Trump, who has called climate change a “hoax” and announced America’s withdrawal from the Paris agreement.

Related: Glen Campbell: the guitar prodigy represented the best of pop and country

“Personally, I think it’s ridiculous,” Yarbrough said of Trump’s stance. “I have benchmarks all across this town and I live on the water. The tide is constantly higher than it was two years ago.”

Yarbrough dreams of a time when there is the political will and the funds for a huge coastal barrier to protect Galveston. “I think it makes a difference who’s in the White House to get those type of public investments,” he said.

Back on the gulf front on the western edge of town, staring out through the mist at the crashing waves, it’s still possible to imagine what it must have been like in the 60s, when Campbell first sang about Galveston’s “sea birds flying in the sun”.

Turn your gaze towards land, though, and the view is of modern homes built on stilts for self preservation and a piece of graffiti on the much-scrawled seawall that the city’s cleaners are yet to paint over. It says, with no less simplicity but rather less poetry than the song that made this once mighty city famous again: “Fuck Trump.”

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