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When Glen Campbell Sang “Galveston”

“But with that said, what has always bothered me about the story told in ‘Galveston’ is that there seems to be so much of life left unruminated over, a fact remediated only slightly by the mention of the seascape at the end of the song (and ‘the sea waves crashing’ in the Campbell version).”

“She was twenty-one/When I left Galveston” 

Although initially performed the year before by another artist, Don Ho, it was in January of 1969 that Glen Campbell released the single “Galveston,” which would later serve as the title track for the album Galveston that came out that March. “Galveston” reached number four on the Billboard Hot 100 and would be a mainstay of Campbell’s live performances, even included in his Goodbye Tour in 2011 and 2012, which was completed not long before his death in 2017.

The song, like several of Campbell’s other hits, was written by Jimmy Webb, one of the most capable songwriters I know of. (Webb is also “the only artist to ever receive Grammy awards for music, lyrics, and orchestration.”) Webb wrote many of my favorite songs of that era and genre, such as “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”; “The Wichita Lineman”; and its critics be damned, “MacArthur Park.” But “Galveston,” more than the others, stays with me, particularly for the questions it—intentionally or otherwise—raises. While it is surely a rumination on love deferred (like so much of Webb’s oeuvre), Campbell’s take on “Galveston” raises the philosophical question of what one might most miss were he to be killed that night in a war zone or, for the rest of us, if—God forbid—we don’t wake up tomorrow. 

Now, Campbell was not one’s typical musician against the war, and like Johnnie Wright, had little interest in using his music to undermine, as he saw it, the war effort. (1) And this is how we got Campbell’s take on Webb’s song, which actually makes it a bit more lyrically interesting—for our purposes—than the original. (2)

In an effort to dull the song’s anti-war messaging, Campbell replaced “I’d go home if they would let me/Put down this gun/And go to Galveston” with “While I watch the cannons flashing/I clean my gun/And dream of Galveston,” as well as “Galveston, oh Galveston/Wonder if she could forget me” with “Galveston, oh Galveston/I still hear your sea waves crashing.” Both versions though end in the same way:

I am so afraid of dying
Before I dry the tears she’s crying
Before I watch
Your sea birds flying in the sun

Now, the thought of leaving a sweetheart behind informs so much war-themed literature, music, and actual letters home from soldiers. This features prominently in the literature of the Vietnam War. For instance, in his 1990 book The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien describes at length in the opening chapter Lieutenant Jimmy Cross’s feelings for a college student in New Jersey, Martha, and how his mind would drift to her each day as his platoon patrolled the jungle. “Just a kid at war, in love,” his thoughts always returned to her. In O’Brien’s telling, Cross’s fixation on Martha was so great that it cost the life of a man who served under him. “He loved Martha more than his men,” O’Brien writes, describing how Cross often thought more about this young woman in New Jersey and anticipating her next letter than concentrating steadfastly on how best to keep his platoon safe. 

O’Brien’s work, though surely borrowing from true events, is fictional. (And in case there was ever any doubt, certain editions of the book even make it clear on the cover: The Things They Carried: A Work of Fiction.) My friend (and Merion West poetry contributor) W.D. Ehrhart’s account of the war, his 1983 memoir Vietnam-Perkasie, on the other hand, is a work of non-fiction. And one of its most memorable sections contains a description of his girlfriend back home deciding to cut off their relationship while he was still in Vietnam: 

“‘Dearest Bill,’ her letter began, ‘I guess you’re wondering why I haven’t written. I just didn’t know how to explain.’ What followed was less an explanation than a simple farewell. The letter was brief, alien and distant—less than half a page. ‘Please forgive me,’ it concluded. ‘I pray God will protect you and keep you safe. You’ll always be special to me. Jenny.’ I couldn’t make sense of it. I was prepared for horrible bodily injury, had already imagined myself spending a life caring for a woman with one leg, a blind woman, a woman confined to a wheelchair. Death I could have understood. Anything. But this.

‘This isn’t possible,’ I thought. ‘This isn’t possible! Eight fucking months!’ Long letters. Passionate letters. Filled with every imaginable endearment. A perfect chain, like a rosary, a lifeline, a beacon. Gone. Just like that? ‘This isn’t possible,’ I thought.” [Emphasis original]

(In 2021, Ehrhart would strike a more understanding tone of his then-girlfriend’s predicament in his poem “God, Guns & Ginny.”) (3)

In a more extreme example, from the Korean War, David H. Lowenherz tells the story of Leon, “a 19-year-old artillery gunner…with the 34th Field Artillery Battalion of the 25th Infantry Division.” Leon received a “dear John” letter from his girlfriend, one he replied to graciously (“You tried to ‘let me down easy.’ Well, if it’s any consolation to you, you did it about as well as a thing like that can be done…You ask me if I understand. I do.”) Sadly, as Lowenherz recounts, just three days later, Leon charged a Chinese machine gun encampment without back-up in what was effectively a suicide mission. With his girlfriend gone, he decided that there was no reason left to persist through the hardship and trials the war brought. 

Admittedly, I have very much never been to war. I can try to understand, though, based on conversations I have had with those who have the importance of maintaining one’s focus on a treasured person or idea in order to carry one through. (This is likely true of those in other trying circumstances, whether being a prisoner, confined to a concentration camp, or even battling a difficult disease. One tends to need a comforting thought, element of faith, or even singular focus to carry them through.) (4)  What did Nietzsche write? “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” But with that said, what has always bothered me about the story told in “Galveston” is that there seems to be so much of life left unruminated over, a fact remediated only slightly by the mention of the seascape at the end of the song (and “the sea waves crashing” in the Campbell version). There must be so much this young man would miss should the war unfortunately claim his life, but they remain both unmentioned and unimplied. It strikes me as lacking, as did a comment a friend of mine made at his wedding: that he never knew happiness until he met his wife, as if all of the varied, beautiful, and surreal experiences of this planet must be put on hold until one finds a suitable romantic companion. 

Now, surely, interpersonal relationships provide much of what gives meaning to our lives. As far as we can measure it, being in a good relationship is very much associated with better life outcomes. And we do not need psychology studies to tell us what we already know: that love, “the finest thing around,” is certainly something good in and of itself. I think sometimes of a great uncle of mine. He never spoke much of the war in Korea while he was young or even in his middle age. It was not until his 80s that he began to open up, and not directly even, but initially by discussing another war. He had a large collection of films, mostly about the Second World War, and he and my father would watch them together in the den of his small concrete house in Florida while the women chatted in the kitchen and drank coffee. My uncle and his wife, my aunt, had moved there when they retired and never missed Philadelphia for a minute, only returning to visit it once, and only because they had to. 

We would visit them once a year or so as they got older, trying to soak up the time with them while they were still with us. As the years went on, my uncle would start to venture more often from the den to the kitchen and sit with everyone else and talk about war, mostly by way of issuing corrections about the inaccuracies he identified in the films he watched. “This isn’t realistic. If a lieutenant were actually screaming this bad at his men in battle, someone would frag him,” he would say. Or, “As bad as Guadalcanal was, at least it wasn’t as cold as Korea, the coldest place on earth, especially when you were trying to get cleaned up by dumping ice cold water on yourself from your helmet.” He was the kindest and most gentle of souls, a daily communicant at Catholic mass, and ever attentive to his wife of more than 60 years. But when he talked about Korea, his emotions seemed detached from the scenes he was describing. He served in an artillery unit and recounted the numbers of enemy soldiers killed by the barrages he and his fellow soldiers launched, as well as how many American servicemen, including men he knew, were killed when the Chinese entered the war and forced their retreat. 

He was dispassionate, perhaps as a good soldier should be—like Albert Ball, the World War I British flying ace was, even when writing home on the very day he lost four friends. As he told his father, “You ask me to let the devils have it when I fight. Yes, I always let them have all I can but really I don’t think them devils. I only scrap because it is my duty…” 

My aunt and uncle got married shortly after he came home from the war, which he somehow survived even though many of the men in his division did not, and he was the spouse who lived longer too. He was relieved, he said, that she went first, so she did not have to go through what he did, the grief being as intolerable as it was. (Pro meis nihil non patiar.) And when my family would visit him after she was gone, the only thing that could temporarily take his mind off his grief was to recount—once again—stories of Korea: the bloodshed, the heroics, and, of course, the cold. He could talk endlessly about all of the men—Korean, Chinese, and American—who didn’t make it, but even the momentary thought of his wife being gone would be enough to make him break down, asking with his eyes for us to make an excuse of having to beat the traffic back to Tampa and let him be because the world had always begun and ended with her. (5) (What does it say in “The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter”? “I desired my dust to be mingled with yours/Forever and forever, and forever.”)

So much for effective altruism or all of the philosophy class thought experiments telling us our family members or spouses are just the same as someone we never met in Belgrade. Everyone knows that’s not true. 

I still see her standing by the water
Standing there lookin’ out to sea
And is she waiting there for me?

“Babe, I couldn’t care less how I come home just so long as I still remember that there are beaucoup things to live for and believe me relatives like you are enough for me to fight for my life.” So wrote home from Vietnam a second lieutenant in the 9th Infantry. 

And he is, of course, correct. He recognizes this even amid so much suffering, suffering that can indeed be clarifying: There certainly are beaucoup things to live for, though they are sometimes obscured in day-to-day life, and, unfortunately, their importance is only sometimes brought into sharp relief when the continuation of life is no longer assured. (This soldier, Stewart Melnick, was killed just four months after writing this letter in the Mekong Delta.) 

Shortly after I graduated from high school, Ehrhart sent me a poem printed out. It was a translation by Kazunori Takenaga that Ehrhart had adapted of a work by the Japanese poet Shinmin Sakamura: 

The sun comes up each morning in silence;
The moon disappears, but nobody sees. 
Flowers dance by the roadside unnoticed;
Birds twitter sweetly, but nobody hears.
People don’t understand what matters.
People work hard all their lives to achieve 
a dream of success that will make them happy: 
Position or power, fortune or fame—
until they are old and they realize too late
the beauty of living has passed them by 
While the river travels alone to the ocean, 
the wind sings alone in the tops of the trees.

I suppose it wasn’t a coincidence that Ehrhart sent me this right around the time I was about to head to college and moreover to Duke University, a place where careerism seems to crowd out any other possible consideration. (6) Sakamura likely would have agreed with the sentiment expressed by an artist of another medium, the cartoonist Stephan Pastis, particularly in this instance

As I have written of before in my critique of politics as an end in itself, there is more to life than politics (and, furthermore, politics, like war, should be about making life safe for pursuing other and better things); life, like ourselves, contains multitudes, and I look askance at those dictums that seek to boil everything down to a single component. Now, as mentioned, sometimes, as Viktor Frankl himself pointed out, one needs a single guiding sense of meaning to carry him through perilous times. In his case, it was the thought of seeing his wife again, as well as “his deep desire to finish his book on logotherapy.” (7) But as William J. Winslade narrates in an afterword of one edition of Man’s Search for Meaning, meaning also is found in embracing “the value of beauty in nature, art, poetry, and literature, and feeling love for family and friends.” There is much to be grateful for in this world, this place of “unending interest,” from the gift of consciousness to reflecting on one’s achievements past and present to the capacity for awe or wonder. One could roam “the Forty-second Street Library, up one side and down the other,” reading on every subject under the sun or spend time, as Spinoza described, amid “the beauty of green plants.” It is for this reason that I have always found it lacking when one seems to prioritize a single consideration to the exclusion of all others. (8)

Although I have never been overly taken with this idea that the thoughts one has at the end of his life are necessarily of greater import than the thoughts one has at other points along the way, Bronnie Ware’s 2011 book The Top Five Regrets of the Dying sheds some light on this discussion. As a palliative care worker in Australia, Ware was with many patients as their lives came to their conclusion and was able to summarize what she believed to be the most common regrets. Somewhat surprisingly, the emphasis was not overwhelmingly on interpersonal relationships:

“1) ‘I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.’ 2) ‘I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.’ 3) ‘I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.’ 4) ‘I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.’ 5) ‘I wish I had let myself be happier.'”

Although I have long been sensitive to George F. Will’s riposte that it seemed fitting that the man famous for remarking “In the long run we are all dead” was childless, it was notable to see how many of these regrets centered more on regrets of self-actualization than regrets of relationships. Now it is indeed possible that love, like courage, is the virtue that makes others possible, with it being a necessary prerequisite for other forms of individual flourishing. But as much of a hammer grief is when one loses a beloved family member or spouse, it seems incumbent upon the survivor to try as best he can to live on, to find meaning in his life rather than to retreat from the world, as filled with hardship as it well sometimes can be. 

I have been to Galveston, and it wasn’t quite like I thought it would be. Webb visited too, he recounts in his memoir The Cake and the Rain, in 1967 at the peak of the song’s success. He was invited by the mayor to be the Grand Marshal of the town’s Shrimp Festival and traveled there despite the lack of pay and a rather busy schedule at the time. It seemed to be all going to plan until the locals there determined, as Webb tells it, that he was something of a hippy, liberal type with too long of hair and giving the appearance of having never worked a day in his life. Before long, a few rabble-rousers were throwing shrimp at him, and he decided to leave the Gulf Coast as promptly as possible. As far as the people there were concerned, he had very much never been to war, let alone was he on the same page as many who had, those who did much of the working, fighting, and dying in this country. 

But perhaps one need not have served in Vietnam to have written music about it that resonates. My favorite Billy Joel song is “Goodnight Saigon,” and though some authenticity might be lost, songwriters such as Webb and Joel do successfully—I believe—put themselves in the shoes of the young American fighting man. Maybe it helped that they were both about the same age as many of those soldiers when they wrote their respective tracks. 

Certain veterans of the Iraq War have similarly criticized Kathryn Bigelow’s 2008 film The Hurt Locker for its various alleged inaccuracies, and they are probably not wrong in many of the points they raise. But that film, a relatively low budget Best Picture winner, has a scene that I think relates to the conversation at hand. (For those of us who have not been to war, sometimes film and literature are the best we can get.) The final scene, a scene I often cite as among the most memorable of modern film, conveys the precise opposite message as “Galveston.” Staff Sergeant William James, the “wild man” bomb disposal technician, returns home at the end of his enlistment. Unlike his counterparts, he relishes in the risk and has little to say when one of his fellow soldiers bemoans the seeming senselessness of war, the constant risk of a stray bullet ending one’s life with so much of life back home still left unlived. Another Sergeant speaks of desperately wanting a son, a family back home, someone to mourn him if, God forbid, said stray bullet were to strike him down. The scene then cuts to James back home, his tour of duty having run its course. And he has what that fellow soldier wants: a wife, gutters to clean, cereal to shop for, and, most importantly, a baby son. But just as the man singing wistfully of the young girl back by the Texas shore had a singular focus, James’s is the opposite: His is war, what he tells his young son, not yet old enough to comprehend what his father is saying, is the only thing he loves because, as the film epigraph tells us, “war is a drug.” And so James reenlists.

Despite the grandeur of the cinematography, that final scene in which James exits the helicopter back again in the Iraqi desert, the film must leave at least some viewers unsettled, just as the song “Galveston” always did for me. In both cases, the respective fictional soldier, one wistful in the fields of Vietnam and the other an adrenaline junkie in the Middle East of the early 2000s display a singular focus that seems insufficiently grateful for the endless, beautiful multitudes of this world.

Endnotes

  1. The 1969 Merle Haggard track “Okie from Muskogee” also belongs to the anti-anti-war song genre. 
  2. I have always been interested in the Vietnam era, including the impact the war has had on how the United States got to where it is today. Even more so than the September 11th attacks, another of the most significant events in shaping the trajectory of the modern United States, the Vietnam War fundamentally altered, I believe, how Americans related to their government. And then there is the music of the era, of course—from “Daniel,” one of the songs that when I was a child first prompted my interest in music to “Sam Stone,” which tells of “a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes” to “Get Together,” arguably the anthem of the 1960s (or at least one strand of it). Robert Caro, I know, remains partial to “We Shall Overcome.”
  3. Interestingly enough, the comments section beneath a Youtube video of the Glen Campbell rendition features a host of notes left by commenters identifying themselves as Vietnam veterans, many of whom shared memories similar to the story told in “Galveston” or expressed by Ehrhart. As one commenter wrote, “I’m a drafted, disabled, and Republic of Vietnam combat veteran ’68. I remember this song very well in 1969. My girlfriend ditched me while I was in Vietnam. I had turned 21 in Vietnam.” 
  4. While in Auschwitz, Viktor Frankl thought often of his pregnant wife, determined to survive to see her once more. 
  5. Sometimes the personal takes precedence over the entirety of a human catastrophe, and maybe there is nothing particularly wrong with that (or, at least, unnatural about it). As Adam Smith famously asserted, if one were set to lose a finger the next day, as he drifted off to sleep the night before, he would worry more about that than a distant global tragedy responsible for the deaths of thousands. In the case of one’s feelings for his loved ones, this reality does not seem as troubling. 
  6. I have also though looked askance at so great a fixation on the natural world that one neglects to recognize the value in interpersonal relationships or the very project of civilization.
  7. Frankl notably argued that arriving at meaning was an individualized endeavor, with different people deriving meaning from very different pursuits. One also wonders, thus, if it can be difficult to claim definitively that life is inherently an experiential, achievement-based, or relationship-centered proposition. 
  8. Sometimes, in certain cases, or at least temporarily, singular focus can be necessary to complete a difficult task. More prosaically, this could be something like graduating from medical school or preparing for a standardized test. Or it could be mathematician Andrew Wiles’ fixation on proving Fermat’s Last Theorem, working diligently alone in an attic for the better part of a decade on the problem. (In an article I always enjoyed, “Paul Erdos, Sweet Genius,” the late Charles Krauthammer contrasted the more collaborative nature of Paul Erdős from the working styles of mathematicians in the mold of Wiles.) 

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