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here was a riot goin’ on at the very apex of the ‘60s cultural zeitgeist, and Jimmy Webb was fast asleep under his piano—literally. In truth, he needed the rest, because almost overnight, the young Oklahoman had gone from just another down-on-his-luck songwriter in L.A. to having five top ten hits within a 20-month span. He was living every young songwriter’s dream, having fast become the guy artists turned to for material. The heir apparent to Swinging Sixties icon Burt Bacharach—a composer twice his age—it didn’t take long before Webb’s own voice emerged; after a few hits in Bacharach’s breezy style (“Up, Up and Away”), he began to refine his singular gift for crafting deeply middle-American tales of longing, regret, and values lost, themes making their way to AM radio in hordes. Hits like Vietnam lament, “Galveston,” immortal hymn to the working man, “Wichita Lineman,” and Sinatra favorite “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” as delivered by the yearning tenor of MOR country crossover artist Glen Campbell, rendered the songwriter hot property indeed.
But despite rapid success and an undeniable knack for a crisp pop hook, Webb was quickly emerging less as the voice of young America than eulogist for the nation that existed before Kennedy’s assassination. Where his contemporaries’ strident social rhetoric and harsh instrumental textures were exacerbating the struggle taking place between the younger and older generations (Nixon’s so-called “Silent Majority”), Webb was writing songs about marriage, blue-collar jobs and old high school sweethearts. Adopting the role of what Mark Cooper would later call “a seemingly perpetually unrequited lover, ever dignified and masculine in his loss,” Webb’s music often appeared as if it came from another age.
It all harkened back to a childhood spent adrift in the vast plains of the Oklahoma panhandle, where Webb began writing songs as a teenager, first by rearranging hymns he played at the church where his father was pastor, and later by rewriting popular hits of the day more to his liking. The urge to escape his surroundings was strong; when he wasn’t reading sci-fi novels like The Martian Chronicles during his father’s sermons, young Jimmy was composing/arranging/reworking three songs a week, later describing that hormone-driven need to express himself through music “a matter of body chemistry.” He would make the most of his talents, and quickly: upon moving to Los Angeles with his family, Webb would go from an 18 year-old music transcriber to one of Hollywood’s most in-demand songwriters inside of three years, composing a body of work that would, in retrospect, comprise something akin to a symphonic requiem for a bygone era.
Yet for all his accolades, Webb was discovering that even the most sophisticated pop hits didn’t fire the synapses in his brain the way his heroes, Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov, had. Those authors preached constant innovation and the ideal of breaking through the traditional limits of time and space. Keenly aware of self-parody’s onset, Webb would later write of those years: “From what I’d seen of the business, there was a tendency for songwriters once they had become successful to drive along in the formula that established them until they died. I decided that I wanted to keep writing and that I wanted to evolve and break out of the formula.”
But Webb’s commitment to personal growth was by no means indicative of any particular affiliation with the emerging avant-garde, either musically or culturally. Indeed, despite an admiration for the progressive movement in America, counterbalancing the young composer’s desire to free himself of creative stagnation was a yearning for acceptance by the very institutions his generation was then questioning. As he would put it some years later, with equal parts cold professionalism and nostalgic pining, real success was “[knowing that] your song was recorded by Rosemary Clooney,” as if having an old torch singer perform one’s work instantly rendered it “timeless.”
In time, the preacher’s son would get that wish, though it came at a cost. At the very moment his star was ascending, Jimmy Webb found himself isolated from his peers who scoffed at his songs’ seemingly anachronistic subject matter. But he was not writing for them—rather, he was writing for the millions of Americans who sang Jimmy Webb songs on their way to work, as they picked up their children from school, and as they cleaned their homes. The composer might have felt alone, but in time he would discover he most certainly wasn’t. Far from it.
Despite his earnest commitment to discipline and respect for tradition, Jimmy Webb was no ignoramus when it came to keeping up with the freewheeling times. Notwithstanding the insularity of the LA scene in which he was then immersed, he was fully aware of the innovations taking place in popular music and had kept close tabs on The Beatles, Rolling Stones and the myriad British Invasion acts that had arrived in their wake. But Webb simply approached his music his own way; as the electric guitar came to dominate in the burgeoning acid-rock era, the young composer—ever the throwback—remained very much a piano man, adapting an arpeggiated performance style on the keyboard that approximated the rhythms of finger-picking.
Besides, the piano proved well suited to aiding Webb’s abiding interest in pop orchestrations; revealing an affinity for the classical music he grown up with and studied as a teenager, he would later count 1961’s “Stand By Me” as one of the first examples of overt neoclassicism in popular music. “With its Russian-romantic orchestra midsection that also subtly suggested fugal elements,” he wrote, the Ben E. King standard keyed the idea in the young composer that “rock ‘n’ roll and the string ensemble are not antithetic after all”; to the contrary, “the rough, self-taught textures of rock vocalists” and “silken tones of the orchestra” could complement one another—a theorem Phil Spector would perfect with 1966’s thrilling Tina Turner vehicle, “River Deep Mountain High.” So, too, was Webb in awe of Sgt. Peppers and The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds—in particular, the latter’s powerful organization of orchestral sound and feeling, its fusion of melody and harmony, into one cohesive statement.
Later writing that “the air was full of ideas in those amazingly vital days of the late-Sixties,” he was poised for an artistic breakthrough of his own. Late-night conversations with harmony pop producer/engineer Bones Howe expedited matters: “[Bones] and I had some theoretical discussions about expanding the pop form,” he later wrote, “breaking out of the constrictions of the three minute song—verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, verse chorus—and creating a longer piece, with classical influences.”
Among those influences was a century-and-a-half old classical form with a distinct air of quaintness compared to the “far-out” psychedelic experiments of his own era: the song cycle. Beethoven had been the first composer to fashion a song cycle with “An die ferne Geliebte” (“To the distant beloved”), a collection of interconnected songs set to six poems by Jeitteles. With “Die Winterreise” (1827), Schubert had seized on the narrative aspects of the form, drawing upon the texts of Wilhelm Müller’s darkly romantic poems to reflect on the disappointments of his own life as an outsider. Schubert’s work and that of Robert Schumann would set the form’s standard in classical composition—which with the composers’ fates (the former would die of syphilis within a year of “Die Winterreise”’s completion, while the latter would hurl himself into the Rhine and ultimately die in an asylum) would forever associate the music’s tenor and bleak imagery with the Angst of the Troubled Composer.
In an era of chemically-expanding horizons, appropriating the romantic song cycle seemed an obvious next step for a young, unabashedly romantic composer such as Webb—almost too obvious. But even if it cost the burgeoning hitmaker his commercial momentum, armed with the songcraft of Tin Pan Alley, peerless arranging skills and a crack orchestra consisting of Phil Spector’s Wrecking Crew, he knew that this was his opportunity to create something permanent, something timeless. As a pop composer, Jimmy Webb wouldn’t exactly be the first to the song cycle—Brian Wilson’s brilliant (but ultimately stillborn) Smile was then in the pipeline with collaborator and fellow LA scene-sters Randy Newman and Van Dyke Parks hot on his trail. He was damned, though, if he was going to churn out easy listening hits for the rest of his life.
The first realization of his lofty ambitions would be The Fifth Dimension’s The Magic Garden, which found Webb firmly in creative control of the harmony group to whom old friend and Soul City Records honcho Johnny Rivers had assigned him a year earlier. Following a breakout debut record showcasing Webb’s compositional and arranging prowess, most notably on the escapist Bacharach homage “Up Up & Away,” Howe handed the full songwriting and arranging duties to Webb, who seized the opportunity to concoct his first foray into the song cycle form.
The record appeared little more than superficially complex on its face: book-ended by prologues and epilogues, with instrumental interludes carrying over one theme to the next. Beyond the surface formalism however, Webb, inspired by Gene Stratton-Porter’s 1927 novel, had assembled a surreal, at times haunting, meditation on young love and breaking up—a sense somewhat betrayed by the Fifth Dimension’s sprightly pop gospel sound. But beginning and ending with the simple refrain, “Have you tried love?” Magic Garden was a strikingly personal statement from the young composer.
“It’s so soft and warm behind those hedges / No hard edges” coos the group during the title track’s gentle middle-eight, which frames love as a childlike, enchanted (and as suggested by the title, unattainable) place that “has a way of making you feel free,” “lies beyond the gates of dark and light” and “belongs to me.” With imagery of carousels and lacquered mace permeating the lyric sheet, the listener would be forgiven for finding Webb’s particular evocation of love almost bizarrely womb-bound.
What listeners didn’t know was that the young composer was going through an extended and painful breakup with his girlfriend. Singer Marilyn McCoo would later refer to The Magic Garden as “Susan’s record,” as the young lady in question would appear by name in several songs and in spirit during the others, inspiring a sort of soulful fatalism theme through the album. Their relationship would be at the fore in songs such as the bleakly romantic “Requiem: 820 Latham”, as the 21 year-old Webb contemplates love’s ephemeral nature with an acuity stunning for its preternatural maturity:
And I knew the mountainside would beEven the record’s more chipper ditties, such as demi-hits “Paper Cup” and “Carpet Man”, were for Webb a form of black comedy—the songwriter’s way of poking fun at his own shortcomings, with the latter (a skillful nick of Neil Diamond’s “Cherry Cherry”) cleverly portraying life as a woman’s doormat. “Dreams/Pax/Nepenthe” found him musing about Susan and songwriting in a dream state, sitars quietly droning in the background, the unsteady harmonic foundation and meandering whole-tone melody mirroring the uncertain, fractious state of their relationship. “The Worst That Could Happen,” later a massive hit for Brooklyn Bridge, would be lampooned for its noxious sentimentality and sexism (“A woman like you needs a house and a home”). But within the record’s context, the song almost perfectly captures a young man’s worst fears: losing his girl forever—not to the Grim Reaper but the matrimony of another man.
The Magic Garden would not be a perfect realization of Webb’s ambitions—for reasons likely related to sales, Howe insisted on a strident version of “Ticket To Ride”, replete with blaring horns, momentarily jarring the listener from the psych-pop bliss. But it’s close, intriguing Nick Drake of all people, who found its marriage of lush romanticism, psychedelic dreamscapes and tart orchestrations intoxicating. He wasn’t alone.
And then, of course, there was Harris, with whom the composer would rewrite the rules governing the pop single. Said Harris was one Richard Harris, thespian, auteur, man's man—not, notably, a singer, apart from a few forays into the cinematic musical. Fortunately for him, one such musical had been produced by Johnny Rivers. And upon hearing Webb's most recent prized creation, a multi-part song suite with massive baroque orchestrations, his words were those of one from the dramatic profession: "We must do it." Not that Webb had anyone else with whom to record the song; it had been flatly turned down by The Association, just coming off a pair of sunshine pop hits with "Along Comes Mary" and "Windy."
But there was the swaggering Harris, full of Irish bravado, so certain that he and Webb needed to collaborate that he invited the young composer to his parents’ house in Ireland to motivate, insisting that young Jimmy sleep in the bed in which the actor “was conceived.” For the soft-spoken and heartbroken composer, the partnership would provide a welcome education in the finer points of machismo—for his blustery Irish friend, seeking to break into the pop market was a near-comical lesson in sensitivity, even as the actor kept a pint on a nearby stool for the purposes of “lubricating” the vocal cords during the recording sessions. As the tracks were in a much higher key than the actor was capable of singing, not having been conceived for Harris's voice, the result was an even more dramatic and intense delivery—however ridiculous the results, they conveyed the very effect Webb was after.
The song in question was, of course, “MacArthur Park,” which the pair would soon ride majestically into the Top Ten in 1968. The park itself was the now-infamous LA locale that Webb and his girlfriend would often visit during lunch, walking around the lake—doing, as he later recalled, “what boys and girls do.” Though many visiting the spot have found it unremarkable in years since, Webb remembers otherwise: "It was beautiful," he insisted to writer Paul Zollo. "It was beautiful. I will always remember it that way."
Of the track, Webb later recalled that Bones Howe “had asked me to write a ‘classical piece for the radio’,” with the perhaps more critical qualifier: “It can be really, really long.” The seven-and-a-half minute “MacArthur Park” would be the centerpiece of Webb’s second song cycle, the epic A Tramp Shining. As with the single, the record was melancholy, romantic and epic, with a generous dose of old school machismo, with other titles “Lovers Such As I”, “Name of My Sorrow” and “If You Must Leave My Life”, among others, giving a fair picture of the grandiloquent subject matter. The record staked out the middle ground between high-minded orchestral balladeer Scott Walker and the highfalutin poesy of Rod McKuen; stuffed with interludes, segues, extended passages, and towering, maximalist orchestrations, the songs liberally interspersed pseudo-romantic blather with nonsensical tragicomic imagery typical of the era.
Again, falling somewhat short of perfection—for all its theatrical virtues, Harris’s croak did Webb’s melodies no favors—the composer had brazenly attempted a massive Artistic Statement with A Tramp Shining. With each song’s arrangement seemingly more ornate than the last, its lyric further into the realm of the pretentious—if not ridiculous—the actor unleashed the composer from his shy Oklahoman roots to push limits some felt best left in place. It wasn’t without risk; to this day, Webb is lampooned for “MacArthur Park”’s crimes against good taste, with the song regularly making Worst Songs of All-Time lists. Yet he has most certainly had the last laugh: Tin Pan Alley legend Sammy Cahn, perhaps overstating things somewhat, would call the song “a major piece of work, major” going on to compare its scope to Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”—a level of acceptance surely not lost on Webb. The public seemed to agree; particularly among older audiences, A Tramp Shining went on to become a huge, if unlikely, hit and a defining statement of its era, with the seven-and-a-half minute “MacArthur Park” not only going to #2 in America in 1968, but to #1 a decade later for Donna Summer.
And what of the song’s immortal “And someone left the cake out in the rain...” stanza? At first writing off “MacArthur”’s significance, merely likening the lyrics to “the amorphous, poetic lyrics of the late sixties,” Webb would proclaim himself confused by the hubbub. Putting the song more in perspective, he would later say, “I see it as a relatively simple love song with some very sad imagery and about things passing away and never being the same again.” Indeed, Webb’s own feelings explain the song’s enduring resonance perhaps more than the critics’. It wouldn’t be the last time.
If the voiceless wonder that was Richard Harris could barely carry a tune, then at least it gave Jimmy Webb an opportunity to try his most overblown lyrical and arranging conceits on for size. Mississippi native Thelma Houston—well, she was another story. At one turn, Houston could purr like Dionne; a second later, she would belt it like Aretha—the next might find her dipping into a velvety alto range that would make a young Karen Carpenter envious. In Houston, Jimmy Webb had found someone who was, in his words, “the most prodigious talent I have ever encountered”—a singer who “manifested everything great about the black female voice.” Assigned by Lou Adler’s Dunhill Records (for whom he had done Tramp) to produce her debut, Webb would provide a wealth of material with which to test that voice of Houston’s out—and leave the Harris-like theatrics at the door.
Besides, Webb’s grander designs were on hold for the time being. A proposed musical, suggestively titled His Own Dark City, never made it beyond the planning stage, though he had assembled several compositions with the nascent concept in mind. Operating under the promising new title, Sunshower, Webb fashioned a different kind of song cycle for Houston: a group of compositions not thematically or lyrically related, but rather tailor-made to showcase every facet of Houston’s talent.
And not surprisingly, Sunshower would include several songs that strongly echoed Bacharach-David’s latter work in general and the Promises Promises musical specifically. Of the composer, Webb would later write that Bacharach was “the great innovator of popular melody in our generation,” citing his evocation of minimalist pentatonic modes and “adventurous skips of fourths and fifths.” More that that, Webb complimented Bacharach’s influence as “a breath of fresh air to a public that had tired of schmaltz but could not completely surrender to three-chord rock ‘n’ roll.” Having first reached that audience with “MacArthur Park”, he took another step in that direction with Sunshower; on tracks such as “To Make It Easier On You” and the proto-Carpenters of “Someone Is Standing Outside,” Webb did his best Bacharach impression, dishing gently meandering melodies over swing rhythms and brass arrangements in odd meters.
Elsewhere, however, the collaboration bore a different kind of fruit, allowing Webb to flex his Brill Building mastery of songwriting muscle while again displaying his peerless orchestral-arranging skills. With the pitter-patter drum work of a trucker crisscrossing the country, the driving “Mixed-Up Girl” was a clever rewrite of Fred Neil’s rambling “Everybody’s Talkin’,” but framed by an atmospheric music-box introduction and a string-chorale coda that was equal parts Charles Ives circa “Three Places In New England” and pure Jimmy Webb heartbreak, the song was transformed, elevated. Where the version of “Didn’t We” that opened A Tramp Shining was a woozily romantic hymn, a gentleman’s last waltz, in the voice of Houston, the song is transformed into a softly shuffling jazz requiem—less a wistful reflection on better times than a soulful, vulnerable lament, full of hurt and regret. Even the blaring cover of "Jumpin' Jack Flash" worked as a showcase for Houston's emotional range—though perhaps recalling the disaster that was Magic Garden's "Ticket To Ride," Webb seized the opportunity to sneak in a Stravinsky melody on the strings. It was as close to protest as this songwriter would come.
But it is the mini-suite, “This Is Where I Came In,” “Pocketful of Keys,” and “This Is Your Life” that struck at the core of what Webb sought with Sunshower, revealing a signature harmonic sophistication that shied away from predictable resolution, often instead modulating into other keys (as the “Keys”’ lyric cleverly alludes to). Where Webb would periodically draw upon the elemental I-IV-V progression that he learned in gospel and formed the basis of much rock ‘n roll, he was equally as comfortable (if not more so) drawing from the language of impressionist composers Debussy and Ravel, from whom he learned to subvert the traditional tension-and-release of western music. In co-opting their use of suspension chords and stacked-fourths, Webb could set the table for not only unpredictable modulations and melodic turns, but more importantly, a heightened sense of emotional complexity at which the lyrics could only hint.
By and large, Sunshower shied away from the overt formalism of the Harris records, ending the gospel-oriented “If This Was the Last Song” with quiet coda reprise of “Somebody Is Standing Outside.” It was an appropriate, if unintentionally accurate, ending; though the record would garner critical acclaim, it sank without a trace. Houston would bounce around for another nine years before hitting paydirt with a brilliant disco-fied remake of Gamble and Huff’s “Don’t Leave Me This Way”.
As for Webb, the unlikely disco genre would also prove his savior with the Summer hit version of “MacArthur Park”, once his remarkable string of hits dried up and his performing career had stalled. But not before he made one last, if unlikely, masterpiece with an old friend.
Though A Tramp Shining embraced the framework of a song cycle, it lacked Magic Garden’s strong narrative, resulting in little more than a collection of songs, albeit one embroidered by interludes, related themes and monstrously ambitious orchestrations. Nor had it been composed with Harris in mind; no Thelma Houston, several tracks ended up exposing the actor’s shortcomings as a vocalist. But with 1969’s The Yard Went On Forever (with the credit “Produced in theory by Jimmy Webb” adorning its sleeve) the young auteur would wisely reconcile the various approaches, resolve his relationship with the by now near-mythical Susan and fully realize his cosmic ambitions at last.
Written expressly for Harris and his gaping vibrato, the record saw Webb further develop the child romance themes. Having been drawn out across several albums by this point, from the outset, there is no doubt that the relationship is over, perhaps by way of divorce. The title track, the follow-up single to “MacArthur Park,” was another vivid dream, with Harris singing of “Nagasaki housewives,” alluding to the emotional “fallout” from the breakup. Elsewhere, Harris sings of his “late lover’s body…decaying, disappearing.” Indeed, the sense of impending doom haunts the record, with hints of new boyfriends and references to “filed daggers” strewn throughout.
Decidedly absent was any sort of tribute to his ladyfriend, a la Magic Garden’s “Summer’s Daughter” and Tramp’s “Dancing Girl.” Even the gentle “Gayla,” which begins by chronicling the twee adventures of a young girl “skipping like a stone through the garden” and “chasing her small butterflies” mutates into a hideous nightmare, with Harris bellowing “God damn you!” while the orchestra surges behind him. About as close the record comes to sentimentality is the nine-minute “The Hymns From The Grand Terrace,” which finds Webb musing on what went wrong, how he wishes he could have won her heart with a song. But by the end, it’s patently clear that he’s failed, unable to sleep and very much alone.
Nowhere is the record’s loss of innocence theme on starker display than the its vitriolic centerpiece, “The Hive.” Where “Worst That Could Happen” found Webb wallowing in his loss as his beloved informs him of her plans to marry someone else, “The Hive,” portrays the young man once the news has sunk in. A veritable poison-pen diary entry, the song is Webb at his most hateful and venomous, as he watches her walking down the aisle “whitely as though she really was a virgin,” presumably peering from the back row. Even the wedding music proves sheer pain to Webb, as Harris spits:
The preacher says the proper things and then the rusty alto singsOne can only wonder what Webb’s pastor father must have thought. But musically, “The Hive” is every bit as violent, beginning with a painfully out-of-tune harpsichord, before exploding into the cacophonous chorus, full of darting strings, low brass bleating and a Greek chorus wailing in the background. Following the song’s fiery climax, Webb sums up marriage wrathfully twisting an old adage, “There's no place like numb,” ending the song smugly pleased as she departs his life for good, “You can almost hear her screaming / In the hive.”
At last “free to chase the moon,” as Bradbury and Asimov had, Webb ponders his adulthood: “Got rid of that softy / Who tried so hard to please.” The record concludes with Webb recalling the “yard” of the opening track, not unlike that Magic Garden, an idealized place where “honey bees would buzz,” “green things grew” and new things were possible—even love. “You may not believe me / But that’s the way it was” goes the last song, as Webb retreats, reassuring the exhausted listener that, yes, the place really did exist – that it did go on forever; it’s just that, well, there may be some hard edges after all.
As the turbulent Sixties lapsed into the sedentary Seventies, so, too, did the great spirit which had infused Webb’s remarkable period of creativity. With the 1972 re-election of Richard Nixon, the Silent Majority’s heartland values had prevailed, and many of the previous decade’s revolutions came to no satisfactory conclusion, as much of the younger generation married and started families of their own.
Webb was among those settling down, and the flattening effect on his once-dynamic music was almost instantaneous. He would compose a film score for Abraham Polonsky’s Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here, before recording a few more tracks with Harris and helming one record by the post-Ross Supremes before they called it quits. But none were great successes, and much-hyped reunions with The Fifth Dimension and Glen Campbell disappeared quietly as well.
More promising for Webb was the rise of the singer-songwriter—becoming one had been his goal from the moment he’d arrived in Los Angeles. But after releasing a string of elaborately produced records between 1970 and 1977 to commercial indifference, Webb came to realize was that for all his accolades as a songwriter, Carole King’s emergence as a celebrated performer in her own right was the exception, not the rule. And with a flood of singer-songwriters hitting the market around the same time, not only was Webb discovering his own thin voice was not the vehicle best suited to bringing his more ambitious material a wider audience, but also that fewer artists were seeking the kind of outside writing assistance he offered. He was hardly alone in his frustrations; the Bacharach and David juggernaut went belly up in the wake of failed musical Lost Horizon, and while contemporaries like Randy Newman and Van Dyke Parks had released their own orchestral song cycles to great acclaim, soon they, too, would return to projects better reflecting the unambitious, corporate times.
It was at this point that Webb, a husband and new father, could once again draw upon is famously practical, moral, Oklahoma upbringing for guidance. As he kept on with his fledgling solo career, Webb bore down, diving headlong into the now adult-oriented Los Angeles scene where he reemerged as a workman-like writer for the next generation of easy listening artists. Composing what amounted to deeply-felt soft rock for the likes of Linda Rondstadt, Judy Collins and Art Garfunkel, he would return to the charts several times over, though never again reaching the giddy creative heights of his late-Sixties song cycles. But with a family soon to bear five children, Jimmy Webb would find a way to make peace with the arrangement—and the accompanying royalty checks, later claiming "I have this office here in New York where I pretty much come in and close off the doors and sit and work. Just the way real people work." Songwriting was his business.
Thereafter, Jimmy Webb wrote many a fine song, but no longer innovated; once known by millions and recorded by the likes of Sinatra and Dusty Springfield, he was now in the business of refinement. Webb became the ultimate craftsman or, as he put some years later in his book on songwriting, a "tunesmith." But his legacy secure, his best work every bit as timeless as that of his forebears, Jimmy Webb could sleep again, comforted by the knowledge that he would indeed be remembered.
By: Matthew Weiner
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