From Up, Up And Away to Wichita Lineman and beyond, he turned MOR lead into gold. Meanwhile, dancing with the Devil, and PCP, invited catastrophe. “I was up to my neck in it!” exclaims Jimmy Webb.
‘‘Yeah, I hear It,” says a puzzled Jimmy Webb, sitting next to me on a couch in a hotel restaurant in West hollywood. he’s holding my iphone inches from his face and listening to that one sound in Macarthur park that has perplexed me since first hearing it on the radio in 1968. precisely at the 4:07 mark, as richard harris breathfully intones “I will have the things that I desire and my passion flow like rivers through the sky,” right between the “things” and the “that,” there is a sound very much like a bubble rising to the surface of what might be a carbonated, perhaps alcoholic, drink. “I have no idea what that is,” says Webb. “I can’t believe it was on the original, my God. But it could be his vocals.” as we prepare to move outside the hotel for some exterior photos, he’s still wondering. “he also had a pitcher of pimm’s No. 1 on a stand right next to the microphone. If he had been holding a glass… It seems to come from that world of sound, am I right?” as well as providing nearly 50 years of satisfaction for fans of sophisticated and mysterious pop, Macarthur park also furnishes a title for Webb’s new memoir, the Cake and the rain. It’s a fascinating read, detailing the legendary songwriter’s start as an Oklahoma City preacher’s son who ploughed winter wheat and listened to Glen Campbell on his transistor radio, then moved westward and made history writing pop jewels for Campbell himself, the 5th dimension, harris, art Garfunkel, and countless others. his By the time I Get to phoenix, up, up and away, Wichita lineman and Galveston are among popular music’s very finest songs, and there is considerably more in his canon. From his mid-’60s days as a songwriter for Motown’s Jobete Music and Johnny rivers, as a singer-songwriter with more than a dozen solo albums to his credit, and as a producer and arranger with a startling adeptness in nearly all genres, Webb has led the high life and witnessed the excesses of rock’n’roll celebrity first-hand. he is warm, gregarious, and on this day in July 2017, adjusting to local time having recently returned with his wife laura from a successful tour of australia. In less than a month he’ll be turning 71, but he looks younger. We talk of family – he and his kids just had dinner with old pal Johnny rivers (his musician sons the Webb Brothers “never really ask my advice about anything,” he says with a resigned smile) – and the future. he wants to make a “plain old solo album” next, with songs “up there with the best I’ve ever written.” he orders a blackened shrimp southwestern quinoa salad. “I still believe
that in the end the good songs will win out,Ó he adds.
Do you remember the moment it struck you that music could be your life?
When I was 12 or 13 years of age we were living in Oklahoma City. I had literally lived in George Lucas towns, American Graffiti towns, and everybody knew everybody, and I played piano in the church, and had gained considerable expertise as a pianist by the time I was 12. And I even did evangelical stuff with my father, I went out on the road with him, and it was like… an act. The church really was my first taste of show business, and I made a direct correlation between how well we were doing on-stage, and the amount of money that piled up on the offering plate. You could see the results of your efforts immediately.
How did you start writing?
I got a very bad beating in a class from a teacher for making a mistake on a paper – this guy was a nut job and he beat me with a board. I didn’t want to go to school. So I was languishing by the radio listening to songs, and I made a connection. Brenda Lee would have a big hit with I’m Sorry, and they’d come up with another record that sounded a little like I’m Sorry. Not too much like I’m Sorry, because that would ruin it. There was an epiphany; I became aware of this process that was going on behind the scenes. I divined this process on my own. Then, later, I would find out that in the industry that was called a “follow-up”. There was a name for it. So I was writing songs. I remember writing a song called It’s Someone Else, and I thought, That would be a great follow-up for The Everly Brothers’ Let It Be Me. And 25 years later I told Artie Garfunkel the story, because he loved The Everly Brothers, and he ended up cutting it. I was 13 years old when I wrote my first follow-up.
You came along at the point where there were two distinct camps: the Brill Building people, who wrote material and gave it to artists who didn’t write but could sing, and that next generation of artists – who could do both.
Those were my heroes, the Brill Building people. And The Beatles?
The night they were first on the Ed Sullivan Show I was playing with a jazz quartet. So the guys came in one night at rehearsal and said, “Hey man, did you see those guys on the Ed Sullivan Show? They got hair like girls, they look just like girls, man.” I said, “NAHHH” (in disbelief ). They said, “Yeah, they’re all singing, man, they’re all singing and playing, and the girls are going crazy, screaming – practically tearing off their clothes.” I said, “That ain’t going to happen, man. We’re going to stay with jazz.” Because I didn’t get it. But then when Rubber Soul came out, and Revolver came out, I got it. There were just some lovely songs coming from those guys. And the songwriter part of me had to accept The Beatles as significant, you know? What they did as a show wasn’t as impressive to me as what they were doing on paper.
Do you think that way generally – that the song has more merit than the artist?
I do, yeah. Right or wrong, I do. Because I think it was Mick Jagger who said, “It’s the singer, not the song,” and I always had it exactly the other way around. Because I don’t know what he would’ve done, frankly, without the songs that he had, because he had some pretty great freaking songs.
What was your biggest break, in retrospect? Your early publishing deal with Motown?
There were two major breaks, OK? Motown was a break, because of the experience that it afforded me, and because they were extremely kind to me and generous in imparting their street cred and hard-learned, almost arcane body of knowledge when it came to what constituted a hit song, what would actually give you a hit. They made a study of that, the nuts and bolts of writing a hit. What they used to stress with me was the message – “Jimmy, where’s the message?” they’d ask. They let me work with orchestras, they taught me how mixing boards worked, they spent time in the studio with me.
And the other break?
Johnny Rivers was very much a mentor. I went to the Monterey Pop Festival with him and I played with the Wrecking Crew, and that was an inestimable education. And experience. I sat right beside Larry Knechtel – Larry would play the grand piano, or Larry would play the organ, one or the other. Back in those days, Baldwin made an electric harpsichord, and a lot of people were using that. There were all kinds of gadgets around. We didn’t have synthesizers, we had to make everything up. But Lou Adler and John Phillips never edited us into footage of Monterey Pop. They left the Wrecking Crew lying on the cutting room floor.
Well, that film keeps getting repackaged; maybe one day we’ll see your bit.
What we did was great. And the most popular act at the festival was Otis Redding. And Otis Redding was a traditional nightclub performer, just like Johnny. They were concentrating on Jefferson Airplane and all this airy-fairy, hippy-dippy stuff, and Otis Redding came out and wrecked the joint. The reason he was able to do that is because he was an experienced professional musician. He’d been doing it all his life. Most of the people on that stage were dilettantes, Johnny-come-latelies. That’s the reason Glen Campbell worked from dawn ’til dark every day on other people’s records – it’s because there were so few people who knew how to play. That’s just a fact. I mean, there were guys out there who could play – Jimmy Messina, David Crosby, you know. I don’t want
to paint everybody with the same brush, but generally speaking, there were a lot of weak spots in the repertoire and they covered that with studio musicians, who they almost never credited on the albums, because that would give it away, that their artist wasn’t playing.
How did you feel about that dichotomy? Resentful?
I think what I’m addressing here is essentially the singer-songwriter phenomenon, which is – “I’ll write my song, I’ll play it on my guitar, I’ll sing it with my voice, and somehow or another that will achieve a wonderful result.” Well, a lot of times it didn’t achieve a wonderful result, but nobody gave a shit. Because it was the fashion, kids didn’t want to hear anybody sing songs by other people any more, they only wanted to hear people singing their own songs. Meanwhile, there’s this whole pool of really talented singers who suddenly aren’t getting airplay and can’t get hits any more, and they were desperate for songs from the writers that were getting hits.
Your book spells out that scenario – and how it impacted you – very clearly.
I think that’s where it really begins to have a pulse, and you begin to feel the frustration of somebody whose soul is really with their own generation, wanting to move forward, wanting to be a part of not just what was fashionable, but of a whole political movement. And yet… being fairly roundly criticised for being a middle-of-the-road, hack songwriter who’s just writing for anybody who’s got the money.
Anything sting in particular?
David Geffen said to me, “You can’t play Vegas – I thought you were just some guy who hung around in Vegas with Connie Stevens.” That hurt. And besides, what’s wrong with that? Wilbur Clark’s Desert Inn? Everybody from André Previn… everybody who was ever anybody played on that stage at the Desert Inn, but all of a sudden it wasn’t OK to do it. You were risking your career by going up to Vegas and playing the casinos. You were. That’s the insane thing. Now nobody cares, because Celine Dion has her own nightclub or whatever. They’re all there now, because that’s where the money is. But it was a lot about your politics. It was so funny, you’ve got Gil Scott-Heron saying the theme song for the revolution will not be written by Jimmy Webb or sung by Glen Campbell. It was so ironic. People who know me were laughing hysterically, because I was all for putting bombs under police cars; I was one step away from being radicalised.
Someone recently said some of those songs you did with Glen like Wichita Lineman, Phoenix, and Galveston might be considered forerunners of what would become the Americana movement several years later. Do you hear that in there?
Well, I don’t know what Americana is, and certainly they don’t claim me, but that’s the story of my life. And it doesn’t fucking bother me either, and you can print that. They don’t exactly claim me as Americana, so the fact that Glen and I might’ve invented the genre is kind of ironic. If you take that point of view, and I’m not sure that I do. But at any rate, we were making what we called country crossovers. And in actual fact, Glen did pioneer that kind of record, he brought country-inspired music into the mainstream. The pop mainstream. And in so doing, he laid the foundation for Lionel Richie and Kenny Rogers and then, later on, any number of country-flavoured stars.
MacArthur Park is one of the most mindblowing recordings of all time. I would imagine the first time people even heard it, they must’ve thought what the hell is this? Did people think you were nuts?
Bones Howe was producing The Association and he called me up one day and said, “Do you think you could write like a pop thing, a rock thing, but it could have movements, like a symphony orchestra does, so it’s sort of like a miniature symphonic piece?” And I said, “I think I’m the only person…” I was pretty cocky. So three days later I went in, they’ve got ashtrays full of cigarettes and there’s beers sitting everywhere, and you can tell this is the last day, they’re trying to get the freakin’ record done, and they’re waiting for me. I get the sheet music out and I’m playing it, (sings) “I recall the yellow cotton dress…” and it’s going over pretty good – because it would’ve been a pretty good song for them, if you think about it, right? And then I got into the second part – and the guys are kind of looking at their watches and looking at Bones, and I know what they’re thinking – that they’ve got 11 songs already, and they’ve only got room for 12 songs, and in those days there was a finite length to album sides. So I launch into the allegro, I’m really into it, I’m thinking, “These guys, they gotta be LOVING this,” I get
“I went out with my dad, and it was like an act. The church really was my first taste of show business.”
right to that point at the very end of the instrumental section – and just as I pick up my hands to play that big chord, I rip out the bottom of my pants. Like Errol Flynn sticking a dagger in a sail, it was that ripping, tearing sound of the world’s most gigantic fucking fart, do you know what I’m saying? (laughs loudly) And everybody in the room just exploded with laughter. It was one of those moments where, fuck art, fuck good manners, this is too good to be true. This guy just blew the ass out of his fucking pants! And that was it. So, combined with the fact that it was too long anyway, it sort of ended up at the bottom of my portfolio just about the same time I was getting ready to go over and play songs for Richard for A Tramp Shining. Let’s talk about the world you were living in back then, where there was conspicuous wealth, chartered jets, celebrities everywhere. It wasn’t quite the same world as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones – it seemed more the classic definition of jet-setting.
Yes, it was. And it was a little bit more traditional. For instance, one of my friends then was Sammy Davis. So it would’ve been people who were just catching the wave a little bit. But think about how long Sammy had been in the business – he had done everything, and then all of a sudden it’s the ’60s and these guys are trying to find a way, really, to stay afloat. But they’ve all done very well and they’re staying at Claridge’s, they’re staying at the Dorchester or the Four Seasons and they’re flying first class and they’re giving each other diamond rings for party favours. It was a world of opulence – I think that’s the word you’re looking for. I took to it like a fish to water, to tell you the truth. I remember the parties that Richard [Harris] would have. There’d be Barbara Hutton, Rex Harrison, who was dating his ex-wife, Elizabeth, Michael Caine would be there, Tony Newley would be there, there’d be a couple of heavyweight champs, there’d be rugby players, George Best, Clement Freud – Sigmund Freud’s grandson who looked just like him, he’d be there. And it was all things that Richard had collected, like the king’s crown from Camelot he had on display.
You and Richard had a falling out back then? Richard and I had a real trainwreck, because he
“I remember the parties Richard Harris would have. There’d be Rex Harrison, Michael Caine, George Best…”
got the idea that something was wrong with our contract, and once something like that gets started, it’s devilish hard to prove a negative. “No, no I didn’t, I wouldn’t do that to you” – it was very hurtful to me, the whole thing, and then along the way it messed up this other thing where he had promised me this Rolls-Royce Phantom V. To tell you the truth, I couldn’t give a shit about the Phantom V – all I cared about was the fact that it was his Phantom V. I was 21, 22 years old. Today it would be water off a duck’s back, we’d be laughing about it. But back in the day, I took things more seriously. Kids take things more seriously. I expected him to keep his promise to me.
Meanwhile, how were you viewing your own record making? Your albums were getting good reviews, but they didn’t sell very well. What did you make of it?
Yeah, I couldn’t figure it out. I kept trying to fix what was wrong. I took voice lessons, I moved from producer to producer, I recorded for every label that Warner Brothers had – Reprise, Warners, Asylum and Atlantic – Ahmet Ertegun was my rabbi over at Atlantic, all of these people, David Geffen, believed in me, they thought I could do it, I thought I could do it. I thought we were going to do it. And again, it’s back to that deadly word: single.
You’re very candid in your book. The tales about McCartney – how you were supposed to write a song for Mary Hopkin but you let it slip and he gave you some grief – or Nilsson and Lennon here in LA. Did you have any trepidation about being so honest about things, even though several of those people aren’t around any more?
No, I would’ve done the same thing if Harry and John were still alive. Because I made a decision when I started out writing it that I had a peculiar and unique and privileged perch from which to view this whole phenomenon, this ’60s thing, and to not take advantage of the opportunity, and spoil it, and not throw the hard pitch, that would’ve been really fucked, right?
I agree. And you haven’t painted a picture of yourself that’s overly positive – as if you were above it all.
I was up to my neck in it! (laughs)
Actually, at one point in the mid-’70s, you and Harry Nilsson were extremely close to actual death by misadventure. There was an incident with PCP…
We were taking a lot of drugs, but we would have never taken PCP in a million years. PCP – to put it bluntly – was beneath our station. We thought that we were snorting some Merck – we thought it was industrially manufactured cocaine, which is the very, very best. It was a dark room, we were partying, [Nilsson] said, “I’ve got this new product, it’s great.” He always had this habit of just turning the bottle over and making a mountain on the back of his hand, and then just sticking his nose in there, and then he’d hand it over to you, and you’d take whatever was left. So between us, we took about half a bottle. That was pretty normal. It wasn’t like that was a lot. I mean, we snorted it. And it turned out to be PCP. It really almost killed us both. But the truth is, I was in a coma for 24 hours, and I don’t know how long it took Harry to come out of it, I really don’t know. I think maybe he came around the next day, but he didn’t have the after-effects I did. The after-effects I had, they were just… You know you always wonder why someone would kill themselves? Well I was there. It was that bad.
But at the end of the book, when it seemed like you might never get it all back, it comes back, a happy ending of sorts. Do you feel it came back fully?
Oh yeah. It not only came back, it came back with such a flood of gratitude, for my having been given a second opportunity. That was the most important moment in my life. When I looked at that piano and suddenly I remembered how to play Amazing Grace. Because I knew if I could play Amazing Grace, I could play anything.
I’ve heard there’s a second volume coming. But a lot of people are going to be wondering what happens after the book abruptly ends in the mid-’70s. Any hints?
I would rather just say that there’s going to be a Volume 2, and so some of those stories I’m still guarding a little, because there’s still punch lines, there are still some Agatha Christie moments that are yet to be revealed, and the Devil comes back – because think about it, the Devil always comes back, right?
The Devil. He’s a character in your book, and he’s a puzzle. Is he a real, unnamed person? Is he a literary device?
Well, the Devil and I have secrets, but in a sense I can say this: that we all have a little bit of the Devil in us, some of us more than others, and it could be said about some people that they’re the very Devil himself. It would also be fair of me to say that if I used a device to cloak the Devil’s identity, it was in his interest, it was to his benefit, OK? A little sympathy for the devil is what I’m talking about.
When you put your life’s work to paper – two volumes of it – you’re begging for a life summation. How would you like to be remembered?
I don’t know. I think more than anything else, I would like for people to say that I was a songwriter of the old mould… Maybe the last one.
Son of a preacher man: Jimmy Webb, waiting at the First Baptist Church of Beverly Hills, July 2017.