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.

Mojo (UK) - - News - In­ter­view by DAVE DIMARTINO • Por­trait by PIPER FER­GU­SON

‘‘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.

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