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A Quietus Interview

Are You Ready To Be Heartbroken? Jimmy Webb Interviewed
Chris Roberts , June 24th, 2010 05:24

The genius behind 'MacArthur Park' and 'Galveston' discusses his past at Motown with Chris Roberts, and predicts the invention of robots used for sex in the future...

The genius of Jimmy Webb on Spotify

Jimmy Webb, born in 1946, is somehow both an under-acknowledged cult figure and one of the most successful songwriters of all time. He wrote these great and famous songs: Glen Campbell’s 'Wichita Lineman', 'By The Time I Get To Phoenix' and 'Galveston'; The Four Tops’ 'Do What You Gotta Do'; and Richard Harris’ - or Donna Summer's - 'MacArthur Park'. He wrote these great, and slightly less famous, songs for Art Garfunkel: 'All I Know', 'Scissors Cut' and 'Crying In My Sleep'. He also wrote 'Didn’t We?' and 'Up, Up And Away'. In 1967 he won eight Grammys for two songs. 'By The Time I Get To Phoenix' was the third most performed song in the world in the half-century between 1940 and 1990. His songs have been covered by Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Barbra Streisand, Nick Cave and Isaac Hayes. Aged 18, when his mother died, Webb decided to stay in LA to pursue a songwriting career while his father moved back to Oklahoma. His dad gave him forty dollars and said, "Son, this songwriting thing is going to break your heart."

It didn’t, but something did. Webb is the poet laureate of unrequited love, the master-builder of pedestals to doomed romantic yearning. Over the decades he’s tried to establish a niche as a singer of his own songs, and never quite taken it past a functional level. He is – and this is kind of admirable, given his material - an overwrought vocalist. Yet in the hands of others his material proves to be as deftly dramatic as the best of Gershwin, Porter and Bacharach. His songs have been said to "bridge the gap between the Broadway tradition and the new existential poetics of the likes of Bob Dylan". His lyrics speak to wounded men of unattainable women.

He is mocked, sometimes, for writing 'MacArthur Park', in which "someone left the cake out in the rain. I don’t think that I can take it, it took so long to bake it, and I’ll never have that recipe again". The simplistic tend to consider the song bonkers, but it rallies those who love Webb to his defence. Clearly, the baker of the cake ushered something precious to a state of readiness, but then an unforeseen twist of fate ruined this thing before it had its shining moment. The sky has rained on his ideal. God is in the cruel bathos. Anyone purporting to care about music who doesn’t "get" 'MacArthur Park' (and the two ferociously eccentric, epic albums he made with Richard Harris, A Tramp Shining and The Yard Goes On Forever) should hang their head in shame.

Webb also wrote this, in 'Scissors Cut': "'If they ever drop the bomb,” you said, “I’ll find you in the flames'/ But now we act like people who don’t know each others’ names". It doesn’t get more perfect than that. Webb is the writer’s writer.

Today he is promoting his new album Just Across The River, a country-tinged reimagining of his best-known songs, recorded in Nashville, with guest vocalists including Glen Campbell, Jackson Browne, Billy Joel, Willie Nelson and Linda Ronstadt. He’s happy to talk about that for a while, but soon swerves into professorial mode, lecturing me about his craft and grumpily bemoaning the youth of today. Some of what he says is dated rant; some of it bollocks; some of it bang-on. All of it is quite prickly and entertaining. He pretty much ignores my questions. Attempts to draw him out on his own lyrics are countered by theses on the history of the American song. I try to get him to discuss 'MacArthur Park' but to my dismay he’s reluctant, as if these days he’s conditioned to anticipate ridicule. As for 'Wichita Lineman', he bangs on about how incompetent it is. Maybe this is his defence mechanism. You don’t write songs like Jimmy Webb’s if you’re not on some level sensitive and vulnerable. Ultimately we reach conclusion and accord in wailing about the demise of romance in today’s world, so there’s a degree of perverse solace in that, I guess, just as there always is in listening to the best of his immortal songs.

Just Across The River is released on June 28. You also revisited these songs on 1996’s Ten Easy Pieces album. What drove you to have another crack at the crown jewels?

Jimmy Webb: First of all, they’re not all the same songs, there’s a new song on there too. And some didn’t appear on Ten Easy Pieces. But your point is taken. Yes, we’re "doing the hits". The truth is, it wasn’t really my idea. The whole thing was cooked up by Fred Mollin [long-time collaborator]; he said I’d never actually done the Nashville experience. Fred said, "It’d be a chance for you to get back to your plaintive, country way of singing. Which you like to do, and which is at the heart of everything you do. But you’ve never really given vent to that element." He said, "This is going to be your Nashville Skyline". We did 13 tracks in two days. And it seemed as if each one was more beautiful than the last. There was a gorgeous flow of energy. We had the best musicians in town, clearly the pre-eminent specialists in each department. I didn’t play piano, for instance, bar the one song I did with J.D. Souther. Each position was filled by a person of legendary status.

So the experience was delivered as promised: it was Elysian. I didn’t have to do much except listen. By and large it was first or second takes. It was almost Chamber Music. I’m a great aficionado of classical music and this was really on a high level – reiteration of themes, recapitulations, motifs, themes in retrograde, all the machinations and transformations of classical music can be heard here.

So they were familiar with your songs then? These songs being an important part of the fabric of American pop culture?

JW: I think they gave the songs respect, which I appreciate. And, in a way, crave. I’m starved of that old-school approach of saying, let’s start out with the idea that we love this song. Rather than: we’re bored and can’t wait to get somewhere else. I tell you, you can live a long time and still have a great deal to learn. I couldn’t believe how good these tracks were. Then my friends began to hear them, and wanted to be a part of this thing. I never intended anything but a quick low-budget album project.

The star guest vocalists just happened to be drawn in?

JW: By osmosis. We’d decided we’d definitely ask Lucinda Williams, sweet angel that she is, because we wanted to try 'Galveston' as a duet as opposed to a one-character play. We wanted the woman to be there as well, and that Lucinda touch of, "Yes, I’ve lived life." We didn’t want some 19-year-old; we wanted a woman to sing the part. It transformed the song. You wouldn’t think there was that much you could do with 'Galveston' at this point. It brings the female audience in now. We wanted the issue of war itself to apply to not just soldiers but the people caught up in the flux of it, who are powerless to do anything about it in most cases.

So suddenly the idea of guest vocalists had a new relevance for us. You’d be forgiven for saying these guys have gone for a pure marketing ploy of packing as many well-known people on as they can. In fact that’s exactly what we did not do. In every case, the presence of the guest is justified. Word got out quickly around Nashville that these tracks were unusually good, and people expressed an interest. The idea of "no celebrities" was called into question, and we set about making it meaningful. Each one is connected to the songs, and has been for years. And also, you know, I’m not going to apologise when, say, Michael McDonald is singing background with me, because he’s been doing that since we were teenagers.

You tackle 'Do What You Gotta Do' here, an atypical hit you wrote for the Four Tops. People tend to forget you earned your spurs as a youthful Tamla Motown writer...

JW: I wrote 45 songs for them! My output was prodigious. My very first recorded song was 'My Christmas Tree' on the "Merry Christmas From The Supremes" album. I remember writing a letter to my father that said, "Dad, you were wrong, I’m making money!" I had a cheque for like $350. I thought I was king of the hill.

I was very happy there. They took me in, as a white kid, into basically a black institution. And treated me like family. They taught me things that proved essential. You can either learn song-writing the hard way, or you can work at Motown. They taught me all the stuff, you know... it needs a verse here, a chorus here, a drum-break, a pick-up here. And it’s gotta have a great intro. To some degree, I tell you, these things are missing in the marketplace today. Things we took for granted. Like the famous bass lick at the start of 'Wichita Lineman'...? [He sings the bass lick]. Now, that’s an intro. It has a function. There’s a reason for it. On the radio, it lets people know, oh, it’s that one, it’s that story that I like, I’m going to listen. So Motown had all this down. When they cut 15 Top Ten Supremes records in a row, each one had a great intro. There was something going on that was valid and knowledgeable. Motown was college for me.

Then things exploded for you, right? There was Up Up And Away, By The Time I Get To Phoenix, MacArthur Park... Grammys galore. A heady time in your life?

JW: Yeah, it went quickly and it went well, through the 60s and early 70s. Then I got off onto this idea that I was going to be a singer/songwriter rather than a backroom writer, and I still think that was the right idea. There was no other path really. The days of the pure songwriter were numbered. I may not have been very clever, but at least I was clever enough to see that. After Carole King’s Tapestry, most of the brightest of writers, who were young enough to do something about it, laid plans to record. Lennon and McCartney had pretty much put an end to the old music business and started a new one. The 70s had no superior economic model to the singer/songwriter! You could throw your guitar case in the trunk of your car and go on tour, like Simon and Garfunkel or James Taylor, without band or overheads. It was elegant. In my case I carried nothing, as the piano was waiting onstage for me. It was a revolution. Some great writers were left behind. Although often now you had a lyricist and a composer in one person, both of whom were doing a half-assed job.

Some of your lyrics inspire fevered devotion from fans...

JW: People have their favourites, of course. My audience’s attention to detail can be overpowering! If I clown around onstage and don’t sing it exactly like the record they get... irritated. Several lines seem to have resonated with the public. One of them being, from 'Wichita Lineman': "And I need you more than want you/ And I want you for all time." When I was writing my book - Tunesmith - a few years ago, I looked at that line carefully and realised... it’s absolutely wrong. It’s a false rhyme. "Time" then goes on to rhyme with "still on the line". "Time" and "line"? Come on, it’s clearly a false rhyme. A lot of what I did back then was just plain wrong.

But it’s so very emotionally right...

JW: I'm grateful for that. I’ve always tried to write with clarity. At least in the post-'MacArthur Park' era of my career. Once I got over the Lucy in the sky with hallucinogenics phase of 60s euphoria, and began to buckle down to what I actually thought was important in songwriting. I would rate clarity as the number one thing, top of the list.

Please don’t dismiss 'MacArthur Park' as drug-addled...

JW: Look, I think you can get carried away with imagery and metaphor, and other techniques, and I’d liken them to the brushstrokes of a painter. We get so caught up in the brushwork that we forget what the picture is supposed to be. What is this picture? Is it a girl? Or a boy? Or neither – is it androgynous? I notice this thought is missing in the work of young writers, and that annoys me. They seem to get off to a good start with a song, then lose their way.

'By The Time I Get To Phoenix' is one of the most popular songs ever conceived...

JW: You could say what you like about that poor old song. You could say it’s physically impossible, that it violates all the laws of the time-space continuum. And you would be accurate. But one thing you must admit is that it has a beginning, a middle and an end. It tells a story with a certain clarity and pathos. And that would be my description of a songwriter’s job. And we don’t have much time to do it! We don’t have as much time as Norman Mailer had to write Ancient Evenings. It used to be two and a half minutes, then three, then after The Righteous Brothers’ 'You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling' they said we could have a bit more. Then of course Richard [Harris] and I came along and busted that all to hell with 'MacArthur Park', and 'Hey Jude' came after that... now I guess nobody gives a shit how long a record is.

Those albums with Harris – A Tramp Shining and The Yard Goes On Forever – are typically labelled 'pretentious' but they take you on a gorgeous, unique, turbulent, aesthetically committed journey...

JW: Well... I think I’ve honestly devoted my life since to being more succinct and clear, so... But without abandoning the poetic ideal that there should be a certain beauty in what you’re doing. Just not at the expense of clarity!

Those sublime, sotto voce, almost eerily somnambulant Art Garfunkel songs – 'All I Know', 'Scissors Cut', 'Crying In My Sleep' – are crystal-clear, and up there with the finest boy-meets-girl or boy-loses-girl songs of all time...

JW: They were concise because we were in business; we were really trying to cut hits. Artie’s ex-partner Paul [Simon] was out there churning out hit after hit, and we were trying to get in the game! We were still abiding by Top 40 Radio rules, which was about how many songs and commercials could be played per hour. The interesting thing is those rules created some of the best records that were ever made. Something about the imposed conciseness of the three-minute single was almost as if one had to write a sonnet. We chafed at the rules back then, with all our bitching and complaints, and protested, because we were artists, y’know? Yet in retrospect, the results...well...

Look, everybody back then wanted to write 'You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling'. That was the high bar. Or 'My Girl'. Or 'Up On The Roof'. Once all the constrictions were relaxed though, it quickly descended into a kindergarten class – oh kids, just do whatever you wanna do. It disintegrated into chaos. Without rules, people are just monkeys. They are! I’m sorry if that offends anyone out there. Traditional rules and conventions of craft and form create beautiful works of art. Antithetical to that – it’s also the breaking of those rules that can create the same. But you have to have rules to break. If you start off in a void, with no rules, then you have chaos. You don’t have art. You have monkeys. Monkeys with crayons.

Your lyrics make the intensely personal highly universal...

JW: The personal IS universal. My friend Artie Garfunkel said to me one time when we were in philosophical bent, "Y’know, I have this thought about human beings." It was to the effect that either: a) as individuals we are so much alike that everything we feel and experience is identical – emotions, sunsets, love, or b) we all experience these things differently, so that when I’m in love it’s not the same as when you are, I see a different sunset to you...

And which did the pair of you decide it was?

JW: I don't recall. It’s something to think about though, right? To relate that back to the songs, when all these people in their homes or cars or bars or wherever hear a song on the radio and say, 'That kills me, that song makes me cry', that’s scientific evidence that we’re more alike than different, yes? Music is an enormously effective social tool. Or it was, back when the radio shared black music, white music, folk music, goofy music, all kinds side by side. The audience was black and white and rural and urban and American and British etc. Music was a powerful agent of social mollification and integration. For understanding. For peace.

We all used to listen to each other’s music. What we’ve done today is divided it into slices, like an orange. Into little discreet brackets and markets. We’ve come apart. It’s a terrible thing, I’m telling you. With the collective listening experience, we used to get a look at the way the other fella sees and hears things. Now it’s divided into incestuous groups. And this is not good. When someone says, "I don’t like jazz" or "I don’t like classical", I think: what a stupid fucking thing to say! If you don’t like jazz, you never heard any jazz. If you don’t like classical, you’ve never heard Vaughan Williams’ Sixth Symphony or Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony. You need to have someone sit you in a chair and hold a gun to your head till you listen to the damn thing, that’s all. We should all listen more! What is fashionable, unfortunately, is painfully short of what is great and good.

You once said, "I wish I wasn’t so sentimental and nostalgic about the expiration of grace from our way of life. There’s a mighty pendulum swinging towards the cold and heartless."

JW: It's edgy today. It’s nasty and mean-spirited. There’s a lot of aggression. And people say that’s the way kids are raised - oh, come on. The Beatles weren’t raised in the lap of luxury, but they grew up singing of love and peace.

Is there less romance in the world generally?

JW: Jesus, regarding that I look towards technology with a very jaundiced eye. Damn technology! And damn the proliferation of it, the religion of it. The sequestering of people into their little prayer-booth computerised offices at home where they only relate to other people through Facebook and e-mail. That’s to me another sign of the withdrawal of people into discreet groups and away from humanity itself. Into this virtual world. We’ll lose facial recognition! We’ll go back to Neanderthals, and have to learn to relate to each other on a physical level all over again. What, we don’t want to be in the same space as other people any more? Is that what the god of technology wants for us? Isolation? Increasing and thorough isolation? The gradual discontinuation of real experience? And even of sex? Which is on the horizon, believe me. It’s imminent. People speak freely of designing robots for sex now. That’s something that might once have been whispered about in the halls of academia, but robots for sex is now a probability.

Something’s happened to us in terms of good old-fashioned shame. There’s nothing like a good sense of shame to keep you on the right track! People have a yearning for those emotions, for the contact they used to enjoy. The friendship, conviviality, camaraderie that’s missing from all this technological crap. The original entertainment was people singing around the fireplace or the camp fire. Sharing those moments. The further we get from the personal aspect of music, the less communicative it is, the less power it has.

I don’t even fear it. If you can create some kind of technological music that I’m afraid of, then I’ll give you the prize. But if I can’t be afraid of your music, if it can’t be threatening, then you’re not doing a very good job. In the 60s the authorities were terrified of our music, frightened to death. They thought we were actually going to change the world into a better place. And that was not going to be allowed!

Did you change the world? Shift the popular consciousness?

JW: Oh, I don’t know. Some of us look at our TV sets and shake our heads and go, oh my God, what was it all for?!?