BY late 1967, Jimmy Webb was a 21-year-old wunderkind of the L.A. songwriter scene with the hits “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” by Glen Campbell and “Up, Up and Away” by the Fifth Dimension. He was invited to lend a musical hand at a fundraiser in East L.A., and there he met Richard Harris, the incorrigible Irish actor, who prowled the room like a lion with twinkling eyes. Harris wanted to sing old pub songs, and Webb played the piano, so soon they were unlikely drinking mates. “He liked vodka,” Webb recalled. “And I was out of my league. Way out of my league. He said to me, ‘Let’s make a record, Jimmy Webb.’ He only called me ‘Jimmy Webb,’ never just ‘Jimmy.’ ”
Webb, an Oklahoma native, enjoyed the escapade but expected nothing to come of it. Then he got a telegram: “Jimmy Webb, come to London and make a record. Love, Richard.”
Webb brought a satchel of sheet music with him and, over pitchers of Pimm’s Cup, the man who played King Arthur listened to each song, looking for just the right material for his pop music debut. Nothing clicked. Then Webb reached the bottom of the bag. “I looked down with some dread because there was only one thing left. I was down to ‘MacArthur Park.’ ”
Webb had written the song for the Association, the sunshine-pop group, but they rejected it. Maybe because it was almost 7 1/2 minutes long, an eternity on Top 40 radio — and wildly complex, with four sections, fanfares and an extended orchestral break. And the lyrics were also a little, well, loopy.
MacArthur Park is melting in the dark
All the sweet, green icing flowing down
Someone left the cake out in the rain
I don’t think that I can take it
‘Cause it took so long to bake it
And I’ll never have that recipe againWebb played the song and his host’s eyes grew wide and dewy. “I’ll have that, Jimmy Webb!” Webb agreed, but with mixed feelings. He had written the song with aspirations of a pop symphony. But the young songwriter had grown skeptical of its merits.
The lyrics, meanwhile, were deeply personal: “In mid-1965, I was absolutely besotted with my girlfriend at the time. MacArthur Park was where we met for lunch and paddleboat rides and feeding the ducks. She worked across the street at a life insurance company.”
The breakup left Webb reeling, and writing. “I also wrote ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix’ about her, but I never even got as far as Riverside. But I lost her. She married some other guy. We’re still friends. Her name is Susan Ronstadt” (a cousin to singer Linda Ronstadt.)
“Those lyrics were all very real to me; there was nothing psychedelic about it to me. The cake, it was an available object. It was what I saw in the park at the birthday parties. But people have very strong reactions to the song. There’s been a lot of intellectual venom.”
There have been vats of it, in fact. The Harris recording, surprising everyone, surged to the top of U.S. charts, hitting No. 2, making it ripe for backlash. Critics attacked the song as bloated and mocked Harris for his arched delivery and mispronouncing it “MacArthur’s Park.” The venom never dried up: Through the years, it’s been spoofed by the likes of “Weird” Al Yankovic, “Saturday Night Live” and “The Simpsons” and in “Dave Barry’s Book of Bad Songs” in 1997 it was ranked No. 1, the very worst song ever recorded.
On the flip side, though, many people have recorded it. Donna Summer’s fevered disco version even hit No. 1 in 1978. Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Sammy Davis Jr. also took it to the studio. So did Stan Kenton Liza Minnelli, the Four Tops and Waylon Jennings — four times.
Webb had many more hits, but “MacArthur Park” remains his most polarizing song, and some days, he concedes, it feels “like a hump on my back.” Other moments he admires its youthful ambition. “I wish I had spent a little more time on the song. But who knew it was going to be this crazy thing? I can say I’m very glad that it wasn’t my last song.” Webb sighed. “I think this will be the last interview on that song. I’m going to move on.”
— Geoff Boucher