Column: Jimmy Webb on Auto-Tune, lying to keep John Lennon from being deported and how cocaine changed music
There are popular songs, and there are great songs, and they are not always the same thing. How can you tell the difference? Time can help.
Songwriter and composer Jimmy Webb has Grammys and platinum albums and Hall of Fame plaques. But it’s the fact that people are still singing and still listening to the songs he started writing 50 years ago that’s a defining difference: “Wichita Lineman,” “Didn’t We,” “Up, Up and Away,” soundtracks, musicals, hundreds of songs and, of course, “MacArthur Park.”
He moved to Southern California as a teenager, in the glamorous radius of the center of 1960s popular music. In an age of furious electric guitar riffs, Webb’s rich, nuanced melodies and mouthwatering orchestrations attracted some of the greatest voices in modern song. In his new memoir, “The Cake and the Rain,” Webb considers that era, himself — and the future and nature of popular music.
You write about the importance of storytelling in songwriting — everything from medieval ballads to Tin Pan Alley. Why is storytelling so vital to good, memorable songwriting?
They say the minstrels and the troubadours of Aquitaine were like the first real songwriters because they wrote songs about love, not just about the news of the day. Some historians claim they were the forerunners of modern songwriters, and I think there’s a clue there: Noblemen used to send them as go-betweens to their beloved counterparts, and in a way, modern songwriting is an extension of that because songwriters, in an urgent and undeniable way, express emotions for people who in large part seem unable to do that for themselves.
What were your musical influences?
It was rather a hodgepodge of influences because my father listened to a lot of Southern white gospel music: the Statesmen, the Oak Ridge Boys, Bobby Kris and the Imperials — these were big names in the gospel and quartet world.
He was a Marine. He served in the South Pacific for 37 months, and he came back with a battered Silvertone guitar, which he could play well. He sang a lot of war ballads, I would call them, like “Harbor Lights,” “I’ll Be Seeing You,” “Red Sails in the Sunset” — beautiful things. It was not a carefully designed stew, but it was enough of a variation that I grew up liking all kinds.
In those days before iPods, if your father listened to it, everybody listened to it. There was the radio.
Yes, because we would get our hands slapped if we tried to change the radio to a rock ’n’ roll station. My father had the idea — I don’t know where he got this idea — but he had this crazy idea that rock ’n’ roll was about sex.
Can you imagine? At the time, we used to make such fun of him when his back was turned, but I actually lived long enough to find out that he was basically right.
At one point, “Rolling Stone” congratulated you for recovering your identity, from “the housewives of America to the forefront of contemporary composers.” What did that mean?
I had gotten tagged as a middle-of-the-road songwriter because of the people I wrote for. So that was a misnomer, but a misnomer and a notion that’s very hard to correct once it gets going. I had great vocalists — Mr. Sinatra. I had Glen Campbell. I had the Fifth Dimension, Tony Bennett. Barbra Streisand recorded one of my songs. All these were great singers, and whatever their politics may have been, their music was firmly in the middle of the road. So that’s what I was known for.
The film industry and copyright-based industries had the luxury of watching us disintegrate and taking measures to protect themselves.
I can remember this one article that really incensed me. I got to London and one of the music magazines there had written, “Oh, well, Jimmy Webb is back in town with his orchestra,” or whatever.
That really ticked me off. I was about 20 years old. And I went, “Why do they write these things?” I don’t have an orchestra. I’m not Guy Lombardo and the Royal Canadians. But I used a lot of instrumentation on my records.
At one point, Elvis Presley buttonholed you in a bar to find out how many French horns you used.
It was such a bizarre thing. Even to hear you say that makes me laugh because I’ll never forget his words: “Jimmuh? How many French horns do yew use?”
I told him four because that was how many I used, and I also knew that was pretty much the industry standard for a large group of players.
What was it like to be in the recording industry at a time when it ruled the roost, with Asylum Records and all of these incredibly powerful and influential labels?
I think that to some degree, we took it for granted that that was the way it was always going to be. People would speak rather speciously about new technologies, and about one of these days, everything will be on a quarter, the size of quarter, you’ll carry albums around in your pocket. I can remember many stories going around and sort of laughing and saying, “Yeah, but that’ll be a long, long time.”
We had no idea how quickly that silver age of actually making and selling phonograph records was really only going to last another decade, or at most another decade and three or four years. And then it was going to start coming apart in a big way.
But at the time, we still had records. We loved records. We loved the way they smelled; we loved the way they looked. We loved the way they sounded. And speaking for myself, all I cared about was making another one. If I could make a record that was successful enough that the company would give me the money to make another record — that’s all I wanted.
In a certain sense, the entire industry was wearing blinders through the ’70s and most of the ’80s because when the peer-to-peer networks came down — and the very, very thorny legal issues like, does a download constitute a performance? — when those questions began to come down, it was already too late: It had supplanted — all the technology of the record business was obsolete. We were very quickly run down by large companies who had prepared themselves for this.
The record company was the canary in the coal mine. And a lot of industries like the film industry and copyright-based industries had the luxury of watching us disintegrate and taking measures to protect themselves. But we were the frontline in that battle with digital media, and we lost spectacularly.
Technology like Auto-Tune and all of these changes — what’s the impact on songwriting and on performing, when anything can be done on a computer and not in a studio, not onstage?
I’m glad you asked me that because recently my perspective on it changed slightly. I was talking to someone very knowledgeable, and this person said to me, You realize that kids like the way these records sound? And it just stopped me cold. Because there’s nothing I dislike any more than that kind of vocoder — absolutely no sharp or flat notes, no real instruments, everything metronomically controlled, that robotic consciousness, where the whole thing sounds like it could be made on a machine somewhere — and indeed, it is made on a machine.
It’s devoid of any of the things we used to cherish. We loved drummers who had great feel. We liked mistakes. Sometimes, the best thing about a record was some divine mistake, I used to call them, that you would end up building the whole record around.
Today’s songwriters perhaps don’t have to know composition, they don’t have to know the elements of an orchestra. They’ve got it all on a computer.
Yes. And I think it was [singer-songwriter] Roger Miller who once said, “There’s no intrinsic virtue in ignorance.” I always believed that how you got to be great was by emulating the great players, the traditions of mentorship, of passing down guitar licks.
Larry Knechtel, who was one of the Wrecking Crew who played piano — you can hear him to great effect on “Bridge Over Troubled Water” — I used to sit by his side because I was the junior partner. He would show me stuff. He’d say, “When you’re in the studio, you’re going to have to keep your mind open and react very quickly whenever the arrangement changes.”
And that was the road to greatness; you rubbed up against the people who were great, and you gave them credit when it came time. I hasten to add that I don’t think that our generation was the greatest mentoring generation. When it came right down to it, we don’t seem to have been very successful in passing the baton.
And then overlaying it all is just this gigantic, comprehensive revision of the way everything is done. The technique has changed the music so much. And I don’t even know how they make records. I have an idea how they make records, but I’m not even sure I want to know how they make records.
I’m planning another record, a singer-songwriter record, and I don’t want a drum machine within 10 miles of my studio. I don’t want anything that’s perfect on my record because I think that perfect sounds prefabricated.
Can you say what will be on this one?
Usually I don’t talk about my songs, but I have a song about a vet who’s in a wheelchair and he’s in a VA hospital. A lot of them are road songs because I spend a lot of time on the road now. I talked to a guy on my last tour, he was a Vietnam vet, and he said the way he got through the war was he sang all of my songs when he was on guard duty. And when he would get to the end of my songs, he’d just start the list, go back through the list again.
Just to know that in some way or another that I helped him get through that experience meant so much to me. So the album is going to be real stories about the road. It’s going to be about legends of the road. It’s going to be about the ending of the road because all this in some strange way, however unlikely, seems to be winding down to some kind of an end to this era of music.
You write about the greats — and some of the greats had feet of clay. I think it was singer Harry Nilsson who asked you to commit perjury for John Lennon?
[Lennon] was in the shadow of the U.S. government. They were pretty serious about getting him out of the country — I believe that would be Richard Nixon specifically — and of course he didn’t want to leave America.
Therefore, he should have been on his best behavior. They were waiting for him to screw up so they could throw him out. And he got in a jam with my pal Harry Nilsson one memorable night in Hollywood at the Troubadour. He was alleged to have attacked a photographer and to have broken her camera and/or to have struck her.
I don’t have a clue what happened because I wasn’t there, but I ended up giving a deposition to the effect that I was there, and that I could assure the court that Mr. Lennon did not strike anyone or break anyone’s camera or anything like that.
I mean, it’s outrageous what I was doing because I think there’s a 50-50 chance here that he probably did it. In fact, I heard him say some things that made me think that maybe he had done it.
And so naturally, the question that follows is, why would you put yourself in jeopardy like that? And the answer is: Because it was the Beatles. Because if the Beatles asked you to do something, when the Beatles needed something, if the Beatles were in peril — horrors! — you rushed to their aid because they were the Beatles. It was the code.
It also seems of a piece with what you wrote about cocaine changing the music industry.
What I tried to capture was the rapidity — how one day the world was sort of coke-free and people were smoking a little dope and drinking a little bit, and the next day, everybody had a bottle of cocaine in their pocket.
It had become legal tender. You could get studio musicians with it. You could get a date for the evening. Cocaine was in the executive suites of all the major record companies. It became cool; there was no social stigma attached to it. Au contraire: Most people didn’t set off for an evening’s dinner engagement and party after without your stash.
What did it do to the music?
Honestly, I don’t think it helped it any. I don’t think that alcohol had the same power to disrupt. Alcohol and music have a kind of symbiotic relationship, and a lot of great records were made with the principals half in the bag. And if it was a sad song, it could definitely work for you.
You could look back and find a long, long line of hit records that were cut probably with alcohol somewhere in the vicinity. But cocaine fit hand in glove with records because recording sessions were long and sometimes they were tedious, and when you didn’t feel like doing any more, go in and lay out a few lines on top of a console and roll up those hundred-dollar bills, and everybody would have a snort, and all of a sudden, the energy would be back.
You would get to a point on that drug where you should be home in bed asleep, but you’re not. You’re still standing up; you’re still walking around making decisions. A lot of decisions were bad decisions.
The title of your book is “The Cake and the Rain.”
This is a reference to the lyrics of “MacArthur Park,” which is probably the most scrutinized song since “Hey Jude.” You said that it’s “obscure enough to confound even the most inquiring intelligence.” Unpack “MacArthur Park” for us — I’m sitting just a couple of miles from MacArthur Park, by the way.
I think you know I’m never going to do that. In the book, I took a swing at explaining what literally happened there. The fact is that it is a lyric of its time, which is to say that it doesn’t necessarily have to make any sense. It made sense to me because those images — I know what they are. I know what the striped pair of pants are. I know the old men playing checkers by the tree. They’re all real to me. I had a striped pair of pants. There were picnics in the park. There was cake. It did rain.
They’re all images that I took out of context and recombined them in this song. People said, “What kind of a drug were you on?” I really wasn’t on any kind of a drug.
But it does sound like one of the hallucinogenic songs that were being written at the time. It kind of harkens back to some of the surrealism on “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” It was a fashionable thing to do for a while, to infuse a song, and a lyric particularly, with a certain ambiguity. That was part of what was going on with songs like [Procol Harum’s] “A Whiter Shade of Pale.”
Maybe it’s endured in part because of the perplexity that people encounter in it. Some people love it, some people made fun of it — but boy, do they know it.
Yeah, it’s curious. I don’t know how to account for its longevity unless what you say is true and that the controversy has been good for the song.
You know that when David Letterman went off the air, one of the things he wanted to do was a full orchestral version of “MacArthur Park.” And we ended up doing it. At the end of it, Will Lee — only the great Will Lee — climbed a ladder behind a cake, but while he was climbing the ladder, he was singing, “Oh, no, oh, no!” and playing the bass. And playing the bass! And I thought, “Oh, he’s gonna die. He’s gonna die — at the end of ‘MacArthur Park.’ And it’ll add to the legend.”
They wanted to use it in “Airplane II.” It drives a bunch of people out of the elevator. And I signed off on that. I also signed off on
It was No. 1. It was my first and, sad to say, my only No. 1 record. And she sang — I’m not going to resort to obscenity here, but she sang the hell out of it. People would ask me, “Well, did you like the Donna Summer version?” They thought I was going to say I didn’t like it. I never sent a check back in my whole career.
The disco thing, I was willing to let that go. I was just listening to her beautiful, beautiful voice and how passionate she was and how far into it she was. And she sold it.
And I laughed when Weird Al Yankovic did “Jurassic Park,” and at the end, a Tyrannosaurus rex ate Barney, which was a good moment for me. I never cared for Barney that much.
It’s a cultural thing now. What can you say? I’m sure there are some people who just can’t go to sleep at night because of that.
I don’t know whether you had a chance to look at the list, the discography in the back of the book, the covers — it’s just like, oh, no, you can’t believe it, really.
You mean “Oh nooooo!”
I mean “OHHH NOOOOOOO!”
Popular music, in the 1960s especially, was a young person’s game — still is, in many ways. You’ve been composing ever since then, but what matters most to you now?
I’m still trying to decide what’s really important, but I know — and I’m being very sincere with you now — I love my cat, and I love my wife.
In that order?
No, no, I got that wrong! I meant, my wife and my cat. And then it’s the ability to go in and sit down at that grand piano in the living room and create something the way I always did — because that’s who I am, and I’m not going to try to be anything different. I’m going to do what I do best as long as I can do it.
It makes me remember that old lyric that we all used to know: “Make your own kind of music; sing your own special song.” I think in the last line it’s something like, “And it doesn’t matter if nobody else sings along.” I think that’s where I’m at.
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