Saturday, October 10, 2020

Jimmy Webb

I have broken down and started asking Alexa to play things.  It is convenient. Yesterday I asked her to play Glen Campbell.  I think I was hoping that "Wichita Lineman" would come up early.  This came up.  I had never heard it before.

I knew immediately it was written by Jimmy Webb. I loved Jimmy Webb when I was young and wanted to be a songwriter myself. After hearing "Macarthur Park" I bought and listened to A Tramp Shining repeatedly. The songs and lyrics were already a bit overlush and Richard Harris doubled down on that to hyperpoignancy, but at 14, that was exactly what I was looking for. Yet there was also the artistry with lyrics I admired and wanted to emulate.

I shall straighten my bent sceptre
And pretend I could have kept her.

Or rhyming "adios" with "grandiose."

Webb was a Baptist preacher's son, moving from Oklahoma to California in childhood, and remaining. He was something of an autodidact, both as a pianist and in literature, exposing himself to complicated things.  I had assumed he must be something of a sci-fi fan because of his song title "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress."

Robert Heinlein, was a kind of early mentor of mine. I started reading his books when I was eight years old. ... I guess I was really getting more of my education out of science-fiction than out of public school. I was reading Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov and learning a great deal about the patois of the language itself and how these words were being used to create emotions. I was learning this from writers without even knowing it. ... "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" was one of the best titles I've ever heard in my life. I really am guilty of appropriating something from another writer. In this case I had contact with Robert A. Heinlein's attorneys. I said, 'I want to write a song with the title, "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress". Can you ask Mr. Heinlein if it's okay with him?' They called me back and he said he had no objection to it. 

 Except the song is poignant and romantic about the moon being cold.  Nothing to do with the book.

I still sang "Didn't We?" in my solo set until halfway through college.  Apparently that was a good pick, as Frank Sinatra was singing it in concert those years as well.  I never knew, being anti-Frank in those years. It was Webb's influence that had me attempting this sort of rhyming and cadence in my own songs.  In musical theater one could find such things in Cole Porter or Gilbert & Sullivan, but nearly always comic, or at least light. Trying to get away with "For your love's assiduity, denotes promiscuity" might have a chance in a comic piece, but for the sad Lancelot-saying-farewell song I was banging out it was fairly far over-the-top.

Webb may have had this problem himself.  He shows some resentment here at Campbell brightening his songs which were intended to be darker.


Yet I think Webb has it wrong here, perhaps underestimating his own lyrical artistry.  I never thought "Galveston" was a merely wistful, patriotic "Gee, I miss Texas" song.  When the line "I am so afraid of dying" comes I expected it.  When Webb sings it, as above, I don't like it nearly as well.  That weight was detectable in Campbell's version, but becomes a burden, almost maudlin in Webb's.  In fairness, I may not be the usual audience here.  Everyone else may have heard it as he feared.  Webb's own renderings and performances were never as popular as others singing his stuff.  (Tom Paxton had the same problem.)

Poking around to research this I see that Jimmy Webb is playing about an hour from here at  The Bull Run, in Shirley, MA in March. The historic inn was built in 1740, and my ancestor, Civil War veteran Joel C Neat is buried nearby. Interestingly, I saw my dad perform in The Fantasticks there (he played Mortimer brilliantly) decades ago, shortly after I reestablished contact with him as I hit adulthood. I've never been again.  It's a dinner club arrangement and I am considering it. 


Donna B. said...

Johnny Rivers was my introduction to Jimmy Webb. I played his "Rewind" album over and over again the summer of 1969. The 2/3 previous years weren't good ones for my Dad's business and we'd landed in this tiny town in north Texas of fewer than 500 people -- living in a trailer house without A/C. The dark tones of most of these songs suited me just fine. It wasn't the first or last time living in a trailer house, but it was the only time I lived in one in Texas without A/C. And it's not that my family was broke, it was just an episode of the 'unsettled' times from 1966 to 1970. One of the things that contributed to my anger that summer was that I wasn't allowed to drive my brother's Firebird while he spent that summer in NYC. I had a Datsun station wagon without A/C or radio. #lifeisunfair #imthroughwhiningfornow

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Datsuns were neither fashionable nor reliable at the time. No A/C or radio would have made the stick sharper.

Donna B. said...

I got over it, and that Datsun station wagon served me well in my last two years of high school (in a nearby, but much larger town) since I was one of the very few female students that had my own transportation. By 1972, I was driving a Corvette convertible and I've owned some great cars since. I was never "deprived" for more than a few months.

My poor brother... he never again had a car as cool as that Firebird. Though who am I to talk? I drive a minivan now.

Rosecrans Blvd still disturbs me though.