The Last American:
Master Tunesmith Jimmy Webb Speaks Candidly About His Long Career, His New Album, and the Vanishing Legacy of the American Cowboy
“I’ve had songs on the lists of the best and the worst songs of all time,” declares Jimmy Webb, “so I never say a song is good or bad, because I don’t know.”
From one of the great American pop songsmiths of the late 20th Century, whose catalog includes “Up, Up and Away,” and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” and whose songs have been performed by artists as diverse as Diana Ross, R.E.M., Johnny Cash, and The Queers, this is a surprisingly candid admission. Yet despite his success, and even after penning a definitive book about songwriting (1998’s Tunesmith), Webb remains humble about – and still slightly mystified by – the formula via which a ditty becomes a hit.
“A lot of songwriters don’t know how they arrived where they have found themselves,” he notes, “and if we don’t know – if it’s just a matter of pure chance – that robs us of a great deal of presumed skill, precognizance, and power. A lot of it has to do with chance, with Chaos Theory.”
Speaking by phone from his home in Bayville, on the north shore of New York’s Long Island (“Across the bay is Center Island, where Billy Joel lives,” Webb notes, “and John Barry, who scored the James Bond pictures”), the now 64-year-old composer is in a relaxed mood although fighting some nasal congestion, a souvenir of his grueling tour schedule (“I always seem to bring back a little visitor”), causing him to occasionally punctuate sentences with a mighty, elephantine clearing of his nostrils. His wife Laura is hard at work preparing holiday pies, which adds faint sound of spoons clinking against cookware in the background.
He chats cheerfully about inspirations for his songs, which are as diverse as old westerns (“Cowboy Hall of Fame”) and classic science fiction (“The Moon is a Harsh Mistress”). “My influences are probably pretty similar to George Lucas’ … with a different result,” he observes. “Growing up in Oklahoma, westerns were inescapable. If you went to drive-ins, basically you saw westerns. But all I read was science fiction – we’re talking about Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Frederick Pohl, Robert Heinlein, and others.”
“Bradbury was and is the poet of that group, and I learned a lot about word usage from reading Ray. I lived to see the day that he walked into my office, wearing tennis shorts, and asked me if I wanted to write music for Dandelion Wine. And I did.” Webb chuckles, adding, “Didn’t work out too well.”
Getting a musical onto Broadway, it turns out, is one of his few worlds left to conquer, yet he’s “determined” to do it. “I was recently working on another musical for four years that fell through. Four years with nothing at the end except, say, an excellent song about a parrot. Go try to pitch that to Kristin Chenoweth.”
But Webb tasted success early in life, when his “My Christmas Tree” was selected for The Supremes’ 1965 holiday album. “I was a staff writer at Jobete [Motown’s publishing operation] on the west coast and was fortunate enough to be able to create a catalog of songs there, got a few bucks. I was very young, probably 17 or 18 years old, right out of high school.”
Webb eventually cut an entire album with the famed vocal group, 1972’s The Supremes Produced and Arranged by Jimmy Webb, and reports he encountered surprisingly minimal direction from the Motown’s brass, who were apparently impressed enough to give him a free hand after his success with The Fifth Dimension, for whom he had penned the 1967 blockbuster “Up, Up and Away.” Regarding the incredible longevity of that airy anthem, which he wrote while skipping a Music Theory class, Webb notes wryly that, “All the pure singers, who were getting older and felt threatened by rock and roll, thought, ‘Oh, here’s music we can do. At last the world’s coming back to its senses!'”
“I worked tirelessly on The Supremes. I even ended up singing on that album. I honestly didn’t want to, but one of the girls – Mary [Wilson] or somebody – decided that I was going to. So I found myself doing it. Also, I have to admit that it scratched a little itch. Easier for me to say that they forced me to do it, which I sort of remember them doing.
“I’d started at Motown. I had a song recorded by The Four Tops. I felt like I was a part of that family. I knew I wasn’t a black person, but I felt like I had been accepted and could do more about unification, and to try to keep this fusion thing going. When the album came out, it really got an adamant refusal from both camps. African-American listeners weren’t crazy about hearing The Supremes sing Joni Mitchell,” he laughs, “at least as far as I able to tell from the sales, and it seemed like the same was true on the other side, like, what I’d really done was some kind of sin, some kind of alchemy that really wasn’t permitted, or wasn’t proper.”
Another notoriously controversial Webb project was “MacArthur Park,” a sprawling, classically-influenced pocket opera which became an unlikely 1968 radio hit for actor Richard Harris, riding high on the success of his movie musical Camelot. Originally written for (and rejected by) The Association, “MacArthur” was dredged up from the “bottom of the box of available material” by Harris during a rehearsal session.
“I ended up spreading the whole thing out, all 10 feet of it, and started playing it. Richard just went crazy.” Webb drops into a perfect mimic of Harris’ Irish brogue. “Ahh, Chimmy Webb, we’ll record this and make a hit, have a great hit, and when we have a hit, I’m gon’ ta give ya this Rolls-Royce!” Webb laughs, adding, “Which he never did.
“If you wanna go back and find a piece of material that did more to turn the whole world of rock and roll radio upside down, you’re gonna have to look very hard to find something more influential than ‘MacArthur Park.'”
Dropping into a mock-lawyer’s voice he continues, “One of the exhibits, your honor, that I offer in support of that allegation is a song called ‘Hey Jude’ which is, if your honor will notice on the label, exactly one second longer than ‘MacArthur Park’ – one second! [Beatles producer] George Martin told me for a fact they stood there at the console, looked at the clock, and made sure the fade lasted that long; and all they were doing was singing lah-lah-laaah lah-lah-lah laaah over and over.”
About the song’s oft-ridiculed, impenetrable lyrics concerning a cake left out in the rain, Webb counters, “The whole era had become a kind of mish-mash of ‘Let me see if I can write a stupider or weirder or more obfuscated lyric than you can.’ I don’t know why I’m the one that gets picked on. There’s plenty of targets. ‘Jeremiah Was a Bullfrog’? ‘Nights in White Satin,’ never nearing the end? Nobody understood what any of those songs were about. ‘Strawberry Fields’ forever?” he continues exasperatedly. “Forever!?“
Besides Harris, the highest profile interpreter of Webb’s material remains Glen Campbell. “Glen and I went along for years on different sides of the political fence, but were able to work together in the studio and produce some things that I still think are phenomenal. ‘Wichita Lineman’ is a record that I think will stand forever. Sometimes I won’t hear it for years, and then it’ll come on the radio and I’ll think, goddamn, what a great record and how perfectly his voice matches the song. Glen was a conundrum in a way, because his political beliefs were so right-leaning on their surface, so conservative, and then he would go out and record an anti-war song.”
One of those was “Galveston” (1969), the open lament of a homesick soldier, although many listeners have missed that. When informed that the lyric about a cannon flashing can be mistaken for a camera flashing, Webb raises the bar with a more amusing misheard lyric. Citing his “All I Know,” which begins with the words, “I bruise you, you bruise me,” he adopts a thickly exaggerated Chinese accent and sings the line as, “I bruise you, you Bruce Lee.”
“All I Know” and “Galveston” both appear in magnificent new versions on Webb’s current album Just Across the River. Although not conceived as a guest-duets project, it quickly acquired as many stars as an Oklahoma night, including Willie Nelson, Vince Gill, Linda Ronstadt, and Mark Knopfler.
“We had sort of been talking to Lucinda Williams about making an appearance,” says Webb. “She peeked out of the woods and asked if she could do ‘Galveston’ because her momma taught her that song and it meant a lot to her. [Producer] Freddy Mollin worked with her and the result, the transformation that occurred with Lucinda’s voice, the introduction of another character – a woman – into the story was so dramatic and effective that we thought we’d made a mistake by setting up an artificial restriction against well-known guest singers on the album.”
Webb points out that “below the surface” each celebrity guest is linked to the song on which they appear. For instance, Billy Joel does “Wichita Lineman” because he famously, comically deconstructed the number onstage when presenting Webb with the Johnny Mercer Award. Jackson Browne appears on “P.F. Sloan” (Webb’s 1970 “howl of protest” against the industry’s shameful treatment of famed pop songwriter-turned-vocalist Phil Sloan) because it is a personal favorite of Browne’s and has been part of his live repertoire. “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” re-united Webb with Glen Campbell and features their first-ever duo vocal performance.
“It was kind of an emotional thing for me,” Webb notes. “I sang the first verse and he came in on ‘By the time I make Albuquerque.’ He might have made two passes at it, but he certainly didn’t make three, it was so much a part of his DNA.”
One song on the new record that Webb tackles completely solo, though, takes him back to his boyhood roots and also inspires our conversation’s passionate concluding anecdote. “Cowboy Hall of Fame” was originally written on commission for an actual Oklahoma museum, but came out “a little deeper” than intended. “There’s one line in there that goes, ‘Look quickly when he passes, look quickly if you can/ You just might see the last American.’ I believe these guys are gonna disappear.
“It bothers me. There was something more wholesome about the family farm and raising your own food. What’s to be said for someone who eats something that they have no relationship to at all, except to not want to know where it came from? It comes off the shelf, but we don’t wanna know what happens before the shelf.
“I used to take Harry Nilsson out on my boat all the time when I lived in California. One time my dad went with us. Harry was kind of a tough guy, a New York kid, but he had never been around any kind of rural stuff before. So my dad caught a few striped bass, and he went down on the swim step with a butcher knife and started cleaning those striped bass. I turned around and Harry was standing there, and his face was white. He’d seen my father on the swim step, covered with blood. He said, ‘Jimmy, you can’t believe what your father’s doing! He’s a barbarian!’
“Harry could do amyl nitrate without breaking a sweat, but turned pale with shock over these fish being cleaned. We’ve completely lost touch with that. We don’t ‘get’ that. We just go to the grocery store and buy a package of this and a package of that, and look with disdain on someone who kills animals. If someone’s not gonna kill an animal, where are the burgers gonna come from?”
Photo by Jessica Walker.