Bledsoe: Songwriting master looks back over career

Jimmy Webb

Jimmy Webb

Jimmy Webb

Jimmy Webb

In the realm of modern songwriting, few artists have had the acclaim, notoriety and longevity of Jimmy Webb.

Webb (whose given name is "Jimmy," not "James" or "Jim"), is the author of the classics "Galveston," "By the Time I Get to Phoneix," "Wichita Lineman," "The Highwayman," "All I Know" and the sometimes lauded and sometimes loathed "MacArthur Park."

Webb says he didn't expect songs he wrote in the 1960s and 1970s would become classics.

"Sometimes it's almost like I'm listening to something somebody else wrote," says Webb. "But there's an enormous satisfaction and feeling of gratification. I can remember when I was a kid someone would ask 'Where do you think your music will be in 100 years?' and I'd say 'In the garbage can.'"

Webb's new album, "Just Across the River," is just a little more evidence that Webb couldn't predict the future. It's a sweet collection of some of his best songs and includes duets with Billy Joel, Glen Campbell, Willie Nelson, Lucinda Williams, Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt and others.

Raised in Oklahoma, Texas and Southern California, Webb had already written two of his future hits, "Galveston" and "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," by the time he graduated high school.

By the time he was 21, Webb had earned Grammys for Song of the Year and Record of the Year for the hit "Up, Up and Away" and was becoming recognized as a songwriting machine.

"I was very prolific," says Webb. "I remember writing 'MacArthur Park.' I don't think there is anything particularly to be admired in speed writing songs. I think I might have looped back and made a couple of changes for the better, but I was fast. I remember pulling all night shifts writing six arrangements for an orchestra date the next day."

He says his own feelings about "MacArthur Park" are mixed. Parts, he says, are "lyrically murky" and even "silly."

"But I do think that some of it is off-the-cuff brilliant," says Webb. "As Van Dyke Parks once said to Mike Love when asked to explain the lyrics to 'Surf's Up,' 'I have no excuse, sir!' I'm thinking of adapting that for 'MacArthur Park' "

The song was a hit for actor Richard Harris (on an album produced by Webb) and has since been covered by everyone from Donna Summer (who took a disco version of it to No. 1) to Waylon Jennings to jazz trumpeter Maynard Ferguson to comedian Father Guido Sarducci (Don Novello).

"I would actually make a nice little documentary," says Webb. "The number of recordings of it has soared. It's in the number of 200 to 250 recordings."

He does take issue with people who would criticize the clarity of "MacArthur Park" and "accept at face value a song like 'Strawberry Fields Forever'" by the Beatles.

"On a level of lucidity, 'Strawberry Fields' has very little to offer in information. It's spectacular wordplay."

He says he was among many songwriters in the 1960s who were "enthralled" by that type of songwriting.

"That whole hallucinogenic 'newspaper taxis appear on the shore waiting to take us away' stuff, and I don't blame the Beatles for it, was a necessary step that had to be tried and taken. A lot of '60s music was, for want of a better word, nonsensical. I suffered for that. I took my lashes critically and in the privacy of my own rooms."

Webb says his best later songs, including "Adios" and "If These Walls Could Speak," were consciously free of extraneous wordplay.

Webb has lived through the most drastic changes in the songwriting community. When he began writing most popular acts relied on songwriters for material.

"We modeled ourselves after Goffin and King, Bacharach and David, and, to some degree, Leiber and Stoller, and we were happy with that role," says Webb.

Yet, things changed in the era of Bob Dylan and the Beatles, and artists were expected to write their own material. Older non-writing artists were on the wane.

He says the release of Carole King's album "Tapestry," after a successful career of writing songs for others, was "like an earthquake in the songwriting community." Instead of the old academic axiom of "publish or perish" it was "perform or perish."

"At first, it was difficult for us to comprehend that you didn't have to be such a great singer to be a singer-songwriter. But, like it or not, we were going to be singer-songwriters or we were going to be nothing."

Ironically, one of Webb's most enduring songs, "P.F. Sloan," is about a fellow songwriter who tried to make the switch a few years too early and failed. Sloan wrote and co-wrote several hits, including "Eve of Destruction," recorded by Barry McGuire, and he was a writer Webb looked up to.

"We were good friends," says Webb. "P.F. Sloan and I sat outside on John Phillips' porch house and smoked a joint while inside John and Michelle Phillips, Johnny Rivers, Lou Adler and Simon and Garfunkel were planning the Monterey Pop Festival. We were secondary characters in that world."

Webb respected Sloan's attempt to make it as a performer, and the song he wrote about Sloan became one of the highlights of Webb's own debut album as a performer, "Words and Music," in 1970.

"I feel like there's unsettled business between us," says Webb. "If I had it to do over again I would've called him up and said 'I'm writing a song about you and your struggle to establish yourself as a recording artist, and it's basically elegiac. Is this OK with you?' Instead, because I was a snot-nosed kid, I just wrote it and recorded it. Elemental courtesy would've demanded that I call him and say 'I'm using your name in a song.' "

Webb says it was the adrenaline-rush of writing a type of song that hadn't been done won out over any courtesy. He does hope to reconnect with Sloan and, in fact, was beginning to write him a letter.

Webb's own career as a singer-songwriter fared somewhat better than Sloan's, but, although critically praised, his solo albums have never been big sellers.

Webb, though, did survive as a songwriter and was championed by fellow artists. Linda Ronstadt, Art Garfunkel, Joe Cocker and Michael Feinstein all recorded Webb songs. Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson not only recorded Webb's "The Highwayman," the quartet named themselves after the song.

"I was lucky to form relationships with people who did outside material, and I had the credentials to make those relationships work," says Webb. "I never had a song plugger. I just lived my life and was blindly fortunate in many cases."

He says when he writes a new song he doesn't attempt to write a "better" song than "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" or "Galveston."

"It's about being a better technical craftsman. Being a little more deft with my turn on the lyric. Having learned from past mistakes to be clearer and simpler and more direct in what I'm presenting. Because the mistakes that I see in my past seem to do with obfuscation and pretension - thinking that I'm saying something important, when really I'm just stringing words together that only sound important. I don't think Willie Nelson ever had those problems. I think he was born a kind of Picasso of songwriting. His storylines were very clear and direct. My own struggle is to get back to a more prose way of songwriting in my technique and be very careful about using these gifts of imagery and metaphor, because they come so easily for me."

He adds that his mind is as sharp as it's ever been, although he doesn't have the raw energy that drove him when he was young.

And, it feels good to see that he's created something that hasn't, as he once predicted, been thrown in the cultural garbage can.

"It's not 100 years, but it's been a pretty good run," says Webb. "To see a song like 'Wichita Lineman' still be around being recording by Guided By Voices and R.E.M., bands that are still fairly contemporary to me, and have kids come up with my book on songwriting, it's very flattering ...

"Imagine the alternative. The disappearing of one's body of work would be very painful to witness, I guess."

Wayne Bledsoe may be reached at 865-342-6444 or bledsoew@knoxville.com. He is also the host of "All Over the Road" midnight Saturdays to 4 a.m. Sundays on WDVX-FM.

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