On a recent drizzly Wednesday afternoon, Jimmy Webb, the seventy-year-old Grammy-winning songwriter of “Up, Up and Away,” “MacArthur Park,” “Wichita Lineman,” and many other wistful hits of the AM-FM era, visited Carnegie Hall with his wife, Laura Savini. Webb wore a spiffy gray suit and a paisley tie; his short gray hair was softly unruly. He and Savini left their umbrellas in the Maestro Suite (Steinway upright piano; portraits of Bernstein and Toscanini) and headed to the main stage, Stern Auditorium. There, this week, artists including Judy Collins, Art Garfunkel, Toby Keith, and Hanson (yes, that Hanson), will perform Webb’s songs, in a fund-raiser for Alzheimer’s research, presented by City Winery. Michael Douglas, Webb’s former roommate, will host. In the seventies, Webb explained, “Mikey and Jann Wenner and myself were like the Three Musketeers.”
As Webb approached the stage, he stopped what he was doing—reminiscing about being in the studio with the Beatles when they recorded “Honey Pie”—and paused to take it all in. “It’s always awe-inspiring to walk onto this stage,” he said. “I think the first time I came here was with Artie Garfunkel. We had a chamber group, and I’d done all the arrangements.” Later, in 2006, Webb played “MacArthur Park” at Sting’s Rainforest Foundation Fund concert there. “Will Ferrell was climbing around in the cheap seats in a red leotard,” Webb recalled. “So it was all a big sendup. But the orchestra was magnificent that night.”
“MacArthur Park,” made famous by Richard Harris, the regal British actor who went on to play Dumbledore, was later recorded by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Waylon Jennings (several times) and Donna Summer. Its baroque, nearly psychedelic lyrics, in which a cake left in the rain stands in for the end of a love affair—its sweet green icing flowing down—have haunted and provoked listeners for decades; their reactions have, in turn, haunted and provoked Webb. He considers the lyrics to be “a list of things that sort of happened—partly cloaked, not diabolically so.” He said, “I was surprised when people ran up against this wall of incomprehensibility.”
Last month, Webb published a memoir titled “The Cake and the Rain.” It details his rise from Oklahoma preacher’s son to young L.A. hitmaker for Glen Campbell and others to high-flying countercultural hedonist. It features Sinatra, Elvis, and, memorably, Harry Nilsson, who lures Webb into the nadir of John Lennon’s Lost Weekend, as well as helicopters, hot-air balloons, cocaine, a cliffside baby-goat rescue, Jimi, Janis, and a nude chamber-music concert hosted by Webb and attended by Joni Mitchell and members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. It ends in 1973.
At center stage was a Steinway concert grand. Webb sat on the bench and began to play a rolling, majestic tune, evocative of his hits but unplaceable in the canon. He played for a minute and a half, music filling the hall as two maintenance workers mopped the aisles. He ended with a flourish. “Nothin’ wrong with that!” he said. It wasn’t a song: he had just made it up. “Usually, what I do when I’m writing a song is I sit down and I start playing,” he said. “And then something will surface. I just wrote my first real classical piece, a nocturne for piano and orchestra. I hope I get it played here sometime.”
He talked about songwriting. He begins with chords; motifs will pop out; he begins to structure. Melody is important. So is originality. “I can’t have anybody in the room with me when I do it,” he said. When the song is finished, he plays it for people. “I’m watching them intently,” he said. “I want their anti-gravity to kick in. You can generally tell when that happens.” He looked philosophical. “It’s always nice when people burst into tears and collapse in a pile on the rug.”
He began playing “MacArthur Park,” which he wrote about his first love, Susan Horton, now Susan Ronstadt, who worked at an Aetna office in Los Angeles, near MacArthur Park, where she and Webb often met for lunch. Once, it rained on them. (Two passages in “The Cake and the Rain” elucidate further.) “The melody started like—” He played minor chords. “So there’s a little verse, and there’s the chorus—‘MacArthur Park is melting in the dark,’ ” he sang. “This little motif now goes into majors.” He played, wordlessly, the “someone left the cake out in the rain” part, through to “I don’t think that I can take it / ’cause it took so long to bake it.” He went on, “Then it goes into another key; then the melody more or less turns upside down. Those are what Leonard Bernstein called ‘transformational elements.’ ” ♦