Graham Reid | | 18 min read
When Jimmy Webb, one of the most sophisticated and successful songwriters of his generation, speaks of making music it is like eavesdropping on genius. And that is what he is considered to be by his peers and those who have followed his long career.
Before he was 21 Webb had already written some of pop’s most enduring songs, including By The Time I Get To Phoenix (which Frank Sinatra announced “the greatest torch songs ever written” and is the third most performed song of the past half century), and Up, Up and Away which was a hit for The Fifth Dimension.
Glenn Campbell became a star on the back of Webb’s classic songs: Witchita Lineman, Galveston, Where’s The Playground Susie? and Phoenix among them.
Webb’s early songs had the musical sophistication of Burt Bacharach but also a tinge of populist country. Then he began to extend himself.
His heart-aching and almost minimalist ballad The Moon’s A Harsh Mistress (made famous by Joe Cocker) was a personal account of his conflicted emotions when in love with a married woman. At the other end of his musical spectrum was the baroque psychedelic suite MacArthur Park which was a huge hit for actor Richard Harris.
Webb’s songs have been performed by Linda Ronstadt, Tony Bennet and Rosemary Clooney, by folk singers Joan Baez and Judy Collins, by rock bands such as Urge Overkill and REM, and country singers Reba McEntire and The Highwaymen (Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson who had a number one hit with the titular The Highwayman). Art Garfunkel’s Watermark album contained 10 Webb songs, and the great songwriter Sammy Cahn compared MacArthur Park to Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.
Webb’s catalogue of genius has won him Grammys and membership to various song writing halls of fame; Witchita Lineman is regularly voted into lists of the greatest songs of all time (“the greatest ever” according to Blender magazine four years ago); and his ‘98 book Tunesmith: Inside the Art of Songwriting was a best seller.
This interview took place in July 2005 after the release of his album Twilight of the Renegades -- a meditation on the loss of rebels who have changed the way we, and particularly Webb himself, see the world.
At 58 Webb admits to feeling his mortality and sees the renegade spirits of his time -- Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Hank Williams, his friend and fellow-songwriter Harry Nilsson, Richard Harris and George Harrison -- have all passed on. And some, like Nilsson who died in 94, are already been forgotten.
However critical opinion of Twilight of the Renegades -- despite what he says -- has been largely unsympathetic: it is melodically and lyrically overwrought, and it doesn’t help that Webb is no great shakes as a singer. Some of the songs are saturated in sentimentality, others just plodding.
Yet, as with most of those in his extensive back-catalogue, Webb’s songs are full of small and engagingly specific detail, and many are stories in which he -- like fellow songwriters Randy Newman and Paul Simon -- speaks through a character.
However unlike much of his classic material from the Sixties it is hard to imagine who might cover expansive songs like the six minutes-plus Paul Gauguin in the South Seas or High Rent Ghetto about coked-up rich people.
Not that it matters much, Webb’s place in the pantheon of great 20th century composers is secure, he is wealthy and respected by his peers, and is currently working on two Broadway projects: stage adaptations of the classic western Shane, and A Bronx Tale with Chazz Palminteri who wrote the original film.
This interview took place before a concert in New Zealand.
You’ve lived in and around New York for quite some while now.
I’ve been on the East Coast for about 25 years and on and off I lived in the city, but now I am on Long Island in a kind of beach community I am very happy with.
You are an Oklahoma boy but you gravitate towards oceans, you spent a lot of time in California for example.
Yeah I do, I definitely have it in my blood somehow or another. In my song Highwayman the second verse says “I was a sailor and born upon the tide”. But there are similarities, believe it or not, between the Midwest and the ocean. It’s a kind of an ocean, a large and relatively flat or gently undulating area that carries the eye off to the horizon. I feel very comfortable out there on the plains. But I loved sailing and tales of maritime adventure.
I’m crazy too about Australia and New Zealand. I think this is my third or fourth time to New Zealand, although only my second concert. I’ve been around there. A friend of mine David Hemmings, who has now unfortunately passed on, was making a movie in the South Island in Queenstown. Is that down the bottom?
Right, so I hung out with him. I had a house down there for about a month, it was a lovely place.
Obviously I want to talk to you about Twilight of the Renegades, but you have brought up Oklahoma so let’s talk about that first. I’m wondering how much of your song writing lyrics -- which do have a sense of the specific and well observed location -- how much of that do you attribute to your upbringing in Oklahoma where a power pole would stand out in that waving landscape? I guess that environment tends to focus the mind.
Yeah, there was a very real chance of dying of boredom where I was raised. One was always looking around for something to be interested in. But that is a very vivid image, the highline wires and power poles stretching off into infinity. It is such an incredibly vivid description of the vastness of that territory.
I always tended to think cinematically, it gave my songs a shape -- a beginning, middle and end -- and I also have a novelistic technique in that I put enough small detail in my stories to make them believable. But it is not as cold and cut’n’dried as that, it is a lot more instinctive.
I was a great reader when I was in Oklahoma, I had a lot of time on my hands and I loved to absorb books. Frankly we didn’t have television and there were fewer distraction than children have today. My father was a Baptist minister so we would sing around the piano and amuse ourselves at home singing three-part harmony. I learned to improvise three-part harmony when I was very young, then you read and absorb.
There is something to be said for all that solitude and time on your hands, it is a great greenhouse for artistic life to organise all those materials under some sort of personal umbrella. That solitude was important. Artists as a rule get along pretty well by themselves, they don’t really need company that much.
When you are writing now do you instinctively go to that solitary space to find those images?
Yeah. I really have to. I’m married to an absolutely gorgeous young wife and she is in television and is truly beautiful in the sense that a movie star is beautiful. She is around and full of this irrepressible energy and playfulness and it is difficult for me to work if she is right there in the vicinity. I need to withdraw, as sad as it all sounds, it is the plight of the artist, it is where we live. In many ways happiness is the enemy, it is a great destroyer of ambition.
But I am happy at this time of my life and I have transferred some of my angst and anxiety of these projects I am working on -- two Broadway shows, one based on the movie Shane that classic western, and the other based on A Bronx Tale which I am doing with my partner Chazz Palminteri who wrote the original film. One can step outside of one’s personal angst and work on a character’s problem rather than one’s own problem -- which can be very dangerous. It can be therapeutic but also very dangerous, you become so narcissistic and self-pitying and cloying and awful. Not someone that someone else wants to listen to.
You have written some intensely personal songs, I’m thinking of things like The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress for example, but what I hear on Twilight of the Renegades are a couple of broad thematic things, one is of reflection. On songs like Time Flies, How Long and Spanish Radio, is that man you or is that a character speaking?
Ultimately it is always me I think, and sometimes me reaching out through another character like a puppeteer. I couldn’t mention that without referencing Randy Newman and his famous “untrustworthy narrator” who can be racist for example and are obviously not Randy. But in some way they are Randy, he exorcises his demons through these characters.
So on Twilight of the Renegades there are some characters, like the poor sod who didn’t quite get it when his Hispanic girlfriend told him to get lost, so he’s kind of a character but the story does have a grain of truth.
But when I speak [on Class Clown] of “I met him without knowing him the other day and offered him my sacrifice and sent him on his way” is where the speaker has met an old classmate on the street and has discovered to his shock that this guy is now a homeless person. That is true. That actually happened to me, and he was the class clown, the funniest guy. The song begins, “he was the funniest kid in the class”. Now, that was true, and we all know that kid, so I am reaching out saying, “You know who I mean“. But you get to the end and you find yourself face to face with funniest kid who is a homeless man. The shock of that is very real.
So without evading your question, a lot of times it is me talking. In Time Flies . . . well, I’m 58 and am beginning to feel my mortality and all of these fantastic renegades that I cut my teeth on as a young musician listening to -- the likes of Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings, and Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie. And guys from my generation who were also renegades: Harry Nilsson who was my best friend -- a wonderfully insane human being -- and Richard Harris who recorded MacArthur Park -- was also delightfully out of his mind. David Hemmings too, a whole list of actors and musicians -- many musicians, George Harrison -- who are now passing on. There is no delicate way to put it.
I’m glad you mentioned Harry Nilsson who was one of my favourites because it pains me to think there are now generations of people don’t even know about him. I don’t hear him spoken about in popular culture anymore.
People are forgotten so blindingly fast and in a way Twilight of the Renegades is about saying, “Slow down and don’t be so fast to discard the past“. We are discarding the past at a fantastic rate that we reach the point we don’t benefit from the lessons it has to offer. It’s one thing to not hold on to the past but it is another to discard it like yesterday’s papers as if it has nothing to offer whatsoever. I feel that when people ask me what I hear out there as songwriters these days -- and I do hear songs I like -- but I find the great majority of them are so undisciplined and unlearned that they have obviously paid no attention to the songs that are out there. Or maybe they’ve never heard any songs, I don’t know. There is that minimalist, “We don’t know what we are doing and we don’t care” feeling to all this music. That works for a decade but after that I wonder what happens.
If one looks at the development of the Beatles, they started out as a band that didn’t care very much about how they sounded or what they did and some of their early records are pretty awful. The idea of the Beatles doing Sweet Georgia Brown indicates to me they must have been pretty desperate for a song. Their producer George Martin -- whom I worked with and adore and revere -- used to tell me that the Beatles would come into the studio with only verse of a song written and he’d say, “Hey lads, you need three verses, go back and write more” and they were like, “Do we have to?”
So for them to start out as a little unruly in terms of their musicianship and watch their progress to create things like Abbey Road which is my favourite Beatle record, an absolute masterpiece. It is a good as [the Beach Boys] Pet Sounds although it doesn’t sound the same. At that level it transcends pop music, and rock music. It just becomes great music.
Let’s talk about why that is for a minute. You are 58 and I am 54. We grew up at a time, musically, when it seems to me the stakes were being raised constantly from Burt Bacharach to Revolver to Pet Sounds to Sgt Peppers. Songwriters were not competing with each other to get on radio, but to create better music, to make a statement. I wonder if the current climate has been fashioned by radio and the need for songwriters to tailor for it. You’d never get a MacArthur Park on radio today.
I honestly don’t know what has happened but there doesn’t seem to be the same fire down below. George Martin said to me one time, “Sgt Pepper was an attempt to equal Pet Sounds” and I remember after I put MacArthur Park out and it was 7 minutes 20 seconds long the Beatles put out Hey Jude and it was 7.21, one second longer.
I don’t feel that there is that much fire in these young writers today, I hate to be the grumpy old guy, but I am the grumpy old guy.
I wish it was better, a more schooled sound to it. I wish it wasn’t so imitative. It sounds to me that all these young bands do is listen to each other, they don’t listen to the Kinks, the Zombies or really listen to the Rolling Stones. They haven’t paid much attention to the Beatles, they don’t even listen to Radiohead. They are just lost in this idea of only knowing four chords and the same notes.
When you grew up got a dose of Burt Bacharach and you thought, “Holy shit, what is he doing?” Like Anyone Who Had A Heart for instance. All you have to do is listen to that song, it’s all there, that’s all you need to know about writing music. That’s what I miss.
I would like to hear the 2005 version of a brilliant band like The Beatles, and I’d love for them for to be really really successful. There’s no sour grapes involved, I don’t mind because I’m not competing with these teenage boys. So it doesn’t come from sour grapes, honestly.
What shaped your style perhaps is that you compose exclusively on piano.
I wrote one song on the guitar many years called Ocean In His Eyes. I wrote it on a tuning which was taught to me by Freddy Tackett who was my guitarist and now plays in the Little Feat band. All one summer I slaved on the guitar on one song and at the end I thought, “Okay, that’s it. I’ve done it.’
It hurts so much less to play the piano. You have to be a little bit masochistic to be a guitarist.
The piano offers so much more complexity in terms of chords and structure which is at the most basic level going to determine the way you craft a song.
I put this idea forward in my book Tunesmith, which is many years old but continues to sell and go through edition after edition, so much so that it is almost time for me to go back and update it, that the piano is the most -- and I’m leaning in the doorway here -- looking at my piano, looking at the keyboard and thinking that it is the most graphic representation of what music is. It is an actual picture of all the notes, there are all the notes. Right there. All 88 of them and you can see were they are and how they relate to one another. And the keyboard tells you very clearly how they relate, where the octaves are. It is all just so well organised and graphically displayed that I believe piano players have a leg up when it comes to just imagining mathematically what the music looks like in their head.
The fact that a pianist can use both hands -- guitar players use one hand to formulate what is being played by the other, one hand is a processor -- so guitarists have a lot of trouble when they start getting major chords and alternate basses like this (plays)
Not all them, jazz players will be used to that kind of thing. If you are just sitting there with your Fender Stratocaster you are not going to imagine a chord that is two or three octaves wide and has all these clusters organised here and there, little baubles of dissonance hung on like ornaments on a Christmas tree. It is what Leonard Bernstein used to call a super chord. It’s very hard to imagine a super chord when you are sitting with your five or six strings, and that is said with all due respect because I always wanted to be a guitar player.
I would have killed to have been a guitar player because my Dad wanted me to do it, but I wore my little fingers out trying to do it, but I was never very good at it.
Back to what you were talking about, the current album. It is another collection of songs which lend themselves to other people to sing and interpret. Is there is any sense at all that Renegades is a calling card to some people?
You’re very incisive! I’ve always been willing to admit that my albums were, as much as anything else, very expensive demos. Almost every time I cut an album I will get one or more significant recordings by someone I respect and admire.
David Geffen wouldn’t appreciate that after spending almost $1 million on Lands End which sold about 20 copies, but I got a couple of songs recorded by other people so I don’t care!
It’s definitely, ‘Here are some new songs’ and my albums, with all due modesty, are going to be heard by just about everyone: Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel are going to listen to it, people like that. Paul McCartney might even hear it.
That’s a nice compliment, but they are not going to record your songs.
No, but they can say ‘Hey, you should hear this great new thing by Jimmy Webb, it’s called How Quickly, you should hear that.’ So somehow word gets around and it almost always results in an intensifying of the interest in my catalogue, it is definitely promotional.
So has the phone started to ring yet?
This album has really been well received, it got a lot of play on BBC2. It hasn’t been released here in the United States, it comes out August 16, so it’s a bit early to tell. There is one song Time Flies which as already been recorded by Rosemary Clooney before her death, unfortunately another renegade is gone -- and she was one of the greatest by the way, she did not suffer fools gladly. She would tell Jack Warner where to get off.
It has also been recorded by Michael Feinstein on an album of all Jimmy Webb songs. So that one already as a start and could become something like Moon’s a Harsh Mistress. I have the feeling it could find its way into a film, the closing titles or something of that nature There are preliminary expressions of interest.
And I would think How Quickly will be recorded by a country artist sooner or later. Other songs you do have to wonder how they could ever be covered, something like Paul Gauguin in the South Seas for example. It is possible, someone like Loudon Wainwright.
I don’t put a lot of work into that, I am really a cottage industry, there isn’t a whole crew of hundreds who go out and start to promote these things. Often good things happen, thank God.
I’d love to hear a classic soul singer take on Why Do I Have To.
Thank you, thank you a lot. I really enjoyed doing that with Beth Nielsen Chapman, I love the harmony parts myself. It’s a cross between a Joni Mitchell song and a Smokey Robinson song, if that’s possible.
Can I ask you about Broadway. You are doing Shane which I guess means someone has to do the great Jack Palance line, “Pick up the gun”, one of the most menacing lines ever in a film I think. So what is the attraction with Broadway, is it that it offers you more characters and therefore more musical possibilities?
Yes, it gives me a break from myself. It is the ultimate challenge, the most difficult thing for a writer to do, and oftentimes the most discouraging as well. But in the case of Bronx Tale and Shane I feel I am onto two very strong stories, and story is everything. And if my songs are about anything they are about stories, so I can identified with, ‘Oh this happens and then this happens and holy cow! Look what happens at the end because of all that!’ So you build towards that moment, and investing a score with character of the different personae is the trick of it all, and to move the story along. Broadway is also a place, and this is the funny part, where no one can intervene with your income stream. You have to buy a ticket and go see it. Nowadays songwriters have to think about those things because we know we will be stolen blind no matter what we do.
So the context in which you write now is very different from the 60s and 70s, your work can be downloaded but also a different cultural context.
Yes, but I’m still here and trying to survive as a songwriter and I’d be crazy if I didn’t try to adapt to the environment which is increasingly hostile, to be frank, in terms of the numbers of artists available to record songs which are purely written for other artists to perform. You are talking about maybe four of five people. Most of them are women, Celine Dion is slightly notorious for demanding half of the publishing before she records a song.
That’s a hostile environment for people who just make a living writing songs, and everybody knows how valuable publishing is so no one is naïve enough to not want to write all the songs on their own album. The unfortunate by-product of that is you end up with a lot of albums that don’t have very good songs on them.
Joni Mitchell said it best: in the old days there was a lyric writer and a music writer and they did a terrific job. People like Lerner and Lowe and the Gershwins. She said now you have one person doing the singing, writing the lyrics and the music and doing a half-assed job of them all. There was something to be said for having the specialisation of one person doing the music and one doing the lyrics. Irving Berlins and Cole Porters -- and Joni Mitchells -- don’t come along that often.
Joni is a brilliant talent who completely changed the way we look at songwriting. She certainly changed the way I looked at songwriting just because of the contact I had with her on a personal basis and I thought, ’My God, I am doing this all wrong’.
And Randy Newman who has his little Toulouse-Lautrec sketches that he does. And his albums aren’t selling millions of copies, and nor are hers. Things have changed for the greatest talents of our generation.
You said you’d applaud another Beatles coming along. From what you say we almost need another Elvis, someone who didn’t write but would just pick songs from all over.
I’d love another person like that. Or another Springsteen, someone who can shake things up in a grown-up, mature, sexy way. I hate to see it all given to the 12 ands 13 year olds -- and even younger now. But maybe there will be a music for adults and music for kids.
I think increasingly that is the case. All my sons are musicians ..
God bless them, all my boys are musicians too.
I tell them they are doing God’s work in this world.
Yeah, but they can barely get arrested.
But when I listen to what they listen to now that they are in late 20s and early 30s they listen to an enormous diversity of music. Yet when they were growing up they were into Poison and the metal bands popular at the time. So kids do grow up and expand their parameters. About your boys, has being Jimmy Webb’s son helped or hindered them?
Hmmm, a bit of both I think. They worked primarily in London and applied their craft in Britain and their fan-base is pretty much British and they were signed to Warners UK and had a couple of albums which were enormously well received on a critical level. I’d say candidly they’ve had great reviews and a rough time selling albums. But they’ve had a shot at it. I don’t think they were hurt by the fact I am their father. Were they helped? Negligibly so, they’ve had to really work hard.It makes them stronger in the long run.
Yeah, and God bless you for also having sons in the music business. It makes you a saintly figure in my eyes.
One last thing, you’ve mentioned your wife. Would you care to give me her name?
Oh yeah, her name is Laura Savini and she works for PBS here and she’s quite the local celebrity.
Thank you, and thanks for your time. I enjoyed it.
I enjoyed it -- immensely (laughs)
This is a slightly expanded version of an interview conducted in August 2005 by Graham Reid for the New Zealand Herald: www.nzherald.co.nz