All He Knows…
by Ronald Sklar
If you are under thirty and have even the slightest retro sensibility, chances are you are familiar with the classic pop songs of Jimmy Webb, and good for you. And if you are over thirty, endlessly toiling in an office and music appreciation is just a faint childhood memory, put down that mouse and try the following: simply relax…breathe…and search your inner-sub-consciousness. Return to your half-forgotten childhood…think back… all the way back …to your parents’ hi-fi system…The Dean Martin Show (in color!)…AM radio stations that feature not news but HOT HITS…and that’s where you’ll finally rediscover the perfect pop goldmine of Jimmy Webb.
It’s all coming back to you now, isn’t it? The tunes that are spinning endlessly in the windmills of your mind are worth bringing forward. Yes, Jimmy Webb gave you the greatest hits of your early years, including “Wichita Lineman,” “Up, Up and Away,” “By The Time I Get To Phoenix,” “The Worst That Could Happen,” “Didn’t We,” and, of course, the greatest song that makes no sense, “MacArthur Park (“Someone left the cake out in the rain…I don’t think that I can take it…cause it took too long to bake it…and I’ll never have that recipe again! OH NOOOOO!!!!”)”.
The main reason why you may not immediately know Webb’s name is that not Webb but many of your favorite pop stars recorded his tunes. You see, Webb had gotten down on his knees and prayed to God to let him become a songwriter, but he forgot to ask Him to let him become a recording artist as well. Still, with influences as diverse as Dave Brubeck and Burt Bacharach, Webb delivers for others.
With a harmonious family background of musical moments, including memories of his mother strapping on an accordion that dwarfed her entire body, Webb had the genes that fit right. When Webb was blown away by a college professor who would cry while listening to Bach, he knew he had to unlock the mystery and get to the bottom of the passion. And when he earned his first big check ($320) for penning a forgettable Christmas song for the Supremes that was no threat to Rudolph, Webb knew he caught the bug. He went from making $600 in 1963 to $60,000 in 1964. It truly is like no business you know.
Of course, Jimmy is far from being left out in the rain. True, the hits are few and far between these days, but some folks still swear by him — namely Dylan, Streisand, Cash, Warwick, R.E.M., Mathis and Ronstadt, as well as Willie Nelson, Ray Charles and Carly Simon. In fact, Jimmy is so widely respected by those who do what he does that he’s written a unique book that addresses a subject rarely discussed in the light of day: songwriting!
Tunesmith: Inside the Art of Songwriting, (Hyperion Press) is a result of four years of examination of the rarely examined art of not just creating tunes, but creating tunes that sell, baby. With a little help from his friends (including Stephen Sondheim, Michael Stipe, Burt Bacharach and Nanci Griffith), Webb manages to make some sense out of the most baffling of creative acts: writing music. An art form that offers everything from “three little fishies in a little bitty pool” to “time is never time at all,” songwriting is complicated, frustrating, elusive and — well — often fruitless. And that’s before you even consider writing a hit.
“The creative processes are so mysterious,” Webb says in a recent interview. “Anytime we start formalizing it and trying to articulate it, we’re immediately in trouble. We are trying to describe the indescribable. It’s impossible, but I’m going to try it anyway, and take what you can from it. I took a swing at it, and if anyone is out there who can write a better book, then please do it, because we need it. You reach a certain point in your life where they things you do and say do make a difference.”
Aspiring songwriters will benefit from the experience of this truly gifted and often tortured artist. The book itself takes on a rhythm — the rhythm of a songwriter’s mind, with a rambling, all-over-the-board, way-out-there quality. Like writing a song, you never know where this book will take you next, swerving from techniques to anecdotes to rhyme schemes to marketing to dealing with writer’s block. In the end, you have something with a good beat that’s easy to dance to.
“Writing this book was like riding a bucking bronc,” Webb says. “Sometimes it would head off in some direction, and I would ask, ‘where am I going?’ but I never put too many artificial constraints around it. If it wanted to go somewhere, I let it go.”
Webb, an Oklahoma minister’s son with six children of his own, says that he wrote the book as a gift to his three oldest boys, all of whom are songwriters. And surprisingly enough, Jimmy is not as supportive of his boys’ choice as you may think.
“I would not recommend it at all,” he says. “It’s fifty percent harder to get a start today then it was in 1964. And that’s optimistic. We as songwriters are in the same position as a professional fisherman. Our fishing grounds are kind of fished out. Three or four singers are not going to support a very large community of songwriters. We are in a moment of decision – it’s almost a crisis, in a way. We could lose a lot of the instinctive knowledge of things that had been handed down for generations. The kids don’t seem to be too concerned about rules and regulations anymore. In fact, there seems to be an anarchistic movement among many young writers that says the less you know the better off you are. And the way one markets oneself in today’s music business is very simple: one has to sing and one has to go out and get a hit record. And if there’s anything harder than being a singer or a songwriter, it’s being a singer/songwriter. When I was starting out, playlists weren’t as tight as they are now. They were playing all kinds of different music at the same time. Now you’re looking at markets that are very discreet. It’s like segments of an orange. Record companies are faced with a real dilemma because they don’t have a real broad-based listening audience like they used to. Record companies are in disarray. It’s chaos. They don’t know where to go. The industry is in a state of flux. The people who are making money are the ones who are writing and singing their own songs.”
Such grim words from the man gave the world his beautiful balloon. Say it isn’t so, Jimmy. There is hope. Isn’t there?
Didn’t we, girl?
“The sad fact that so many songwriters kill themselves and destroy themselves in other ways is something we can’t politely ignore anymore,” Webb says. “There has to be some reason for that. I’m not really qualified to go into the psychological reasons for it, but I do know that there is a good incidence of manic depression in our ranks because it just seems to go with the creative persona. That’s pretty fairly demonstrated and documented. It’s a kind of lone eagle kind of mentality. We really do work alone. When one imagines jolly songwriters, like in the movies, writing songs together and laughing it up, they have the wrong picture. It’s a lonely profession, and I don’t mean to sound self-pitying, because I really do love my life. Writers get off into weird areas emotionally and it’s very strange terrain. We travel it, for the most part, alone. We should encourage more of a spirit of sharing our feelings with each other. We should communicate more about what actually is going on in our lives. Not: I’m the only one. Or: I’ve got to get a record. I’ve got to get a hit. In actuality, all songwriters are having these problems, all at once.”
Reading Tunesmith is a start. And you’ll be amazed at how a song can change a life, or at least touch one. There is no overestimating the power of a great song. It can change the world. Jimmy remembers a British couple approaching him after a concert, telling him that one of his songs, “All I Know,” recorded by Art Garfunkel, kept them from splitting up. Now the couple is happily married with two kids.
“This is heavy,” Webb says. “You put your songs out there in the world and they do things! They’re making babies and doing all kinds of stuff that you never imagined possible!”
Webb’s double-dilemma is rare among songwriters: trying to pound out sellable songs while being in the public eye. For a few years in the late 60s, Webb was actually a semi-celebrity, on par with McCartney, Bacharach and Smokey Robinson. The exception – and it was quite noticeable – was that Webb was not having his own hits.
“I don’t think since Hoagy Carmichael had a single songwriter been singled out the way I was,” Webb recalls. “I don’t even know why. To this day, I can’t account for it. Some songwriters are just blessed in some way. I was blessed by having people like Glenn Campbell putting my work out there. Frank Sinatra would go on stage and sing ‘Didn’t We’ and would say, ‘…and that was a song by this great kid, Jimmy Webb.’ I can’t account for it. Perhaps I deserved it, perhaps I didn’t. It was heady. Maybe I believed some of it, which is very dangerous for a youngster.”
Ultimately Webb’s advice to songwriters is simple and straightforward.
He says, “Everybody’s looking for a great song. How can I get serious with myself and write a song that is so good that it will blow somebody’s socks off? That’s what I have to do. I have to get up tomorrow and write a good song. If I write myself a good song, the mountain will come to me. Any young writer who has really done their homework can sign a deal with a half a dozen good songs.”
Good luck. We’ll all be listening.
Copyright ©1999 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: September 22, 1999.