Jimmy Webb’s New Memoir The Cake and the Rain Is a Rollicking, Musical Romp
by Mark Mussari
“There were two of me,” Jimmy Webb states at one point in his highly engaging new memoir The Cake and the Rain (St. Martin’s Press).
Truer words could not be spoken by the composer of some of contemporary music’s most elegant and intelligent pop songs. From “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” to “Up, Up and Away,” from “The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress” to “The Highwayman,” from “Wichita Lineman” to that epic song about the cake melting in the rain, Jimmy Webb has left a diverse and indelible mark on the history of contemporary music.
“In the performance of music,” Webb observes at one point in the book, “particularly between an accompanist and a singer, there occurs a deep mixing of souls.”
If there ever was a composer whose works speak not only to the souls of all the singers who’ve tried their hands at his compositions but also to everyone who really listens, it’s Webb.
In this page-turner of a memoir, a time capsule of the West Coast music scene in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Webb also serves up a solid portion of his boyhood roots in Oklahoma.
“I had a mission in that I wanted to talk about my origins,” he observes, “and not just ‘paragraph’ them, which you’ll find in a lot of memoirs.”
In one particularly moving scene, Webb – then a successful young composer – takes a helicopter back to his family’s farm, hovering over his grandfather as he plows a field.
“I knew every blade of grass – I knew every turn in the road,” he recalls today. “Emotionally I’d moved on. When I fell in love with California, I fell hard, deeply in love with that culture and that music. But it was just shocking when I saw my grandfather. My whole memory of my childhood from that perspective, high above the earth and looking down – and it was all just the same. It was very painful.”
Webb’s professional and personal life in Los Angeles had already taken precedence. “I really couldn’t live in both places at the same time,” he concludes. His new life was filled with a parade of tricked-out sports cars, a Schweizer 2-33 airplane, and the international high-life and hobnobbing that only celebrity can bring.
Another duality rears its head as Webb’s career progresses: the hipper-than-thou elements in the music scene start to pigeonhole him as the dreaded “MOR” (middle-of-the-road), a pop confectioner, rather than the complex lyricist, composer, and arranger he had already become.
“This line of demarcation existed,” explains Webb. “As my friend Linda Ronstadt once said to me, ‘Who did we think we were?’”
Though Webb admits that he really wanted to be part of the early 1970s’ burgeoning singer-songwriter movement, he rebelled “against the exclusivity and the polarization of that idea.”
At one point in the book he quotes Gene Pitney who lamented, “I don’t get Jimmy Webb” (a surprisingly imperceptive comment from the singer of “Half Heaven, Half Heartache”).
Today, Webb laughs about initially “being exiled to Donny-Osmond land” and is thankful for the efforts of Art Garfunkel, whom he calls his “lifeline and his conduit” at that transitional time. Their initial collaboration in 1973 would result in one of Webb’s most powerful ballads, the sweeping “All I Know,” a song that would also establish Garfunkel’s solo career.
Throughout the memoir, Webb is brutally honest about his foibles – his affairs with married women and, especially, his drug use. He writes about cocaine, for example, with surgical precision:
Cocaine’s impact on the music business was of a unique and comprehensive social nature. The whole process of record-making, the late hours, the expected garrulous sociability of the workplace, combined with the egos of people who more likely than not were egging one another on in the display of outrageous behavior … I took to it like a fish to water.
Along the way the reader encounters other drug-addled musicians, from Harry Nilsson to John Lennon, near-death experiences, and car crashes. With each turn of the page, the hedonism of the late-sixties seems to unfold before the reader’s eyes. There’s even an outdoor naked chamber-music concert – with Joni Mitchell and David Geffen in attendance.
“If anyone thinks I was some immaculately conceived kid from Oklahoma,” Webb says of the book’s somewhat confessional quality, “or that other people engineered my initiation into some of these dark places, that’s not the way it happened.”
Yet, if a ghost hovers over most of the book, it is the young Suzy Horton, Webb’s first true love, who would serve as his early muse – a mid-60s blonde Beatrice to his Californicated Dante. She of the yellow cotton dress, foaming like a wave on the ground around her knees.
In one scene she and Webb take LSD and make love on the rocks by the shore in Hawaii. Anyone familiar with Webb’s oeuvre can’t help but think of his haunting “Requiem: 820 Latham” from the 5th Dimension’s Magic Garden: “When we stopped the clock on that cold rock / Mixed our hot young blood with granite dust.”
Webb specifically associates the importance of “MacArthur Park” with the end of his relationship with Horton.
“That song was a turning point for me – that’s when Suzy and I broke up. That’s when I sort of went to the mean side of Los Angeles. I lost my innocence, and I began to face the rage and frustration that I felt at growing up – at moving from school to school, always received in a hostile way, and my mercurial father’s strict upbringing. The day that I broke up with Susan and walked away from MacArthur Park was the beginning.”
Webb had found himself truly alone. “I had been hanging on to my high school sweetheart, and she was the last vestige of my old life, where I had friends and supporters and fraternity brothers. Somehow or other I had to invent an ending. No one was going to help me do it.”
“There will be another song for me / And I will sing it,” he wrote in one of the movements of “MacArthur Park.” As it turns out, there would be hundreds of other songs, resulting in one of the most prolific and accomplished careers in music history.
And that image of the cake left out in the rain? Webb comments: “That’s like a metaphor for my entire life up until that point.” It’s a metaphor that continues to resonate. In the back of the book is an index of the more than 100 artists who have recorded “MacArthur Park,” including the Four Tops, Donna Summer, Waylon Jennings, Charles Mingus, Bette Midler, the Supremes, and actor Richard Harris.
Part memoir, part confessional, part musical history, and part cultural studies, The Cake and the Rain chronicles Webb’s fantastical (and at times tortuous) path through the music world of the late 1960s and early 1970s. It’s a must-read for music lovers everywhere.
Mark Mussari is an author, translator, and freelance writer living in Tucson, Arizona.
Copyright ©2017 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: April 5, 2017.
Photo # 1 © 2017 Jessica Daschner. Courtesy of St. Martin’s Press. All rights reserved.
Photo # 2 © 2017. Courtesy of St. Martin’s Press. All rights reserved.