During the late Sixties and early Seventies, Jimmy Webb was arguably the most successful mainstream songwriter alive, churning out sweeping, richly orchestrated hits for Glen Campbell, Barbra Streisand and Frank Sinatra, among others. Yet while that success made him famous, it also saddled him with a "middle road" reputation that was totally out of step with his actual lifestyle. "I'm out partying for three days at a time and plowing a furrow through London's underground, and I'm perceived as this squeaky-clean writer," he says.
Webb's new memoir, The Cake and the Rain, follows his rise from Oklahoma preacher's son to L.A. pop aristocrat. At the heart is his struggle to carve out his own identity as he lived a double life as a Middle American fixture with countercultural artistic ambitions "[It was] like going from the Soviet Union to Estonia," he says.
In advance of "A Celebration of the Music of Jimmy Webb," a star-studded tribute at Carnegie Hall on May 3rd, featuring Dwight Yoakam, Judy Collins, Toby Keith and more, in addition to Webb himself, we spoke to the songwriter about his famous collaborators from Sinatra to John Lennon, his hard-partying early days and more.
There was a pretty big paradox between the way you were perceived culturally and the way you actually lived your life. Is that something you wanted to get at in this book?
Yes. I think it's an itch that I've always wanted to scratch, you know? It defines so much of my early career in terms of public perception and some of the kind of gratuitous ... I don't know ... diminishing of my work. At the same time, I think there's kind of a humorous aspect to it.
How do you mean, humorous?
Well, because I'm out partying for three days at a time with Harry Nilsson and I'm publicly perceived as this kind of squeaky clean writer of middle music for Glen Campbell, famously, and Mr. Sinatra and the Fifth Dimension, who were kind of a less polarized version of a Motown artist. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Glen was way over right of where I was. So taking a stance on political issues that I thought were sort of immutably unilateral – like "War is bad." "War in Vietnam is a bad thing." It was very hard for me to really define myself in that atmosphere.
Did you and Glen Campbell ever talk about politics?
Yeah, it would come up. It would come up in very short discussions. I felt that there was nothing to be gained by pursuing the conversation.
That's a smart attitude to have. A lot of people don't have that attitude these days.
I was a professional. I came into the business wanting to be a songwriter, wanting to make my living making music. So really, that was somewhere in the forefront, and I found that I was kind of caught up in a political storm. But there was no mistaking where I stood. I played at the Monterey Pop Festival. I remember one time saying on television, I think it was Merv Griffin or somebody asked me, "So how do you feel about marijuana?" And I just sat there for a second, I'm on national television, and I said, "Well, be cool." He said to me at the time, he said, "You don't mean you're encouraging young people to smoke marijuana?" And I said, "Oh, of course not." You know, because I wasn't. But, in a way, I was colored by a kind of phenomenal success with an older, kind of more traditional artist. I was recorded by Streisand, by Tony Bennett, Stan Kenton. So a lot of people thought I was older than I was.
Why do you think you never crossed over as a solo artist?
Well, you know, the records weren't very successful but there was a following, and a sort of cult, if you will, that's alive and well. There are people out there who have all of those records and they come to my concerts and they follow me very closely. My social media stuff is very alive, very healthy with questions. And when I autograph at a concert I see Richard Harris albums, I see a lot of Glen Campbell albums and I think that Glen is almost synonymous with me, which is something that I don't resent because I think our records were of very high grade. And that they stand up extremely well. But in a sense, I think I was competing with the artists who recorded my music, and they were phenomenal singers; they weren't sort of woodshed singers like I was. I was on Asylum. David Geffen was my manager. I was working every angle, you know. But I think that one hit single would have probably changed a lot of things.
Sinatra hated hippies but he clearly liked you. Did you have a personal rapport with him?
I had a good relationship with him. He was a man who liked songwriters very much and never did a performance and hardly ever played a song without crediting the songwriter, which, you know, again the songwriter's role is under attack in this present day and we don't see that much. He had an amazing tolerance to sit in a chair for sometimes a couple hours and just listen to everything. He would ask me up to Vegas; he would pick up the check. I mean, on everything. The hotel. He memorably, he took my father and I to the Jockey Club one night for dinner and my father was never the same man after that. He walked with a spring in his step.
Paul McCartney was also a big fan of your work and you visited the Beatles in the studio while they were working on the White Album. There was a lot tension and acrimony going on within the band at the time. Could you sense that?
Well, the room was set up [so] that the characters were sort of presented in this tableau, with John on the right with Yoko and Paul on the left with Linda and George sort of standing uneasily in the middle. It was pretty clear to me that it was Paul's album, it was his song, and John didn't come in to listen. Even though he was sort of diffidently strumming an acoustic guitar. There were candles on that side of the room. It was very much like a shrine over on the Lennon side. And over on the McCartney side, it was just hijinks. It was Linda and Paul clowning around and she's sort of hanging onto him from behind and sitting around him on a piano bench, which, from a piano player's perspective is, like ... almost impossible [laughs]. It's almost impossible to be in that position, but you know ... And then there's the disembodied voice of Ringo Starr. Literally almost from somewhere else because the drum booth was down below the control room, so he wasn't visible, and we rarely heard from him. He'd be like, "Hello." And he would knock on the microphone. "Is this working?"
In that scene, McCartney keeps referring to you as Tom Dowd, who was a famous engineer for Atlantic Records. It's pretty weird, since he'd called you the previous year and asked you to write a song for a project he was involved with. They obviously knew who you were. What was going on there?
Well, I know for certain that George Martin and George Harrison knew exactly who I was. John didn't come into the booth, nor did Ringo. There was a schism going on in there, so it was a sensitive moment, and to be honest, I didn't know how much they hated to have people around during their sessions. I mean, you don't really know something about that when you're just a kid and you're reading fan magazines, but they really hated the people – and I don't know why I was invited, first of all, but once I was there, it was pretty clear to me that I was being sent up, and when I talked to the people about it years later they said, "Oh, they would always do that." You know, they loved to take the piss out on someone. Preferably someone who thought they were important. Or might be important, and when they came to America, in a way Americans fell in love with that kind of deadpan ... you know, "You're taking this very seriously but we're not." That sort of thing. I don't know. I don't know what it was with them.
You were a witness to John Lennon and Harry Nilsson's infamous "lost weekend" in the early Seventies. There's a scene in the book where they call you up at 3 a.m. to bring them hundred dollar bills and cocaine (or as they call it "hee haw"). What was it like growing up looking up to the Beatles and then to see John Lennon at the worst state of his life? That's a very dark passage in the book.
I was as taken aback as you probably are by reading it. And I guess that's what I'm trying to communicate. I really want to hasten to add that when John was struck down the way he was, I was absolutely shattered, and I ended up writing a lot of music about it and really going through some bad emotional stuff. It may be perceived as some sort of a get-back or something, but he never did anything to me. He basically was an impassive person. I never got a reading off him, ever. If you ran a magnetometer over him, it wouldn't indicate anything. He was, like, so placid.
But I think that he revealed probably a lot more to people who were closer. Harry Nilsson was very close, but I was sort of called in as the bag man when they had gotten themselves into some sort of a jam. It was done out of love. It was done out of dedication. I mean, why would you be out in the middle of the night doing a drug run unless you ... I wasn't getting paid for it. I had a lot of money. So there was a loyalty there, and there was a code. There was an unwritten code that if the Beatles ask you to do something, you did it. And I'm not kidding about that.
What was it like to watch Harry Nilsson's disintegration?
Some people had a sense of abandonment that was awesome to behold, like someone sitting a Lotus race car and holding the accelerator wide open and trusting to fate. And most of those people died. I can't explain the attitude. I might go out and spend three or four days but at some point I'd look up and say, "I think I need to get back to my house." My drummer used to call it "a lifeboat."
I didn't wanna die. I came close a couple of times. The impulse to just run the machine wide open until it broke. It's easy to write someone off as a druggie or a drug addict. There was in the case of Harry a magnificent brilliance. I would've killed to sing like him and I loved his voice and I loved his records. I really wanted to record something Harry would like. He came in one night spitting blood into my kitchen sink and he said, "I left it on the mic," and I said, "That's not funny. What are you doing?" The combination of John Lennon and Harry Nilsson created a nuclear self-destructive device – they found some negative energy that was overpowering.
The book ends in 1973, when you had a near fatal overdose after accidentally snorting some angel dust and briefly lost the ability to play piano. Why did you end it there?
It's the opposite of ending the book on top of a mountain conquering Everest or whatever. It's an image of a man who's given over to emotion to the point where he's almost helpless. That's the state I was in. And it was certainly accentuated, and excoriated by this drug use. And I don't mean to imply, by the way, that in any way that was a turning point. Because I continued to use drugs. I've been sober for 17 years. But after that incident, my life was different. I got married, I had children, the Sixties were well behind me, the Seventies were passing quickly, and everything that I had set out with, this idealistic package, the communal lifestyle that I embraced, the idea that I could take everybody with me on this trip, and I didn't have to leave anyone behind, and it really wasn't.
It seems like "Wichita Lineman," which you wrote for Glen Campbell, is an autobiographical song, not just in the way it evokes the part of the country you're from but in its sense that hard work can lead to redemption, which seems like something that kept you writing so much commercial music even when you had other ambitions.
You're striking very close to the center and to the way I was brought up in an agrarian setting. There was a lot of religion in there too. I've never been able to siphon that out; even with massive jolts of cocaine I've never been able to ditch the way I was brought up in a Southern Baptist household, particularly the work ethic. I play 50 shows a year and I will keep working and performing until the life leaves my body. I can't imagine any other ending than I walk out onstage and suddenly I'm not there anymore.
John Lennon describes the first time he took LSD. Watch here.