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Interview: Jimmy Webb

The trials and travels of pops golden boy

Jimmy Webb

Jimmy Webb

Michael Putland/Getty Images

“I was very lucky. One morning, when I was only twenty, I woke up with a million dollars. I could do anything I wanted, and so, of course, I ran amok.”

Speaking in a slow, Oklahoma drawl and sipping white wine in the elegant living room of his mansion on the fringes of the Catskills, Jimmy Webb is a portrait of shambling baronial respectability. The Hollywood Wunderkind who captured two Grammy nominations for best song in 1967 – for “Up, Up and Away,” which won, and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” – is now a thirty-six-year-old burgher with a wife and three children. After seventeen years in southern California, Webb moved east last winter into Renamor, a Tuxedo Park, New York, mansion near the former estate of tobacco magnate Pierre Lorillard. To hear Webb tell it, the move was an escape out of a dangerously comfortable rut.

“California was good to me in the Sixties,” Webb says. “But one day I wondered what happened to the Seventies and all those grandiose schemes. Since I moved here, I’ve finished a musical and a new album, Angel Heart.”

Angel Heart is a typical Jimmy Webb mixture of folk-pop melodies and pungently romantic lyrics edged with bitterness. Two of the songs, “Scissors Cut” and “In Cars,” have already been recorded by Webb’s close friend, Art Garfunkel. Another cut, “His World,” is a tender eulogy to Elvis, and “Old Wing Mouth,” a duet with Michael McDonald, is a righteously angry song about the historical exploitation of Hawanans by Christian missionaries. There’s a sense, says Webb, in which all the songs hark back to a more innocent time.

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If the album, Webb’s sixth in twelve years, is a commercial success, it will be the big payoff in his frustrating struggle to establish a viable commercial career for himself as a singer/songwriter after making his name as a Hollywood songwriter, arranger and producer in an incredible three-year sprint during the late Sixties. But if it doesn’t succeed, Webb’s world won’t fall apart.

With his wealth, his mansion and his family, it looks – from the outside at least, as though Webb is living happily ever after. Even the manner in which he met his wife, Patsy, whom he married eight years ago when she was seventeen, is right out of a pop fairy tale. She and Webb met when they were photographed together for the cover of Teen Magazine, under the headline Boy Millionaire Meets Teen Beauty. Patsy, the daughter of actor Barry Sullivan and a successful child model, was twelve at the time and had never met Webb before the photo session. She later told him, however, that from that day on, she was fated to get married to him.

But is it possible to live happily ever after following the kind of early and meteoric success Webb enjoyed? Or is Webb’s career a classic example of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s adage that “There are no second acts in American life”? I

n 1966, this poor Baptist minister’s son from Elk City, Oklahoma, who had dropped his music studies at San Bernardino State College, was taken under the wing of pop star Johnny Rivers. He began writing songs for the Fifth Dimension, an act that Rivers had signed to his Soul City label and conceived as the black Mamas and Papas. Webb’s song, “Up, Up and Away,” the group’s third single, went through the roof in the spring of 1967. That fall, Glen Campbell had his first big hit with Webb’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.” The next year, Webb’s “Wichita Lineman” and “Galveston” went Top Five for Campbell, and Irish actor Richard Harris reached Number Two with Webb’s most famous song, the seven-minute-plus epic, “MacArthur Park.”

So much has been written about “MacArthur Park,” both pro and con, that Webb is defensive about it. “I don’t think it’s a very good song,” he maintains. “But the American people appear to have developed an incredible fascination with the one image of the cake out in the rain. I’m still asked about it constantly, and I don’t know what to say, since I hardly remember the person who wrote that song.”

Webb’s tumultuous years as pop music’s golden boy are remembered in colorful detail in handwritten memoirs he has compiled under the title “Future Letters to My Children.” The memoirs offer a telling, behind-the-scenes picture of the Hollywood pop scene in its infancy, when the Mamas and Papas were the town’s reigning rock royalty and psyche-delics were the hip drugs.

There’s Webb’s inside view of the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. He had gone there to play piano for Johnny Rivers, who sported full hippie regalia in an attempt to reach a younger audience. The two journeyed to San Francisco afterward to try to sign Big Brother and the Holding Company with Janis Joplin and were flabbergasted when the band demanded an $80,000 advance —– an unheard-of amount at the time. Then there was Webb’s trip to London to produce the Richard Harris album that contained “MacArthur Park.” While there, Webb was struck with hero worship when he met the Beatles during their sessions for the White Album. And for a time in Los Angeles, Webb set up residence in the former Philippine consulate, which became a sort of deluxe commune that one day was visited by an earnest Charles Manson looking for handouts.

The power struggles, drug mishaps and sexual rivalries in that freewheeling communal atmosphere are chronicled in Webb’s diary with salty good humor. How was he able to survive it all?

“In a way, I don’t think I did survive,” he says. “Certainly, that farm kid who showed up in Hollywood with a pack of songs under his arm didn’t survive. I think I lived quite a few years in a kind of haze, because as my manager once put it, I took to marijuana like a fish takes to water. And though my strong Baptist background broke down to a certain degree, it was always inside me. For a while I really did believe I was a genius. When you read it in the press a hundred times a year, you tend to believe it. But eventually all the hype caught up with me.”

Webb’s early success also provoked a terrible backlash that still rankles him. At the very peak of his glory, the twenty-year-old millionaire found himself on the wrong side of the generation gap. His records used orchestrations that clashed with the revolutionary rock style of the moment. And the acts with which he was associated were definitely unhip. The Fifth Dimension played Las Vegas, where no self-respecting rock act would go, and Glen Campbell was outspoken about his disdain for pot. Against everyone’s advice, Webb embarked on a career as a singer/songwriter.

“I had a contract at Caesar’s Palace for $40,000 a week,” Webb recalls. “All I had to do was come out and play ‘MacArthur Park’ and collect my money. But I told them they could keep their $40,000. I grew a beard down to my navel and hair down to my armpits, and put a four-piece band together. It seems silly now, but I was determined not to be associated with conservative politics, and I didn’t want to know anyone who didn’t smoke pot. I don’t think anyone could have tried harder than I did to show I was a regular guy who had social and political concerns.”

Webb’s new image only confused people. Though generally well reviewed, his albums were rejected so consistently by FM radio that at one point he wondered if there were aconspiracyagainsthim. But while his LPs stiffed, Webb continued to write outstanding songs. “All I Know” became the first Top Ten hit of Art Garfunkel’s solo career, and “The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress” has become something of a modern standard after cover versions by Joe Cocker and Judy Collins.

Today, Webb’s long hair and beard are gone. With the family and the mansion have come new responsibilities. There are two live-in caretakers on the estate, and Webb employs a part-time chauffeur. He commutes between Hollywood and the East Coast, working on film and TV projects. He recently completed the music, lyrics and book for a Broadway-bound musical tentatively titled Tuxedo.

“It’s about Pierre Lorillard, who built this community in the winter of 1885,” Webb explains. “Lorillard had made all his money in tobacco, and he desperately wanted to be accepted by society and the Four Hundred. America in 1885 was really a child among nations. She didn’t know her power. We were an innocent people who hadn’t decided what our manners and mores were going to be. The musical is really about the birth of society in America.”

In its way, Jimmy Webb’s odyssey parallels Lorillard’s. From poor farm boy to boy millionaire to hippie rebel to patrician gentleman, Webb’s story is a typically American search for ultimate self-validation that even a dream palace in Tuxedo Park can’t satisfy.

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