Monday, April 30, 2018

Written Late at Night When I Was Supposed to Be Working On My Novel

My father had  a short list of favorite songs that included Glen Campbell's "Where's the Playground Suzie?", "Wives and Lovers" from Jack Jones and Andy William's "Moon River," but two of his favorites, the only songs in which he'd sing along in a deep off-key monotone, were "MacArthur Park" by Richard Harris and Ann Murray's "Snowbird." My mother, a backup studio singer for the likes of Burt Bacharach and Herb Alpert, did an LP for Ray Conniff called Turn Around Look at Me, an album with a stunning 60s-a-go-go-like blonde on the cover. One of the tracks was "MacArthur Park." Conniff would eventually fire my mother during the production of the LP We've Only Just Begun, but not before they recorded "Snowbird." Though my parents would divorce before either of those songs were released, for me, this has always been a connection they shared.

So, "MacArthur Park" at six years old was as simple as simple got: It was like this cake was, like, in the rain and it was, like, melting and the guy can't have another one ever because he doesn't know the recipe. (Oh, no.) 

For a six-year-old, lines like "Between the parted pages and were pressed/ In love’s hot, fevered iron/ Like a striped pair of pants" are pretty deep, man! Many will point to the idiocy of Webb's lyrics, all that sweet green icing flowing down (I mean, seriously, green icing? What flavor is green?) And yet, in my pre-teen consciousness, I learned within those seven minutes the perspective of not taking anything too seriously, of being able to spot and laugh at absurdity. 

More importantly, I learned about romance: those things that today, 50 years later, break my heart so profoundly that I need medication: "After all the loves of my life, you'll still be the one." It seemed so romantic, so quixotic: finding that one special person who would always be "the one." Sigh. Today I can't even remember the names of half the girls who were "the one," but found another who is.

There's a whole stanza where Harris sings about the future course of his life, Webb-style. He'll win and lose "the worship in their eyes." He'll have dreams, he'll drink wine (Richard Harris drank a LOT of wine), he'll be up, he'll be down, he'll have stuff, he'll put this stuff into perspective, he'll be Dumbledore, etc. It's the fucking 2001 of pop songs!

Jimmy Webb's arrangements are typical of the sixties: lavish, loud and simply too much, as Harris's untrained voice creeks and deafens the trained ear. The LP, A Tramp Shining, takes it to the upper limits with lush musical interludes and swingin' singles songs about girls. "MacArthur Park," though, has to be the single weirdest song ever. Little has been understood about its strange, incomprehensible lyric, but Harris sounds so very convincing, as if he knew indeed what was going on. His dramatic approach and the over-orchestration of the music has the listener waiting for an answer, a clue, a lesson… 

Everyone on the planet should own a copy of "MacArthur Park," or better yet, of A Tramp Shining; a late at night album when those party liggers simply will not leave. A Tramp Shining is sure to do the trick. Ah, then you'll be able to wallow in whatever this wonderful shit is.

The song was originally written at the request of producer Bones Howe for The Association. Howe had asked that Webb create a song with classical elements and time changes, but was unhappy with the result. Webb approached Harris and the rest is cake in the rain history. "MacArthur Park" was released 50 years ago today.